Railroad Grade via Park Butte Trail, 07/10/10

I threw everything in the back of the Forester Friday morning before work, planning to pick Nicole up after work and head to the mountains. Earlier in the week, we’d decided to camp Friday night and hike on Saturday morning. It’d been a while since we’d been up near Mt. Baker, and I figured we’d be able to camp last-minute along Baker Lake somewhere, so I started looking into options. The Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest website promisingly categorized the Park Butte Trail as “partially” open, going on to state that meadows were clear, snow was in the trees, and snowshoes were not necessary. Furthermore, I learned that there were hiker-only campsites at the trailhead. Sold.

Bird in flight, Mt. Baker beyond, from Railroad Grade.

We made good time to the trailhead (I-5 -> WA-20 -> Baker Lake Highway -> FSR-13) and its large parking area. We set up our tent in one of the few single-night-only campsites set aside for hikers and drifted off to sleep early.

Saturday morning we forced ourselves out of our sleeping bags certain we’d overslept, only to find that it was barely 06:00. We broke camp in the lazy way one can when one’s car is right there and then drove over to the trailhead, leaving the nearly-empty parking lot behind us at 07:11.

For the first mile, the trail imperceptibly climbs through the green, snow-free Schriebers Meadow—the unripe huckleberries the only things colorless in sight. Soon, we entered trees and heard the sound of water; I knew the creek crossing was near. We splashed through the water running down the trail and came to the rushing Rocky Creek. I knew there was no bridge—I’d read it’d be a rock-hop or knee deep ford. Nicole did not know this. And so I really hoped we’d find some suitable rocks.

Rocky Creek, after several days of hot weather.

At the horse ford and the site of the old bridge, we didn’t find anything promising. So I worked my way up along the creek, Nicole obviously displeased as she followed behind. The water was really moving, and it wasn’t looking like it’d be a hop, skip, or jump across. At one point, we took off our boots and socks, crossed one channel, and stood safely in the middle of the creek unable to continue. I decided that if we were going to keep hiking, we’d have to ford. I figured the safest place to do this would be back at the horse ford. So we put our boots back on and headed downstream. I couldn’t gauge the depth, but the crossing was narrow. Either because I’d already used up whatever logic I had or was simply too lazy to take off my boots and socks again, I had us put on gaiters and go straight across, boots and all. We were soaked instantly.

Scouting for a suitable crossing...

And ending up back where we started. Plus wet.

Once across, we dried out as best we could and continued up the trail, which then began switchbacking through fine forest with occasional views S-SE to Glacier Peak. It wasn’t very long before snow covered the trail completely. We followed footsteps from ~4000’ upward, switchbacks unseen and unheeded. Our feet were not going to dry out with time, as I’d promised Nicole they would…

Snow-covered Morovitz Meadows and Mt. Baker.

It wasn’t long before we broke out of the trees to snowy Morovitz Meadows. The views were wonderful. Mt. Baker prominent, of course, but also the views of the Cascades from Hagan to Whitehorse. We continued through the meadows toward a stretch of dry land that I was certain was Railroad Grade.

A poor representation of the views toward Glacier Peak.

Land ho! The Railroad Grade!

The Railroad Grade trail sits atop a steep glacial moraine left behind by the Easton Glacier. It’s quite narrow, and there were a few places where we really concentrated on where we set down our feet. We found a place where the trail meandered a few feet from the edge, sat down, and watched the first marmots we’ve seen this year.

Icefall, crevasses, and sulphurous stains: Baker's Easton Glacier.

Nicole, on Railroad.

After we had our fill of sandwiches and sunshine, we headed down, passing many small groups of climbers and a ginormous group from what I think was the North Cascades Institute. The creek crossing was a few inches higher—now well above the knees—but this time we went across barefoot. Groups stalked both sides of the creek seeking something else. We enjoyed the ford much more the second time; it was invigorating. We practically skipped the remaining mile to the trailhead, arriving at ~12:44.

Flowers, volcano, and clouds.

Okay, there was no skipping, but it was a beautiful morning in the mountains. This hike has a lot of bang for its buck, but like most popular trails, go early if you want it to yourself. I wouldn’t mind returning when the meadows are actually melted out…

Stats: ~7 miles round-trip and ~1500’+ gain (topping out somewhere around 4800’). 5.5 hours from trailhead to trailhead.  And a little sunburn.

Breaking tradition, no additional photos at Flickr.


4 Responses to Railroad Grade via Park Butte Trail, 07/10/10

  1. Michael says:

    Dude, I sooooo need to come out to visit you and take one of these hikes with you guys.

    It’s been too long. Plus it just sounds fun + looks BEAUTIFUL!

    • jeremy says:

      Please do come out; we’d love to have you. Of course, you’ve got other important things on the way. Congrats on that! I follow what I can via Flickr and your blog…

  2. Bee says:


    Its me again! I really loved what you did in all your hikes! I’ve been contemplating to take up backpacking this year, but kinda gotten daunted by the amount of stuffs I need to bring. Could you give some advice on the must-have items, besides tent, sleeping bags ? Do I need to bring cooker, pots/pans, toilet rolls, etc? Do I need bear spray too ? Thanks!


    • jeremy says:

      Hi Bee!

      You should definitely try backpacking. There’s nothing like spending the night far away from other people, under the stars…

      I’d check out WTA for advice on beginning backpacking: http://www.wta.org/go-hiking/backpacking/backpacking-101-planning-your-trip

      My advice for stuff: tent, sleeping bag, a sleeping pad. If you’re just going one night, you might be able to get away with just cold food. Most of my hot meals are things you just add hot water to, so I carry a small stove and pot to heat the water. In Washington, you don’t need bear spray. I’ve only carried bear spray when we backpacked in the Canadian Rockies. You could carry it, but it’s generally not necessary. Don’t keep food in your tent or nearby. Anything that smells I keep in a separate stuff sack with a odor-proof bag and either hang it or keep it in a bear canister. You’ll definitely want a water filter…

      Read up at WTA, they’ve got some good advice. If you carry all the essentials on your day hikes, there’s really not that much more you need to do to start backpacking.

      Good luck!

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