As part of a larger trip to summit Glacier Peak
(one of the US Northwest's volcanoes), Brian and I did a fine dayhike up a small (by western standards) little peak at the extreme northern edge of Washington State (only a few miles away from the Canadian Border). It is called Yellow Aster Butte, and is perfect as an easy half to three-quarter day outing with great scenery and easy access.
Brian and I were waiting for an extended weather window to open up for our Glacier Peak climb. In the meantime, we wanted to get some hiking under our belt, and the forecast for this morning (July 15) was fairly decent. Nastier weather was coming, so I did a bit of research and came up with something that we could finish quickly, and not located far from Vancouver, which was where we had been staying. Yellow Aster Butte soon popped off the pages at me: a 6000-ish foot peak with a 13km-ish round trip distance, and a not-too-unreasonable 2500 feet of elevation gain. Brian and I were hiking a fair bit these days, and we figured we could do this one in six-ish hours or less.
Mount Baker Highway
We reached the trailhead for Yellow Aster Butte by following WA-542 - also known as the Mount Baker highway. That highway is right at the very top of Washington state, and after crossing into the US from Canada at Sumas (south of Abbotsford), it is only another 15-20 minutes before you are heading east on it. The sky was clear over much of southern BC, but was we headed east into the North Cascades, we started to move under a layer of overcast. Hopefully the clear sky behind us would scoot over to where we were for at least a short window of sunny-ness.
Just before the Mount Baker highway starts a twisty ascent up to The Mount Baker Ski area and Artist's Point, we turned off onto a small gravel forest road (NF-3065). The road heads off immediately adjacent to a department of transportation road maintenance yard, and is easy to miss. The forest road climbed steeply into a valley drained by the unappetizingly-named swamp creek (no swamps in sight around here, though - just a steep mountain valley with pleasant open meadows on its upper slopes).
Yellow Aster Butte Trailhead
After about twenty more minutes of driving, the road began to cross open alpine meadows, and soon signs marked the trailhead to Yellow Aster Butte. The parking area consisted of two wider strips of road, one above and one below the trailhead itself, which was situated at a hairpin in the road.
Yellow Aster Butte Trailhead
Steep earthy trail from start
We packed lightly but we did choose to bring along an ice ax, just in case. Not having hiked in the area yet, we didn't really know what the snow conditions were at higher elevations, and in the higher mountains of Western North America, snow can linger well into summer. So, just to be sure (we brought them).
We put boots to the ground and started hiking at about 7:40 a.m. Immediately the trail led steeply upwards, winding and twisting through beautiful west coast forest, and with a nice, soft, springy trailbed nearly completely devoid of rocks or roots. After briefly crossing out into an alpine meadow and then back into forest, the trail began a long rising traverse, leading us out of the valley of Swamp Creek. Above, the skies were overcast but there was no real indication of rain yet.
After an easy 30 minutes of uphill hiking, the trail hairpinned back and forth a few times and the grade lessened. We had hiked now into a higher side valley, angling more directly towards Yellow Aster Butte, which was more or less directly north of us.
At about the 4750-foot level, about 1100 feet higher than the trailhead, we began to emerge into the first sub-alpine meadow. The trail conditions were still nearly perfect and the hiking was quite easy.
The trail began a long gently-circling traverse ascent of the alpine basin in which we now found ourselves. As we ascended, we emerged into terrain that was mostly open meadow, with the occasional patch of trees here and there. The scenic views exploded along here - first towards Mount Baker - one of the most elegant of the Cascade Volcanoes. Today it's symmetrical summit rose into the cloud deck and was therefore not visible to us - but most of its lower slopes were clearly in view.
Yellow Aster Butte in sight
The trail continued to gradually rise as it described a nice, lazy arc around the basin. And, as we came around that arc, we were presented with another perfect vantage point, this time over to another mighty peak - Mount Shuksan - one of the highest of the non-volcanic peaks of the area (and, small bit of trivia here - climbed by both Brian and myself almost exactly twenty years prior). It too had its head in the clouds, meaning that our cloud deck was somewhere below 9,000 feet (Mount Shuksan's elevation is 9,127 feet). Not as impressive of a view as it could be, but still pretty great. Lots of other lower but still rugged peaks could be seen, including the nearby twin peaks of Goat Mountain.
As for Aster Butte itself, we couldn't really seem to see its summit - only some smallish-looking features on the slopes above us. We knew it was up there, just not specifically where. The trail would soon sort that out for us...
Our trail continued to gradually climb up into the alpine. Trees lessened and open, sometimes rocky slopes became more prevalent - although grassy meadows still dominated. We crossed our first patch of snow at 5200 feet (in fact, it turned out to be our only patch of snow that we actually had to cross, we just didn't know it at the time). It was nestled in a hollow and was therefore pretty much flat - no ice axing required.
The trail started to round an open prominence on the southwestern flanks of Yellow Aster Butte, and here the panoramas really unfolded - a huge sweep of the mountains to the south, on the other side of the North Fork Nooksack River Valley, were visible from here -- as well as west, off to the lowlands towards Vancouver. Even with the overcast, it was an amazing view. We could still see a line over towards Vancouver where the clouds ended and the clear skies began, but unfortunately it really didn't seem to be moving much.
We kept enjoying the delightful path, winding as it did in an earthy manner across grassy slopes, unfortunately without that many wildflowers present. I would imagine that at the right time, this would be a pretty fantastic place to see wildflowers.
After coming around to the west of Yellow Aster Butte, the trail arrived at an overlook down to a basin dotted with little alpine lakes. From the various footpaths and bare patches that I could see, it was clear that this was a popular camping area. A branch off of our trail led down to that area of lakes and campsites, and then onwards up a gentle wide ridgeline towards Tomyhoi peak (a higher and apparently good full-day light mountaineering objective). But today we were here for Yellow Aster Butte, and that meant turning right and continuing up the now steeply ascending path.
Alpine Lakes below Tomyhoi
Yellow Aster Butte now in view
The path now attacked the southwestern ridgecrest of Yellow Aster Butte directly - no more traversing or switchbacking. The steep and earthy path climbed up to a rounded knob. At first we thought we had reached the actual summit, but after a bit of looking around it became apparent that a much smaller and more craggy knob about 300-400 yards to the north was higher, and therefore the true summit. A faint path led down and along the ridgeline to it. It had what appeared to be a few scrambly sections along it, but seemed quite doable.
Final ridgeline to summit