Views, views and more views - that's what this trip is all about! The far north Cascades, the Canadian and American Border Peaks, the Fraser River valley, Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan - all stunningly close, so it seems, while you bask in a granite bowled wonderland. There is a price to be paid, though - the cruelly named "Keep Kool" trail is your admission to this stunningly beautiful destination. Climbing steeply, with southern exposure, this trail will drain all your water bottles, then taunt you with a broad flat bench, only to resume steeper (if that's possible) than before for the final slope up to glacially scoured granite bowls outlined with Paradisian explosions of wildflowers and, scattered here and there like afterthoughts, abandoned hardware and mine shafts of the miners who first explored this area.
If you are a hiker or backpacker, this alone may be enough reason to pay a visit to these high meadows. If you're a bit more ambitious, though, Tomyhoi Peak beckons as one of the finest scrambles I've ever done. We did the trip as an overnighter, so after struggling up into the midst of the Yellow Aster Lakes, we found a patch of snow to pitch our tents on, dumped most of our gear, and hurried on our way. There was enough snow that the trail wasn't always entirely visible, but where the snow persisted, a boot path through the snow lead us unfailingly on, first up a short steep slope of snow, then along a crest for a ways, then steeply down 200 feet or so of exposed rock and back up again to the ridge. From here we traversed high on a snow bank curving around to the north side of Tomyhoi Peak, and to the top of the remnants of the Tomyhoi Glacier. Our route kept us along the upper crest of the glacier or in the 'schrund, so no need to consider roping up (lower down, the main body of the glacier was quite broken up, but there is no reason to get onto the glacier proper on this route.) At an obvious gap in the ridge, we crossed to the south side of Tomyhoi's spine, and proceeded along rubbly but easy benches. The drop down into the Nooksack valley to the south was tremendous, and kept us very conscious of our footing - there is no chance for recovery should one trip here. The route was gloriously decorated with flowers springing from the cracks of the rock, and we stopped several times to admire, photograph, and try to identify all the plants that were sturdy enough to survive here. A short ways later, and Maren and I arrived on top of the false summit. Steve and Mick had gone on ahead, and we now saw them working their way up what looked to us like a tremendously steep and exposed rock wall. Our hesitation must have been obvious, because Steve called out for us to keep going, it wasn't as bad as it looked. Thank goodness he was right, because it was quite intimidating - 150ish feet of what looked like mid-5th class climbing turned out to be easy scrambling on somewhat loose rock that allowed us to gain the final ridge crest to the summit. Five more minutes and we arrived at the summit cairn on the end of the west ridge, hanging high over valleys with stunning views in all directions!
So - steep trail, granite bowls, mining remnants, a profusion of wild flowers, top of a glacier traverse, wonderful scrambling, and views in all directions - is that enough to entice you? If not, there's more! By spending the night we were able to get up the next morning and walk to the top of Yellow Aster Butte for even more fabulous views before heading back down and packing up. So in addition to everything else, if you spend the night it's an easy double summit trip.
Well, I may have gone on a bit here, but this truly is a wonderful trip. There's already a "100 Hikes" book for the area, and "Selected Climbs in the Cascades" covers the best climbing around. The middle ground is missing it's documentation, however, and if there's ever a "Classic Scrambles in the Cascades" written, I'd nominate Tomyhoi Peak as being near the top of the list!
Getting there: Take Highway 542 east from Bellingham past Glacier and 13.5 miles beyond that. Just after the snow equipment maintenance shed, turn left on the trail access road. Take the first left and follow this road (No. 3065) for a little over 2 miles to the Keep Kool trailhead. An early start in mid-summer is strongly advised.
Note: The trailhead for access to Yellow Aster Butte and Tomyhoi Peak has been moved, so you'll no longer have to suffer up the Keep Kool trail. Instead, the approach begins from the Gold Run Pass trailhead, just north of Shuksan on the Mount Baker Highway. The new trailhead is about 4.2 miles up the road, about 2.2 miles past the old Keep Kool trailhead.