hikers on the heliotrope ridge trail near the coleman glacier

Heliotrope Ridge Trail: One of Washington’s Most Underrated Hikes

For the last year, I had the Heliotrope Ridge Trail bookmarked as a trail I really wanted to do in the Mount Baker area. The photos of the Coleman Glacier looped epic, and the fact you can get so close was incredibly inviting! 

Additionally, at the rate glaciers are receding in the United States, I wanted to experience this view sooner rather than later. Over the Fourth of July holiday, my family headed up to Glacier to hang out for the long weekend, and it was the perfect time to hit the trail

It’s a magnificent trail through old-growth forests, with superb views of Mount Baker and the massive glacier. I highly recommend this trail and firmly believe it’s one of the more underrated hikes in Washington.

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Hiking Guide to the Heliotrope Ridge Trail to the Coleman Glacier

epic views of the coleman glacier below mount baker
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
hiking up the trail near mount baker
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Quick Hike Stats

  • Distance: 6.1 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 1,863 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Time on Trail: 4 hours
  • Water Crossings: 4 (June/July are higher flow rates)
  • Road Quality: Subpar with endless potholes. High clearance is recommended, but I don’t believe it is necessary if caution is used

Trail Report for the Heliotrope Ridge Trail

Two minutes after leaving our cabin, we were headed up the forest road towards the Heliotrope Trailhead. The first 2.9 miles are “paved,” though no average person would call them that. After crossing a bridge, we were on a dirt road with constant potholes for the remaining five miles. 

We arrived at the parking lot thirty minutes later, packed up, and hit the trails. 

Overall, the trail is in phenomenal shape and can easily be cruised. The first mile or so felt the steepest, gaining 600 or more right off the bat. Then came some switchbacks as we weaved our way higher and higher toward Mount Baker and the Coleman Glacier.

the waterfall on the heliotrope ridge trail
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
A water crossing on the heliotrope ridge trail
The third stream crossing Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

At the 1.5-mile mark, you’ll reach a nice waterfall. In early July, it was flowing quite nicely. Shortly after the falls, you’ll have your first water crossing at Kulshan Creek. To us, this was the most challenging to cross and some feet got wet. 

From here on, we crossed three more creeks, each getting easier before reaching the Coleman Glacier Overlook. There are two routes to take to reach the main overlook area (and our lunch spot). Both are similar, though one gives you a view of the glacier while the other route sticks closer to the creek. 

I was enamored with the glacier, its crevasses, jagged edges, and its vastness leading up to the summit of Mount Baker and then down into the valley below. All I could say was, “Wow!”

With four crossings, it took my parents and me a bit over two hours to complete the three-ish miles on the Heliotrope Ridge trail. I had a few tired moments at the beginning, but once my body warmed up, it was smooth sailing from there. 

For those looking for a less traveled trail but still epic views, I highly recommend this one. I’m sure you will love it! 

an aerial view of the coleman glacier below mount baker
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
mount baker from the coleman glacier overlook
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
close up of the coleman glacier on the heliotrope ridge trail
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
the trail on the way to the coleman glacier overlook
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Important things to know about the hike

Where is Heliotrope Ridge Trail Located?

The trailhead sits on the north side of Mount Baker, just outside of the town of Glacier on Mount Baker Highway. From the small town, it’s a 30-minute, 8-mile drive up a winding, narrow, and bumpy road. There are plenty of pull-offs in case you meet another car. 

In my 4Runner, we had no trouble meandering through all the potholes. A sedan could make it, though one part was uneven and looked like it could scrap the bottom. Otherwise, the potholes would be able to be navigated slowly. 

While this isn’t a crowded hike compared to other Washington trails, it is the starting point for climbers summiting Mount Baker from the north side. This means that the trailhead parking lot will be much fuller than what you’ll see on the trail. That said, we quickly found a parking space at 10 a.m. on a weekend. 

Tips for hiking to the Coleman Glacier

How challenging is the hike?

The Heliotrope Ridge Trail is moderately difficult. However, numerous water crossings can make it more challenging, depending on the individual. The first mile or so gains 600 feet of elevation, but it is always manageable. 

I took my parents, who are in their 60s, and they did it with little problem. (Though my mom soaked a foot on the first crossing.)

The hardest part is definitely the water crossings. Make sure to have hiking poles and waterproof boots as you cross. 

creek crossings near mount baker
The first creek crossing Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

In all, there are four crossings: 

  • 1st: Kulshan Creek – most complicated, in our opinion
  • 2nd: Heliotrope Creek – Moderate
  • 3rd: Heliotrope Creek – Moderate
  • 4th: Small one, not bad at all (various points to cross)

As a 32-year-old with long legs, I had no issues bouncing across rocks. So if you’re around 6 feet tall with good balance and athleticism, you’ll be golden. 

What is the estimated hiking time?

While hiking with my parents, I moved much slower than I would normally do—partly due to the water crossings. The trail took just over four hours for us, not including our 45-minute lunch at the Coleman Glacier. My GPS did something funky because it cloaked 3.2 on the way up and 2.9 on the way down. 

Later in the season, with less snowmelt, this will be a much quicker trek. 

Are there any bathrooms 

There are bathrooms at the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead and one toilet at the 2-ish mile mark on the trail. There’s a sign for the bathroom with a trail leading down and to the left. It is just a box to sit on, so when you approach, give a holler to make sure no one else is using it. I also would not expect there to be toilet paper. 

Are dogs allowed on the hike?

Yes, dogs are allowed on the trail. Just make sure they are on a leash. With the multiple water crossings, I did see dog owners carrying their pets across. This is especially relevant if the water is flowing quickly or if you have a smaller dog that might feel uncomfortable walking through moving water. 

When is the best time of year for the trail?

Summer and fall are perfect times to tackle the Heliotrope Ridge trail near Mount Baker. The snow should have melted by early June. This was my first time doing it, so I’m not sure when the road opens each year.

If you venture out here early in the summer, you’ll have to deal with stronger creek crossings. In the fall, those will have diminished, and you’ll get lovely fall colors, too!

the jagged edges of the coleman glacier
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Will I have cell service? 

Don’t bet on having cell service on the hike. I briefly turned mine on at the Coleman Glacier Overlook, and it said that I had Rogers 5G (Canada cell service), but it didn’t work. I recommend downloading your maps offline before you leave your cabin/Bellingham. 

While the trail is plenty crowded, having a Garmin inReach would allow you to get help if needed. 

Are drones allowed on the trail?

No drones are allowed at the Coleman Glacier or the Heliotrope Ridge Trail. Moments after starting the hike you enter the Mount Baker Wilderness, which prohibits the launching or landing of drones. 

a panorama of the coleman glacier at the end of the heliotrope ridge trail
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Photography tips for the hike

  • I brought a 24-105 and a 70-200 for glacier close-ups
  • Other than the waterfall at the 1.5-mile mark, no need to have the camera out
  • Wildflowers are probably in full bloom mid July to the beginning of August
  • Photography opportunities are endless

Where to stay in the area?

There are a handful of places to stay along the Mount Baker Highway, or you can hang out around the Bellingham/Sudden Valley area for more amenities.

Closest towns to the trail:

Camping on Public Lands:

  • Douglas Fir Campground
  • Silver Fir Campground
  • Dispersed Camping

Bellingham/Sudden Valley:

This is about 90-minute drive from the trailhead but offers far more hotels and lodging. There are also numerous places to eat and drink, versus the limited options on the Mount Baker Highway. 

Check out places to stay around here: Expedia | VRBO | Hotels.com 

Remember to Recreate Responsibly

  • Pack out what you pack in
  • Hike with headphones instead of speakers
  • Stay on the trail
  • Pick up your dog’s poop
  • Leave the trail better than you found it
a female hiker on the trail
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Wrapping Up the Heliotrope Ridge Trail

Thanks for taking the time to read and learn about the Heliotrope Ridge Trail. It’s a perfect day hike to see a massive glacier, old trees and get out into nature, and I hope I’ve inspired you to add this one to your trail list!

Until next time, adventurers, stay safe.

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Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on ExploreWithAlec.com. Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside