ARTIST POINT, Whatcom County — In a big, loud world, the quiet spots are golden.
This is the sort of thing that pops into your head on a cool, clear night, high in the North Cascades, with the last gasp of the sun painting North Cascades glaciers tomato-soup red, and the night's first stars jumping the gun on darkness straight overhead.
Here, at the end of the Mount Baker Scenic Byway (Highway 542), you can turn your head one way and see glorious Mount Shuksan fading into the night, its powerful glaciers welcoming the respite of cool nightfall.
You can turn your head the other way and still see the dim outline of mighty Mount Baker, second in regional girth and immensity only to Rainier, standing like a guardian over this northwesternmost corner of our Northwest.
You can look all around and see nothing but moonscape basalt, dotted by a few tenacious subalpine firs, the occasional fern, and clumps of heather and blueberry bushes. You can close your eyes and smell only fir-scented earth, open your ears and hear only your own breath.
It's the kind of alpine heaven a lot of people never see, especially at dusk, because a daylong slog with a heavy backpack is usually a precursor.
Not here. That's the point of Artist Point: It's one of the most naturally stunning places in America that you can actually drive to. It's an alpine wonderland with an annoyingly brief summer season, beginning in July and ending in early October, when snows return and the area turns inhospitable, even deadly, almost overnight.
In the hands of locals
But in the last gasps of these warm days, from the middle to the end of September, the little point at the end of the Mount Baker Highway (Highway 542) — the best way for regular folks to experience the North Cascade "backcountry" up close — is at its annual best.
By now, all of the lingering snow that delights kids but clings on trails is long gone — especially in this unusually low-snow year. The wild blueberries are ripe, their leaves tinged in brilliant red. All those carloads of visitors from Illinois and South Dakota and Europe are back where they came from, the biting flies gone with them.
In September, Artist Point and the surrounding alpine lands known as Heather Meadows fall back into the hands of locals, reverting to their normal, native state: stunning, memorable — and largely overlooked.
Only about 140,000 visitors a year make the 57-mile drive east from Bellingham to take in the summer sights, smells and delightful lack of sounds at Artist Point, the high spot in the surrounding Heather Meadows recreation area.
It's a safe bet that nearly every one of them, after partaking of a picnic, a short stroll, an arduous backpack trek or just a drive-by, is left marveling that there are not more people here. Unlike better-known — and, arguably, less-spectacular — destinations in places such as Mount Rainier National Park, it's rarely difficult to find parking at Artist Point.
"It always amazes me," says Mike McQuaide, a Northwest Weekend contributor and author of Falcon Books' new "Mount Baker-Mount Shuksan Area," a comprehensive recreation and sightseeing guide.
Like other frequent visitors, McQuaide often confesses to being torn between wanting to tell the world about the Baker/Shuksan region and keeping it all to himself. This quandary is nothing new for people who live in the state's "Fourth Corner."
Even before 1900, loggers, miners and other speculators had built a road all the way from Bellingham to the foothills mining town of Shuksan, which stood along the North Fork Nooksack River at the site of the present Silver Fir Campground. Leaders at the time hoped what would become the Mount Baker Highway would be the route for an east-west pass through the North Cascades.
Twenty-five years later, speculators convinced the U.S. Forest Service to let them extend the road for nine winding, switchbacked miles to Heather Meadows, where they built the fabulous, 100-room Mount Baker Lodge, an all-timber building that stood near the present Mount Baker Ski Area.
The lodge had its own mini golf course, and a trail network was built. Horse teams hauled guests up into the surrounding valleys to take in the scenery and to fish Bagley Lakes. As a further enhancement, the final stretch of road up to Artist Point was completed by 1929. The lodge was a grand, but short-lived, tourist attraction. Two years later, it burned to the ground in an electrical fire.
But the road, not the lodge, proved key to opening Artist Point to generations of visitors, many of them first clued in by Hollywood productions, such as the original (1935) "The Call of the Wild," starring Clark Gable. It was the first, but not last, time Heather Meadows and Artist Point would serve as stand-ins for the wild lands of Alaska.
The wonder of the area is that it still feels Alaska-like today. Purists might argue, with much validity, that building a road to Artist Point despoiled a precious alpine valley — an area of fragile natural beauty. On the other hand, the area is significantly wilder today than it was a century ago.
With the lodge and all signs of its "Leave Much Trace" recreation heritage now gone with the winds and snows, the only real human development here is the ski area and highway. And in the summer, walking even several strides away from either is to step into a world decidedly wild.
For the only mildly adventurous, the area can be properly explored by packing a picnic lunch and setting off on a number of relatively gentle day-hiking trails, either from the Heather Meadows picnic area near the sight of the old lodge, or 600 vertical feet above, at Artist Point itself. All of these routes are now snow-free, with the temptation of ripe, wild blueberries serving as the greatest hiking distraction.
From the Heather Meadows area, the Bagley Lakes-Lower Wild Goose Trail, a 1.5-mile loop, is a good introduction to the valley's lakes, streams and meadows. It begins in the upper parking area for Mount Baker Ski Area, near Milepost 55 (follow signs to "Bagley Lakes").
From Artist Point, day hikers who only have time for one short walk should set off on the Artist Ridge Trail, which begins on the Mount Shuksan side of the parking area and follows Kulshan Ridge for less than a mile, offering sweeping views of the North Cascades and Baker Lake.
On the opposite (Mount Baker) side of the parking lot, the Table Mountain trail climbs steeply up through scree to the top of that sprawling, flat-topped mountain, a remnant of an ancient lava flow from a supervolcano that preceded Mount Baker. Views from the top are sublime; the edges are steep and dangerous. The 2.5-mile-roundtrip trail climbs through loose rocks and has some sharp drop-offs. It's not a good choice for the flip-flop-clad or small children.
More adventurous hikers can survey the entire area by walking the Chain Lakes Loop, a strenuous-but-glorious 7-mile loop with plenty of vertical that takes in the entire Heather Meadows/Artist Point area, including a half-dozen alpine lakes.
If you plan to hike, carry survival essentials and extra clothing: Remember, you're walking on a spot that received the heaviest annual snowfall ever recorded on the planet — 95 feet of snow in 1998-99. It can snow here any day of the year, but warm days and cool nights are the norm in September.
Whichever way you walk, stand, sit or lie at Artist Point, the twin hulking mountain monuments are likely to be in view. Mount Baker, at 10,781 feet, is the second largest of the Cascade volcanoes. Nearby Mount Shuksan, at 9,131 feet, is the second-highest nonvolcanic mountain in the state. But its rough, glaciated face is impressive.
For cyclists or stargazers
Most people take in the mountains and stunning surrounds by hiking, snapping photos and driving home. But others have found more inventive — and even more profound — ways to lock Artist Point into their memories. The dizzying highway is an irresistible challenge to cyclists, who will compete in the annual Mount Baker Hill Climb, a grueling ascent from Glacier to Artist Point, on Sept. 18.
And quieter outdoor enthusiasts make their way up in summer and fall just to gaze into the sky. The high altitude and lack of human light pollution make Artist Point a Northwest stargazing hot spot.
Overnight camping is not allowed (unless you're in a designated backcountry campsite). But don't worry: Rangers will not come sweeping through the parking lot to boot out stragglers after dark. Just be careful driving down the steep, exceptionally winding highway. On recent visits, the road had been freshly repaved, but had no lane striping on the outer edges, making for something of a white-knuckle descent. Take your time; a lot of the route is guardrail-free.
That's a quick portrait of Artist Point. All it lacks is the subtlety and detail filled in by the artist. And whether your instrument of choice is a fine brush or an ice ax, the annual window of opportunity is wide open — but soon to close.
The final stretch of road from Heather Meadows up to its grand conclusion at Artist Point closes with the first lingering snowfall of late autumn. Most years, that's mid- to late October.
The longer you wait, the greater the chance that you'll be stopped short of the pinnacle — and the longer it will be before you discover a new truth: In a hectic, harrowing world, the last peaceful places are not only sublime, but also essential.
And nothing is more peaceful than a day at Artist Point, in the fading light of summer, just out of reality's reach.
Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or email@example.com.IF YOU GO
If you go
Mount Baker and Artist Point
The Mount Baker Highway (Highway 542) connects with Interstate 5 in north Bellingham. The road is open 55 miles to Heather Meadows, near the Mount Baker Ski Area, all year. The final two miles to Artist Point are open only when snow-free — generally mid-July through mid-October. Allow three hours' driving from the Seattle area.
Permits and jurisdictions
The Heather Meadows/Artist Point area is in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Anyone doing anything needs the ubiquitous Northwest Forest Pass, $5 a day or $30 annually, available at outdoor retailers and Forest Service offices. It's required for parking in all area lots. If you buy one at the Glacier Public Service Center on your way up to the mountain, more of your money will stay in that area for user improvements.
Day-hiking permits are not required. Wilderness permits are required only for overnight hikers bound for areas inside adjacent North Cascades National Park. Overnight permits are not required at Lake Ann, in the Chain Lakes or at Camp Kiser on Mount Baker, although sites are limited in number.
Stargazers or other visitors hoping to make a weekend of it can camp at two local Forest Service camps, Silver Fir and Douglas Fir, both on the Mount Baker Highway. Silver Fir sites can be reserved in advance at www.reserveusa.com. Another popular local choice in the area is Whatcom County's Silver Lake Park: 360-599-2776.
For lodging accommodations in nearby Bellingham, see www.bellingham.org or call 360-671-3990. For cabins, inns, B&Bs and other options along Mount Baker Highway, see www.mtbakerchamber.org or call 360-599-1518.
The town of Glacier has unusually good food for a tiny outpost. Try Milano's Italian restaurant, or Graham's, across the street.
The 24.5-mile Mount Baker Hill Climb, a cycle race from Glacier to Artist Point, is Sept. 18. See www.meyermemorial.org
"Mount Baker-Mount Shuksan Area" by Mike McQuaide (Falcon Books, 2005; $15.95) is a comprehensive new guidebook.
The Glacier Public Service Center, at Milepost 33 on the Mount Baker Highway (Highway 542), is open from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily; hours will be reduced beginning in October; 360-599-2714. Mount Baker Ranger District trail reports and other National Forest recreation information is available online at www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs.