When considering hiking near Mount Baker, in Whatcom County, most folks think of trails accessed via Mount Baker Highway. Skyline Divide, Yellow Aster Butte, and Artist Point are some of the best (and most popular) destinations for summer/fall hikes near Bellingham. But Whatcom County extends further east, and many of its finest trails can be accessed via North Cascades Highway (Highway 20). For this trail roundup, we’ll focus on one trailhead with multiple day hiking and backpacking options: the Park Butte Trailhead near Baker Lake.
Whether you want to get your glacier fix, enjoy volcano views from a historic fire lookout, or hike a non-repeating scenic loop, there’s a trail for every intrepid hiker at the Park Butte Trailhead.
Note that these trails are best hiked between July and October. They are generally inaccessible due to snow the rest of the year. Happy trails!
Drive to the Park Butte Trailhead
Head up gravel Forest Road 12 to the Park Butte trailhead for access to three distinct trails. This bumpy road is about 9 miles long (with plenty of potholes to slow you down) so it’s best driven in an SUV. Take I-5 south from Bellingham, then drive North Cascades Highway to get there. Here are driving directions from the Washington Trails Association:
“From Burlington (exit 230 on I-5), head east on the North Cascades Highway (SR-20) for 23 miles, turning left 0.4 miles after milepost 82 onto Baker Lake Road.
Continue 12.3 miles on Baker Lake Road. The turnoff onto FR 12 is tricky: FR 12 is marked by a sign at the bridge before the intersection with the Forest Road. Turn left on the unmarked FR 12, continuing 3.7 miles to the intersection with FR 13. Turn right onto FR 13, and proceed 5.3 miles to the trailhead parking area. There is parking for about 40 cars. A privy is available. Party size is restricted to 12 or fewer.” A Northwest Forest Pass is required for parking.
Once you reach the Park Butte Trailhead, a few first-come, first-served campsites are available. Head out on the Park Butte Trail for access to all three major trails in this area.
- 7.5 miles round trip
- 2,200 feet elevation gain
Park Butte Trail climbs 2,200 feet to a historic fire lookout with excellent views of Mount Baker. This is one of the most popular trails near Mount Baker for good reason — wide open, in-your-face views of the volcano from heights of 5,400 feet are hard to beat. You’ll meander through meadows and cross glacier-fed creeks before ascending to the 1930’s lookout tower. A seasonal bridge will keep your feet dry from July to September or October most years. Check current status with the Forest Service to find out if the bridge over Rocky Creek is in place.
First-come, first-served camping is available in the fire lookout too. Visit on a weekday and/or arrive early for the best chance to stay here.
- 7 miles round trip
- 2,000 feet elevation gain
Railroad Grade is a climbing route for Mount Baker’s Easton Glacier. During late summer and early fall, hikers can trek out to High Camp for awesome views at the toe of Easton Glacier. Be especially careful on this trail (not recommended for young children or pets) as there are vertigo-inducing drops along the narrow moraine.
Take Park Butte Trail to the signed intersection with Railroad Grade, 2.3 miles from the trailhead. Follow the trail up stone steps towards Mount Baker, reaching Railroad Grade at the end of a glacial moraine at 2.8 miles. From here you can continue up the narrow trail (named for its steady incline — no railroad has ever existed here) to High Camp at about 3.5 miles. Turn around here, or continue as far as the snow level allows. Hikers should not proceed beyond the snow line without mountaineering gear and proper training.
- 8 miles round trip
- 2,000 feet elevation gain
A quieter alternative to popular Park Butte and Railroad Grade, Scott Paul Trail makes a big 8-mile loop with Mount Baker views and multiple glacier-fed creek crossings. Check WTA trip reports and the Forest Service website to find out if the suspension bridge over Rocky Creek is in place. The bridge is a dealbreaker — if it’s not there, this trail is best avoided (especially after periods of rain) due to a potentially dangerous crossing. But when the bridge is in, Scott Paul Trail is a day hiker’s delight.
You can access Scott Paul Trail from two points along the Park Butte Trail. The first option comes at just 0.1 miles from the trailhead. Get on the Scott Paul Trail here if you’d prefer a counter-clockwise loop. Otherwise, hike out 2 miles on the Park Butte Trail to a second junction with Scott Paul Trail. This is the preferred route for most hikers — hiking Scott Paul Trail clockwise makes for a slightly easier and more rewarding hike.
These trails are held near and dear to many in Whatcom County. Please do your part and leave no trace. Pack out everything you pack in, and pick up any trash you find while you’re out enjoying these beautiful areas.