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Originally published Wednesday, January 25, 2012 at 7:00 PM

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Find a big winter playground at Mount Baker

There's more than a ski area at Mount Baker. Snow lovers flock to the end of Highway 542 for sledding, snowshoeing, backcountry skiing and more.

Special to The Seattle Times

If You Go

Snow fun at Mount Baker

Where

To get to these snow-play and backcountry exploration spots, take Interstate 5 to Exit 255 in Bellingham. Head east for 50-plus miles on the Mount Baker Highway (Highway 542) just about to the end, where the road is no longer plowed.

At about Milepost 54, the highway splits and becomes a wide one-way road as it circles Picture Lake just below the ski area's Heather Meadows Base Area. Find a roadside-parking spot and make this your base for the next few hours. Grab your sled or tube or whatever and let gravity do its thing. (You may have to hunt for a moment or two to find a break in the snow wall to get up and over and into the snowy bowl.)

More choices

To get to the upper snow play-backcountry-exploration area, continue around Picture Lake, reach the ski area's upper-base area and go right at the obvious road split by Chairlift 1. Park just ahead in the big parking lot on the right. (Because the road is not plowed past this point, you can't drive farther anyway.) From here, one's choices are many:

• Just south of the parking lot — in the direction of Table Mountain, obvious by its distinct, flat tabletop summit — lies a stretch of snow-filled meadows with open glades, bordered by a ski run on one side and the Bagley Creek basin on the other. There are plenty of fun spots here for sledding, building snow forts and igloos, or just having Dad pull you in your plastic sled.

• Some folks who are heading out (and up) on more ambitious snowshoe or backcountry excursions hike through here as well, or they stay just to the right of the groomed ski run that passes by the parking lot. Because the grade is more consistent and gentler in spots, this makes the uphill going a bit easier. After about a half-mile or so, the grade steepens considerably and the meaning of the phrase "earn one's turns" becomes clear.

• About a mile from the parking lot, a rope marks the ski-area boundary and a daunting out-of-bounds sign warns backcountry travelers of avalanche potential in these parts. If you're new to snowshoeing and the like, this makes a good turnaround spot. If, however, you're experienced and confident of your abilities, continue on at your own risk, making sure you've first checked conditions with the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center (206-526-6677 or www.nwac.us).

Check the weather

For weather conditions, check the snow report on the Mount Baker Ski Area's website (www.mtbaker.us) or call the snow phone at 360-671-0211.

Food and lodging

While there are no stand-alone restaurants or accommodations at the Mount Baker Ski Area, the town of Glacier, at Milepost 33 on Highway 542, offers both.

Most Popular Comments
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Nice article. How about doing one on Mt. Rainier. MORE
Why an article on Rainier? Because Paradise isn't crowded enough on weekends? MORE

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Just beyond the out-of-bounds rope marking the west boundary of the Mount Baker Ski Area, J.J. Rice of Bellingham shovels out a shelflike pit in the side of a snow bank. Just the other side of the rope, skiers and snowboarders zoom down the Blueberry Cat Track run, whooping and hollering while carving graceful S-curves in the snow.

Rice digs for a bit, then stops to study the snow. Digs for a bit, then stops to study. He's trying to get a sense of the snow's stability before he travels any farther beyond the out-of-bounds rope; a recent snowfall dropped about a foot and a half in the past two days. After about 10 minutes of digging, he likes what he sees.

"This looks perfect," Rice says. "It's nice and stable. Now that winter's finally here, we can hit some good runs."

On their backcountry skis, Rice and friends will hike up toward Table Mountain and, depending on visibility and snow conditions, drop down toward Bagley Lakes and eventually pop out near the Mount Baker Ski Area's Heather Meadows Base parking lot. (That's the upper base.) They're among the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of folks you see every day in winter on snowshoes, backcountry skis, split snowboards and the like — heading up in the general direction of Table Mountain for free, earn-your-turns snow fun.

"I must've come up here 50 times in the last two years," says Anacortes' Arlene Cook, taking a break during a snowshoe hike up toward Artist Point and Artist Ridge, about two miles (one-way) from the base parking lot. On clear days, it affords jaw-dropping views of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan and seemingly every North Cascades ridge and valley.

Says Cook, while soaking in the view: "I used to hate winter, but not anymore."

All-ages fun

But this snowy strip of winter nirvana just west of the Mount Baker Ski Area is a launchpad not just for the hard core and/or ambitious backcountry enthusiast. It's definitely an all-ages, all-skill-levels snow-play venue. (Even no skills.) For lower down, nearer to the parking lot, it's a snow playground perfect for building snow forts, or for sledding, snow tubing or just having Dad pull you around in the snow.

"Ahhh-ohhh-weee (or something like that)!" squeals 2-year-old Indy Philen, of Glacier, Whatcom County, giggling with delight as her dad makes like a sled dog, pulling her up a small snowy incline about 50 yards from the parking lot.

"This is her fourth time in the snow, and I think she's just now starting to figure it out," says proud papa Josh.

Just below the day lodge is an even bigger snow-play spot. Both Picture Lake and Highwood Lake — the ones that show up in the foreground of countless photo calendar shots of Mount Shuksan — fill with snow, their basins becoming giant snowy cereal bowls perfect for snow sliding.

One is likely to see all manner of sliding conveyance here: sleds, toboggans, plastic garbage bags, river kayaks, etc. It's free, it's fun as heck, and on weekends, if your fingers and toes become chilled or you're a bit peckish, the day lodge and food concession are open and within walking distance.

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of "Day Hike! North Cascades" (Sasquatch Books).

He can be reached at mikemcquaide@comcast.net.

His blog is mcqview.blogspot.com.

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