Memoirs of a Pilgrim


Hiking the Chain Lakes Loop on the First Day of Fall

September 22nd 2020

A perfect way to send off summer and to ring in Fall. The last of the wildflowers were surrounded by a buffet of huckleberries, and there was a crisp autumn breeze with colors just starting to change. This loop offers views of mountains, several alpine lakes, and ever chaning scenery within a doable 7 miles.


Today was the first day of fall, and I could not think of any better way of celebrating than to visit this very special trail. I did this for the first time exactly a year ago, and it ended up being the last hike I had with Olive, a dog that passed unexpectedly shortly after. I know, that’s a bumming way to start this post. But as hard as it was losing Olive, I was fortunate enough to find Ember and introduce this hike to her.

Even with this being my second time doing this trail, I still experienced the same confusion of where the trail actually starts. This area has a cluster of trails you can take from either parking lot, so navigation skills are really only necessary when trying to figure out your way through the parking lots. I wish that was a joke.

My dog, Ember, at Iceberg Lake.
Ember at Iceberg Lake.

Since it’s a loop, there’s two directions you can take and there are two parking lots you can start from. It’s really a choose your own adventure and it’s best just to hop on the trail and not overthink it because there’s gain in each direction and people going both ways no matter what. I did the reverse of what I did last year, from the same parking lot, and I can assure you you see all the same things. Just at different times.

This time around I started with the side that leads to Ptarmigan Ridge trail from the Artist Point parking lot. This way leads you directly to the cluster of lakes where the only established campsites are for overnights. I was eyeing up the sites around Hayes lake for future backpacking trips!

Chain Lakes loop trail, looking over Hayes lake.
Hayes lake is home to the limited established campsites available on the Chain Lakes loop trail. Camping is restricted to the few established sites and they are first come, first serve.

Even though this trail is in the national forest, it’s one where you strictly can only camp on the limited number of first-come-first-serve established spots. So on a good weekend, it’s likely you’ll need to be strategic or have backup plans.

With this route and direction, the final mile or so will lead you through the Heather Meadows visitor center parking lot, where it climbs up and crosses a road back up to the Artist Point parking lot. If you’re using the AllTrails app, this is the exact direction and starting/ending point loaded in the map.

The Chain Lakes loop trail dissapearing into the fog.
The trail is typically heavily trafficed, making it very easy to navigate. It's going through the parking lots that will test your navigation skills more, since each one has several different trailheads.


It’s paved the entire way. Cruise on up in your low-clearance sedan and you’ll be just fine. That being said, people who only own low-clearance sedans will be here. This is your warning. From North Seattle it was a 2.5 hr drive. I left around 10:30AM, which is fine in summer, but I’ll admit to being a little nervous if I’d have enough time with the dwindling sunset time of 7PM. I got to the Artist Point parking lot around 1:30PM (after stopping at the Sedro-Willy Starbucks for a pumpkin cream cold brew and egg’n’sausage sammy. I need fuel.).

Mt Baker Wilderness sign on a tree
The Chain Lakes loop is in Mt Baker Wilderness, which is a National Forest. Remember to bring a NW Forest Pass or America the Beautiful Pass. A Discover Pass is limited only to state parks, so it's not valid here.


I did a very leisurely pace and ended up taking 4.5 hours for the full loop. It was short enough where I didn’t eat anything, other than the huckleberries. Okay, I ate A LOT of huckleberries, which is probably why I wasn't hungry. But there are plenty of really nice stops to take a break and enjoy something to eat or drink. I easily would have enjoyed a drink at Iceberg lake had I remembered to pack a beer, but I didn’t. So I just sat by the water and watched my pups run around instead. On that note, take the very short detour down to Iceberg lake, it’s stunning!

Iceberg Lake, part of the chain lakes, through trees.
The first glimpse of Iceberg Lake from the main trail.
Iceberg lake, part of the chain lakes
Venture down to Iceberg Lake and get up close with the stunning, crystal clear water!

Much like when I hiked this trail last year, it was entirely covered in clouds with fog rolling in and out around the valleys. Fortunately the trail is very gorgeous on its own and has plenty to offer even with fog and clouds rolling in and out. I still think it has its own charm even when there aren’t bluebird conditions. I could just be saying that because I’ve never actually gotten a clear view of Baker or Shuksan on this trail, but I said what I said.

Chain lakes loop trail with fog
Clouds and fog were rolling in and out, making the already diverse views even more ever changing.

Let’s revisit these huckleberries for a sec, I am not exaggerating when I say the entire 6+ miles of this trail is lined with huckleberry bushes. And they were all perfectly ripe. My only regret of this hike is not bringing a container to pick more and save for later.

Along with the huckleberries were some of the final wildflower blumes swaying in that crisp autumn breeze. This hike really was the epitome of summer on its way out and autumn settling in. The colors are just starting to change, and I feel like they’ll be out in full force by October.

Huckeberry bush in Mt Baker Wilderness
A ripe huckleberry bush with it's fall colors showing.
Fall colors showing on Chain Lakes loop
Fall colors starting to show at the end of septemember, on the first day of fall.
Wildflowers on Chain Lakes loop trail
The final blooms of summer remained on the trai, swaying in the autumn breeze.

Enough about weather and foliage. As if alpine lakes, mountain views, huckleberry feasts, wildflowers and such aren’t enough, then we got the critters. Since I hike with two dogs I barely get to see wildlife as much as I used to, but that never stops marmots from whistle screaming and pikas curiously peeking out occasionally.

If you’re not familiar with pikas or marmots, they’re worth the google search and watching youtube videos! I’d never heard of either before moving here and they’re one of the many things I look forward to when hiking in the higher elevations of the PNW.

Rocky section of Chain Lakes Loop trail, where pikas can be spotted.
Pikas could be seen peaking out of the rocky sections of the trail. Marmots are also often spotted, and their whistles/screams are guranteed to be heard.

As you approach the Bagley Lakes, the crowd will quickly change from the hikers to the roadside scenic viewers. They’ll have their hair all did and insist on having full-on photoshoots on the little bridge that goes over the lake. In their defense, it is a really cute bridge.

This is where you need to prepare yourself for lots of people complimenting your dogs and wanting to pet them, for having small talk about nature to people who’ve never experienced it before, and for the noises coming out the children who clearly don’t want to be there. In case you haven’t caught on yet, you’re approaching the other parking lot.

Chain Lakes Loop trail, showing the switchbacks on the way to the Bagley Lakes
Chain Lakes Loop trail, approaching the Bagley Lakes.

This lot has instant stunning views and several small hikes, so it draws a crowd. At this point you have a mile-ish of steep incline to get back to your car at the artist point parking lot. And to get up there you will have to go through the entire parking lot, up to where it connects to the road and you’ll find the wild goose trailhead that’ll bring you up there. This was the hardest part of the hike, navigation wise, that I warned you about earlier. It’s really not as dramatic as I’m making it out to be, but it’s also not super straightforward either.

Climbing up the Wild Goose trail gives some really stunning views overlooking the Bagley lakes. Lore has it that you can even see mountains when the sky is clear. I can’t confirm and may never know.

Fog rolling into the valleys of the Chain Lakes loop trail
Didn't get a view of the mountains on this trip, but the fog still made for some stunning scenes!

The wildgoose trail leads you right back to Artist Point! Now you can pack up and plan where you’re going to get your well-deserved grease feast. If you’re going to have to go through Sedro-Woolley to get home, Popeyes is not much of a detour and their $4 chicken sandwich hits the spot perfectly. Follow me for more hot tips.


Before you go, check the trail reports and get more info: