Park Butte Lookout: A Smoky Weekend in the Mountains

Smoky days

It was hazy and smoky in Vancouver for a few days before the BC Day long weekend, but we still decided to go ahead with our weekend plans of hiking around Mt. Baker in the US. We honestly didn’t give too much thought to the smoke and didn’t really think it was a big issue in Vancouver. Maybe we also thought that the smoke would magically disappear once we crossed the border. It turned out however that the smoke in the US was much worse, and that’s not just a a metaphor.

At the trailhead parking lot

We managed to leave reasonably early on Friday and headed east. We originally planned to cross the border in Sumas but due to traffic and border wait times we decided to cross in Aldergrove. That turned out to be a mistake. It’s a small border crossing and I think they are a bit bored there, because the only other time we crossed there we were with an Israeli friend and they gave him a hard time, I don’t even remember about what, and that was even before the Trump era. Anyway, back to present times it turned out that crossing the border with rice from India requires a search of the car. Go figure. So that got us delayed a little bit and then we didn’t have the right directions, since we didn’t plan to cross there and we ended up driving all the way to Bellingham eventually arriving to Sedro-Woolley via the long way. There we had some trouble finding the ranger station, and once we finally found it, we bought our parking pass and had our lunch. 

On the way to the Lookout

Neil fell asleep not long before we arrived at the trailhead but at least he managed to get a bit of sleep in. The parking area was very well organized and the trail was very well maintained, after all there are some advantages to hiking in the US. We heard about this place, ‘The Lookout”, from friends who were there a few weeks before. They described it as a short hike at the end of which you arrive to a nice hut, aka The Lookout. I wouldn’t exactly describe it as a short hike, especially not with Neil, but it’s not a difficult hike. There is a short section of switchbacks where most of the elevation is gained. Neil walked a bit in the beginning, but then we had to put him in the carrier because our progress was very slow and we had started rather late.

The Lookout – what a strange place

As we were hiking up it seemed like the smoke got heavier, and instead of breathing the nice smell of nature, we smelled smoke. Also the views were almost non-existent because of the heavy smoke and haze. We arrived to one of the campsites on the way and contemplated just camping there. We were a bit bummed by the situation and also Neil was starting to get a bit crazy. But once again the bugs decided for us, and since it was quite buggy down there we decided to carry on till the lookout, despite the fact that it required us to climb more with all our gear and also it was getting late.

Our camp spot just below the lookout

Finally at The Lookout we both agreed it’s one of the most eery places we’ve ever been too. Maybe it was also the general atmosphere due to the smoke, but the place is literally hanging on the edge of a cliff, the balcony hangs out over a deep valley with no support whatsoever. Inside there were a few guys playing a board game. They started hiking at 5am so that they’d be able to sleep at the Lookout. We discovered that the hut rule over there is ‘first come first serve’, very different from the VOC mentality that ‘there is always room for one more’. Anyway we didn’t intend on sleeping there, nor would we have wanted too. I really wouldn’t recommend hanging out there with a toddler who likes to climb everything – even the five minutes we were there made me very nervous. 

One dirty Neil!

We found a place close by to set up camp, but the whole area was full of very fine sand and everything, especially Neil, got very dirty. It didn’t help of course that Neil was kicking the sand everywhere. We then had dinner while watching a very strange orange sunset and we could only imagine what the view would be like from there, since we could see basically none of it.

In the morning it didn’t seem like things had improved much so we started thinking about going down early and driving back home, which was kind of a bummer. Just after 10am two hikers showed up and were very excited to hear we are breaking camp because it meant that they could claim our camping spot, one of the only flat areas by the Lookout. I am not sure what they were planning on doing there for the rest of the day though…

All cleaned up

As we were hiking out the views got a bit better and we started seeing bits and pieces of Mt. Baker which we hadn’t seen the day before. It also seemed like the smoke did not stop the stream of hikers from coming in, especially day hikers, and a few climbers who were still keen on climbing Baker. So after lunch we decided we’d go check out another campsite called Railroad Grade. That area was very nice with lots of spots for camping, but not a lot of people, and since it seemed like the smoke got a bit better we decided to stay for at least another night.

It’s important to cook both your whistle and your hacky sack!

We spent the rest of the afternoon not doing much, Neil was mostly busy playing with the stove, and at one stage we went to the creek to wash off most of the dirt from his face and to filter some water.

The next day Neil woke up early and we decided to break camp, go on a short hike to get closer to Baker and then head down. That little hike was the highlight of the weekend. The trail follows a narrow moraine (the old edge of the glacier), and you get really close to Mt Baker and see many glaciers from close by. I’ve seen Mt. Baker many times, you can even see it from Vancouver on clear days, but that was the closest I’ve ever seen it. At the top of the trail we met Rina from Seattle who was waiting (im)patiently for her husband and 16 year old son who went to climb Baker. She thought she could see them coming down, and we could indeed see two tiny spots on the snow. I was wondering if one day Gili and Neil would be up there while I’d be waiting for them somewhere. Neil was very excited to see snow again and walk a little bit on it.

Overlooking the glaciers of Mt. Baker

The way down was uneventful and we were back at the car around 3pm. We thought maybe we’d go car camping by Baker Lake but we were both tempted by the idea of getting back home a day earlier and skipping most of the border waits + Neil had just fallen asleep so we didn’t want to interrupt him. He slept all the way to Bellingham and might have even continued sleeping but we had arrived to Trader Joe’s and that’s one thing we wouldn’t skip if we are already in the area. The disadvantage though of coming back on Sunday is that all the Mexican food trucks we know of are closed on Sunday. We compromised for an Indian food truck we saw by Trader Joe’s which was serving an experimental dish of theirs: turkey naan tacos. We were skeptical of course, but it was actually amazing.

Yummy naan turkey tacos in Bellingham

Then we carried on with very little wait at the border and happily arrived home. I am not sure what it was about this trip that despite being only three days, made it feel like we were gone for weeks… Having an extra day of the weekend was very nice and we took advantage of having a car so we went to pick blueberries in Richmond and then swim in Sasamat Lake. Maybe it’s more appropriate anyway to spend BC Day actually in BC…

Sasamat Lake, Port Moody, BC

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