There's a Lummi legend my mother used to tell me when I was a young child about the marriage of Baker and Rainier. Komo Kulshan (Baker)—the Great White Watcher—was married to Tacoma (Rainier), and Shuksan. Tacoma was his first wife, and she was the most tempestuous of Kulshan's wives. She was easily angered, and became jealous easily—sometimes even boiling over and erupting in her rages over Kulshan's divided attention. But Tacoma had borne Kulshan many children, and she was disheartened when Kulshan's favor fell upon the even-tempered Shuksan. Tacoma moved southward after threatening to leave Komo Kulshan, soon finding herself separated away from any other, and so she grew taller and taller in an effort to catch a glimpse of her lost family. Similar legends are found in many other oral histories of native cultures—each trying to explain the eruptions of Washington's volcanoes. The jagged Black Buttes surrounding Baker are a reminder that Baker's current cone is young—as far as volcanoes are concerned.
Skyline Divide is one of the most popular hikes on Mount Baker, offering up views that surpass even those of Heather Meadows and Chain Lakes at the Mount Baker ski area. It's a relatively short hike too, ranging around 5 miles round-trip to the initial views of Baker and Shuksan. The mountains come in to view at about two miles in, Baker's blue-white glaciers looming above the horizon. Here is a warning though—those two miles can feel like 10 under the wrong conditions—conditions under which the Beers at the Bottom team trudged through this hike.
As always, WTA is a hiker's best resource for current trail conditions. Please, believe me when I say that if the last few trail reports mention bugs: bring bug spray. Flies literally covered our arms and legs, biting and crawling into ears and the corners of our eyes. I got bit by a horsefly, leaving a bloody welt of a bite mark on the back of my leg. The insect problem made stopping to rest during the hike more burdensome than helpful. We were sweating, overheated, and covered in insects. The hike itself has moments of moderate grade; a few hairpins and steep sections contributing to the 2,000 feet elevation gain. But even in the miserable conditions, paired with my elevation sickness aggravated by heat, we made it to the ridge line in an hour. The views made it all worth it.
The ridge offers a wide open canvas of mountain meadows to explore. Though we crossed paths frequently with other hikers, I felt singular in the wilderness and appreciated being able to find an empty knoll or two for a break. The mountain breeze kept the majority of the bugs away, though they seemed to congregate in the shade of tree patches.
Cresting the ridge, you'll find yourself in a saddle between a sloping trail to the left, and a more rugged path to the right. Go left and enjoy wildflower fields and views of Shuksan. Indigo colored lupine contrasted against bright yellow aster makes for a dreamy landscape. This section of trail meanders down into a mountain valley below, but unfortunately we didn't hike that far.
The trail to the right continues up and over another steep incline, looking almost like the barren tracks of roller coaster. Go up and over, then find yourself confronted with another steep climb. But, you'll find that the trail forks here. For a gentler hike along the edge of the ridge veer right and around rather than tackling another climb. There's nothing wrong with taking the more difficult path—but the end result is a very similar view. Your reward is an unobstructed view of mountain. From Shuksan to Baker, the skyline is dominated by snow-capped peaks and craggy pinnacles.
From here, the trail continues, and Skyline Divide bleeds into Chowder Ridge, and climbs over loose rock to Hadley Peak, just at the base of Baker—a route only to be taken on by skilled hikers and climbers.
To avoid the hassle of flies, try early summer, just after the snow melt. Alternatively, hiking later in the day seems to avoid the highest concentrations. In fact, we met a couple on their way up for the sunset—equipped with headlamps—as we were making it back to the trailhead.
For additional information on Skyline Divide, including more photos and detailed directions, check out the following:
Washington Trails Association (WTA):
US Forest Service: