The Chain Lakes Trail in the North Cascades provides loop trail nirvana. Picturesque alpine lakes, sweeping open ridges, valleys filled with mountain wildflowers and constant views of Mount Baker and Mt. Shuksan dominate this challenging yet scenic Washington State hike. Naturally the eponymous chain lakes are the big show stopper along this hike with a good deal of the trail tracing the linked Iceberg Lake and Mazama Lake with side trails that go to Arbuthnet and Hayes Lakes. However, outside of the Chain Lake Basin, visitors pass between the massive Table Mountain and Ptarmigan Ridge. Climbing through the mountain valleys is a task, but this hike showcases perhaps the best wilderness in Washington State.
|Trail Length:||6.2 miles||City/State:|| Bellingham,
|Elevation:||1,602 feet gain
Getting To Mt. Baker
Heading north on I-5 towards Bellingham, hikers should take Exit 255 onto Mt. Baker Highway, otherwise known as WA 542, and take the road east until the road dead ends into the Mount Baker Ski area. Cars should follow signs to the upper level parking lot which is right by the starting point of Chain Lakes trailhead.
Before even getting underway, the parking lot by the trailhead is right by the scenic Artist's Point Vista, so named because it is like a scene from a landscape painting. It's less than a mile trek and well worth the pre-trip side trip.
After returning to the parking lot, take the Chain Lakes trailhead and start the journey. On a moderately clear day, even from the starting point of this simple little trail you can already get peeks of Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan in the distance. A lucky few may even be able to see steam rising from Sherman Crater in the right conditions. This first section heads downhill, winding along a narrow ridge on a thin slice of trail. While not strenuous, the trail does get steep at times and during the early spring is very muddy and slick. However, if hikers hit it at the right time of year, it is full of beautiful purple, yellow and white wildflowers in the tall grass beside the trail.
The trail eventually begins to flatten out as it hugs the contour of Mt. Table looming above it. While enjoying the views of this massive mountain, hikers will pass by a number of rocky cairns as the trail makes its way towards Ptarmigan Ridge. As the surrounding forest opens up more, the trail gives outstanding views of Mt. Baker directly ahead. There will be a turnoff for the ridge, but it is well marked and hikers for this trail will continue past by taking the rightmost trail.
The trail takes another dip downhill into the forest as it heads for the first of its lakes--Mazama Lake. The trees open up to reveal this lovely little lake as well as a small primitive camping site along its shores. Follow the trail along the lakeshore and enjoy a quick swim or explore the rocky, grassy area of its shores. After leaving the lakeside, the trail takes a moderately steep trip uphill for about a quarter mile.
After the uphill trek, hikers are somewhat suddenly dropped off at Iceberg Lake. It may seem a little sudden, but this is the Chain Lakes Trail after all. While Mazama was peaceful and serene, all around a very normal and beautiful Washington Lake, Iceberg Lake is in a league all its own. Living up to its name, Iceberg Lake has large floes of ice in it all year long that make it not only scenic but also very chilly. While Mazama Lake is a bit chilly, Iceberg Lake is absolutely bracing even in the warmest of summers. If there was one place to the Ice Bucket Challenge, this would be it.
The trail skirts the western shores of Iceberg Lake towards the Galena Camp. Hikers will come to a junction here, one trail leads to Hayes Lake while the other continues on the Chain Lakes Trail. Hikers will want to keep right to continue on. The trail heads upwards again with rocks woven into a sparse forest. This portion of trail is shady and snow often remains in this area well into the summer as it heads into Herman Saddle. Although this stretch of trail may be chilly, it is easy to navigate. Hikers can clearly see where the top of the saddle is so they will have no problem finding their way.
After hikers reach the top of the saddle, they will be treated to sweeping views of the southeast and get their best peeks at Mt. Shuksan in the distance and the Bagley Lakes below it. There are also some decent views of Mt. Baker in the distance. Since the top of the saddle is treated to more sunshine as well as good views of both mountains, this is a fine spot to take a break for hikers that need it.
After descending the saddle, the trail switchbacks and loses elevation fairly quickly as hiker descend into the basin below. After heading through wildflower smattered meadow and forests another trail junction will appear. The dirt trail continues out into wilderness towards Mount Baker Lodge, but loop hikers will want to take the concrete bridge across the stream and head towards the visitor's center on the hill. Should hikers end up lingering around the visitor's center for water or a break, they should take note of the amazing views of Table Mountain that it sports from its perch.
Once at the visitor's center, continue through the parking lot and onto the Wild Goose Trail. This trail leads uphill along a road, gaining about 1200ft in elevation along the way. The trail eventually turns into a steep set of stairs that leads to some carefully crafted rock cairns with a wild goose logo cemented in place. This logo serves as the three foot marker to help guide hikers across persistent snow fields. After the markers, it is another brief uphill hike to the Artist Point parking lot and the end of this particular hike. The hike is actually pretty easy until that last uphill stretch which means if hikers want to take some side trail to explore this slice of heaven a little more, they should do so. It may be somewhat lengthy in miles for the novice hiker, but the frequent downhills make it go quick and even with side trips, this is still very much a day hike.