A March trip to Washington's Mt. Baker lets you sample springtime (and a little winter, too)

You're in Seattle when suddenly there's a burst of sun and bluesky. Quick! What to do when the Northwest's inclement weathersuddenly clears? Mt. Baker makes an ideal escape when you're dyingto get outdoors, but don't have time to venture too far from thecity.

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 myhusband and I feel early one Friday evening in March as we drive upI-5 and turn east onto the Mt. Baker Highway. Also known as State542, it follows the North Fork of the Nooksack River, passing bothtree and horse farms and, finally, moss-cloaked stands of fir,cedar, and hemlock. Less than 30 miles from the rocky shores ofPuget Sound, we're surrounded by lofty North Cascades NationalPark's peaks, with Mt. Baker's ice-white mantle framed over thedashboard. Dinner at Milano's in the small town of Glacier makesthe ultimate sea-to-ski-slopes meal. We tuck into salmon with acitrus-fennel sauce, and linguine with heaps of succulent clamsharvested from Taylor Shellfish Farms, just down the road in SamishBay.

The next day we awake to sweeping views up the Nooksack Valleyand across to Mt. Baker from our room at the Inn at Mt. Baker, awood-shingled B&B. Over breakfast we ponder the many ways tospend 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 diveright into spring with a hike around Nooksack Falls, or trade ourhiking boots for ski boots to catch some end- of-season fun at theMt. Baker Ski Area.

We decide to do both. First we walk along boulders to WellsCreek and Nooksack Falls, which we can hear before we see: twopowerful strands of the Nooksack plunging 100 feet off a sheer rockface before crashing in a mess of spray below. A bit farther up thehighway, the road turns south, crosses Bagley Creek, and climbs 3more miles to the base of the Mt. Baker Ski Area. While there stillmight be 200 inches of snow at the base of Mt. Baker in March, thelift lines are shorter and the days are longer at this time ofyear. Long enough that we're able to catch a few runs, even afterour hiking adventure.

In less than 24 hours, we've had a North Cascades getawaycomplete with all the elements and then some: sun, rocks, snow,rushing rivers, moss, trees, and rain. Yes, rain. In our case, itstarts up as we're coming off the ski slopes. We cruise back amid asteady downpour, realizing why there is so much moss cloaking everytree, and pull into the cozy North Fork Brewery, Pizzeria, BeerShrine, and Wedding Chapel. We order pizza and two glasses of IndiaPale Ale, and toast the end of winter, the start of spring, and thefun of having it all in one weekend.

GETTING THERE

From Seattle, take I-5 about 90 miles north to Bellingham, thenhead east on the Mt. Baker Highway (State 542) about 50 miles tothe Mt. Baker Ski Area (lift tickets from $34; www.mtbaker.us; 360/734-6771). Forinformation on hiking to Nooksack Falls, contact the Mt. BakerRanger District (360/856-5700).

WHERE TO STAY

The Inn at Mt. Baker Spacious guest rooms, queen-sizefeather mattresses piled with down comforters, and commanding viewsof Mt. Baker and the Nooksack River. From $140, includingbreakfast; www.theinnatmtbaker.com; 360/ 599-1776.

Silver Lake Park Six rustic 1940s wood-shingled cabins withstacked-stone chimneys and wraparound porches overlooking apicturesque 180-acre lake. You'll need to bring your own beddingand 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 saucesfeaturing 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 NorthFork Brewery, Pizzeria, Beer Shrine, and Wedding Chapel A funky pubwith excellent handcrafted beers, barleywine, hand-tossed pizzas,and ― of all things ― wedding ceremonies. $; 6186 Mt.Baker Hwy.; 360/599-2337.

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