Near Mt. Baker, an embarrassment of riches
From Herman Saddle, the highest point on Washington’s Chain Lakes Loop, I’m never sure where to look. Straight ahead to the east is the jagged, sky-high pile of rock, snow, and eerie blue ice known as Mt. Shuksan―one of the most photographed mountains in the world. To the south, the sky is dominated by Mt. Baker, a sparkling white volcano more than 2 miles high. Usually I compromise by grabbing a couple of handfuls of the ubiquitous mountain blueberries, planting myself on a rock, and taking in both Baker and Shuksan. Such are the concessions one must make on the 7½-mile Chain Lakes Loop.
Related: Getting there
About an hour and 15 minutes east of Bellingham, the Chain Lakes Loop is deep in the North Cascades, accessed via State 542 and the nearly mile-high Artist Point parking lot. The trail's first mile goes by the lava walls of Table Mountain, an anvil-shaped butte. Because you're above tree line here, you’ll get several sweeping views of Mt. Baker.
At 1 mile, turn right and follow the sign for Chain Lakes. You’ll drop about 500 feet over the next mile, to a forested meadow that boasts the loop’s namesake lakes: Mazama, Iceberg, Hayes, and Arbuthnet. All spend much of the year under snow in Table Mountain’s shadow; even now, you’re likely to see floating icebergs.
From here, climb about a mile to Herman Saddle―the loop’s high point in both elevation and aesthetics―before starting a long descent toward the Bagley Lakes at the basin below Table Mountain. At the Heather Meadows Visitor Center just above, find the Wild Goose Trail. Artist Point, where you started, is just under a mile―and 600 feet of elevation―up the Wild Goose.
On the way home, stop at Milano’s, in the tiny town of Glacier. Grab an outside table, and under the gaze of craggy Church Mountain, consider your choices: smoked salmon, pasta puttanesca, and seafood linguine. Again, compromise might be your best bet: Just order the tiramisu.