Let's go to Church! (Mountain)

Updated: Jul 9, 2019

Church Mountain sunrise cascades

"Solitude is not the same as loneliness. Solitude is a solitary boat floating in a sea of possible companions." -Robert Fulghum

Let's talk about church. No, not the Sunday service - Church Mountain. It's been 8 years since my last visit to Church Mountain, but going back was like seeing an old friend. Memories flooded my mind, some good and some bad. Post-holing up in the deep snow (bad). Seeing the northern lights (good) and watching the sun rise and set on the beautiful Mount Baker (very good).

Church Mountain Trail North Cascades
The beginning of the trail

Church Mountain is a 6,315' peak that is the home of a former lookout site. Due to it's southern exposure and low elevation, it's a popular hike early in the season here in the Mount Baker area.

This time around, the snow was almost completely gone on my approach to the mountain. Compare that to 8 years ago, when I did this during the 2nd week in July with a meadow full of deep snow, and the difference was vast. My thighs were grateful.

Church mountain trail blowdown

The elevation gain was steady from the beginning and so was the fog. The trail switchbacks up the mountain under a canopy of evergreens and western red cedars for a bit and then opens up into a flat and lush green meadow area, giving you some sweet relief from the steady elevation gain.

Green meadows below church mountain
The lush green meadows below Church Mountain have a few camp sites available (off picture to the left).

Deerhorn Creek in the Church Mountain meadows
Deerhorn Creek

Church mountain creek log balancing act
Balancing over the creek crossing

As I continued up the mountain, the persistent fog accompanied me to the top. Instead of following the de-moralizing switchbacks even further, I opted for the vertical boot-path right at the fork in the road. As I reached top, a friendly, but sarcastic, "Welcome, enjoy the view." was my greeting from nearly everyone up top. I carried on this tradition on with each new person that made it up. At one point I was hanging out with a group of 5 people just sitting and chatting for a good hour or so. One by one each person went silent and passed out and before I knew it I was out too. I woke up 20 mins later realizing I had just taken a nap next to 5 total strangers. That's the outdoors though, isn't it? You get comfortable around people and before you know it you're napping!

church mountain cable line
The old lookout cable line leading up to the top.

The group of 5 hikers yielded in their hopes of seeing anything and left the top for their warm houses and cold beers. More people filtered in and out, all with the hopes of seeing something, anything, but the weather was firm and unrelenting. All seemed to have left glad to have gotten outside, but disparaged in their lack of scenery and pay-off.

Around five hours later, after I was sure everyone was done coming up for the day, I setup my tent, or tried to. Reminiscing from my last trip, and my poor sad little tent, I knew it wouldn't be easy. There's a reason the top isn't a great spot to camp, while there are a few flat spots, and the views are sublime, it's all hard rock underneath, impossible for tent stakes. I decided to get creative and used my guy-lines and attached them to large rocks just to make sure my tent and fly would stay down should the wind pick up.

foggy ridgeline church mountain
Sketchy ridge-line

After my battle with the tent ended, I decided to scramble down the ridge-line a bit and see how far I could make it. After a few minutes of hiking I came to a drop-off. I could descend, but the nearest ridge-line was the kind you have to straddle to get across and I wasn't interested in that in this weather. Back to the tent.

Chipmunks darted across the campsite as I cooked my food and the shrill sound of marmots could be heard piercing the thick fog from below. I sat there alone eating my food on this little piece of rock, like an island in the sky and thought, "Are you ever going to clear-up?"

Backtrack to 8 years ago and I was enjoying a beautiful sunset around this time. The clouds formed almost a watercolor like painting around above Mount Baker. The foothills went black as the sun set and distant Canadian peaks faded into the background.

Sunset on Mount Baker
Mount Baker Sunset 2011

Church Mountain Sunset panorama
Sunset Panorama looking south towards Mount Baker

Sunset on the foothills and Canadian Peaks
Sunset looking into Canada (Mount Robie Reid on the left, Mt Judge Howay on the right)

snow melt kidney lake church mountain
Converging lines in the snow

I've learned over the years to try and keep an open mind when it comes to hiking photography. I'm not in control of my destiny out there. I may go up with grand plans to get this shot or that shot, but in the end if the weather decides to turn, I am at it's mercy. I laid in my tent for several hours, just thinking amidst the quiet and occasional ripple of my tent fly from the wind - and it was peaceful.

The night came and I was still enveloped in my tiny little island in the sky. I thought back to 2011 and waking up to the northern lights. They are visible down here, but not that often, so I got pretty excited when I saw them. The blackness of space blended into a rich purple, pink, green and yellow as it reached the horizon.

Northern lights church mountain cascades
Where the northern lights meet city light

Tent on Church Mountain Lookout Site
Sunrise on Church Mountain Lookout Site

Let's get back to the present. Around 4:40 am after some on-and-off-again sleep due to the wind, I zipped-open my tent and saw...fog. I almost didn't look behind me, but then a spec of light caught my eye and I realized that it was clearing to the north of me. I could start to see kidney lake. The golden sun highlighted distant tree-lines and back-lit far off ridges. The dissipating fog climbed up into the sky, lit up by the sun to look like a hundred different wildfires dancing across the peaks.

sunrise behind a mountain peak
A glimmer of sun and fog

The sun highlights trees while kidney lake remains in the shadows
The sunrise and Kidney Lake

The sunrise illuminating the fog rising up from mountain peaks
On fire

One of the main things I like about photography is capturing the fleeting moments. Those sunrises, sunsets, and laughter from trail-mates that will never be repeated again. For about two hours I enjoyed the spectacular show the sun put on rising through the clouds. And as a abruptly as it started, it ended. I packed up my tent and headed back down. I may have only had a few hours of seeing the spectacular in the whole trip, but I wouldn't have traded for anything. Would you?

Sunrays streaming through a forest
Goodbye Church Mountain

If you're considering an Adventure Photo Session, this hike is perfect for it. It has 360-degree views of the area, and is perfect for both day and overnight trips. Get in touch before these limited sessions run out!

See you out there!

-Jefferson Morriss

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