Have you ever slept under the stars — miles from your car and the nearest road — with nothing but the contents of your backpack? Car camping is an excellent way to recreate in the great outdoors. But to really get away from it all, you may just have to spend a night (or a few) on the trail.
Backpacking season begins with the arrival of summer in Whatcom County. While a few of our backpacking destinations are accessible year-round, the most extraordinary high country campsites are only available between July and October. Early summer is the perfect time to start planning. Whether it’s your first backpacking trip or your 51st, we have ideas for beginners and experienced backpackers alike.
Always be prepared when hiking and backpacking. For starters, bring the Ten Essentials and practice Leave No Trace ethics. Only camp in designated sites, and respect all rules related to campfires, food storage, etc. Check out the Washington Trails Association (WTA) website for a wealth of information on backpacking in our state. And always remember before you leave to tell a friend or family member when and where you’re going.
Ready to hit the trail? Here are six backpacking destinations in Whatcom County.
Lily and Lizard Lakes (year-round)
A great introduction to backpacking, Lily and Lizard are two small lakes atop Blanchard Mountain in the Chuckanuts. Their close proximity to Oyster Dome and North Butte — coupled with year-round accessibility — makes them quite attractive for an overnight stay. It’s about 8 miles round trip, but only gains 1,000 feet. You’ll reach Lily Lake first, where a horse camp and backpacker’s camp await. Or continue along the Lily-Lizard connector trail to stay at Lizard Lake. If you’re looking for solitude, Lizard is generally the quieter of the two destinations.
Pine and Cedar Lakes (year-round)
Chuckanut Mountain’s Pine and Cedar Lakes are accessible by a relatively short but steep trail. From the Pine and Cedar Lakes trailhead parking lot, it’s about 5 miles roundtrip. You’ll tackle the steepest section right at the beginning, before the trail levels out at a high point of 1,600 feet. There are a few campsites at Cedar Lake, and a trail circumnavigating it. Pine Lake offers a scenic little peninsula campsite, accessible by a narrow boardwalk. If you can make it up on a weeknight or during the cooler months, you’ll likely have it all to yourself.
Mount Baker Highway
Chain Lakes Loop (summer only)
At the end of Mount Baker Highway, Chain Lakes Loop is one of the most spectacular hiking and backpacking destinations in Whatcom County. It’s also one of the most popular. This non-repeating loop leads through talus fields and heather meadows, along lakeshores and trickling streams to mountain vistas of Baker and Shuksan. With all that in just 7 trail miles, Chain Lakes is packed on summer weekends. Plan accordingly! Lakeview campsites are available at Mazama and Hayes Lakes.
Winchester Mountain (summer only)
Winchester Mountain offers a different kind of backpacking experience. Here, you can stay in a former fire lookout. Getting to the trailhead is half the battle, as Twin Lakes road is subject to washouts and often in a state of disrepair. Take a high clearance vehicle, or hike up the road from the Yellow Aster Butte trailhead. If your vehicle can make it up the single-lane road, Twin Lakes is open to car camping (check WTA for current road conditions). You’ll find several nice campsites complete with picnic tables and tent pads at the lakes. From here it’s just a 3.4-mile roundtrip hike up Winchester Mountain to the 1930’s lookout. Available on a first come, first served basis, this lookout offers incredible views of nearby mounts Baker, Shuksan, Larrabee and more.
North Cascades Highway
Park Butte (summer only)
Another historic 1930’s fire lookout awaits at Park Butte. This trail offers the most variety for overnighters, from car camping at the trailhead to backcountry sites and the lookout itself. At 7.5 miles round trip, Park Butte can be done in a day but is far more enjoyable as a backpacking trip. The trail crosses cool glacier-fed creeks. It meanders through wildflower meadows and climbs to 5,450 feet, with in-your-face Mount Baker views. Consider a side trip up Railroad Grade to get even closer to the mountain’s Easton Glacier. But be careful — the aptly named Railroad Grade trail becomes a steep climber’s path, not meant for casual hiking.
South Baker Lake (year-round)
Take the rolling Baker Lake trail year-round to camp alongside manmade Baker Lake. This 14-mile (one way) trail offers several places to camp, with the first option at just 2 miles from the trailhead. Elevation gain varies depending on your destination. Stay overnight at Anderson Point (2 miles) or Maple Grove (4 miles). Both camps offer fire pits, backcountry toilets, tent pads, bear-proof food storage boxes, and peek-a-boo views of Mount Baker across the lake. Like Lily and Lizard or Pine and Cedar, Baker Lake is a great place to break into backpacking.