Rising barely 30 miles from the salt water of Puget Sound, the snowy cone of Mt. Baker is a beacon. On a clear day I can see the 10,778-foot peak, a small white triangle on the horizon, from the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge near Olympia, more than 100 miles away. Last month I got a lot closer, hiking the Chain Lakes Loop and enjoying views of Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan all the while. I finished atop Table Mountain, where fall sunshine warmed the flat summit and encouraged lounging. Staring at the two giant peaks (Baker is the third-highest in the state; 9,131-foot Shuksan is ninth) got me wondering: they lie 10 air miles apart, so why is Mt. Shuksan inside North Cascades National Park, but not Mt. Baker?
I knew that Mt. Baker had been considered for national park status before there was a National Park Service, and prominent in Pacific Northwest consciousness for far longer. A Spanish explorer called it La Gran Montaña del Carmelo in 1790, but the name didn’t stick. In 1792, Third Lieutenant Joseph Baker, a crew member on explorer George Vancouver’s ship Discovery, described a “very high conspicuous craggy mountain … towering above the clouds.” The captain promptly renamed the mountain in Baker’s honor. Of course, indigenous peoples had been living with the mountain for more than 10,000 years. The Lummi called it Koma Kulshan, meaning something like “shot off at the end,” possibly in reference to its summit crater. The Nooksack name for the peak means “white mountain,” while the Upper Skagit people labeled it “snow all around.” (Read an interesting post about native names for the mountain here.)
Following the Nooksack River, surveyors, settlers, road boosters, and prospectors made inroads into the region in the mid-1800s, but the tough terrain confounded most efforts to tame the wilderness. Historian John C. Miles describes an “epidemic of mountaineering” on Mt. Baker in the early 1890s, when six parties summited over two years. In 1897 the Washington Forest Reserve, including Mt. Baker, was established under the management of the federal Bureau of Forestry. The bureau became the United States Forest Service in 1905 and the reserves became national forests. The Washington National Forest was partitioned into four smaller forests in 1908. The Forest Service has managed the Mt. Baker region for nearly 120 years.
The Forest Service was a boon to the increasing numbers of recreationists who sought enjoyment and solitude on the mountain’s flanks. When the Portland-based club the Mazamas planned its annual outing to Mt. Baker in 1906, it asked the Forest Service to build a pack trail on the northern side of the peak, which it did. Nearly 120 club members made their base camp along what’s now the Chain Lakes Loop trail; the Galena backcountry camp marks the spot. Though only a few actually climbed Baker, the resulting publicity led to another surge in mountaineering there, mostly by large, organized clubs. The Mountaineers came to Mt. Baker in 1908, and the Mazamas returned in 1909. The Forest Service helped both groups by building a new trail to timberline from the national forest boundary. Perhaps sensing the potential for mountain tourism, the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce and the nearby town of Deming contributed to the trail-building effort.
In 1911, Bellingham resident Charles Finley Easton helped form the Mt. Baker Club specifically to promote tourism. The club initiated the Mt. Baker Marathon, in which participants traveled by car or train from Bellingham, ran about 15 miles to the summit and back, and raced back to Bellingham. The first winner finished in under 13 hours and took home $100. The marathons continued for two more years, but the club decided the risk to participants’ safety was too great. Since 1973, the tradition has continued with Bellingham’s multi-sport Sea to Ski relay race.
After the marathon was discontinued, the Mt. Baker Club cast about for other ways to promote the area. The Mazamas had called for a national park in 1909, and the success of tourism at Mount Rainier National Park suggested the same could happen at Baker. The Mt. Baker Club began to pursue the idea. It’s important to point out that this all happened before the National Park Service was created and relatively soon after the Forest Service was established. If a national park were created at Mt. Baker, the land would be transferred to the Department of the Interior, which managed the handful of national parks. Housed in the Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service saw forests through a different lens, one focused on managing forests for multiple uses (logging, grazing, watershed protection). Many foresters opposed national parks because they “locked up” natural resources that should be used for all the people, not a few sightseers and hardy hikers. Nonetheless, the Forest Service cautioned district foresters that national forest lands being considered for national park status should be “preserved as nearly as possible in their natural condition.” It tried to preempt national park expansion by showing the Forest Service cared for scenic lands, too.
In summer 1913, the Washington National Forest supervisor offered a national park proposal for 50,000 acres around Baker and Shuksan that mostly excluded forested areas. But Easton wanted a bigger, better park, and he wanted the Interior Department to administer it. He caught the attention of U.S. Representative Lindley H. Hadley, who went on an outing to Mt. Baker (and had a small peak on Chowder Ridge named for him). Hadley became a supporter of the national park idea, and the club created a national park committee that set its sights on a park around Mt. Baker.
In fall 1915, the Mt. Baker Club met with Stephen Mather, who at the time was special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior and working to get legislation passed to form a national parks bureau. Representatives from the Interior Department were touring the country looking for possible new park sites. They were enthusiastic about the Mt. Baker National Park idea, although they wanted Shuksan included. Rep. Hadley introduced a bill in the House of Representatives, and Washington’s senators followed suit. Despite the Forest Service’s opposition on the grounds the park was too big and included too much merchantable timber, the Interior Department was hopeful the bill would pass. The U.S. entry into World War I put paid to the idea and the bill died.
Six more bills for a Mt. Baker National Park were introduced between 1916 (the year the National Park Service was created) and 1922; none went anywhere. Partly due to political realities, Mather’s initial enthusiasm for a park waned. As the head of the new National Park Service, he needed to pick his battles with the Forest Service. He was intent on promoting parks that contained features not found in other parks. Many proposals, he said, “merely approximated already established national parks near by—as Mt. Baker, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood approximated Mt. Rainier.”
Nonetheless, the Mt. Baker Club continued to push for development and roads to Mt. Baker. The Forest Service offered to help fund a road, providing two federal dollars for each local dollar, provided the club would shift its focus from a national park. The deal was made, and travelers today enjoy driving the beautiful Mt. Baker Highway (State Route 542) to Artist Point, with its jaw-dropping views of Baker and Shuksan. Development continued, too, with the construction of Mt. Baker Lodge and Heather Inn. Historian John C. Miles notes, “In the 1920s the lodge and road were the only modern intrusions into thousands of acres of high wilderness country.” It didn’t stop people from coming. Some 27,500 people visited Mt. Baker in 1924.
The Forest Service strengthened its recreational offerings in 1926, a pivotal year at the mountain. The Mt. Baker Highway was completed, the name of the national forest changed to Mt. Baker National Forest, and the Forest Service designated the 75,000-acre Mt. Baker Recreation Area. While not the kind of permanent protection associated with national parks, the label indicated that the Forest Service intended to prioritize recreation at Mt. Baker, and that’s exactly what it has done.
Mt. Baker Lodge drew thousands of people to the area. The lodge burned in 1931, but the area continued to attract visitors. Skiing became increasingly popular through the 1930s, too. The Civilian Conservation Corps built roads, trails, telephone lines, and fire lookouts, further opening Mt. Baker to recreationists. In 1939, more than 130,000 visitors came to Baker, nearly 50,000 of them during winter. World War II slowed visitation and development, but the postwar economic boom brought even more people to the mountain.
When Congress created North Cascades National Park in 1968, it excluded Mt. Baker. Although the National Park Service wanted the mountain in the park, like neighboring Mt. Shuksan, the Forest Service argued that its recreation-focused management was successful and should continue. Congress agreed.
It’s one of the aspects of the North Cascades legislation that made it a successful compromise. Leaving Mt. Baker outside the park and under Forest Service management also addressed concerns expressed in local, resource-dependent communities, which largely opposed the national park. Within 20 years, though, sentiment had shifted enough that the 1984 Washington Wilderness Act established the 118,000-acre Mt. Baker Wilderness, bordering the national park to the east and the Canadian border to the north. Much of the Mt. Baker Recreation Area was placed inside the wilderness. Nine thousand acres on the south slope of the mountain became the snowmobile-friendly Mt. Baker National Recreation Area.
Today, Mt. Baker offers multiple recreation opportunities for hikers, bikers, backpackers, mountaineers, skiers, snowmobilers, and more. Nearby Baker Lake is a popular boating and fishing destination. With abundant snowfall — the world record of 95 feet of snow in one season was set here in 1998-99 — Mt. Baker is a winter sports paradise. I hiked there in mid-September on a perfect fall day. The leaves were turning, Baker and Shuksan cut crystalline silhouettes into a cerulean sky, and the sun was warm enough to encourage lolling on the lakeshores. The Forest Service facilities there are impressive, and reflect the agency’s decades of managing Mt. Baker with recreation as a primary use. According to the agency, the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is the most visited in the United States, drawing from the seven million people in the Seattle-Vancouver corridor. I think the decision to keep the mountain out of the national park was a sensible one. Mt. Baker offers national park-level scenery but allows more uses, and historically has had far more development than remote Mt. Shuksan, which remains the province of hikers and mountaineers, consistent with the wilderness orientation of North Cascades National Park. It’s a democratic solution in which different types of recreational users have access to different types of public lands.
Worth seeking out:
John C. Miles, Koma Kulshan: The Story of Mt. Baker
Alan Schmierer, Northing Up the Nooksack