Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Route Profile: Cross Country Hiking - Welcome Pass to Yellow Aster Butte

The High Divide is a popular and physically demanding trail in Washington's Mt. Baker Ranger District that goes from the Excelsior Trailhead to the Welcome Pass Trailhead. And Yellow Aster Butte is a crazy popular trail up to a high viewpoint, while also providing access to Tomyhoi Peak.

Several years ago, I began to wonder what it might look like to travel "cross country" between Welcome Pass and Yellow Aster. I finally made the high country trek, and found it to be an excellent outing for a fit party with some mountaineering and map-reading skill.

Mt. Shuksan from low on the route.

This is a tremendously scenic route that I did solo in the summer of 2020. I placed a bicycle at the Yellow Aster Trailhead and left my car at the Welcome Pass Trailhead. I completed the trek, including the bike ridge between the two trailheads in just under six hours (five hours of hiking + 40 minutes of bike riding). The caveat to that time is that I was by myself and didn't take any breaks. I'm not a superman, but I am a guide. So I would expect most parties to take six to eight hours to complete the trek and ride (though you could put cars on either end).

Here's the weird thing. It's only about eight miles from trailhead to the other...but it is a tremendous amount of work to go between them.

The Green Line is the Welcome Pass Trail. The Pink Line is the link-up. And
the blue line is the standard Yellow Aster Butte trail to the Yellow Aster camp.
(Click to Enlarge)


From I-5, follow State Route 542 (Mt. Baker Highway) 46-miles (approximately 12 miles after the town of Glacier) and look for the WSDOT Shuksan Maintenance Facility. Turn left onto Twin Lakes Road (FR 3065) immediately following the DOT station. Drive 4.5 miles to the Tomyhoi Lake/Yellow Aster Butte Trailhead and parking area. And then either chain up a bike or leave a car.

Proceed back down to the DOT station and turn right (westbound) and drive approximately 1/2 mile. The very first right-hand turn will be the Welcome Pass Road (3060) and drive 1.5-miles to the parking area.

Section One: Welcome Pass

Hike steeply up the trail to Welcome Pass, completing sixty-six switchbacks in the process. This first 2.3 mile section is by far the hardest of the day. The bulk of your elevation gain for the day will be made here. The trailhead starts at 2480-feet, and Welcome Pass is at 5,200-feet.

Section Two: Welcome Pass to Yellow Aster Butte

This is what you came for and it won't disappoint. The easy beta is to follow intermittent trails, staying on the crest as much as possible, northeast to the Yellow Aster camp. Here are several beta photos:

Looking North Above Welcome Pass

Looking South Back to Welcome Pass

Looking North to the First Crux

The first crux on the northbound route is a section in the heather with mildly loose rock. There is some exposure and it's probably class 2. But you should take your time here, a fall would be catastophic.

Looking back south, after the first crux.

Continue to follow the ridge north, either on the crest or
just right of the crest. Be aware of potential cornices in the snow.

At the 5933 highpoint, as seen in the preceding photo, you will reach the second crux. Stay right. There are some small cliffs, but they can be negotiated by carefully picking your way down right of the crest. Take your time here.

It should be noted that depending on the snow coverage, there could be several cornices on the ridge. I didn't bring an ice axe on this trip, but I did bring a Black Diamond Whippet, which seemed appropriate given the snow coverage in late July.

Looking back south at the 5933 highpoint from the Yellow Aster Camp.

Like the first crux, the second crux is probably never more than class 2 and is near the summit. If you find yourself downclimbing something and using both hands, you probably screwed up. Look around for something less sketchy.

Looking north from the 5933 highpoint at the Yellow Aster Camp 
and trail out.

It is possible to click on any of the preceding photos to enlarge them.

Section 3: Yellow Aster Trail

Once in the Yellow Aster Camp zone, make a handful of switchbacks up to the Yellow Aster Trail. It is possible to continue up to Yellow Aster Butte from here, or simply walk 3.6 miles down to your bike or car.


It would certainly be possible to do this southbound, and if you did you could avoid some additional elevation gain. 

There are two issues with southbound. First, if you wish to use a bike, northbound is better because it's all downhill to the highway, with a little steep uphill trek back to  your car. Second, the Welcome Pass trail is steep enough going downhill that it might actually feel a bit sketchy at times.

Hikers on the Yellow Aster Butte Trail

This is a very cool and somewhat obscure high route.  It's certainly possible to take more than a day on it and to camp, but it's short enough that going light and moving quickly might be the best way to enjoy it.

This route isn't really kid friendly, or beginner friendly. It's not sketchy at all for seasoned climbers, but for those who have never negotiated snow - potentially steep snow - cornices, or easy rock loose rock climbing with exposure, a different route should be selected...

--Jason D. Martin

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