Heliotrope Ridge: glacier on an active volcano and the first hiking trip in the United States

An improvised trip to the US

Katalin was away helping in a fieldwork north from Vancouver, but instead of having a lazy weekend at home, I wanted to go hiking. Unfortunately, there are not so many nice places around the city that are reachable by public transit, so I had to find some fellow hikers who I could join and get with them to a trailhead by car. I was lucky to find out on Friday that a Japanese hiker I met on an earlier hike organized a trip on Saturday and she had one spot left in the car. I took it without hesitation!

Actually even without checking destination. After confirming my spot in the car, I realized that it will be a trip of many first times. It will be a trip when I will see a glacier from close for the first time and possibly will be even able to touch it and walk on it! Besides, our destination, Mt Baker Wilderness Area, was south of the border. So that Saturday I was supposed to visit the US for the first time. And as a bonus, Mt Baker is an active volcano! Although it wasn’t my first time hiking on a volcano, I still felt excited because of that.

Destination: Mt Baker

Mt Baker is visible even from Vancouver. It is a very impressive landmark. A huge mountain covered with snow cap rising high above surroundings. In fact, I saw it on a hike just a few days before for the first time and I didn’t expect that so soon I’ll go hiking around the mountain. Mt Baker’s glacier is the second biggest in the Cascade Range. The winters here see the enormous amount of snow. In 1999 Mt Baker Ski Area set the world record for snowfall in a single season: 29 m! I expected it will be an interesting hike.

Glacier view

Glacier view.

How to get there

Reaching Mt Baker area requires quite much driving. We started going east from Vancouver on the highway and planned to cross US border at Sumas. That is the most common crossing point for hikers as it’s closest to the hiking area and there is not so much traffic as on other border crossings closer to the city. Going to the US for me meant that I finally make a use of my Finnish passport. With Polish passport, I would need a visa, but with Finnish passport, I can enter without it. That was one of the reasons why I entered Canada with the Finnish passport too so that I don’t need to swap my passports when crossing borders.

Anyway, we expected to have some fun on the border or at least surprise people there as each of us had a passport from a different country. The line to the border control post was very short, just a few courses ahead of us. And it was moving fast, but as we anticipated for us it took almost 1 hour to cross the border. After the initial look on our passports and few questions about our plans in the States, we were ordered to pull over in a bay and go to the building for further document inspection.

There we had to wait for a while before we were served. Our driver was Canadian so for her there was no need to show her passport again. The same applied to the Italian hiker who applied earlier for ESTA. Even though we crossed land border she didn’t have to fill in papers for visa exemptions nor pay the fee. Me and the Japanese girl were given a form to fill in and after paying we got a paper that was stapled into our passports saying that for about 3 months from now we can stay in the US and enter the country again within that time without a need to go through the paperwork again. Finally, we were back in the car, so first time for me on American soil was accounted for 😉

The drive in the States was much shorter. Sumas is a very small settlement constituted mainly of shops selling things to Canadians. For example, fuel is significantly cheaper here than in Vancouver. The way from Sumas to Mt Baker hiking area is well signed so no need for a map, but the map might be useful to find the trailhead. Right after last shops of Sumas big fields started. We passed also several cow farms that we could smell already from the border.

Hike to the Heliotrope Ridge

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The Heliotrope Ridge trail has been chosen by us as it was the most spectacular trail in the area according to hikers. Reaching the trailhead requires quite a long ride on a forest road, but the road is in good condition and possible to drive on it with any car. There are some switchbacks and narrower sections where two cars can’t fit, but there are many passing places.

The official trail is very short, about 5 km one way, and leads to glacier viewpoint. The trail crosses few creeks running down from the glacier and except the very first and by far the biggest creek there are no bridges. The creeks were easy to cross when we went there, but it might be more challenging in springtime when the snow melts or after big rainfalls. We could cross all the creeks easily on rocks, avoiding taking off our hiking boots and fording the water. Some of the hikers were pretty scared balancing on the rocks while crossing one of the creeks that was a bit bigger than the rest.

Creek crossing

Creek crossing.

There were not so many good views while we climbed in the forest. The trail ends on glacier viewpoint but on very low altitude. Therefore it’s better to skip the official viewpoint and continue higher towards the Heliotrope Ridge to the edge of the glacier. That way you can climb at least 300 meters higher than the official viewpoint is.

Marmot

Marmot.

 

The glacier from close

The climb is, in fact, an easy hike without any technical difficulty. At first, it is possible to continue on a path on the grass, and later on, rocks that are not steep at all and have plenty of places for good foot support so no need to use hands. We were lucky to spot some marmots while hiking up the ridge.

The view to the glacier was amazing. We had long break enjoying the views. Before descending we explored the surroundings. I had fun sliding down on the snow at the foot of the glacier and later managed to reach the part when the end of the glacier was exposed so that I could actually touch the glacier ice for the first time in my life! The way back was pretty fast and we were back in Vancouver in time for early dinner.

Views from the ridge

Views from the ridge. The trail ends next to the glacier seen at the bottom.

Edge of the glacier, Mt Baker

Edge of the glacier.

Holes in the Glacier at the Heliotrope Ridge

Holes in the Glacier

The glacier near Mt Baker

The glacier as seen from the edge.

Hiking info

Transportation time from Vancouver: 2 hours (car, smooth border crossing)
Distance: 10 km
Elevation gain: 600 (to the first viewpoint), 800 to the higher end of the glacier
Average hiking time: 4-5 hours
Difficulty: Easy

 

Hiking to glacier to the Heliotrope Ridge, Mt Baker, USA

 

 

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  • Mohit Agarwal

    Such an amazing hike though it didn’t had views on the route and also its good to know that it’s an easy hike else glaciers generally are at a greater altitude..and tough for all to reach

  • It looks like such an amazing hike – and although you says its easy I think it might be a little bit challenging for a novice like me! I’d love to give it a go though! Even if its just to copy your pictures which are beautiful!

  • Neha Verma

    What a trip…and looking at the snaps the glaciers look so wonderful. Good that its an easy trek, I would like to attempt it

  • Christina Pfeiffer

    The glacier looks stunning and the whole hike looks fantastic. Great to see you managed to photography a marmot! it’s great to know you can do it as a day trip from Vancouver.

  • Wow what an experience! This place looks stunning and you are so brave for hiking! Great post!

  • This looks like such a cool hike! There are so many places in America that I have yet to see. As an American, I often forget about all there is here to experience until I read a post like this.

  • Editor-in-Style Good

    This is so informative. I am still baffled on the issues to cross the border. I am canadian so it doesn’t affect me as much. The scenery looks worth it though,especially seeing as how you were able to capture on camera that adorable marmot.