After hiking the Copper ridge loop we hung around in the cute town of Glacier WA to do a couple of more day hikes. One of them was the Ptarmigan Ridge which starts in the nearby Mt Baker ski area.
We had originally only intended to do part of the Ptarmigan Ridge and turn around some place well before reaching “the portal”, a rocky precipice with a sheer drop-off where you look down on the Sholes Glacier below. Most trail descriptions for the Ptarmigan trail stop well before the portal, typically at Coleman Pinnacle, warning that near-mountaineering skills are needed to navigate the faint steep trails and to cross the steep snow fields beyond. We had brought snow axes and crampons just in case. In the end we found the scenery so mesmerizing and the trail quite a bit easier than the descriptions would have you fear, and we continued all the way to the end, i.e. to the portals (approximately 6 miles one way, 12 miles return).
The hike begins on the Chain Lakes Trail, which starts at the parking lot at the very end of the road up in the Mt Baker ski area. Even if you are not a hiker, it is already worth the drive up to this lot for the views. The entire trail, from the very beginning, offers wide sweeping views of the North Cascades in general, and nearby Mt Shuksan and Mt Baker in particular. Many other hikes require you to spend a lot of time hiking through some forest with the pay-off views only near the end. Not so with this hike — the entire length of the trail is either on top of a ridge or hugging steeply sloping meadows on the side of the ridge with no trees to block to sweeping vistas.
After one mile you turn left to get on the Ptarmigan trail proper. This is where the first of the snow fields started. When we did the hike in mid August we needed to cross maybe twenty snow fields. Most of them were very simple with a well-trodden easy path across soft snow. The early ones are just tens of yards across, the later ones a couple of hundred yards. A few are a bit icy or have steep slopes where a slip could have nasty consequences. We had brought ice axes for self-arrest and were happy with the extra security that they provided. However, plenty of people crossed the snow fields with just poles or nothing but boots with no apparent trouble at all (including some young kids). We only used the crampons once, on the very last snow field right at the top of the precipice, but it would have been fine without.
We quickly reached the plateau at about 4 miles. As promised in all trail descriptions, the views are indeed amazing in all directions. You’ve got the peaks of the North Cascades extending to the horizon. You’ve got Mt Shuksan on one side, Mt Baker on the other side, and Goat Lake nestled in the snow below. This would make a perfectly day hike destination of you are not comfortable going further.
From here on, the trail starts climbing through a steep meadow that hugs the Coleman Pinnacle. You can already see your final destination towards the left, a large black rock outcrop at the base of the Glaciers on Mt Baker. The trail remains very clear and very easy until it reaches a group of camp sites that are evidently used by climbers and ambitious backpackers (we ran into quite a few of them).
The last 0.2 mile or so are markedly more difficult. You have to cross two small snow fields where you want to be careful not to slide off. You have to climb up a rather steep set of scree switchbacks, and you have to do some very minor route finding towards the final viewpoint since the trail peters out before you reach it. But if you have come this far, it is worth making the final push, since the views from the portal are splendid. The peak of Mt Baker, is right there, seemingly within grasping distance, and the Glacier is all around you,
Distance: approximately 6 miles one way, 12 miles return.
Time: approximately 6 hours return.