Do you enjoy route finding, steep ascents, and spectacular views across the North Cascades? Then the challenging snowshoe to Excelsior Pass is for you!
From the parking lot on Highway 542, the trail ascends through classic North Cascades forest. Even in the depths of winter you're likely to spot pockets of rich greenery across the forest floor. The trail then enters the Mount Baker Wilderness and the nearly-4,000 foot climb begins in earnest as the rainforest gives way to tightly-packed timbered slopes. The summer trail's switchbacks and flagging are visible in the early parts of the climb, though the trail itself can be covered or obscured by snow accumulation. You will need navigational equipment and route-finding skills.
Whether you stick to the zigzags of the summer trail or beat your own more direct path, you will pass through occasional small clearings. With the grade exceeding 20 percent at times, these portals offer both an opportunity to catch your breath and enjoy the improving glimpses of the imposing Mount Baker.
After about 4 miles, and at the end of the steepest portion of the climb, the trail breaks out of the forest and into a cluster of meadows. The views open up as the trees receed. To the right you will see clear paths up to the High Divide Trail. To the left, the eyes can sweep across the gully that runs from the pass down the highway and valley far below. Excelsior Peak emerges unobstructed as you proceed into the meadow and commence arcing to the left. It's at this time that you also enter avalanche terrain.
The final ascent to the pass involves one last effort up a deceptively steep slope. You'll likely make some stops to marvel at the unobstructed views of Mount Baker to the south. As you finally claim the pass, Mount Shuksan comes into view along with the peaks to the north, including Tomyhoi and American Border Peak in the distance. Soak in the views in all directions before retracing your route back to the parking lot.
Winter backcountry adventures can be dangerous outdoor activities that pose significant risks as conditions affecting safety (i.e. weather, snowpack stability, avalanche hazard) are constantly changing. Prior to engaging in these activities each individual should get the proper training to make safe decisions and be equipped to use avalanche safety resources and tools. Please visit our Backcountry Skiing and Avalanche Safety post to learn more.