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Schriebers Meadow to Railroad Grade — October 2005

By Holly Zox

October is typically the last month to visit the high country before it is blanketed by snow. The bright red autumn blueberry blanket of Schriebers Meadow should make a fitting farewell. The year and the foliage may be old, but the landscape and its cloak of vegetation are young on this busy flank of Mount Baker. Within the last 10,000 years, Schriebers Meadow has been covered by glacial ice, lava, ash deposits, debris, and mudflows.

Begin the hike by crossing Sulpher Creek. The andesite lava flow is the youngest known from Baker, and came from a flank eruption of two cinder cones in Schriebers Meadow. The meadow today is primarily mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) parkland growing out of Cascade and black huckleberry (Vaccinium deliciosum and V. membranaceum) and pink and white mountain-heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis and Cassiope mertensiana). The shrubs are growing out of, trap, and hold loess, wind-blown soil. What the wind blows in, wind and water also carry away. When hikers crush the not very resilient subalpine shrubs on the way to the biggest berries, best views, etc. soil washes away. Eroded trails become rivers in the rain, and hikers crush more vegetation and create more trails (social trails) in an effort to keep feet dry. Consequently, the elaborately engineered trail with landscape cloth, gravel, and deep drainage ditches. The hard work appears to be working. Social trails are few in this heavily visited area.

After about a mile, the landscape changes dramatically. Rounded rocks cover the ground. Uphill, the Easton Glacier flows from Baker’s summit. Meltwater (Rocky Creek) rushes down and may be difficult to cross during high water. One hundred years ago, the crossing would have been on glacial ice, which terminated about a quarter mile below the trail. Now the ice ends one mile upslope. Pioneering on the new land is subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa). Perhaps cold air accumulating from the mouth of the glacier or droughty conditions in the shallow rocky soil favor subalpine fir over the mountain hemlock that dominates the meadows in this part of snowy Mount Baker.

The trail next switchbacks up through mountain hemlock forest with an understory of blueberries and white-flowered rhododendron (Rhododendron albiflorum). Massive log retaining walls strive to hold the soil. Parkland is reached again after another mile at Morovitz Meadows. Follow signs to Railroad Grade. To limit impact, camping is allowed by permit only in designated sites. Pass the sites, complete with constructed tent platforms.

If still snow-free, continue a third mile up Railroad Grade. Climb up and walk along the dramatic knife edge of a lateral moraine of the Easton Glacier, all the way to High Camp, the glacier itself, and start of a climbers’ route to the summit. Mat-forming sedges, grasses, and partridgefoot (Luetkea pectinata) and fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) with its wind-blown seeds are among the early colonizers.

The first mile of trail, to Rocky Creek, is easy. The hike becomes more strenuous after that, and would require mountaineering skills if snow-covered. Bring the 10 essentials, good boots, and warm clothes. Winter comes early here. Directions: drive the North Cascades Highway (SR 20) 14.5 miles east of Sedro-Wooley and turn north onto Grandy Lake-Baker Lake Road just past milepost 82. Turn left in 12.5 miles onto FR 12 and right in 3.6 miles onto FR 13. Parking and the trailhead are in 5.2 miles at the road end.



Updated: July 3, 2016
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