Snow Camping at Artist Point
I like to plan trips around holiday weekends and New Year's was no different. Alex and I took off work the Monday after New Year's so we could take a four day trip but only miss one day of work. I knew I wanted to go to Washington but hadn't settled on a specific destination. Initially the plan was to spend the weekend in Olympic National Park. I assumed the weather in the North Cascades would be too brutal as winters there can be unforgiving with storms dumping feet of snow onto the area without abating for days. Then I started researching winter adventures on The Outbound and was left speechless by the winter beauty of the Cascades. Snow camping opportunities abounded and the majestic views that accompanied the campsites were too much for a mountain lover like me to resist. Alex and I decided that we would watch the weather and if the weather permitted we would attempt snow camping for the first time. Before we could attempt to camp in the mountains, though, we had to load up on gear: a four season tent, snowshoes, an avalanche rescue kit, and of course, hand warmers rounded out our camping set. Then we played the waiting game to see if the weather would cooperate. Despite the fact that it stormed almost the entire month of December in the North Cascades the weather gods seemed to be smiling on us (for now) and the first few days were forecast to be bluebird days so winter camping it was!
We sacrificed counting down to the strike of midnight in order make a 6:00am flight out of Chicago and arrived at the Seattle airport at 8:30am on New Year's Day. We then began the 3 hour drive to the Mt. Baker ski area, the launching point of our first hike. In my research I found plenty of beautiful winter adventures, but many of them seemed strenuous for first time snow campers and many also warned that the trail would take us through avalanche terrain. The phrase "avalanche terrain" made me (and all my family/friends I told) nervous so I tried to find beginner hikes with the most reward. Artist Point stood out to me. It was located in the Mt. Baker backcountry, always in view of the ski area, an intermediate 2 mile snowshoe, and is acclaimed as one of the best views in the North Cascades. It was a done deal!
We set out from the trailhead around 2:00pm with hopes of making it to Artist Point to watch the sunset. This was admittedly our first time snowshoeing. Ever. Wisconsin had gotten zero snow at this point so we couldn't test the new snowshoes we bought. However, I read somewhere that "if you can walk, you can snowshoe". While we ended up catching onto the whole snowshoe thing pretty quickly I would not recommend this strategy to anyone. Testing out equipment is imperative to a smooth trip!
We completed the 2 mile, 1,200' elevation gain trek before sundown, but not without multiple rest stops. The trek is considered "Intermediate", but after waking up early and traveling all day it ended up feeling more strenuous. By the time we reached Artist Point the sun was setting and the sky was on fire. Alpenglow illuminated Mt. Shuskan in the east and my exhaustion was replaced with pure awe. We found a spot situated in front of Mt. Shuskan and quickly began to set up camp before taking some final pictures and heading into the tent to rest. At this point I was apprehensive about how I would hold up in the cold of night. The hike up was warm, almost hot, due to the sun but now the sun was gone and the temperature was dropping to the teens. I would soon find out that the right gear would make all the difference. It turns out my nerves were actually beneficial to my preparation and I was so well prepared I was more comfortable snow camping than I was camping in Colorado over Labor Day. I bundled up in a wool base layer, a fleece jacket and down jacket, inside my 15-degree rated sleeping bag, inside the four season tent. I was comfortable. Don't get me wrong I was still cold, just not feeling like I was about to freeze to death like I thought I would be.
I tossed and turned most of the night and was relieved when the inside of the tent started to glow, indicating the sun would be back to warm us. We patiently waited for the sun to peak over the horizon as we packed up our things. Finally the sun rose. We decided to spend the morning exploring Artist Point as we hadn't gotten to explore much the previous night. It was a winter wonderland: snow-covered trees, expansive mountains peaks, and pristine snow everywhere. After a few hours of taking in the sights we decided to head back down to the car instead of staying another night. Our water froze, my feet were chilled, and my body felt drained. I wanted to set my pack down and not pick it back up for at least a few hours. And I honestly really wanted a hot dog from the ski chalet.
Overall our experience at Artist Point was unforgettable. The beauty of the area is breathtaking and while I tried to take pictures that did it justice, I don't think it's able to capture that sort of beauty. Snow camping seemed so intimidating in the weeks leading up to our adventure but ended up being one of the coolest (pun intended) experiences I've ever had. We are going to continue snow camping, in fact we already have snow camping on the agenda for Yosemite next month. This will still give me a few weeks to forget how cold my feet felt waking up after a night in spent sleeping on a mountain!