By Brian Ecker
For better or worse, I can get hours and hours of entertainment looking over various maps and scheming on what kind of route would be good to ride on. Possible loops are always deemed best and a few good climbs are almost as critical. Every winter I pass the dark rainy days with reviewing all the possibilities the Pacific Northwest has to offer and in doing so, EVERY winter I have always looked a specific epic loop and thought “I wonder if it’s possible!?!” and “I gotta give it a try this summer!”. That route would consist of starting and finishing in Bellingham with a ride up to the head waters of the Middle Fork of the Nooksack, up and over the Baker Pass area, descend down into the Baker Lake basin, and a long pedal home along highway 20 and various back roads. The questions and show stopping lack of answers were always the same:
1) How far is the “hike”?
2) Can or can you not legally ride any of the “trail” sections?
3) Is the Finley Creek trail even much of a trail?
4) Just how long would it all take?
With two huge events on my calendar for the summer, East Slope Epic and Furnace Creek 508, I put the idea of the Baker Pass adventure on the back burner for yet another year. Then circumstances changed. First I made the tuff choice to back out of the 508 and then pretty much all of the eastern slopes of the Cascades caught fire which meant huge sections of my East Slope Epic route were closed and the remainder were covered in smoke. Well, when on light goes out another often flickers a bit brighter. With Fall fast approaching and with it our long daylight hours I put the planning for the Baker Pass Epic into full gear.
Very little needed to change on the Redline Conquest Disc to have it ready for this one day adventure. I removed the frame bag and added a trunk bag. I carefully packed the minimal amount necessary which included Green Trail Map #45, Garmin GPS with route loaded in, SteriPen, some gels and bars.
My first planning stage is to always thumb through my WA State Road and Rec Atlas which is pretty accurate in differentiating between paved and gravel roads. It shows some trails as well. I then moved on to RideWithGPS.com and did as accurate of a route mapping as possible: see the route here. Next step was to pick up a Green Trails map to help confirm the distance of the “hike”. Lastly, I scanned online and found some recent trip reports from those that had hiked the area recently. All came back pretty positive, ie this just might be possible. Total mileage would be around 110mi with 20 or so on gravel roads and then 7-8 mi of hiking. The hiking section was within the National Forest so riding the trail would not be legal although I am not really sure hiking with your bike is either. The one area of real unknown was the Finley Creek trail which is about 4 mi in length and labeled as a primitive trail. In reading the trial reports it sounded as if there were a fair number of blowdowns but the trail was in overall ok shape.
I planned to roll out between 7 and 7:30. Any earlier would have meant colder temps and less light to start with. I had a bit of an auspicious start with a flat (tube failure) as I rolled out of the garage. I changed it quickly and was on my way by 7:40 or so. I was immediately greeted by an amazing sunrise.
To help reduce the total hours out I choose to roll out mostly on Baker Highway. I jumped off on convenient parallel tracks like Deming Rd, Marshall Hill Rd, and Truck Rd. Little to no traffic made for quiet pedaling. I reached FS Rd 38 (Middle Fork Rd) about 1.5hrs into the adventure. The FS Rd is pretty well maintained gravel and climbs steadily over its 12.5mi to an elevation of 2,500 ft. It is here, at the Finley Creek Trailhead, that I ate a bit of food, changed shoes, and got ready for the hike. The temps were still quite cool which meant the heavy dew on the brush was still plenty. Within minutes of entering the trail I was pretty wet and quickly wondered how this was going to go. About a ¼ mi in there is a pretty significant river crossing with a decent log crossing available. The crossing went fine and I was soon up and over the far bank and making headway up the trail.
It wouldn’t be an understatement to say the next 2 hrs (4mi) were tough. The trail was narrow which meant I had to carry the bike a lot of the time. There were lots of blowdowns which meant a fair amount of scrambling, and the brush was wet. As I climbed in elevation the trail improved and the timber began to thin. I was awarded with some pretty amazing views of the Sisters and surrounding peaks.
Once up into the high meadows of Mazama Park the Finley Creek trail meets up with the Elbow Lk Trail. On this trail, the pace picked up as the Elbow Lk trail is well maintained and much wider. I was able to trail run with the bike with and a bit of fast walking as I climbed up and over the switchbacks that cut the pass between Cathedral Crag and Parke Butte. From the top of the pass it was a relatively quick trail run through Schriebers Meadow and to the trailhead at the end of FS Rd 13.
I took advantage of a bit of warm sunlight to take a break and swap back to cycling shoes.The decent down FS Rd 13 was in good shape. I quickly found myself merging into FS Rd 12 and eventually down to the paved Baker Lk Rd.
From this junction it’s about 11 long miles down to Hwy 20. Luckily there is a nice little store close to the junction where I picked up some rocket fuel and a bit of lube for my chain. From the store back to B’ham was a relatively uneventful 45 mi that found me bookend my day with an amazing sunset. All in all – just about 11 hrs, 108 mi, and 8,500 ft of vertical. Check out the Strava file. Pretty cool to finally pull this one off!