I've been told that some intrepid hikers actually circumnavigated Mt. Baker about a decade ago in stages, finding their own way off trail and battling incessant devils club, but if one searches the web there is no on line account of circumnavigating Mt. Baker, at least on foot. In circling this volcano in a more traditional manner, I had to resort to biking and road walking, but it can be done if one has the stomach for it....walking roads is not everyone's cup of tea, nor is biking. On the morning of August 23 I set out from the Lake Ann trail head (Highway 542) on bike and started this two day journey. The first part is somewhat exhilarating, negotiating the curves and switchbacks starting at 4800' elevation, with the rest of the biking in peaceful farm country with a fairly flat middle section; the first 45 miles only has 800 feet of climb, with the last section on Forest Service Road 38 attacking the quads with 2600' of climb over 13 miles, ending at the Ridley Creek trail head. At this point I stashed my bike (after 6 hours of riding) in the woods. See the insert on the main map above for the bike route and click here for the complete photo set.
For this trip I wore Pearl Izumi mountain bike shorts, trading the padded bike liner for underwear and the bike top for a hiking shirt, leaving these clothes, helmet and road/phone case in the pannier. I usually hike in long pants and the decision to stick with the shorts would bite me later on. I unfolded my ZPacks staff and headed out on the Ridley Creek trail, with no problems on the crossing as there is an adequate bridge in place. I was delighted that the bugs were few and the temperatures were cool, as this trail is rather steep in some places. After laboring uphill for a time, giving my quads time to adjust to hiking versus biking, the forest gave way to more open meadows and the intersection with the Park Butte trail. I stopped at the shelter and exchanged pleasantries with the WTA crew that were there, expressing my thanks for their good work. I had regained the altitude at the crest of the Park Butte trail from whence I started and would now spend many hours descending to much lower elevations. I arrived at the Mt. Baker NRA trail head with plenty of light to spare (about 6:30 PM), ate a snack and refilled my water from a nearby creek, then set off on my series of road walks. I trotted the downhill on Road 13 to the intersection with Road 12, and by the time I stepped foot on the paved Baker Lake Road (11) it was dark. Now I am completely comfortable with night hiking solo in the back country, but there is a certain creepiness in walking a road late at night when it comes to the human element. I decided that if vehicles came along I would duck into the grass and turn off my light, no reason to let anyone know I was there. I had to do this only twice, reminiscent of my Air Force Survival School days and stealth training. Around midnight I got a text from my wife (InReach) saying not to push it too hard and perhaps I should find a place to sleep. Seemed like a good idea, so after 18 hours of biking and hiking, covering about 80 miles to that point, I stopped at the Boulder Creek CG, right before the intersection with Road 1130, and laid out my bivy and bag on a picnic table to catch a few Zzzz's.
RUDE AWAKENING: I've slept on picnic tables quite a few times over the past 30 years, and was not prepared for what happened. As I turned over in my sleep, I awoke airborne as I had rolled off the table, impacting the ground on my right side. It took me a few minutes to extricate myself from the bivy, and after resetting up sleep arrangements on the ground, I concluded that I had probably bruised some ribs, or damaged the muscle that runs across the right pec. With no choice but to try and get back to sleep, I rebedded on terra firma and awoke at 6 AM. Although sore, nothing seemed to be badly damaged so I gingerly packed up and set off for the remainder of the trip, having to cover the last 15 miles.
3 Advil took the edge off the pain and the morning was cool but not cold, there were no bugs about, and I enjoyed a very lovely walk up Road 1130, bounded by moss covered trees and able to refill my water with small trickling creeks. Soon enough I intersected Road 1144 (closed from the Baker Lake road) and a very short section deposited me back on trail for the rest of the trek. At first I was encouraged by the pleasantness of the Swift Creek trail, strolling through old growth forest, planked walkways and moss lined trail. This quickly vanished at the crossing of Swift Creek, the only place that was actually a "difficult crossing" noted on the map; IOW, no bridge, but there was an old cable system and I could espy the ramp on the other side. I pulled the cable and it worked just fine, but there was nothing attached to it so I had to resort to the old fashioned way of finding my way across, feet wet. From this point on the Swift Creek trail tore me up; it didn't matter if it was a brushy open hillside or forested way, whatever was growing next to the trail had small, probably toxic thorns that actually made the contact areas tingling and numb (lasting until the next day). Obviously at this point I wished I had my long pants, but the show must go on and I endured, seemingly forever, until at last I reached the intersection with the Lake Ann trail. With only 2.4 miles to go at 3 PM, I brushed off the aching ribs, numbing shins and rising heat to enjoy this pleasant stroll to my awaiting truck, climbing to my starting elevation of 4800 feet and completing the loop.
I cleaned up as best I could and set off to retrieve my bike at 4:15 PM. Going in and out of FS 38 took nearly 2 hours, as at some points I couldn't do more than 10 MPH on this 13 mile long road. I finally got home just before 10 PM; after a much needed shower my wife attended to my various physical ailments, fed me and handed me 3 more Advil, watching me grimace as I tried to lie down. So ends the Mt. Baker Round-The-Mountain, probably the only time this particular iteration will ever be done, 'cause I'm sure not to repeat it and I seriously doubt anyone else would find this appealing. But if you do, might I suggest you sleep on the ground.
I've been recording classic bike descents in the state, and the initial portion of Mt. Baker Highway 542 ranks among the best. I brought at least one camera for capture some of the biking. This video entails the first 7 miles of the ride with 2,000 feet of winding descent.