Evergreen State is berry beautiful

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Fall Color Guide

Evergreen State is berry beautiful
By Claudine Chamberlain

hen I told others of my hope to find beautiful fall color in Washington--dubbed the Evergreen State for a darn good reason--I usually heard one of two responses: Good luck, or go east. But now I know the real answer: berry bushes.

Three hours north of Seattle and three miles past the Mount Baker Ski Area, where Highway 542 ends, there begins a rocky path that winds for nine miles through half a rainbow's worth of color, two-thirds if there's a clear blue sky.

But unlike the traditional maples, aspens, and oaks of fall elsewhere, the color on the Chain Lakes Loop trail in the Mount Baker Wilderness springs from huckleberry bushes and mountain ash. And when it comes to huckleberries, the scenery is not just for looking--it's also for eating.

The leaves of the mountain ash, a bush-like tree with clusters of bright red berries, had turned muted yellow in most cases and flame orange in others. The smaller huckleberry bushes were a deep wine red, with plump blue berries hanging from their thin branches. Seen from a distance, the mountainsides looked to be stricken with some sort of beautiful rash.

Following the directions of a family friend ("Just drive until the road ends and start walking ...") and a helpful guidebook, we arrived at the trailhead on a Sunday morning and set out. The trail's first mile traverses an open slope covered with patches of green plants, red huckleberry, and yellow mountain ash. The hikers ahead of us had planted themselves in one of the red patches and were foraging wildly. "My hands are blue!" one laughed.

Because no Northwesterner should stray too far from heart-stopping mountain views, we were happy to find the trail perfectly situated between gleaming Mount Baker to the west and treacherous-looking Mount Shuksan to the east, the icy blue of its glaciers clearly visible.

Dropping over a ridge and down to the first two lakes in the chain--Mazama and Iceberg--we found the trail lined with the colorful bushes. And it was like that the whole way, continuously framed by, of course, the forest's ever-present evergreens. The only exception was a short scramble through boulders after crossing the 5,400-foot Hermann Saddle and descending to Bagley Lakes. And then we were too busy looking for marmots to miss the color.

It's an easy hike, but what it lacks in challenge it more than makes up in natural beauty. The only ascents were a reasonable 600 feet to the Hermann Saddle and an unpleasant 900-foot return to the Artist Point parking area--unpleasant because it came at the very end of the hike and ran right along the Mount Baker highway, which was swarming with the cars of camera-clicking tourists.

Although the hike lasted less than five hours, we were glad for the morning start. We had enjoyed a nearly deserted trail, but by early afternoon the area near the trailhead was a mob scene of scenic-vista seekers.

The Forest Service predicts that the Mount Baker area foliage will stay colorful through late October, as long as the winds and rain stay calm enough to keep the leaves on the trees. In fact, one ranger told us the color recently was the best he's seen in 15 years. So now if someone asks me about finding fall color in Washington, I'll simply tell them: Head for the huckleberries.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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