Chain Lakes Loop gets a lot of its fanfare from being one of the best fall hikes in Washington. And rightly so. It’s majestic, and the fall colors are to die for.
But it is also a fantastic summer hiking trail that people would not discount when they visit Washington and the PNW over the summer months. You have multiple lakes and wild, incredible views of Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan. It packs some of the best views in the entire state.
Throughout this article, I’ll dive into everything you need to know about this stunning hike and some thoughts on which way you should hike it – from someone who’s spent a bit too long trying to figure out the best way to tackle it.
As always, thanks for reading!
Your Chain Lakes Loop Hiking Guide
We’re diving into everything you could possibly want or need to know about hiking Chain Lakes Loop in the North Cascades.
It’s a moderate hike, suitable for most families and non-disabled adults. You’ll see five-plus lakes, experience the best of the North Cascades, and see some truly stunning landscapes!
Top things to know before planning your Chain Lakes Loop hike
How to get to Chain Lakes Loop?
Chain Lakes Loop starts at Artist Point near the Mt. Baker Ski Resort. This is a three-hour drive from Seattle, with half of it on the I-5 and the rest on smaller state routes as you wind through the forest and mountains.
Overall, it’s a straightforward drive, especially once you pass the Edmonds Ferry exit heading north.
How long is Chain Lakes Loop?
The Chain Lakes Loop is a 6.5-mile, 1,800-foot gain hike. Though, on my watch, I remember it being closer to 7+. Overall, it’s a lovely hike, with the most challenging bit being the final mile hike up to the car if you go clockwise starting from Artist Point. (We cover the route down below.)
When is the best time to hike?
The less-than-ideal part of this hike/location is its short hiking window. Artist Point doesn’t usually open until late June or even July, as the Mt. Baker area sees some of the highest snow totals in the entire country.
Then, come the end of October, it is gloomy, and winter weather is just around the corner.
Expected Crowds and Potential Parking Issues
Artist Point and Chain Lakes Loop are VERY crowded on the weekends. Weekdays are a bit better, but with how well-known it is, visitors still come year-round throughout the summer. The main parking lot is decently sized, but it’ll fill up. Extra parking areas are available, but those could also be full on prime fall hiking weekends.
If you don’t want to risk it, come early or hike later in the afternoon.
Can you backpack Chain Lakes Loop?
Yes, you are more than welcome to backpack Chain Lakes Loop. Just know, on the weekends, it is astonishingly crowded, so don’t have much expectation for privacy.
Make sure to camp only in established sites near Mazama and Hayes Lakes. I’ve only seen people camping, not done it myself, so I’m not sure what constitutes an established site because it looked like people were everywhere.
Hiking Chain Lakes Loop Near Mt. Baker
What Route Should I Take
This is a big debate point because both ways are a bit annoying.
The standard and most typical route is to start at or near Artist Point (if you can get parking) and then begin the trail clockwise. This route will provide almost immediate views of Mt. Baker and her glorious glaciers and ridges.
However, if you go this route with the intention of completing the entire loop, you will have a sizeable hike uphill at the end. The last eighth of a mile has 800 feet of gain, which, after six miles, can be a bit tiresome on sore legs.
You could also try to hitch a ride, but that isn’t always feasible.
Other Route Options
A middle ground would be to park at the Lake Ann Trailhead. You can go either way from here, but you’ve now cut off a half mile from your final uphill if you choose to go clockwise.
Lastly, you could choose to park at Bagley Lakes and then do the hike in either direction, but I would go counterclockwise at this point. The first uphill is pretty gradual, and you’ll have beautiful views for the entirety of the hike.
Alrighty, let’s say you’re starting at Artist Point and going clockwise. From here, it’s a pretty gentle trail to the ridge where you could go left towards Ptarmigan Ridge and get real close to Mt. Baker. But you’ll keep heading right for the Chain Lakes Loop trail and begin going down to Mazama Lake.
This part is rocky but pretty easy and shouldn’t even cause you to break a sweat.
About halfway between the ridge and Mazama Lake, you should begin to see the lake below. It’s lovely, and you should be able to hear a cool waterfall near the trail. (Getting to it is a little tricky, so maybe don’t do that.)
You can walk on the far side of the lake (not the loop trail), and there is a campsite over there.
After Mazama, you’ll reach Iceberg Lake, which is the cream of the crop, in my opinion. It’s a stunningly blue/turquoise lake with a massive backdrop. There are a few spots to eat lunch along the lakeshore.
In the afternoon light, this lake glowed and was marvelous. It’s just under halfway, so you won’t be too tired, but it’s a great place to eat food.
Hayes Lake and Arbuthnet Lake
These lakes aren’t on the normal loop (which is why my mileage was longer), but they offer a slight reprieve from the crowds. This is also where most of the camping is for those looking to overnight it. Again, it was crowded midday on a weekend, so if you plan on backpacking, get there early.
Ridgeline with Shuksan Views
This is your first major uphill section of the hike. You’ll hike above Iceberg Lake, with views of Baker emerging behind you. It is simply stunning. This is an epic sunset or sunrise spot, though midday is still gorgeous.
Once at the top, aka Herman Saddle, the views are bonkers. Look one way, and you’ve got Shuksan. Look the other, and you’ve got Baker.
In all, it’s pretty ridiculous that one spot offers so much.
Bagley Lakes and Terminal Lake
It’s time to start heading down, folks, but don’t fret. The views are still insane, and if you’re doing this during fall colors, the colors are friggin insane! The trail is in good condition and isn’t steep or anything.
After a mile or so, you’ll hit the lakes. We took a slight tangent from the trail to check out the little stream and saw fish.
Now, you have to go up unless this is where you started.
You have just under a mile from here, and it’s a butt burner. So, take a moment to rest and chill out before heading up to your car and, hopefully, some snacks!
Map of Chain Lakes Loop
Rules for Hiking in the Mt. Baker Wilderness
No drones are allowed on the Chain Lakes hike or the Ptarmigan Ridge Trail. All hikers cross into the Wilderness Area, which prohibits motorized vehicles.
You can fly a drone at Artist Point, but be careful and respectful of cars and people. (I would not recommend flying during the middle of the day unless you get away from people/cars.)
Leave No Trace
When recreating outdoors, please remember to pack out what you pack in and treat the area respectfully so those who visit after you enjoy it just the same.
What to bring on your hike
While this is your standard hike with little risk of injury, anything can happen outside. So come prepared with the hiking basics, and you should be great!
- Day pack
- Hiking poles
- Hat and Sunglasses
- Hiking shoes or trail runners
- 2-3L of water
- Light jacket if going early/late
- Comms device/cell phone
Where should you stay if you hike Chain Lakes Loop
If you want a short drive, there are a few great camping spots just below Artist Point.
You could also stay in Glacier or Maple Falls, which has a lot of rental options and camping. Or, if you are okay with being further away, Sudden Valley and Bellingham are about a 90-minute drive.
More Photos of Chain Lake Loop
FAQ: Hiking Chain Lakes Loop
What Pass do I need for the hike?
You need an America the Beautiful Pass or Northwest Forest Pass when parking at Artist Point or anywhere in the Heather Meadows Recreation Area. You do not need any additional permit to backpack Chain Lakes Loop.
Can I bring my dog to Chain Lakes Loop?
Yes, you can bring dogs on the Chain Lakes Loop hike. But keep them leashed, as there are a lot of Pikas in the area, and ‘nature’s squeak toy,’ as one dog owner called them, will probably cause your dog to bolt after them.
Is there water at Artist Point?
No, there is no drinking water available at Artist Point. Please bring your own or bring a water filter and fill up at the lakes.
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Can I fish at Chain Lakes Loop?
If you have a Washington State Fishing License, you can fish here.
Can I have a campfire near the lakes?
No. Campfires are not allowed in the Mt. Baker Wilderness area. Do not start one if you are backpacking Chain Lakes Loop.
Is There Swimming on the Chain Lakes Loop Trail?
Yes, you can swim in the lakes on the Chain Lakes trail. They will be cold, though, as the snow doesn’t melt from the trails until July, so you can only imagine how chilly it’ll be!
What else is there to do near Artist Point?
Thankfully, there is a lot to do near Artist Point! Lake Ann, along with Hannegan Peak and Yellow Aster Butte, is a popular trail. Or you could keep it easy by hanging out next to Picture Lake.
In the winter, you can snowshoe up to Artist Point, a two-mile trek with about 1,000 feet of elevation gain as you start from the ski resort parking lot.
When is the best time for fall colors?
Fall colors hit Wahington the last week of September through the middle of October. This is on average, though. Make sure to check local conditions and photos to see what is happening on the ground.
Wrapping Up – Hiking Chain Lakes Loop
The Chain Lakes Loop Hike in Washington offers a breathtaking and diverse experience for hikers of all levels. This hike is truly a nature lover’s paradise, from its stunning alpine meadows and crystal-clear lakes to its panoramic views of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan.
Whether you’re seeking a challenging adventure or want to immerse yourself in the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, the Chain Lakes Loop Hike is an absolute must-do.
So grab your hiking boots, pack your camera, and get ready to be amazed by the natural wonders that await you on this unforgettable journey.
This article first appeared on ExplorewithAlec.com
Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.
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