This gorgeous loop hike has it all: big views of Mounts Baker and Shuksan, as well as the North Cascades, alpine lakes for swimming, and well-maintained trail winding through meadows and heather. And with wildflowers in spring, blueberry bushes for trail-side snacking in late summer and blazing color in the fall, you can't pick a bad season to visit.
Since this is a loop hike accessible from three separate parking lots, there are many options for this adventure, though as is often the case, some choices are better than others. This description addresses two directions of the same loop, which both offer stunning views and plenty of trailside rewards along the way. Either way, if you plan on camping, know that camping is allowed in designated sites marked by posts with tent symbols only. There are eight sites total: four at Mazama Lake and four at Hayes Lake.
Hiking counter-clockwise: This gets the steep, road-adjacent Wild Goose section out of the way by descending it first and then climbing up to Herman Saddle. This direction means you'll hit the high point of the loop on fresh, strong legs, and allows you to enjoy the lakes and milder hiking later in the day.
From the Artist Point parking lot, look for the privy. Just to the right of it is an unmarked trail. Follow this down a short ways through the rocks, cross the road leading to overflow parking, and look for a tall, permanent cairn marked "Wild Goose Trail." Follow this well-maintained but steep trail down to the Austin Pass/Heather Meadows parking lot.
As you descend, pause to admire Bagley Lakes below and look across to see the Chain Lakes trail cutting across the hillside, between Table Mountain (left) and Mount Herman (right) up to Herman Saddle.
Once you arrive at Austin Pass, walk down and left across the parking lot. Note that there is another privy here for the well-hydrated. To continue your hike, look for a gap in the low stone wall next to an interpretive sign. Walk through the gap and look for a trail down through the flat rocks--do not follow the paved path to the left as it leads to a dead-end view point overlook.
Once through the flat rocks, the trail descends gently to the left toward the larger of the two Bagley Lakes. When you get to the stone bridge, you can head right to do a loop around the smaller, more northerly Bagley Lake. Looping around the lake adds a mile to your hike; to avoid this detour, cross the bridge and go left along the shore of the larger lake and up to Herman Saddle.
On the way up, rest and look over your shoulder. 9,131 foot Mount Shuksan dominates the horizon behind you in all her glory. One of the most photographed mountains in the world, Shuksan is a Lummi word (spelled "šéqsən") meaning High Peak.
Cresting Herman Saddle brings you to the high point of the hike at around 5,400 feet where views extend in every direction. 10,781 foot Mount Baker now dominates the horizon ahead and will remain there for most of the rest of the loop. Rounding out the vista are Table Mountain, Mounts Shuksan and Herman, as well as the rest of the pointy North Cascades lineup while lakes, valleys and meadows spread out below. It's not a bad spot to pause for a snack and congratulate yourself on the good life choices that got you here.
Once you're ready to continue, drop down the other side of Herman Saddle, where Iceberg Lake comes into view. Continue through idyllic grassy meadows, heather and blueberry bushes until Hayes Lake appears on the right. When you've almost passed Hayes Lake, the trail forks into three paths. The main trail continues straight and to the left, while a small foot path leads sharply left to a pit toilet overlooking Iceberg Lake. This is marked with a small wooden sign pointing in that direction and marked "toilet". If you have swimming or a lakeside rest in mind, follow the trail off to the right along the shore of Hayes Lake with various access points to rocky beaches as well as campsites.
Back on the main trail, proceed a short way to Iceberg Lake on the left, with plenty of access to its beaches as well. The trail continues on to the paired Mazama Lakes with a few campsites on the opposite shore. Once past these last two lakes, what was lost in the beginning of the hike must be gained.
Climb back out of the lake basin. It's a milder ascent than the one to Herman Saddle, and Mount Baker keeps you company all the while. At the crest, you are again surrounded by views; Mount Shuksan rejoins the party and Mount Baker seems closer than ever.
From here, the Ptarmigan Ridge trail heads up to the right, and the Chain Lakes trail veers left to close the loop back to Artist Point. This last 1.2 mile stretch is mostly flat but incredibly scenic, with Mount Shuksan ahead, Mount Baker behind, the Swift Creek and Rainbow valleys below, and even a glimpse of Baker Lake off in the distance. Watch and listen for marmots in the rocks below as you soak up the last of the views.
For those who'd rather climb first than descend the steep Wild Goose section, the loop starts at Austin Pass/Heather Meadows. The Wild Goose trail is well-marked and easy to find from the upper, southwest of the parking lot just off of Hwy 542. Big cairns mark the trail on both sides of the one road crossing at the overflow parking just below Artist Point. Once you arrive at the big Artist Point parking lot, walk straight across it and rejoin the well-signed "Chain Lakes" trail below Table Mountain rising to the right. In 0.2 miles, continue on past the junction where the Table Mountain trail heads off to the right.
Admire big, showy Mount Baker ahead of you for this mostly flat mile with the Swift Creek and Rainbow valleys stretching out below and Mount Shuksan behind you. Around 5200 feet, there is a rocky outcrop with views of Mounts Baker and Shuksan. Arrive at a junction with the Ptarmigan Ridge trail; your route veers right and descends to the lakes.
From here the trail is obvious and easy to follow, leading first to the paired Mazama Lakes, past Iceberg Lake on the right, and on to Hayes Lake ahead. At Hayes, a side trail on the left offers beach access, or you can stick to the main trail, admiring Hayes from above.
From Hayes, the trail climbs up to the high point at Herman Saddle. Glance back occasionally for views of Mount Baker with Iceberg Lake below. At Herman Saddle — around 5400 feet — enjoy big views in every direction before beginning the long descent down to Bagley Lakes.
The reward of hiking this route is the lake, where you can dip your feet (or as much of yourself as you'd like) in the blissfully cool water. At the stone bridge, add an easy, flat mile to the hike by continuing on around the smaller, northern Bagley Lake, or cross the bridge and make the short ascent back up to the parking lot at Austin Pass.
When your legs protest this little climb, give a thought to the folks who parked at Artist Point and chose to go clockwise. Sometimes it's nice to remember that things could be worse.
WTA Pro Tip: Carry sandals or water shoes if you'd like to go swimming or just dip your feet into the lakes; the shores are rocky.
On the way home, consider stopping at the aptly named Beer Shrine (North Fork Brewery) in Deming where the food and beverages (including root beer on tap) are done right and make for a fitting end to a good day in the mountains.