At the end of a long gravel forest service road, in the foothills of the North Cascades, lies the abandoned Ridley Creek trail. Except it’s not actually abandoned. Daniel Probst – ultra-runner, trail advocate, and noodle-swimmer extraordinaire – is working to establish a 54-mile route from Bellingham Bay all the way to the top of Mt Baker, and the Ridley Creek trail is part of that route.
Daniel, the Cascade Mountain Runners, the Washington Trails Association, and others have spent the last several years rebuilding and maintaining the Ridley Creek trail. After seeing Dan post about the trail several times (OK, lots and lots of times) on Facebook, I decided to check it out. I asked him if there was any trail work I could do while I was there, or anything I could pack in/pack out. He said the most helpful thing I could do was use the trail responsibly and write a trip report about it when I got back. Done and done!
As far as forest service roads go, Middle Fork/FS 38 is in pretty good shape. There are a few big potholes but it is passable in a sedan. There are a couple unsigned logging roads that intersect FS 38 in various places. In general, when you hit a fork in the road, stay right. There is one fork where you’ll want to veer left, and that is clearly marked with an FS 38 on the left spur. For electric vehicle owners: there’s a charging station at the outlet mall in Burlington, so even a relatively low-range electric vehicle could make the drive from Seattle.
The trailhead is at the end of FS 38, and has a nice flat area to park and camp in your vehicle if you want to get an early start or finish late. There’s also a small firepit and a place to pitch a tent if you prefer.
The first couple miles of Ridley Creek trail are in great shape, especially considering this is an “abandoned” trail. In the first 1/4 mile you must cross the Nooksack River, but a footlog is currently installed that makes the crossing easy. I’ve read a couple trip reports that indicate the bridge is too narrow for dogs. I suppose if you have a big, reluctant dog it could be problematic. Maggie (my pups) made it across just fine and even stood patiently in the middle of the log when I stopped to snap a couple of pictures.
After the river crossing, the trail undulates through the forest a bit. There are some muddy sections to navigate, but everything is 100% passable. And in certain spots, the trail is in such great condition it’s a dream.
At about 1.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail starts to climb more seriously. The good news is that the climb isn’t long (maybe ~1 mile at most?) and it includes several short flat sections for respite.
At approximately 3.5 miles you reach Mazama Park, which is a beautiful open area with plenty of room for camping, a small wooden shelter, a backcountry toilet, and big views of the Twin Sisters range. If you’re looking for a shorter dayhike, this is a great place to eat some lunch and then head back to the car. From the Ridley Creek trailhead to Mazama Park is 7 miles round trip, and just under 2000 ft of elevation gain.
If you have the time/desire, I highly recommend continuing past Mazama Park. The good stuff is only just beginning. Follow a set of extremely well-maintained switchbacks up to Cathedral Pass, and the junction with the Park Butte trail.
This is where you’ll start to see more traffic, as most people approach the Lookout via the Park Butte trail rather than taking the less-traveled Ridley Creek approach. Take a right onto the Park Butte trail, and continue climbing until you reach the lookout at approximately 5.5 miles from the trailhead. The views are everything you’d expect from a fire lookout, and it’s another great turnaround point if you don’t want a super long day. From the Ridley Creek trailhead to the Park Butte Lookout is ~11 miles roundtrip with ~3000 ft of elevation gain. And you will likely have the route to yourself except for the few miles you spend on the Park Butte trail.
After snapping a bazillion photos at the lookout, I headed towards the Scott Paul loop, which is described in good detail at WTA. I did the loop counterclockwise, descending the Park Butte trail all the way to Schreiber’s Meadow, and then climbing back up the Scott Paul trail.
Finally, after completing the Scott Paul loop, I took a short jaunt up Railroad Grade, which I highly recommend. The views are stunning and the trail keeps you engaged as it runs right along the spine of an eroding hillside.
After Railroad Grade, I headed back the way I came. Up and over Cathedral Pass, drop down to Mazama Park, and then back down the Ridley Creek trail to my car. I checked the trail register on my way out and noticed that only one other person had been on the trail that day, and it was someone I knew – Doug McKeever! When I got back to my car I found a nice note from him on my windshield. (Doug literally runs twice as fast as me, but has still been super supportive of my FKTs and other adventures.) Apparently he saw my name in the trail register and figured the only other car at the trailhead must be mine. Yet another reason it’s a good idea to sign the trail register!
You can take a closer look at the route and download the GPX track here. I’ve also included a JPEG of the route below.