Where the Mount Baker Highway ends, the Chain Lakes Trail begins. This spectacular trail leads through talus fields to mountain vistas, along lake shores and heather meadows, through wildlife and blueberry bushes, all without repetition. The trail is popular because many users find its 6.5 miles and 1,800 feet of elevation gain to be the perfect combination for a day hike. Also, it is only accessible during summer and fall, and this availability tends to concentrate interest. Yet somehow the trail rarely feels crowded. This classic, beloved trail, among the finest in the North Cascades, is a must-hike.
There are many ways to approach the loop. If you prefer to get most of your work out of the way early, begin at Heather Meadows Visitor Center (signed as Austin Pass Picnic Area), and climb up the steep Upper Wild Goose Trail to Artist Point. Alternately, you can drive to the end of Mount Baker Highway and begin at Artist Point. Either way, head west from the road-end parking lot along the talus fields of Chain Lakes Trail.
From Artist Point, the first mile is relatively flat and rocky. It's also wide open: Mount Baker looms large and straight ahead, and if you turn around you'll see Mount Shuksan to the east. Keep your eyes on the trail, though. Multitasking hikers and photographers can easily slip on this narrow stretch, and its a long way down.
Stay right at the signed junction with Ptarmigan Ridge Trail, and descend to Mazama, the first lake. This little lake offers backcountry campsites and a toilet for backpackers. Continue to Iceberg Lake, popular with picnickers, before reaching another signed junction. Stay right again for the loop, or go left to Galena Camps and Hayes Lake to spend the night. Climb to Herman Saddle for awesome views of Baker and Shuksan, then drop down to Bagley Lakes. Finally, cross an old stone bridge and climb the stone steps toward Heather Meadows Visitor Center to complete the loop.