Fields of wildflowers. Panoramic mountain vistas. Sweeping valleys. Sound like something straight out of The Sound of Music? The Skyline Divide trail in the Northern Cascades of Washington offers all of these breathtaking features- and so much more.
So pack up the car and don’t forget your hiking boots- here’s everything you need to know about the Skyline Divide, Washington’s best day-hike (or backpacking trip)!
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Table of Contents:
- About the Skyline Divide
- When to hike the Skyline Divide
- How to get to the Skyline Divide
- What to expect along the Skyline Divide
- What to bring for the Skyline Divide
- Tips for the Skyline Divide
About the Skyline Divide
The Skyline Divide is a challenging, 9-mile trail, tucked away in the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest (and good news- it’s dog friendly!). There’s tons of incredible hikes in the area with views of Mount Baker, like the Yellow Aster Butte trail in the nearby Mount Baker Wilderness.
For the Skyline Divide Trail, you’ll start at a forested trailhead, thick with silver fir and western hemlock trees and climb a steep 1500 feet in the first two miles to the ridgeline.
But once you burst out onto the meadow along the ridgeline (after approximately THREE THOUSAND- okay, more like 20- switchbacks), you won’t even notice your burning buns of steel when confronted with the sweeping fields of wildflowers and panoramic mountain views- Mount Baker (the third tallest mountain in Washington) will be staring you in the face to the south; with Mount Shuksan to the east and the High Divide to the north.
You’ll continue to your right towards Mount Baker and, over the next two and a half miles, climb a series of six rolling hills until you’re at 6,563 feet of elevation and just 3.5 miles away from Mount Baker itself. In front of you will be the Chowder Ridge of Mount Baker, which should be reserved only for adventurers that are well-experienced with ice and snow (yup, regardless of what time of year you come!).
Once you’ve gotten your fill of the endless wildflower fields and mountain views, do your best Julie Andrews impression as you retrace your steps back to the trailhead.
Interested in backpacking here? Check out our Tips for the Skyline Divide below, including the best campsites along the trail.
When to hike the Skyline Divide
The trail is technically open all year, but given the amount of snow it receives due to its high elevation, it’s best hiked from mid-June through October. If you’re hiking towards the beginning or end of that window, it’s a good idea to bring microspikes and trekking poles as you’ll likely still encounter snow and ice along the trail.
My husband, Justin, and I have hiked this trail twice- once in September and the second time in August. Our first hiking experience in September was absolutely glorious- fields of technicolor wildflowers, absolutely no insects, mountain peaks as far as the eye can see, and even a gorgeous cloud inversion at sunset.
We had such an amazing experience that we returned again the following year for my birthday in August. As I’ll explain below, the August trip was… not as special as the first time. So, with that, here are a couple other things to consider when planning your trip:
One of the things I love about living in Washington is that there’s usually so much less annoying, biting bugs as compared to my original motherland, the United States’ Midwest. Key word in that last sentence is “usually.”
As mentioned above, we had no issues with bugs during our first hike in September. But when we returned the following August, I’ve never been subjected to a more buggy experience in my life. I’m talking apocalyptic-level (like literally HUNDREDS) of flies crawling on your body anytime you’re not actively trying to brush them off.
While Justin, and I had brought our gear to go backpacking, we turned around when we reached the initial ridgeline because we didn’t think we could physically set up our tent with the level of flies that we were encountering (in addition to an unusual amount of grasshoppers flying around – it was a WEIRD day).
On the way back down, we passed a couple hiking up in what resembled a beekeeping outfit (i.e., long shirts and pants with gloves on and a mosquito head net). Call me crazy, but I’d rather just not hike if the conditions necessitate wearing a veil to protect my face from insects.
The bugs are supposed to be at their worst in late July and August, so unless having hundreds of flies swarming your body sounds like fun to you, avoid that period of time when making your plans and check other hikers’ recent reports on AllTrails or Washington Trail Association’s site before you go. And bring bug spray– while it doesn’t seem to deter the flies at all, it should at least help if you encounter mosquitos along the trail (which, fortunately we didn’t).
Another reason we turned back on the trail in August? In addition to the Book of Revelations-style bugs, we couldn’t see any of those gorgeous mountain views, given the thick wildfire smoke blanketing the region. Washington’s wildfire season usually spans from August through September, although in recent years, it has started to creep into July. So be sure to keep an eye on the Air Quality Index around the trail (Glacier, Washington is a good location to check), as well as this Fire and Smoke Map the week before and even the morning you plan to hike it- smoke conditions can change rapidly depending on the direction of the wind.
While the mountain views are epic, the wildflowers on this hike really push it to being out-of-this-world gorgeous- the “spring” wildflowers are at their peak in July through August (although when we visited in August, all of the wildflowers had seemingly died due to recent series of heat waves- we were really batting a thousand that day!) and the valleys are covered with autumnal wildflowers and shrubs in late September and early October.
How to get to the Skyline Divide
NOTE: As of May 2022, the National Forest road is closed around mile 3.1 due to flood damage. It’s unclear if and when the road will reopen.
The trailhead is located a little under three hours north of Seattle on the northern side of Mount Baker. I trust that you know how to use a GPS application to get there, but before you plug in the trailhead to your trusty Google Maps app, you should know that the last 12 miles of your drive will be along a National Forest road that looks like it hasn’t been maintained since World War II- it’s absolutely full of treacherous potholes and jagged rocks.
Even in our 4WD, high-clearance SUV, it took us over an hour to drive those 12 miles to the trailhead. Given that there’s no cell signal along the road, I would not attempt the drive here unless you have a high clearance vehicle or you’re willing to take the risk of getting a flat tire along the way. I’ve driven on a lot of sketchy unmaintained roads in the Pacific Northwest- and this one is honestly the worst I’ve ever seen!
Once you’ve completed the harrowing experience that is conquering National Forest Development Road 37, there’s a parking lot by the trailhead that fits approximately 20 cars. Even if the lot is full, I’ve seen people find some creative parking spots along the road (especially behind the trailhead), which seems to be fine, so long as your car is not blocking the road or damaging plantlife.
To park at the trailhead (either for a day hike or an overnight stay), you either need a Northwest Forest Pass or an interagency annual pass, like America the Beautiful.
What to expect along the Skyline Divide
From the trailhead, the two-mile climb through the forest, while steep, is nonetheless beautiful, as you weave through what looks and feels like a fairy-tale forest- pine trees soaring overhead, branches dripping with lush moss, just the whole nine yards. Once you hit the switchbacks a little past a mile in, you’ll start getting peekaboo glimpses of the High Divide to the north and a preview of the thick wildflower meadows awaiting you along the ridgeline.
Once you reach the top of the ridgeline, the trail will fork to the left, which will lead you to about ten campsites amongst the fields of wildflowers- or to the right, where the trail continues on towards Mount Baker. The ridgeline is pretty flat for a stretch and is a welcome reprieve from the elevation gain of the first couple of miles- but don’t be fooled into thinking your climb is over.
To continue along the trail, you’ll climb along those six hills I mentioned above, some of which are quite tall and incredibly steep (you’ll add an additional 500 feet in elevation gain throughout the ups and downs of this climb). If you feel like saving your thighs a bit of a workout, note there is a fork on the trail for both the second and third knoll, which will lead you to the right around the hill, rather than over it- this is especially helpful if you’re carrying heavy backpacking gear!
You’ll reach the fourth hill about 3.5 miles in. Again, there will be a fork here- the fork to the left will take you to campsites near Dead Horse Creek between the Skyline and Cougar Divides, which are approximately a mile away, or, to the right, will continue along the main trail over the final two hills.
The terrain will become rockier and more wind-exposed as you keep approaching Mount Baker, with the wildflower population changing along with it. As stated above, past the sixth hill, you get into more hardcore mountaineering territory- this is a good place to stop and have a snack, take a good long stare at Mount Baker and your epic surroundings, and rest up your knees before you climb back over all those hills!
What to bring for the Skyline Divide
I trust you know generally how to pack for a day hike or a backpacking trip, but here are some packing tips that are especially important for this trail:
This trail can be quite a workout and between the high elevation, the amount of climbing you’ll be doing, and the sun exposure along the trail, you’ll go through a LOT of water. Further, it’s important to note that, unless you hike the extra mile to the campsites near Dead Horse Creek, there isn’t any kind of water source along the trail.
So bring tons of water (more than you think you’ll need)- Justin and I each have one of these big Nalgene bottles, as well as carry at least an additional 48 ounces of water per person. If you’re planning on staying here multiple days, you’ll need to bring a water filtration system, like this one, and head down to Dead Horse Creek to get water.
Justin and I also leave a large refillable container of water, like this one, in our SUV so that we can refill our bottles as soon as we get back to our vehicle.
Once you’re on the ridgeline, there’s almost no tree coverage and, at such high elevations, the sun is pretty intense. So be sure to pack some sunscreen to avoid a gnarly sunburn.
I went on my tirade above about the bug situation, so I won’t subject you to it again, but bring bug spray. Seriously.
There are no grizzly bears in the Northern Cascades, but there are black bears that frequent this area. They are usually scared of humans and it’s fairly unlikely they’ll harm you, although mother black bears have been known to be aggressively protective around their young.
Because of this risk (and some other critters like cougars who could make your day a no good, very bad one), I take bear spray (which is used much like pepper spray to temporarily disorient, but not injure aggressive animals) with me wherever I go hiking in Washington state.
Although we thankfully have never had to use it, we have this one. You should also know good hiking and camping etiquette to make sure you don’t attract bears to your (or others’) campsites- here’s a helpful article if you need a refresher.
I could write a whole article about what to pack for a backpacking trip (in fact, I did write a whole post about that!), so I won’t get into everything you need to bring with you here. However, I will note here if you’re planning on camping, campfires are not allowed- so be sure to take a burner and some fuel if you’d like a warm meal along the trail.
Tips for the Skyline Divide
So besides possibly bringing a beekeeping suit if you do the hike in August, what else should you keep in mind on the trail?
- Follow the Leave No Trace principles: Washington, and especially the Northern Cascades, are mind-blowingly beautiful- seriously, sometimes I pinch myself that I live within a couple hours’ drive from the views you can find along the Skyline Divide trail.
And let’s keep it that way for others to enjoy for years to come by following the Leave No Trace principles, especially:
Plan ahead and be prepared: Bring plenty of water, have a map of the trail downloaded on your fully-charged phone before you head here (reminder: there’s limited to no cell reception here), and be aware of any wildfires in the area. When in doubt, give the Mount Baker Ranger District a call at (360) 856-5700.
Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Be sure to only walk and camp on durable surfaces, like dirt or stone. This one is huge- please, please, please do not step, set up camp, or take Tik Toks on the wildflowers (or really anything else that may possibly crush them).
When most species of wildflowers are trampled, they can’t produce seeds, which is generally how they reproduce. So when you’re stepping through a meadow of wildflowers, you’re not just killing those wildflowers, but also their future flower grandbabies for years and years to come.
If you’re a photographer enthusiast and want to get some cool shots, have no fear- between the narrow dirt paths found throughout the meadows and the hilly nature of this terrain, there’s endless opportunities along the trail to get creative with angles and take beautiful photos without touching a single wildflower.
Dispose of waste properly: Pack it in, pack it out. If you bring your dog, please be sure to bring enough dog bags and pick up (and more importantly, pack out) its poop. And same for you- if you’re camping along the Skyline Divide, know how to appropriately handle your waste (here’s a helpful article if you need a refresher) and bring along baggies to pack out your used toilet paper.
- Looking for the best spots to camp? As noted above, you have a couple of options of where to camp- when you first enter the ridgeline, you’ll see the trail splitting off to the left, which will lead to approximately ten campsites. There’s also a fork along the trail 3.5 miles in- if you follow the left trail, you’ll be led to a handful of campsites by Dead Horse Creek.
But the best spots, in my opinion, are located here, right after the first few knolls and along a ridgeline, with nothing but the enormity of Mount Baker to look at from your campsite. No matter where you end up camping, though, there’s really no bad views up here! All of the sites are first-come, first-serve– so if you’re committed to snagging an awesome campsite, I’d suggest visiting on a weekday or getting here early if your trip is on a weekend.
Skyline Divide is one of my favorite trails in the Pacific Northwest- and, given how many gorgeous hikes there are here, that’s saying a lot? Do you have any questions about hiking the Skyline Divide trail? Let me know in the comments below!
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