Park Butte Lookout

Yet another sunny weekend day. This winter has been full of them. I have been to Park Butte Lookout a number of times but never in winter. Most winters the road is snow covered at least 5 or 6 miles before the summer trailhead. Add on 7 more miles round trip and it's just too far for short winter days. We had heard that the road was bare to within a few miles of the trailhead. Some snowmobiles were expected. I met Suzanne, David, and Barb in north Seattle at 7:00 am. We arrived at the intersection of Highway 20 and the Baker Lake Road only a few seconds after Elle, Bob, and Kolleen.

We were following several trucks carrying snowmobiles up the road. We passed a few trucks parked along dirt road and kept going. After passing many more we reached a turn around. Trucks with trailers could not turn around beyond this point on the narrow road. The folks ahead of us turned around and started backing up the road. Half a mile later they were still backing up. It takes a lot of skill to back up with a trailer on a narrow road with cars and trucks parked continuously along it. Eventually he found a spot to park. We were barely able to turn around and both our cars found small spots to slip into. There must have been over 100 cars and trucks parked along the road. It took nearly an hour to navigate the last mile of road, park, and get ready to head out. It was already 10:00 am when we began moving.

We started off on dirt but quickly found the end of the road and the start of thin groomed snow. It turns out a group called the Northwest Glacier Cruisers was having an annual get together. They represented a lot of the snowmobiles we saw. We had about 1 1/2 miles of road to walk and it went by very quickly. The groomed road continued around the trailhead but we went looking for the start of the summer trail. I hoped we would find snowshoe tracks all the way to the lookout. It was not to be. The bathrooms were open and just required climbing down off the snow.

We took a few minutes to strip off some clothing. Some went to short sleeves. I ditched my first layer, zipped off my pant legs, and put on gaiters. It was warming quickly. We found the bridge over Sulphur Creek. The snow was just above the top of the hand rails. I hated walking along the narrow snow but we all crossed with no problems. A minute later we ran back into the groomed road. We followed the road for a while. We passed the NW Cruisers site next to the road in a meadow. It looked like they were having a good time.

All we had to do was figure out where to leave the road. At first we almost headed up the wrong drainage but David pulled out his map and compass and we found our error. Bob and Kolleen had a GPS and it verified our position. The snowmobiles were heading up along Rocky Creek and then cutting over to Morovitz Meadow. The summer trail takes a much shorter and more direct route up through forest to the meadow. We chose to follow roughly on the summer route.

It finally occurred to me that the big meadow the road was following was in fact the channels of Rocky Creek. It looked much different than without snow. We headed across the meadow towards the forested slope and quickly reached the main channel of the creek. Crossing required dropping down the bottom and finding a way up the other side. It was too deep and steep sided in most places but we found a spot where we could climb down. Barb found a spot to get up the other side and I found another. With a few fits and starts we all made it up. The creek itself was dry.

The rest of the channels were buried under snow and we walked right across. The snow in the sunny meadow was soft and I was post holing nearly every step. When we reached the forested slope the shaded snow was much firmer. We headed up still without snowshoes. I think we were pretty close to the summer trail. The only difference is that instead of gentle switchbacks we went directly up the hillside. It was never overly steep though never gentle either. In a few places we saw blazes and what appeared to be the trail.

When we hit an open sunny spot the snow softened considerably. It was already 11:45 and we stopped for lunch. We also put on snowshoes. From there it was not long until we broke out into Morovitz Meadow. Now we could see most of Mt. Baker and it seemed to be close enough to touch. I have been to the lookout a number of times but only in summer or fall. The south side of Baker has always been glaciers and rock. This time it was just white snow from top to bottom. There was nobody in site. Just us and 900 snowmobile tracks, more or less. Looking over to Mt. Baker we could see a track leading right up to the summit. It was a snowmobile super highway. Little black dots could be seen all along it.

We climbed up the sloping meadow and soon had a look up to the Park Butte Lookout. To get there we had to drop down and climb steeply back up again. As we crested the climb our group began to get split up. Suzanne and Elle were heading up open slopes to the summit ridge. Bob and Kolleen were to their left. David, Barb, and I took a more leftward line to the left of a bump on the ridge. This brought us to the site of the summer tarns. Many great photos show Baker over those tarns. Bob and Barb angled over to meet us near the tarns.

The tarns were buried under snow. A few snowmobiles zoomed by here. The first ones we saw up close since the lower road. We climbed up to a bench on the bump and had an easy time heading over to the summit ridge. Fantastic views from up high. Suzanne and Elle were reaching the lookout as we made it up to the ridge. The last bit was an easy climb and we were soon on top. There was not a cloud in the sky. Park Butte has the most stunning view of Mt. Baker and it was even better than on my past visits. To the west the Twin Sisters were now in view. Lots of other peaks filled the horizon. Even the summit of Mt. Shuksan was now in view. We all wished we could spend the night at the lookout.

We spent a good half hour in and around the lookout. Snowmobiles started arriving including the guy we had followed in the morning as he backed up the narrow road. It's a small world. He turned out to be a nice guy. One other group of snowshoers showed up. They had followed our tracks all the way up. All to soon it was time to leave. It took us 3 1/2 hours to ascend and it was 2:00 pm when we headed down.

The trip down was much easier. Only a few ups and lots of downs. We even got in several good glissades. Snowshoes came off for the steep drop to Rocky Creek and the lower groomed road. The crossing of the creek was no worse than it had been in the morning. The groomed road walk seemed to go on forever. A number of snowmobiles zoomed by. The crowd at the parking area had thinned considerably. We saw two climbers heading out when we did in the morning. We saw them again atop the roof of a snowcat just as we finished. The story is that they managed to hitch snowmobile rides up to 9400' before summiting and hitching rides back down again. That just seems like cheating.

Even though we managed to find the busiest day of the year on this route with the snowmobile group get together it turned out to be a great time. For most of the day we were all alone. We even had to find our own route up to Morovitz Meadow. I can't imagine a winter day with clearer skies or better views. Add in good company and you have all the ingredients for a fantastic day in the mountains.

Suzanne's report is here:  Nwhikers Report & Photos

End Of The Road
Groomed Route
Not A Bad View
Bridge Crossing
Slopes Of Mt. Baker
Blue & White Contrast
Snowmobile Get Together
Baker In Sight
Creek Crossing
Creek Swath
Steep Climb
Bend Over Time
Baker From Morovitz
Ascending Meadow
First View Of Lookout
Black Buttes
Dropping Down
Contemplative David
Tracks And Baker
Lookout Above
Big Peak
Snowshoers & Tracks
White Chuck & Pugh
More Peaks
Near Tarns
Barb Setting Tracks
Lookout Close Up
Nearing Ridge
Last Ridge Walk
Twin Sisters
Lincoln Peak
More Peaks
Mt. Shuksan
Glacier Peak
At The Lookout
Mt. Baker Summit
Snowmobile Freeway
Photo Opportunity
Summit To Tree Line
Bob At Meadow
Descending Again
Recrossing Creek
Into The Shade
Last Road Walk
Click on thumbnails to get larger pictures.

Trips - 2010