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Chain Lakes Loop: The Best Mount Baker Hike in Washington

Chain Lakes Loop, in northwestern Washington state, is a spectacularly beautiful hike, complete with panoramic views of Mount Baker and the surrounding Cascades, seemingly countless alpine lakes, and dazzling displays of wildflowers. Here’s everything you need to know about the Chain Lakes Loop trail, one of the best hikes that the Northern Cascades has to offer. 

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Woman standing on a boulder in front of Mount Baker along the Chain Lakes Loop in Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington
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Table of contents

About the Chain Lakes Loop

Length

6.2 miles

Elevation gain

1,794 feet

Difficulty

Moderate

Woman looking at Mount Shuksan along the Chain Lakes Loop trail in Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington

Pass or permit?

The Chain Lakes Loop trail is located in the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest. To park at trailheads in any U.S. National Forests in Washington, you need either a Northwest Forest Pass or a valid interagency pass, like the America the Beautiful pass, which gets you into all of the U.S. National Parks and 2,000 federally managed lands for a whole year!

Trail map

Iceberg Lake and Mount Baker in the background along the Chain Lakes Loop trail in Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington

How to Get to the Chain Lakes Loop

The trailhead for the Chain Lakes Loop is located here in the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest in western Washington, about three hours and 15 minutes north of Seattle or two and a half hours northeast of Vancouver, British Columbia. The road is paved and well-maintained to the trailhead throughout the summer and fall hiking season (which is a lot more than I can say for many of the National Forest roads in Washington!). 

Cars parked in the Artist's Point parking lot in Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington

The parking lot for the trailhead is known as Artist’s Point, which in and of itself offers spectacular views of the surrounding Cascades and is the starting point for a number of incredibly popular hikes. 

Accordingly, the parking lot can fill up, especially during busier periods, like the weekends during summer and early fall. If you’re visiting during this timeframe, I’d highly recommend getting here early to ensure you can snag a spot. 

Woman looking at Mount Shuksan during fall at Artist's Point in Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington

Since this hike is a loop, there’s a few other places that you can park, start, and end the hike if Artist’s Point is full, like this lot or this lot, but these options are even smaller than Artist’s Point and feed other popular trails—so you might not have much luck there either!

What to Expect Along the Chain Lakes Loop

Given this is a loop, you can either hike this trail clockwise or counter-clockwise. I’d personally recommend the latter. If you hike it clockwise, the entire last quarter of the hike will be up a fairly steep hill with boring-ish views (well, as boring as you can get in an alpine wonderland!). Conversely, if you hike the trail counter-clockwise, you get most of the climb over by the middle of the hike AND have more spectacular views (in my opinion, anyway!). 

Assuming you’ll go counter clockwise along the Chain Lakes Loop, you’ll depart the Artist’s Point trailhead behind the (notoriously smelly) vault toilets, along an unmarked dirt trail. While this trail is well-maintained, it frankly could use a lot more signage and has several unmarked junctions and social trails. Accordingly, I’d highly recommend downloading an offline version of the trail map on AllTrails+ before starting your hike, so that you can use GPS to ensure you’re staying on the correct path throughout your hike. 

Man looking at Bagley Lakes along Chain Lakes Loop trail with wildflowers along the pathway in Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington

Here, you’ll climb down a series of steep dirt and rock stairs, following signs for the Wild Goose Trail down to the Heather Meadows/Austin Pass parking lot. Below, you’ll get your first glimpses of the many alpine lakes you’ll pass on this hike.

Once you descend past Austin Pass and continue your climb down to the two Bagley Lakes, around 1.3 miles into the trail, you’ll have the option to turn right, adding on an additional mile and looping around the smaller Bagley Lake to the north. Alternatively, if you don’t want to add on any more mileage, just continue straight to skirt around the northern shores of the larger Bagley Lake, which is usually thick with wildflowers in the summertime or blueberry bushes in the early fall.

Woman hiking along the Bagley Lakes along Chain Lakes Loop trail in Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington

From here, you’ll climb for almost a mile up Herman Pass. While the elevation gain can be rather steep at times, at least you’ll be distracted by the fantastic views of Mount Shuksan, rising 9,131 feet to the southeast. Keep your eyes peeled for marmots here—it’s not unusual to see these chunky lil’ alpine rodents munching on some grass or flowers along the rocky pathway. 

Once you reach the top of Herman Saddle, you’ll be rewarded with absolutely stellar views of Iceberg Lake (where you very well may see chunks of ice floating during the early summer season) and Mount Baker to the west; Shuksan behind you; and seemingly countless other peaks of the surrounding Cascades in every direction. There’s several large boulders here that are perfect for having lunch or simply taking a breather and enjoying the views. 

Iceberg Lake with Mount Baker in the background along the Chain Lakes Loop trail in Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington

When you’re ready to continue on, you’ll descend along some switchbacks, eventually cutting between Iceberg and Hayes Lakes and finally, passing the eastern shores of Mazama Lakes. 

Past Mazama Lakes, you’ll gradually climb up to your starting elevation over the next 0.8 miles. The climb is blessedly less steep than the one up Herman Pass and this time, you’ll get to enjoy jaw-dropping views of Mount Baker, towering 10,786 feet in front of you.

About five miles into the trail, you’ll have the option to turn right to hike down the out-and back Ptarmigan Ridge Trail, which would add about seven miles on to your hike. This trail, which is popular with backpackers, takes you seriously up close and personal with the eastern side of Mount Baker. 

Mount Shuksan along the Chain Lakes Loop trail in Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington

Otherwise, if you don’t feel like doubling your mileage for the day, continue straight, as the trail flattens out for the remainder of the way back to the Artist’s Point parking lot.  Don’t worry about this portion being boring, though—with alpine valleys below the trail and Mount Shuksan soaring in front of you.

When to hike the Chain Lakes Loop 

The Chain Lakes Loop trail is fantastic through Washington’s short but glorious hiking season, from the beginning of July through mid-October.

Woman hiking through wildflowers towards Bagley Lake along the Chain Lakes Loop trail in Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington

In late June and July, the trail will be ablaze with colorful wildflowers and, in September and early October, the alpine slopes are instead carpeted with dazzling fall foliage (and lots of blueberries that make the perfect trail snacks!). My husband, Justin, and I visited in mid-September and the vibrant hues of gold, orange, and scarlet amongst the wildflowers here made this already breathtakingly beautiful trail even more spectacular. 

During the beginning of July and also early October, you have a higher likelihood of encountering ice and snow along the trail, so I’d recommend bringing along crampons, just in case you’re visiting in those time frames. 

During the winter months, the road to Artist’s Point is not plowed and inaccessible past the Bagley Lakes trailhead. There isn’t a set timeframe for this closure—rather, it closes at the first major snowfall, which generally happens sometime between mid-October through the beginning of November and is usually clear by the beginning of July. 

Woman snowshoeing through pine trees covered with snow in Washington

You can snowshoe this trail in the wintertime (here’s the snowshoes that I have and here’s the snowshoes that Justin has) by starting at the Bagley Lakes parking lot, but there’s several dangerous avalanche chutes to be wary of. If you decide to snowshoe the Chain Lakes Loop, please be well versed in avalanche safety, check conditions on the Northwest Avalanche Center, and be sure to be prepared with the appropriate avalanche safety gear. 

Tips for the Chain Lakes Loop

Camping is permitted, but only at designated sites

You can actually backcountry camp along the Chain Lakes Loop. However, it’s only permitted at designated (and well-marked!) campsites—four of which are located along the western and northern shores of Hayes Lake and four of which are located along the southern shores of Mazama Lakes. 

These sites are first come, first serve, with no extra permit required and fill up FAST, especially on weekends during the hiking season. Accordingly, if you want to snag one, be sure to get here early! 

Man smiling in front of Mount Shuksan along the Chain Lakes Loop trail in Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington
Pssst… if you’re new to backcountry camping, we have a whole post with a backpacking gear list for beginners! Also, be sure to read our list of 10 hiking safety tips you need to know before hitting the trail.

Bring a swimsuit

If you visit during the summer months, it can get surprisingly spicy in this area, ESPECIALLY when you’re climbing up the Herman Saddle. As mentioned above, Justin and I visited the Chain Lakes Loop in mid-September and I was still definitely sweating my booty off! 

Hayes Lake surrounded by pine trees along the Chain Lakes Loop trail in Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington

If you happen to be hiking on a warm day and don’t mind some (glacially) cold water, there’s a few lakes that can be nice to wild swim in, especially Hayes Lake. Be sure to bring along a swimsuit and water shoes or, even better, hiking sandals (Justin and I have a cult-like love for Tevas—here’s the pair that I wear and here’s Justin’s) to protect your feet against the rocky shoreline and bottom of the lake—and to test the temperature of the water before jumping right in. 

Bring sun protection

Most of this trail is exposed to the sun—and despite Washington’s gloomy reputation, most of our summer days are clear and sunny. Accordingly, I’d recommend bringing along sunglasses, a hat, and plenty of sunscreen to keep you safe from the sun’s rays.

Woman hiking up switchbacks with Mount Shuksan in the background in the Chain Lakes Loop trail along the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest in Washingtonww

Pssst… looking for other awesome Mount Baker hikes? Check out our posts on:


Chain Lakes Loop is definitely one of our favorite Mount Baker hikes—and arguably, in all of Washington! Do you have any questions about this trail? Let us know in the comments below!

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