Hiking in the Cascades in September is my favorite way to bask in the lingering Northwest summer weather before the early twilights and gray, rainy days of fall set in.
My late-season hike of choice is the Park Butte and Railroad Grade Trail in the Mount Baker National Recreation Area in the North Cascades. The trail is well maintained because it is a busy route for climbers seeking to make the 10,800-foot Mount Baker summit. But that doesn’t mean you need to take a mountaineering course and pack crampons to enjoy the hike.
The hike has something for everyone: Brilliant red and orange fall alpine meadows, glacier-fed creeks, boulder fields and steep switchbacks. If the skies are clear, you can see the line of volcanoes extending south from Mount Baker to Glacier Peak and Mount Rainier.
From the edge of the Easton Glacier moraine, the Railroad Grade Trail becomes an exhilarating high-wire hike as you make a steady ascent on the approach to the mighty glacier. Along the way, you can feel the cool air blowing off the ice and hear the roar of a waterfall, the clicking of grasshoppers and the whistle of startled marmots.
On a mid-September weekday, the hike also provides solitude. I passed a scattering of hikers and climbers, but I was alone for most of my four-hour hike up to the Sandy Camp at about 6,000 feet.
The Dock Butte/Railroad Grade trailhead is a few miles off Baker Lake Road near the town of Concrete, at the end of U.S. Forest Service Road 13 in Whatcom County. The hike about 10 miles roundtrip, with an elevation gain of about 3,000 feet.
If you go on a weekend, expect a crowded trailhead parking lot, especially in the fall, when hikers and climbers are scurrying up to catch some of the great North Cascade views before the blankets of snow arrive.