As the sun creeps up throwing a golden glow on the looming peaks of Mount Shuksan rising behind the glaciated cap of Mount Baker, you’ll stand surrounded by panoramic mountain views and come to fully comprehend exactly why the Pacific Northwest is so highly esteemed by outdoors enthusiasts around the world.
Washington is simply stunning.
While national parks get all the hype it’s actually the national forests that hold the most pristine wilderness areas. And among Washington’s 8 impressive national forests, the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest reigns supreme.
1.2 million acres of dense evergreen forest stretches from the Canadian border to Mount Rainier National Park touching the slopes of the Western Cascades.
The densely forested landscape is ripped open with jagged mountain peaks towering nearly 11,000 feet and covered with ribbons of well-maintained scenic highways and well-trodden hiking trails making exploration relatively easy within the region. While the more remote northern region of the forest is the most beautiful and pristine, it still remains easily accessible on a day trip from all the major cities in the area.
With no shortage of sights available to visitors of any season, you must add Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest to your Washington itinerary.
Best time of Year to Visit Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest
While you can visit the national forest year-round there are better times of the year than others depending on your interests.
- May-August is without a doubt the best time of year for hikers. During these months the snow has melted enough to allow easy access to even the highest glaciated peaks. Cold temperatures in the fall bring early snow to the high peaks of Mt. Baker and less enjoyable trekking conditions. Many campsites require reservations far in advance for these months.
- December-April is the best time to visit if you’re interested in skiing or snowboarding at Mt. Baker Ski Resort. Although the slopes can open as early as November depending on the year, they historically open around mid-December and remain skiable until the end of April.
- If incredible views are all you’re after, fall is absolutely stunning in the region as the leaves change from bright green to a tapestry of burnt sienna, gold, and amber. By early October you can expect peak colors in higher elevations.
- September is a shoulder season month whose weather varies year-to-year. Often the weather is pleasant before the first dustings of snow appear and in lower elevations this month is one of the best for cool crisp hikes. This is also one of the least crowded months inside the national forest so you can savor the solitude on even the most popular trails.
Things You Should Know About Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest
You need a Washington Northwest Forest Pass to park and camp in many places within the national forest. This is not the same as a US America the Beautiful or national parks pass. If you arrive without this pass, you can purchase one at the Glacier Public Service Center or opt for a simple day pass if your planned trip in the national forest is a short one.
The best way to access the variety of state parks and trails within the national forest is with your own vehicle. There are several scenic highways snaking through the forest that offer some of the most impressive panoramic views and sights within the forest. If you’re traveling outside the summer months you can check for road closures and conditions on the forest service website.
Be aware that gas stations are few and far between on the scenic routes and non-existent on the smaller forest service roads so come prepared with a full tank.
Dogs are not permitted on all trails, so if you’ve brought along your furry friends be sure to check the regulations for each hike beforehand.
Bears and cougars are commonly spotted within the area so be sure to practice proper food storage and safe hiking. The forest has a wide array of PNW wildlife and contains the largest wintering population of bald eagles in Washington State.
Although more time is always better, you can easily visit the Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest on a day trip from one of the surrounding cities. Bellingham, Vancouver, and Seattle are only a few hours from the forest boundaries.
The small town of Glacier, WA has plenty of authentic cabin rentals and a quaint PNW feel for those looking for easy access to the national forest without the long drive from a major city.
Best Destinations in Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
Let’s take a look at all the places you could visit on a trip through this lovely alpine lakes wilderness. For a full list of recommendations, you should visit the Heather Meadows Visitor Center.
This glacier-wrapped dormant volcano is truly the heart and soul of Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest. A local-favorite ski resort known for epic backcountry and extreme terrain in the wintertime turns a hiker and climber’s paradise when the world’s snowiest place melts out for the summer.
Just driving the iconic Baker Highway is worth your time.
Another popular resort and wintertime destination, Stevens Pass is owned by Vail resorts and offers a more luxurious and expertly groomed ski experience. In the summer you can hit the hot springs, hike the hillside trails, and enjoy the epic views off highway 20 on your way to the mountain.
This is one of the most popular day hikes among Seattle residents so expect the trail to be crowded especially on the weekends. Sitting just outside Granite Falls near Verlot, it is considered quite strenuous to make it all the way to the panoramic lookout.
At the dead end of Mt. Baker Scenic Highway, this incredible panoramic vista is one of the best sights in all of Washington. From the parking lot, you are staring straight at the faces of both Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan. From here, you can embark on a hike or simply enjoy the views. Sunrise and sunset are the best times to visit.
Heather Meadows and Picture Lake
Here you can walk around the peaceful placid lake or relax in the picnic area and on a windless day get a perfect reflection of Mt. Shuksan in the waters. It’s a photographer’s dream.
North Cascades National Park
This is one of the most underrated national parks in America. With loads of epic hiking, incredible viewpoints, great campgrounds, and stunning alpine lakes—this is a must-see.
This teeny-tiny riverside town is located just off highway 20 on your way into the middle portion of the national forest. Here, you can raft or spend a day out enjoying the river or grab a beer and burger at the local historic watering hole named The Whistling Post.
This slow-moving portion of the river is perfect for a summertime swim or picnic. It gained popularity after a video of the large flat rocky slabs sitting over the turquoise water went viral on TikTok.
This massive waterfall near North Bend in the Snoqualmie ranger district with a resort sitting at its mouth is an incredible sight to behold. You don’t need to spend the whole day here, but if you want to hike down to the pool far below you can follow the new path near the viewpoint.
If waterfalls are what you’re after there is plenty to visit in the national forest boundaries. A few favorites are the beautiful Nooksack Falls on the way to Heather Meadows, Lava Divide Falls with multiple tiers, and Deception Falls right off the river.
Salmon Fish or Raft the Nooksack River
Chinook and pink salmon can be found in the riverbanks as well as three other varieties of salmon. The annual run usually happens starting around September. You can only fish one species every other year so check the local regulations and get the required permits. Fishermen will also enjoy trout fishing in Silver Lake depending on the season.
Bike the Mountain Loop Scenic Byway
Biking is very popular in this part of the forest. This is obviously an activity best outside the snowy winter months.
Sitting between the Sauk and the Stillaguamish rivers, Darrington is another great small Washington town allowing access to outdoor adventure year-round. Snowmobiling and hiking are both popular here.
This small town is known as the gateway to the North Cascades. From here you can drive through scenic highway 20 and access glaciated peaks on the southern cusp of the cascades.
Heybrook Lookout has been perched atop its peak since 1965 and is one of the first snow-free trails in the spring for those visiting just before summer. You’ll enjoy views of Mount Persis, Mount Index, Bridal Veil Falls, and Philadelphia Mountain from its summit.
Gamma or Baker Hot Springs
Gamma is much less popular since it is more difficult to access than Baker Hot Springs which means you won’t have to fight the crowds. Follow the strenuous trail through the overgrowth to reach the natural springs for a medicinal soak.
Both are natural hot springs which means they are clothing optional and you should come prepared to pack out your own trash and follow good wilderness practices. Baker Hot Springs has a parking lot and a far shorter access trail for those not looking to hike. They can be used year-round.
Baker Lake Trail
The highest density of old-growth forests with lots of Douglas Fir trees that are between 120-175 years old. These trees have survived the volcanic eruption of 1843 and countless regional forest fires.
Best Hikes in Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest for Summer Visitors
Here is a quick list of some of the most popular, most scenic, and all-around best hikes within the bounds of the national forest.
Since most of these hikes are quite remote, I recommend checking trail conditions, elevation gain, and bringing lots of snacks and water before embarking on any extensive hikes in the region, and always follow leave-no-trace practices.
- Artist Point to Bagley Lakes and Fire + Ice trail (4 miles). The trailhead is at Artist Point.
- Park Butte to the Fire Lookout (7.7 miles) This scenic trail ends with panoramic views.
- Souk Mountain + Souk Lake Trail (6.35 miles). This trail offers great views of an alpine lake.
- Snow Lake Lookout (6 miles). Great on a sunny day.
- Bridal Veil Falls Loop (7.3 miles). Not just waterfalls, but lakes here too!
- The Skyline Divide. This trail is currently washed out but is expected to be back in commission 2023. This path offers some of the most spectacular vistas in all of Washington.
- Table Mountain (2 miles). This is an easy hike from the popular Artist Point Viewpoint.
- Chain Lakes Loop (6.5 miles). Some of the best alpine lakes in the region as well as unrivaled views of both Mt Baker and Mt. Shuksan.
- Ptarmigan Ridge (9 miles). This is one of the most difficult on this list and brings hikers into the high-elevation world of climbers. The end of the trail sits at the base of Mt. Baker’s Deming glacier.
- Lake Ann (8.2 miles). More stunning lakes sitting in a rocky basin. This trail is quite difficult with the elevation gain.
Enjoy Nature in Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest
A hidden gem when compared to Washington’s North Cascades National Park or Olympic National Park, Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest is undeniably where you should go to get the best views in the state with a fraction of the crowds. For a quintessential PNW getaway, this is the outdoor escape for you.
Featured Image Credit: melissamn