You're in Seattle when suddenly there's a burst of sun and blue sky. Quick! What to do when the Northwest's inclement weather suddenly clears? Mt. Baker makes an ideal escape when you're dying to get outdoors, but don't have time to venture too far from the city.
Two and a half hours north of Seattle, the gleaming crest of Mt. Baker rises like a 10,778-foot beacon. At least that's the way my husband and I feel early one Friday evening in March as we drive up I-5 and turn east onto the Mt. Baker Highway. Also known as State 542, it follows the North Fork of the Nooksack River, passing both tree and horse farms and, finally, moss-cloaked stands of fir, cedar, and hemlock. Less than 30 miles from the rocky shores of Puget Sound, we're surrounded by lofty North Cascades National Park's peaks, with Mt. Baker's ice-white mantle framed over the dashboard. Dinner at Milano's in the small town of Glacier makes the ultimate sea-to-ski-slopes meal. We tuck into salmon with a citrus-fennel sauce, and linguine with heaps of succulent clams harvested from Taylor Shellfish Farms, just down the road in Samish Bay.
The next day we awake to sweeping views up the Nooksack Valley and across to Mt. Baker from our room at the Inn at Mt. Baker, a wood-shingled B&B. Over breakfast we ponder the many ways to spend the day, soon realizing why Mt. Baker is so great in March: You can choose which season you're in the mood for. We can dive right into spring with a hike around Nooksack Falls, or trade our hiking boots for ski boots to catch some end- of-season fun at the Mt. Baker Ski Area.
We decide to do both. First we walk along boulders to Wells Creek and Nooksack Falls, which we can hear before we see: two powerful strands of the Nooksack plunging 100 feet off a sheer rock face before crashing in a mess of spray below. A bit farther up the highway, the road turns south, crosses Bagley Creek, and climbs 3 more miles to the base of the Mt. Baker Ski Area. While there still might be 200 inches of snow at the base of Mt. Baker in March, the lift lines are shorter and the days are longer at this time of year. Long enough that we're able to catch a few runs, even after our hiking adventure.
In less than 24 hours, we've had a North Cascades getaway complete with all the elements and then some: sun, rocks, snow, rushing rivers, moss, trees, and rain. Yes, rain. In our case, it starts up as we're coming off the ski slopes. We cruise back amid a steady downpour, realizing why there is so much moss cloaking every tree, and pull into the cozy North Fork Brewery, Pizzeria, Beer Shrine, and Wedding Chapel. We order pizza and two glasses of India Pale Ale, and toast the end of winter, the start of spring, and the fun of having it all in one weekend.
From Seattle, take I-5 about 90 miles north to Bellingham, then head east on the Mt. Baker Highway (State 542) about 50 miles to the Mt. Baker Ski Area (lift tickets from $34; www.mtbaker.us; 360/734-6771). For information on hiking to Nooksack Falls, contact the Mt. Baker Ranger District (360/856-5700).
WHERE TO STAY
The Inn at Mt. Baker Spacious guest rooms, queen-size feather mattresses piled with down comforters, and commanding views of Mt. Baker and the Nooksack River. From $140, including breakfast; www.theinnatmtbaker.com; 360/ 599-1776.
Silver Lake Park Six rustic 1940s wood-shingled cabins with stacked-stone chimneys and wraparound porches overlooking a picturesque 180-acre lake. You'll need to bring your own bedding and a sense of adventure: Five cabins share a community bathhouse; only one has an indoor bath. From $65; www.whatcomcounty.us/parks; 360/599-2776.
WHERE TO EAT
Milano's Fresh pasta, ravioli, and inventive sauces featuring local seafood and sausages. Also soups, deli sandwiches, and fabulous desserts (try the tiramisu, polenta dolce, or Mt. Baker apple pie). $$; 9990 Mt. Baker Hwy.; 360/599-2863. The North Fork Brewery, Pizzeria, Beer Shrine, and Wedding Chapel A funky pub with excellent handcrafted beers, barleywine, hand-tossed pizzas, and ― of all things ― wedding ceremonies. $; 6186 Mt. Baker Hwy.; 360/599-2337.