Above: Mt Baker and the Park Butte Lookout. Photo by Andy Porter.
Have you visited Park Butte?
Many different adventures begin on this special part of the Pacific Northwest Trail. With its gentle grade and spectacular views, it’s no wonder that it’s among the most cherished destinations on the Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
The multi-use Park Butte Trail swells with day hikers in summer months. It also carries teams of mountaineers to climbing routes on Mount Baker, and is loved by equestrians for its alpine scenery and access to other horseback riding trails on the mountain. For most visitors, it takes only an afternoon to reach the historic lookout perched atop the rocky precipice.
While National Scenic Trails may be famous for showcasing destinations like Park Butte, the Pacific Northwest Trail is also loved for all of the quiet places it visits in between. These lesser-known trails matter too, and not just for thru-hikers or those avoiding crowded trailheads during the pandemic.
An often overlooked group of outdoorists are those that continue in the long tradition of horseback riding and mule packing. Not only do equestrians deserve access to trails as much as any other group — many help ensure access for all visitors by volunteering and using their animals to support trail maintenance.
During an age when most adventurers have adopted modern gear made of Space Age fabrics, horseback riders stand out with their timeless ways and traditional gear made of leather, canvas and brass.
These differences can’t be chalked up to personal preference alone. Those that know how trails work understand that the best way to get things done in the backcountry is often with old-fashioned horsepower.
We do a tremendous amount of volunteer work keeping trails open; if a horse can get down the trail, so can you. If the trail isn’t open to us, it pretty much stops everybody. -Mike McGlenn, BCHW Volunteer
VOLUNTEERS AIM TO RESCUE TRAILS
“We wrote this grant with the desire to bring these trails back to the standard they were at when I first moved to the area over 40 years ago,” said Bill McKenna, Director of the Whatcom Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of Washington (BCHW).
After retiring from a 40-year career in carpentry, McKenna and his wife, Michelle now operate a bed and breakfast in Glacier, Washington, a small mountain town popular with skiers and PNT thru-hikers alike. Since moving to the area in the 1980’s, McKenna has ridden most of the stock trails on abundant public lands near his home, and has climbed to the 10,781-foot summit of Mt Baker three times with his two adult sons. Lately, he spends a significant amount of time volunteering to keep those trails in shape.
America’s volunteer trail stewards often serve our public lands at their own expense, and BCHW volunteers, like McKenna are no exception. In addition to donating their time and labor, volunteers also pay for their own transportation and the needs of their animals. The cost of husbandry, feeding, outfitting and trailering stock and construction materials to remote trailheads can quickly run into the thousands of dollars.
In some cases, grants can be used to help reimburse volunteers for those costs, and keep willing trail stewards at work. They can also provide important funding for construction materials that make some projects too expensive for many volunteer groups to take on.
In 2018, Bill McKenna met with representatives with the US Forest Service to identify stock trails on the Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest that could benefit from volunteer assistance. With their input and oversight, McKenna was better able to estimate project costs and do detailed project planning needed to seek grant funding through the State of Washington’s Recreational Trails Program (RTP).
PARK BUTTE TRAIL GRANT
In 2019, the State awarded the Back Country Horsemen of Washington with an RTP grant to help keep several stock trails on the National Forest in Whatcom County up to equestrian standards. Knowing that it would make a big difference for equestrians that ride along the Mt Baker Highway, Grant Liaison, Bill McKenna and other volunteers with the BCHW were eager to get started.
With the help of US Forest Service staff, McKenna and BCHW volunteers had written the grant to repair several trails in the area, including the cost of gravel and lumber needed to maintain and replace several aging structures along the Pacific Northwest Trail around Park Butte.
This popular section of the PNT has an extensive number of turnpikes, puncheon walkways and a few footbridges, to help carry visitors across sensitive riparian areas and alpine meadows without damaging them.
After years of service, the puncheon decking along the Park Butte Trail was due for replacement. In some areas, Forest Service staff recommended replacement with new lumber, and in other areas, they chose to replace the wooden structures with gravel-filled, raised bed turnpikes instead.
In a surprise turn of events, before the 2020 season could begin on the Pacific Northwest Trail, the world was rocked by the Covid-19 pandemic. To help slow the spread of the virus, travel between states and counties in the Northwest was restricted, and public land sites closed to visitors, leaving the status of many trail projects uncertain.
According to the terms of McKenna’s grant, volunteers with the Whatcom Chapter would have two years to spend RTP funds. This timeframe should have been adequate. But the land manager’s Covid-19 response measures had temporarily sidelined many volunteer organizations.
The Back Country Horsemen were one of several volunteer groups with projects planned on the Pacific Northwest Trail, yet with no clear option for how to start.
POWER OF PARTNERSHIPS
By June, some organizations had found ways to work safely and some restrictions had lifted. The PNTA was among the first to adopt new pandemic safety measures and was cleared by land managers to resume work on the trail.
While many volunteer trail work parties would have to be postponed, the PNTA made adjustments to their Performance Trail Crew program that made it possible for their trail crews to work safely and operate near 100% of capacity in the 2020 season.
With the US Forest Service serving in a coordination and project management capacity, the PNTA and the Whatcom Chapter partnered together and pooled resources so that it would be possible for BCHW volunteers to work on the Park Butte Trail.
The PNTA assumed an oversight role and provided access, helping BCHW members carry out their grant work as PNTA volunteers, working closely with PNTA trail crews at Schrieber’s Meadow on the puncheon to turnpike conversion project.
Due to health safety restrictions during the pandemic, the size of volunteer work parties had to be reduced. By carefully coordinating work, the PNTA, WTA, and BCHW would be able to work safely and ensure that the big project on the Park Butte Trail would still get finished before the grant’s deadline.
Because of the difference in age and craft experience, our mixed crews were able to perform better together than either could on their own. I believe we will be much more productive with that crew composition in the future, said McKenna.
At Schrieber’s Meadow, the PNTA’s Performance Trail Crew spent eight ten-hour days on the job. Some of the time, the crew of young adults broke into smaller teams to work alongside volunteer Bill McKenna and other BCHW volunteers.
With their help, PNTA crew leader Kelly O’Neill and her team built a new 21 foot-long section of puncheon using lumber provided through the RTP grant. Over the course of the week, they also replaced 100 feet of aging puncheon walkways along the Park Butte Trail with a series of long-lasting turnpikes filled with gravel, also provided through the grant.
Washington Trails Association crew leader Barbara Budd and her team also contributed to the effort. WTA volunteers spent two weekends replacing the first and third boardwalks along the trail with two shorter, gravel-filled turnpikes that would be more friendly to stock animals.
The Mt Baker Ranger District is deeply appreciative of the cooperation between the PNTA, BCH Whatcom and Skagit chapters, and the WTA for their excellent work on the Schriebers Meadow section of the Park Butte Trail this summer. The trail maintenance performed in partnership with these three skilled and experienced organizations will greatly benefit the trail and serve the public for years to come.”
– Barb Richey, USFS Wilderness and Trails Manager
RESTORING ACCESS FURTHER SOUTH
Meanwhile, the PNTA and the US Forest Service continued work on a multi-year project on the Pacific Northwest Trail a few miles to the south.
Southwest of Park Butte, the PNT descends through alpine meadows in Mazama Park following underappreciated trails deep into the rainforests south of Mt Baker. Fueled by heavy annual rain and snow, this stretch of the PNT needs regular maintenance to stay clear from fast-growing brush and massive downed trees. In the shoulder season, heavy run-off and torrential rain can make creeks impassable, and erosion can cause serious damage to mountain trails and roads.
Just a few years after the PNT was designated a National Scenic Trail, it suffered a series of washouts along the banks of the South Fork Nooksack River. The trail’s deteriorating condition had a big impact on PNT thru-hikers in the next few years. Without a clear path to follow, many struggled through thick brush to reach their next resupply point before their rations ran out.
Once it became clear the trail segment along the river was unsustainable, the US Forest Service surveyed a new location away from the river bottom on higher ground and submitted a proposal for NEPA review. They also applied for and received an RCO NOVA Development grant through the State of Washington.
Beginning in the summer of 2015, the US Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Trail Association, and Northwest Youth Corps trail crews began work to rescue the PNT and to rebuild it to equestrian standards. The new South Fork Nooksack Trail/ PNT would include the construction of a cedar stockbridge, one mile of new tread, and the reconstruction of another two miles of trail.
In the intervening years, PNTA trail crews also worked to restore the nine mile stretch of the PNT to the north, including portions of the Elbow Lake and Bell Pass Trails. They would spend two seasons catching up on maintenance there. In addition to brushing and log-out, they focused on tread and drainage care to protect the PNT from the heavy seasonal rain and snow for seasons to come.
“When I hiked along the Bell Pass Trail on my 2018 thru-hike, the tread was nearly unrecognizable. I spent the day with my eyes glued to the ground as I crawled through blowdowns and devil’s club. When I returned to the Bell Pass trail with my trail crew, we spent two weeks restoring it. I hope our work helps folks enjoy the trail more, including the stunning views of the Twin Sisters and Mount Baker.” -PNTA crew leader, Ryan Stoyer
BUILDING IT BETTER
On August 28 2020, after 16 long days, Ryan Stoyer and his crewmates finished their last day of work on the Bell Pass Trail. The moment was bittersweet, as it was also the last day of their season together. They had worked through summer heat waves and numbing rainstorms while working and camping out on the PNT together.
It had taken a lot of extra effort to repair and brush the PNT between Mazama Park and Pioneer Camp and the crew of young adult trail stewards had made a big contribution toward restoring the 16 mile stretch of the PNT to National Scenic Trail standards.
Thanks to his crew’s efforts and the work of our partners with the US Forest Service, Back Country Horsemen, Washington Trails Association and Northwest Youth Corps, backpackers and equestrians alike can enjoy visits to this undiscovered corner of the Mt-Baker Snoqualmie National Forest with greater ease and peace of mind.