Thursday, August 29th, 2013
Backpacking to Yellow Aster Butte in the North Cascades
Todd Elsworth

Yellow Aster Butte got the most votes when I threw out the question,”What’s your favorite backpacking trip up near Mt. Baker?” to my Facebook friends.¬† I did enjoy the recommendations that included Hannegan Pass, Ptarmigan Ridge, Cougar Divide, Heliotrope Ridge, and Lake Ann. I imagined my tent perched with a front row view of the magnificent peaks surrounding the area.

Yellow Aster Butte view of American Border Peak

American Border Peak – Pat Kennedy Photography

I pictured myself, hiking along without a care in the world, soaking in all the world around me. The backdrop that would frame my photos would include Mt. Baker, Mt. Shuksan, American Border Peak and other unique geologic features.

I consulted Mike McQuaide’s book Day Hike! The Best Trails You Can Hike in a Day – North Cascades to get some humorous insight to where I’d be heading. His summary was helpful: Rating: Difficult, Distance: 7 miles round-trip, Hiking Time: 4 hours, Elevation Gain: 2,550 feet, Best Season: July to October, Map: Green Trails Mt. Shuksan 14. He described the hike as “just grand and features a number of neat places to explore- ponds ‘n’ tarns ‘n’ old mining equipment. And the 360-degree alpine views from the butte (yes, it is really a butte) are seriously teriff.” That’s all I needed to hear- that it was teriff! I was sold. I realized that I would be hiking through geologic history.

As part of my “scientific expedition” preparation, I also pulled out my copy of Geology of the North Cascades: A Mountain Mosaic (Paperback by Rowland Tabor,¬†Ralph Haugerud,¬†Anne Crowder) to get to know the terrain I’d be traveling over.¬† The most interesting aspect I learned is that the Yellow Aster Complex was named by a UW geologist Peter Misch. Misch’s reference was to the large slab of Yellow Aster gneiss that lies beneath the surface of the meadow. To throw down some more geology, quoting the book on p. 23, “The gneiss was formed deep in the crust, at relatively high temperatures…The origin of much Yellow Aster gneiss is obscure, but on Park Butte, gneiss rich in calcium minerals and associated with marble indicates that some Yellow Aster gneisses were sedimentary rocks before high-temperature metamorphism.” I was glad to have this perspective and I prepared myself for the pending journey.

Yellow Aster Butte view of Shuksan

Yellow Aster Butte with Shuksan in background – Pat Kennedy Photography

I was so excited to get above it all and be on top of the world, the weather looked as if it would hold out for my excursion, so I went for it. Mine eyes were ready, camera batteries charged and I was good to go. Ready to hike through the glorious alpine meadows on fire with wildflowers, sweeping views of endless peaks and the refreshing mountain air to savor with every breath.

Yellow Aster Butte Campsite

Yellow Aster Butte – Pat Kennedy Photography

Well, even the best laid plans don’t always pan out (yes that’s an attempt at a mining reference). I even checked my favorite weather reference to see what was in store. Well, as I drove up the Forest Service Road, it became evident to me that I might be in for a little weather. I headed up the trail. Yes, up. The trail starts by going up. At Gold Run Pass, I took the trail to the left to head towards “The tarns” where the trail relatively levels out. I found myself entering the clouds. Yup, I was in the thick of it. Moisture wasn’t in the air- it just was.

Here’s my perspective compared to what you see above:

Yellow Aster Butte Fog

Note: The first three amazing shots above of the Yellow Aster Butte area, demonstrating its
full grandeur were taken by a friend of mine, Pat Kennedy. I wanted to be able to see
what I had missed and share with you what you may encounter OUT THERE on a clear day.

I came across some guys ascending out of the basin and asked for some direction. They pointed me down to the lake where the other campers had already staked their claims (mining reference take 2). As I descended into the foggy abyss, the outline of the tents to the left of the lake became clear.

As I made my way down, I crossed paths with a Father and Son who had been camping down at the lake. The dad commented that it was “quite a scramble up to Tomyhoi Peak”. I had to take his word for it since I had very low visibility. It was great to see the smile on the young lads face- proud of his accomplishments and enjoying some time alone with his dad. The thick, dense fog shrouded the landscape. It was rather eerie.

Yellow Aster Butte Backpackers

When I set out, I had my sights set on the grand landscapes that would surround me. I’m flexible and enjoy the little things in life too. So, I turned the camera to the flowers that covered the open meadows. The dew drops clinging to all parts of the plant offered a refreshing texture as my bare legs brushed by on the trail.

Dew on Flowers

The dew drops and the hints of a spider’s web caught my eye- as I zoomed in on this pink piece of perfection.

Alpine Flowers

While I can’t control the weather, I can help you get to Yellow Aster Butte- Get a Green Trails Map – Mount Baker NO 14 and follow the lines, wherever they may take you. Or follow McQuaide’s book as it gives more detailed directions: Head east on Highway 542 (Mount Baker Highway) to milepost 46.3 about 13 miles east of the Glacier Public Service Center. Turn left (at the Department of Transportation facility) onto gravel Twin Lakes Road (Forest Road 3065) and follow it for 4.5 miles to the trailhead. Elevation: 3,600 feet.

Green Trails Map Mt. Shuksan, WA - NO 14

There are many interesting offshoots and other places to check out in the area. The one that caught my eye most specifically is the Gargett Mine that is accessible a little farther up the road from the Twin Lakes trailhead on the High Pass Trail. But that’s going to be saved for another day.

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About the Author:

As the co-Executive Director of Recreation Northwest and the founder of the Bellingham Traverse, Todd promotes outdoor recreation and brings people together to enjoy, preserve and improve the places where we play. He enjoys biking, hiking, paddling, skiing and will try anything twice. Get connected at RecreationNorthwest.org.

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