In the mountains, the snow is falling. The curtain has come down and the time for skis, snowboards and snowshoes is at hand.
The North Cascades, by and large, will be buried until June (or August). But what if you’re allergic to the white stuff and prefer your outdoor explorations on bare—albeit often frozen—earth? Fear not. After living in this wonderful corner of the country for going on 25 years, I have had the good fortune to experience a plethora of remarkable snow-free winter experiences. On a sunny day, they’re sublime. And on a rainy day, they’re still pretty damn good. Here, in no particular order, are a few of the best:
Hike the Chuckanuts: Just south of the City of Subdued Excitement rises a splendid curl of mountain that, were it not subject to comparison with the North Cascades next door, would be regionally famous. A myriad of trails lead through forest to cold little lakes, awesome rock gardens (remnants of the long-gone glaciers) and epic saltwater views that will warm the winter heart. Pick up Ken Wilcox’s book, Hiking Whatcom County, a local bible for hiking the Chuckanuts. These trails will keep you entertained, and enlightened, for many days. One of the best: Oyster Dome, with its last-minute epiphany of glittering sea, green islands and (on a very clear day) Mt. Rainier.
Paddle Baker Lake: In the summer, Baker Lake is a zoo—all subwoofers and keg parties. But come winter, a welcome serenity descends on the lake. With a surface elevation of a mere 700 feet, the shores of the lake remain snow-free for much of the winter, affording ready access to the water. Canoes or kayaks can be launched near the dam at the Kulshan campground, which is maintained by Puget Sound Energy. The campground here is open in the winter, affording a convenient bivouac site to facilitate an early-morning launch. Paddling out on the lake, one feels removed from the mechanized world, enveloped in the silence. The views of Baker and Shuksan, rising among their coterie of snowy peaks, are magnificent. There are several campsites on the eastern shore, each with its own appeal and character. In the dead of winter, loneliness is assured.
Visit a Waterfall: Nooksack Falls, at 1,500 feet, is often at the edge of the snowline. If your desire is to avoid tromping through snow, timing is everything. The falls, located off of the Mount Baker Highway, seven miles east of Glacier, drop 88 feet in two sections and fill the Nooksack River canyon with spray. The path is short, direct and to the point, leading to the edge of the abyss. A chain-link fence keeps you on the up and up. Over the years, more than a few have perished here by venturing beyond the fence. No need to win a Darwin Award—contemplate the spectacle from behind the fence. The thunder will inhabit your dreams.
At last, after several years in a row of late-lingering snowpack in the North Cascades, it looks like we might just catch a break.
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