Here’s the punchline up front: probably the most colourful hike we’ve ever been on. There. Do you really need to read any more than that? :-)
After several fine week-days, the good weather looked set to spill over into the weekend. We very quickly decided to try Yellow Aster Butte on the back of a favourable Wanderung trip report, plus we wanted to revisit the area after our misty hike along the Skyline Divide trail back in August. We picked up Dawn at 7 am and watched a spectacular misty sunrise as we drove south on Highway 99. The border crossing took longer than I expected – I wasn’t expecting so many shoppers to be heading south on such a fine day – but we got through with no issues. It was chilly though.
A few more minutes on I-5 and we turned off onto the Mt Baker highway, a really nice drive on a sunny day. It reminded me of some of the driving we did back in Maryland and Virginia when we lived there. We stopped off in Maple Falls to pick up lunch from the Harvest Moon bakery, and a parking pass from the store across the road. The turnoff onto the dirt road was easy to find and we subjected the car to yet another multi-mile bumpy gravel road. Fortunately it was in pretty good shape, just a few hidden potholes here and there. The gradient was fairly even too, no significant steep stretches.
We reached the switchback-parking area and pulled into a space in front of a bulldozer. I wasn’t expecting to move, but I still left a little room just in case. (As it turned out, it was a good move as the bulldozer was gone by the time we returned!) We hung the pass from the mirror, pulled on our boots and set off. It was 11 am.
The spectacular scenery and colours started at the parking area. The slope above was covered in yellow, green, orange and red foliage, topped off by a perfect blue sky. We set off up the slope, at first in the trees then breaking out onto the slope. As we gained height we looked back to see Mt Baker dominating the horizon to the south-west. It was only going to get better. The trail across the slope entered the forest again and we climbed steadily up through the trees. A rich mature hemlock forest at that, my favourite! Not much to see at this time of year, except for fungi of every form :-) A few rattlesnake plantains were holding on, the odd late-flowering, err, flower here and there.
After about 45 minutes, the trees began to thin and we saw patches of snow in clearings off the trail. A few trees were still decorated. Another 10-15 minutes further and we entered our first frosty meadows, complete with views ahead of where we were going. The trail climbed some more and we reached the tree line and encountered our first patch of brilliant fire-engine-red blueberry bushes. The colours were dazzling. Some people claim that saturated colours are never found in nature. Those people have never experienced autumn in the mountains. These reds were RED, as in RED! The yellows were YELLOW, the oranges ORANGE, the blue sky was BLUE and the trees were GREEN. Yeah, it kinda felt like the colours were shouting at us they were so vivid.
The guidebook we were using (Kathy and Craig Copeland’s `Hiking from Here to WOW: North Cascades’) told us that it was worth the extra climb up to Gold Run Pass, about a 5-10 minute detour off the main trail. While we made fun of the fact that we needed to keeping climbing, I have to say that as usual, the Copelands were right and that it really was worth the extra effort. The view at the pass was spectacular, looking up to Mt Larrabee and the Border Peaks, Tomyhoi Lake nestled down in the valley, snow in the shade of Winchester Mountain to our right. We explored a bit further along the ridge (where we got an even better view of Tomyhoi Lake) before returning to the junction and continuing along to Yellow Aster Butte.
Brightly-coloured berry bushes lay all around us and it was impossible not to stop and take yet more photos. The trail curved around the bowl to the west giving us a great view back towards the twin peaks of Goat Mountain. The going was pretty much level with only a few short stretches of elevation gain here and there. The sun was warm, the views endless. Perfect hiking.
We rounded a knoll and began another short climb where we found a rock to sit and have our wraps from the Harvest Moon bakery. They were delicious! I would definitely stop there again to pick up lunch (which is good for them since we’re limited in the food items we can bring across the border). Behind us were the steep slopes leading up to the summit of Yellow Aster Butte. I hadn’t studied the trail profile or terrain but we clearly had a stiff climb awaiting us right at the end.
With lunch munched, we continued on our way, passing a small tarn with a perfect reflection of Goat Mountain. We rounded the final corner and found ourselves about 30 m above an open meadow with a few small tarns. In the meadow were several groups of campers. We found ourselves wishing we’d thought about making it an overnighter as it was a beautiful spot to camp. Maybe next time… We could see the trail leading over the meadow towards Tomyhoi and it was certainly tempting to keep going :-)
But we stuck with our plan and turned right up the steep slopes to our destination. The uphill was much easier than it looked and within a few minutes we found ourselves on top of the small summit of Yellow Aster Butte itself… only to see that the real summit was about quarter of a mile away and involved a descent, re-ascent and scramble. Since the book made no mention of this we assumed that we had in fact reached the right place and were content with that.
We had magnificent 360-degree views of the Border Peaks, Tomyhoi, Goat Mountain, Shuksan and Mt Baker; unbelievable beauty lay all around. We ambled around the summit taking more photos, chatting with a couple of other hikers and getting a photo of the three of us. It felt like a place we could have stayed for hours. The open terrain just begged to be explored…
Sadly it was getting late and we had no choice but to return to the car. We descended again to the gorgeous meadows and re-traced our steps. The warm afternoon light bathed the surrounding mountains and lit up the berry bushes into even more brilliant colours (if that were possible). We took yet more photos. All too soon we were back at the trees and made our final descent to the car, reaching it just before 6 pm, as the last of the sunshine left the ridge behind us. The edges of Mt Baker glowed in the setting sun. Time only for one last photo of the first-quarter moon nestled between two small peaks before making the long drive home.
Now we’re completely hooked on that area and we’ll definitely be going back again, and again.
Distance: a leisurely 11 km
Elevation gain: 780 m
Photos on Flickr