Located at the eastern end of the North Cascades’ High Divide, Yellow Aster Butte offers some seriously stunning alpine scenery within the northern reaches of the Mt. Baker Wilderness. With sprawling meadows peppered with tarns and wildflowers giving way to panoramic views of Mt. Baker and Shuksan, this was easily one of our favorite Cascadian outings.
Yellow Aster Butte’s trailhead is about 45 minutes (25 miles) east of Maple Falls via the Mt. Baker Highway and NF-3065. The six-mile-long forest service road ultimately terminates at the Twin Lakes Trailhead/Campground, about two miles beyond the YAB trailhead, and was in pretty good shape when we visited in July.
From the small parking area along NF-3065, the trail immediately begins climbing through dense forests. For the first 1.8 miles, the trail is shared with the one heading north to Tomyhoi Lake (#686), a 7-mile return trip. The trail begins with a reasonably steep grade, gaining about 1,500 feet over the 1.8 miles to the junction. The trail then splits, with Yellow Aster Butte continuing to the left and Tomyhoi Lake to the right. For the next two miles, the ascent becomes more moderate as the trail opens into vast alpine meadows along the south side of Yellow Aster Butte. When we hiked the last weekend in July, the lush hillsides were bursting with colorful lupine, paintbrush, and pasqueflower.
As you traverse the open meadows and ridgelines, the north faces of Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan are unbelievably gorgeous. We lost any sense of restraint when it came to shutter clicks, but the incredible terrain just begged to be photographed. It seemed that with every step the views became more impossibly gorgeous.
At around 3.7 miles, the trail comes to an unsigned junction atop a small flat. The path to the right continues up to Yellow Aster Butte while the trail to the left descends down about a quarter mile of steep switchbacks to Yellow Aster Meadows. From here, the towering summits of Tomyhoi and the Border Peaks come into view. Looking north, Yellow Aster Butte is a stunted spire towering amongst the giants.
Standing at around 6,100 feet of elevation, Yellow Aster Butte sits just a few miles south of the Canadian border. Although its undersized summit pales in comparison to its more lofty neighbors, the views are unmatched. To the north, Tomyhoi and the Border Peaks (Mt. Larrabee and American Border Peak) loom above Tomyhoi Lake. To the south, Mt. Baker rises above the lake-strewn meadows.
To reach Yellow Aster Butte’s true summit, the last half mile or so of trail requires some light class 2 scrambling. Depending on which route you take, there’s varying amounts of scree, boulders and vegetation to clamber up and around. The rocky highpoint is small but flat, and we were lucky to have the top to ourselves to enjoy a ridiculously scenic lunch. The only trivial downside was a recent hatching of flies that were unbelievably dense… we’d never seen anything quite like it. As they swarmed the summit with relentless force, we clambered down about five feet to a small outcropping. I couldn’t believe that a just few feet of separation would save us from the ruthless little pests, but somehow it did.
As we made the return trip, we decided to make a quick detour down to Yellow Aster Meadows. The trail’s designated camping area, the rambling meadows are flecked with glacial-carved tarns. The tiny lakelets were like little mirrors reflecting the lofty summits of the Border Peaks. With crisscrossing paths headed north to Tomyhoi Peak and south toward Welcome Pass, our only wish was that we had some gear to spend the night and do some more exploring.
All told, Stephan and I were both totally taken with this trail (as was Sanchez). We really loved just about everything. We were thrilled to find it only moderately trafficked, and the scenery couldn’t be beat. It ended up being one of our favorites in the North Cascades. All we need to do now is make time for a return trip during autumn when the larches are at their peak.
Total distance: 9.1 miles
Elevation gain: 3,145 feet