Contributed by Michael Restivo of Mike off the Map
The Mountain Loop Highway bordering the North Cascades has spectacular and secretive trails that can be hiked year round, ensuring an enchanting view of the mountainous landscape. This past March, I was invited to hike Deer Creek Road, a winding snowshoe trail. While it wasn’t steep, it involved breaking through virgin powder, crossing ice-framed streams, and being surrounded by snowcapped mountains just below the national park. We previously visited this area when we came to hike Gothic Basin, the trailhead just five miles farther up the road. When it snows, this area takes on a whole new character, and much of it is devoid of any other trekkers. The combination of solitude and grandiose vistas gives it some of the best hiking in the state.
Since the trail isn’t that steep, it makes for easy hiking in the summer. But in winter and early spring, snowshoers and cross-country skiers break through deep powder around a curvy winding road. As I learned, this wide trail bordering Deer Creek is a great introduction for those who are just learning to use snowshoes, and while difficult on the deep snow that we encountered, the scenery changed from an old growth forest to a stunning panorama.
The trailhead starts on the edge of the parking lot and the first mile rises gently through snow-covered pines, curving between the forests before exiting upon a high ridgeline. As the trail drops off a sharp cliff, the trees give way to snowy peaks set dramatically above the fir wilderness. The highlights of the scenery are the glimpses of Vesper Peak, Big Four Mountain, and the upper slopes of Bald Mountain rising just above the landscape. As the trail drops back among the trees, there is a snow-lined stream crossing that cuts right through the middle of the trail and another snow-covered bridge shortly thereafter.
At this point the trail diverges, one path headed toward Kelcema Lake and the other following higher up the ridgeline for more expansive views of the Cascades. Our group, already tired from the 6-mile trail in, decided to break for lunch just before the junction and start back down the trail to the parking area. Once back at the trail head, a second 4-mile flat road sets out just behind the lot and leads to the Big Four Picnic Area, a small clearing revealing an awe-inspiring look at the titular mountain’s huge north face.
From here, another trail sets out for the ice caves, formed by the frequently avalanching face. Although the winter-formed caves had already collapsed by the time we had arrived, they form frequently, and it’s important to stay out of them, as they are structurally unstable.
The serene wilderness of the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie Forest has trails for every skill level that loop just under the North Cascades, and even the drive in reveals Glacier, Shuksan, and Baker itself from the highway. While it wasn’t as physically demanding as our Gothic Basin hike, breaking through two feet of snow was a challenge and we were amply rewarded with sore legs and splendid views.
Final note: while we were on the southern side of the Mountain Loop Highway, in the days following our hike, the northern side, including the towns of Oso and Darrington, were hit by devastating mudslides. We’re all wishing a swift recovery to the town and our thoughts are with the families of the victims of the tragedy.