Ptarmigan Ridge

August 26, 2006

Ptarmigan Ridge is located in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington State. The large population factor, coupled with easy road access, makes the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest one of the most visited National Forests in the USA.


Bagley Lakes Basin - Table Mountain on the middle

To reach the trailhead of Ptarmigan, from the Glacier Public Center, drive east on Mt. Baker Highway 542 for 24 miles to Artist Point.

The trailhead is located at the norhwest side of the parking area. This trailhead accesses both the Table Mountain and Chain Lakes trails. The same trail is used to access Ptarmigan Ridge Trail.


Artist Point - Mount Baker on the background

This spectacular trail begins in meadows and then heads directly toward the crown jewel of the national forest, Mt Baker.

The trail is a fine line among the slopes of the ridge. At about one mile there is a junction, take left to keep going on Ptarmigan Ridge.

From there the trailI cross to the other side of the mountain and goes downhill with the non-ending views of Mount Baker.

Native Americans have inhabited the area for thousands of years and developed their own myths and legends concerning the Cascades. According to some of these tales, Mounts Baker, Jefferson, and Shasta were used as refuge from a great flood.

The trail then goesuphill, snow often creates whiteout conditions along the trail. Only experienced hikers cross snowfields during the early hiking season. Steep slopes, snow and poor visibility are good deterrents to only attempt this hike during late summer or early fall.

There are views of 6414 foot (1954 m) Coleman Pinnacle, an igneous, volcanic rock (better know as andesite) from the Quaternary Period (the geologic time period from the end of the Pliocene Epoch roughly 1.8-1.6 million years ago to the present).


Mount Baker - Coleman Pinnacle.

You can see people from everywhere, including this couple from Hong Kong. First time I see someone wearing an umbrella on a sunny hike. Later on I learned non-melanoma skin cancer is one of the top 10 cancers in Hong Kong and the Chinese government has a special program to prevent the spread of this terrible disease.

On this part of the hike there are views of fractures of basalt similar to the ones on Karemeos Columns and Devils Tower.

During the cooling of a thick lava flow, contractional joints or fractures form. If a flow cools relatively rapidly, significant contraction forces build up. While a flow can shrink in the vertical dimension without fracturing, it cannot easily accommodate shrinking in the horizontal direction unless cracks form. The extensive fracture network that develops results in the formation of columns.

Mount Baker is the typical stratovolcano, a by-product of the subduction of tectonic plates. The source melts of these volcanoes arise as a result of the dewatering of oceanic crust at specific pressure/temperature conditions as the plate subducts to lower depths.

Finally there is another junction from where you can go downhill to an alpine lake or keep going uphill to Camp Kiser, which is not a specific place but rather a 1/2 mile stretch of ridgeslope benches sprinkled with alpine hemlock.

I was so dazzled with the scenery that I decided to go off-trail to the peak on the left. Maybe I was going to be lucky so see the local herd of goats or maybe the ptarmigans.

To reach the peak, I followed a goat trail and after an easy scramble I sat down to have a quick break.

On the other side there are views of Mount Shuksan. Mount Shuksan originated as ocean-floor basalt (Jurassic-era, 150M years ago), metamorphosed to greenschist in Cretaceaous (30M years later) and transported under the earth's mantle by tectonic forces to its present location. It contrasts with the surrounding volcanic peaks. Many routes of varying difficulty lead up the summit.


Mount Shuksan 2783 m (9131 ft)

From the unnamed peak I dropped 150 m (500 ft) to visit the cold little lake.

This place was only recently evacuated by a glacier. I have a good time roaming along the shores of this new-born, ice-fed lakelet.


Mount Shuksan on the left

Along the shore you can see how nature can create life. Along the trail there are lots of grasses to see, and many plants such as ferns, blueberries, patridgefoot, mountain monkey-flower and subalpine spirea.


Mountain Monkey-Flower

This was a good time to relax before resuming the last part of my hike.

The lake had two small icebergs, usually the ice is gone at the end of September.

Back to Camp Kiser and time allowing, you can keep hiking to Mount Baker. This place is one of the snowiest places in the world: in 1999, Mount Baker set the (unofficial) world record for snowfall in a single season. (1124 inches/93.67 feet/2855 cm).

Eventually after a mile the toe of the glacier can be reached. From there, only climbers keep going. Most climbers visit the area as a ski trip in May or June. In winter months, the slope is very icy and require crampons and ice axe. Lower down, there are crevasses which danger is reduced during the early season thanks to the huge snowfall this mountain receives.


Sholes Glacier and Sholes Creek.

Mount Baker is the third highest mountain in the state of Washington, after Rainier and Mount Adams. It gets a lot of precipitation, and has ten glaciers. The summit crater is completely filled with ice, providing a large summit plateau.

There are 10 main glaciers on the mountain. All retreated during the first half of the century, advanced from 1950-1975 and have been retreating increasingly rapidly since 1980. The Coleman Glacier is the largest with a surface area of 5.2 km². The other large glaciers, with areas greater than 2.5 km², are Roosevelt, Mazama, Park, Boulder, Easton and Deming Glaciers.


Mount Baker and The Portals

Historical activity at Mount Baker includes several explosions during the mid-19th century, which were witnessed from the Bellingham area, and numerous small-volume debris avalanches since the late 1950s. In 1975, increased fumarolic activity in the Sherman Crater area caused concern that an eruption might be imminent. An increased level of fumarolic activity has continued at Mount Baker from 1975 to the present, but there are no other changes that suggest that magma movement is involved.

The present-day cone of Mount Baker is relatively young, perhaps less than 30,000 years old, but it sits atop a similar older volcanic cone called Black Buttes volcano which was active between 500,000 and 300,000 years ago.


Park and Rainbow Glaciers on the northeast flank

Much of Mount Baker's earlier geological record was eroded away during the last ice age (which culminated 15,000-20,000 years ago), by thick ice sheets that filled the valleys and covered much of the region. In the last 14,000 years, the area around the mountain has been largely ice free, but the mountain itself remains heavily mantled with snow and ice.

1 Elev: 1545m N 48'50.784" W 121'41.581" Parking Lot
2 Elev: 1587m N 48'50.603" W 121'42.832" Junction, keep left
3 Elev: 1818m N 48'49.039" W 121'44.518" Go downhill if you want to visit the lake
4 Elev: 1802m N 48'48.767" W 121'43.852" Unnamed peak
5 Elev: 1986m N 48'48.598" W 121'45.999" Viewpoint

Roundtrip to viewpoint: 16 km (10 miles)
Roundtrip to Camp Kiser: 12.8 km (8 miles)
Elevation gain : 600 m (1968 ft)

To Lake and Peak : Add 4 km (2.5 miles)
Elevation gain: 1000 m (3280 ft)


Driving distance from Vancouver: 148 kms (93 miles)