Mount Baker, known as Kulshan to the local tribal communities, is second only to Mount Saint Helens as the most thermally active volcano in the Cascade Range. Mount Baker’s summit soars to 10,781 feet, making it the third highest mountain in Washington State. The area is so rugged that the North Cascades Range, to which Mount Baker belongs, is known as the American Alps. This rugged terrain with snow-capped peaks stretching far into the distance makes for an incredible journey on any motorcycle.
Mount Baker is a view that is often best scene from a distance. As you get close, the mountain becomes a bit shy and hides behind the foothills. The exception to that rule is viewing the mountain up close from Artist Point, more than 5,000 feet in elevation. The climb can be very exciting as it begins near sea level.
The Mount Baker Highway (SR 542) is the only road to Artist Point. There is a limited window of opportunity for motorcyclists to enjoy the full 58 miles of the scenic Mount Baker Highway. The area along the highway is known for setting world records for snowfall. The world’s greatest recorded snowfall in a single season measured 95 feet deep (1,140 inches is the official record) at Mount Baker Ski Area during the winter of 1998-1999. The area has an average annual snowfall of 641 inches per year – the deepest of any ski resort in the world. The intense snowfall in the area keeps parts of the Mount Baker Highway beyond the ski area closed from October through June most years.
Anticipation of this limited window of riding opportunity is what makes riding the Mount Baker Highway so special. The trip begins in Bellingham, home to Western Washington University and Steve Baker, the first American to win a road racing world championship with his 1977 Formula 750 title. Situated on Bellingham Bay and overlooking the waters leading to the San Juan and Gulf islands of the Salish Sea.
The Mount Baker Highway begins as a typical large-town four lane highway. Upon reaching the fertile fields of rural Whatcom County, it quickly changes to two lanes. Beautiful farm land provides a pleasant distraction along this portion of fairly straight road until the it joins with Washington State Highway 9. As the views close in as the two roads share a short path together along the Nooksack River. Highways 542 and 9 quickly split ways as the Mount Baker Highway continues the journey northeast from the town of Deming.
This is where the road becomes really good.
Following the North Fork Nooksack River, the trees sometimes dip into the valley allowing a fine view of the small valley with mountains off in the near horizon. The road curves left and right with the flow of the river. As the river turns due east, so does the pavement and it soon passes through Maple Falls. This is the last opportunity for fuel for the remainder of the ascent up the mountain. The Café 542 offers a great lunch stop with tasty food made from scratch and with mostly locally grown ingredients. The owners are quite friendly and quick to share local highlights.
The road becomes more twisty as it climbs the elevation. For the most part, the turns are fun and simple to negotiate early on. Eventually, the entertaining curves and dips turn to serious mountainside switchbacks. Be mindful of the nearby cliff sides as they are evidence that the turns are now quite technical and don’t always provide cues to their decreasing radii. The road hugs some cliffs allowing incredible vistas of Mount Shuksan and the North Cascades National Park.
The road passes through the Mount Baker Ski Area at the 3,500-foot level. This is where the road is closed for the majority of the year. During the warmest time of the year, the Mount Baker Highway continues another six miles to Artist Point. Those six miles are worth the effort alone of the first 52 miles. The road winds tightly with views in 360-degrees.
Hiking and ski trails spur off in every direction. The Mount Baker Wilderness is a popular destination for summer time hikes and winter skiing and snowshoeing activities. The Mount Baker Mountaineers Club offers outdoor enthusiasts warm bunks and weekend meals as long as you pitch in your fair share for the chores.
After one final hairpin turn, the road terminates at the parking lot for Artist Point at 5,140 feet in elevation. The snow banks are often at least 20 feet high here. The outhouse is buried in the snow, but often has the doors shoveled out for access. Take some time once you’ve reached Artist Point to take a quick hike out onto the snow-covered hills to take photos. There is a reason why “art” is in the name here. The place can inspire the least creative of us to find artistic means of expressing the views from this tremendous place.
Consider bringing a tent and camping somewhere along the Mount Baker Highway. That way you can spend even more time at the higher elevations hiking around. Pausing along these trails truly makes you feel as if you’re on top of the world.
This is mostly an in-and-out route. On your way back down, take a few moments to reflect on the location at Picture and Highwood Lakes. The waters reflect the beautiful landscapes and nearby steeply pitched chalet offering a great photograph of the mountain lifestyle.
Riding back down the Mount Baker Highway would seem to be déjà vu. This is not always the case, however, as the views in the opposite direction often show sites missed while entering the area. Enjoy the twisty road, but find a speed that allows your neck to get a workout. Your eyes and mind will thank you.
Once you’ve reached Maple Falls, turn north on Silver Lake Road. The foothills in this area offer fantastic mountain views separated by picturesque farmlands. The road rises and falls as it negotiates the hills. The road kisses the border between the United State and Canada, turns west and becomes High Pass Road. This is one of my favorite short stretches of road in the state. Before long you’ll cross over SR 547 that would bring you to the Sumas border crossing. Keep heading west and it connects with SR 9. Stick with it long enough and it will connect with I-5. The last option is likely the quickest way for most people to make their way home. The other options open up even more exploring through Washington State and British Columbia.