The Ptarmigan Trail has been on my bucket list for a long time and with good reason: it’s an absolute gem of a hike with big incredible views of towering Mount Shuksan at the start and the majestic Mount Baker towards the end.  Summer was slowly slipping away so I kept a keen eye on the weather and thankfully found a break in late September.

After an early morning launch I slogged my way up a sluggish I5 and eventually exited east through the Sedro-Woolley area before heading north on highway 9.  The drive became much more lively as it wrapped itself around farmlands that cut through the lowlands of the North Cascades.  At the town of Deming I headed more east on highway 542, paralleling the North Fork Nooksack River.  This was also uncharted territory for me but proved to be a beautiful drive.  I stopped by the ranger’s office where I chatted with a friendly park officer who also loaned me a bear-proof canister for food. 

After a dizzying drive up the final section of 542 and past the Mount Baker Ski Area (and through some amazing colorful meadows and lakes) I landed at Artist Point where I parked my car in a very full lot, wolfed down some peanut butter and jelly on flatbread and loaded my pack.  After one last check I headed towards the trailhead.  The sky was somewhat smoky from all the fires but there was still good visibility and a nice warm sun.

The trail started as the Chain Lakes Loop for the first mile and then veered left to become the Ptarmigan ridge trail.  The views at the start couldn’t be more enticing; the ridge was covered with colorful red and orange brush and long golden grass, and dominating the horizon was a snow covered Mount Baker.  After a few miles the trail descended into another beautiful valley, this time becoming more craggy before elevating into some stunning colorful meadows.  As the trail ascended the smoke began to dissipate, creating clearer vistas of the valleys and mountains.

As if the views weren’t already stunning, they actually got better as the trail winded closer towards Mount Baker.  In the distance was also the Coleman Pinnacle flanking Mount Baker to the north, also a popular spot for climbers.  There were a number of scree fields to cross as the ridge trail wound its way underneath the Pinnacle.  After a bit more ascent the trail crossed through a snowy patch and eventually plateaued to a grassy viewpoint with unbelievable views of Baker.  At this point the trail veered to the right but I decided to descend left down a loose, gravelly path towards Goat Lake.

The decent here felt like being transported to a different world; the landscape changed from the ridgeline hike with valley views and colorful meadows to a crater-like basin with filled with the pristine, turquoise waters of Goat Lake and flanked by a dominant Mount Baker.  A quick scramble up the ledge offered another gorgeous view of Mount Shuksan and the entire valley, and a wider view of the lake.  I was getting fairly exhausted so found a decent flat spot to pitch my tent and set up for the night.  There were just a few other campers along the lake, including a couple who lugged their paddleboard for the lake.  I’m happy they did since the photos were made even more magical as their paddling created a glimmering trail through the lake as the sun dipped behind Baker.

After crashing for the night I woke to a different view of the lake and mountains as the sun slowly rose into the sky, lighting up the top of Mount Baker with pink and orange tones.  I broke down camp, packed up my bag and filtered more water to fill up my bottles before exiting the basin.  On the hike back I took a bit more time to photograph the vibrant flora, including some deep red grass (can’t find the exact name for it yet), sedum and yellowish green fern wedged in between the boulders.  The smoke had cleared even more, and Mount Shuksan was definitely more visible on the horizon on the way back.  As I reached my car in the lot I was glowing from the experience.  This trail was such a joy and certainly worth a repeat visit in the future.