Great Hike with spectacular views of Mt. Baker. Very strenuous--much harder...
You'll want to prepare your heart for the inspired hike to the top of Church Mountain. Combining alpine meadows, towering rock spires, and some of the most stunning views of the North Cascades, this trail is enough to make a believer out of even the most hardened hiking cynic.
The Church Mountain trailhead is about three miles up an old Forest Service road off of the Mount Baker Highway, and is served by what must be--in our estimation--the cleanest pit toilet in the North Cascades. There is a small sign-in station about 20 yards from the trailhead, and from there you're off – the first half-mile on the trail follows the last disused leg of the Forest Service road that you drove in on. Enjoy this easy, early section of trial as the next few miles are a leg-burning workout.
At just over a half-mile, the trail hits its first switchback and the punishment begins. Though you'll be thankful for the shade offered by the old-growth tree-cover, the next two miles of switchbacks may threaten to turn back the less devout in your hiking party – the dense tree growth diminishes the potential for views; there's nothing to do but put your head down, have a little faith, and press on.
After about 2.5 miles, your hard work will begin to be rewarded: glimpses of the Church Mountain basin will peak through the thinning tree cover, even offering a brief sighting of the summit. At 3.0 miles (4,900') your perseverance pays off in full, as the trees give way to the broad expanse of Church Mountain Basin. Here, words fail. A thick lawn of alpine grasses and wildflowers rise up to meet the skirts of the rocky bulwarks and buttresses that support the jagged spires that ring this heavenly basin. The trail levels out and makes its way leisurely through the undergrowth, eventually crossing the snow-melt rush of Deer Horn Creek before climbing out of the basin.
For some hikers, this is far enough. This is a great spot to sit and eat lunch, especially if you've made this a family outing. For those who aiming for the summit, then it's back to work. After going a half-mile through the basin, climb westward to the small saddle that separates the basin proper from the smaller, rocky basin that lies immediately adjacent. Take care here: earlier in the season, snow on the trail can make it easy to lose your way, so make sure to carry a map and keep an eye out for the boot-pack of those who came before you. Once into the next basin, the trail is easier to follow, and your destination comes full into view.
It can be tempting to make a straight line for the top, and the trampled undergrowth at the switchback makes it plain that many have. Our advice though: keep following the trail. You'll enjoy a much easier route that angles east and then back west to get you to the top in about the same amount of time with half the effort.
The last 50 feet of elevation gain requires a hands-on scramble up to the site where a fire lookout used to stand. At 6,100', you've finally arrived at your destination. It's here that you finally get to stop, rest, and enjoy the divine views. Though the work has been arduous, you've got a front-row seat to some of the most splendid vistas in the North Cascades: Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan stand proud to the south and southeast, with clear views of the Fraser River Watershed, the Canadian peaks that lie to the north, and Kidney Lakes directly below.
Note: Although you may be tempted to continue onward to the true summit (you are standing on a false summit), we strongly discourage the idea unless you are an experienced climber with proper equipment. The final couple hundred feet of elevation to the summit boast class 3-4 scramble with lots of exposure.
Permits & Tips
Northwest Forest Pass required. Toilet at trailhead. No water available – bring plenty as it's bone dry for most of the hike in late summer. Be very careful attempting any sort of scrambling. Do not attempt the true summit unless you are an experienced climber with the appropriate gear.
How to get there
(Church Mountain is about 45 minutes east of Bellingham)
Head east on the Mount Baker Highway (WA-542) to the Glacier Public Service Center (restroom break, and get your maps and passes here).
Continue east past the Glacier Public Service Center for 5.2 miles, and turn left onto FS Road 3040 (Church Mountain Road).
Follow road for 3 miles to the parking lot and trailhead at the end of the road.