By Dave Tucker June 10, 2016 with occasional updates by readers.
The final access road to Racehorse Landslide has been “put to bed” by the DNR. There is now a big barrier at the start of the branch road leading to the start of the way trail to the landslide, and there are several steep, deep trenches along the road where culverts have been removed. This change adds one mile each way to the hiking distance, but the trip is not difficult: 1.5 miles one way , with 800 feet of elevation gain. Two friends and I recently did trail work, and the way trail is easy to follow. The landslide area is grown up with lots of young trees, rocks are weathering away, but there are still fossils to see for folks who ascend to the ridge overlooking the slide, and good scenic views. According to reader ‘Rob’, who visited on visited 7-23-2016, there are 17 large ditches where culverts were removed. “Those guys must be paid per ditch. Bicycle was no help with all the ditches. The area has grown in allot compared to these photos. Fossils are plentiful and fun fun fun to find. The view from the boulders above the dead tree landmark is worth the hike up(follow main trail past big dead tree).”
May 7, 2016 by ‘Arlyn’: There is a red gate across the road about 2 miles from the Racehorse Creek intersection so access requires road walking. The gate is there by Sierra Pacific. I called yesterday and was told that this gate is locked all the time now, unless open for a special event, a logging operation or for some hunting seasons. Walking, horseback and bicycles are ok for entrance.
The Field Trip
Plentiful Eocene plant fossils can be found in Chuckanut formation rubble left by the Racehorse Creek landslide (see that field trip here). This is a great place to take kids for the thrill of the hunt. It requires only a few minutes of walking on a boot-beaten track through fireweed of a clearcut. The landslide occurred January 7, 2009. The site is on DNR property; collecting plant fossils is permitted, but it is illegal to take any vertebrate fossils from the site (almost none have been found in the Chuckanut, in any case). Such finds would be extremely important to paleontologists. If you find any animal fossils, please photograph them and email to me.
You can contact me at this cleverly disguised email address which only a human bean can read:
tuckerd ‘at’ geol ‘dot’ wwu ‘dot’ edu. Someone told me this keeps spammers out of my inbox.
The ‘fossil fields’ are in full sun, so take appropriate protection, and water. It can be quite hot and bright in the glare of the summer sun.
How to get there:(with thanks to Kimberly Kerr for a February, 2014 update).
- Drive the 542 Mount Baker Highway East from I-5 in Bellingham 17 miles to the junction with Mosquito Lake Road.
- Turn south (right). Cross the North Fork Nooksack River and turn left on North Fork Road. This paved road eventually becomes gravel. You will notice some big blocks and hummocky terrain along the road at about 2.2 miles, the hallmarks of landslides. These are the deposit of a large prehistoric landslide that reached the Nooksack, dwarfing the 2009 slide. The hillsides above have slid multiple times since the end of the last glacial period, and the mountain itself is called ‘Slide Mountain’.
- After 4.1 miles, turn right at a major junction immediately before the bridge across Racehorse Creek (UTM E563652 N5414815). NOTE: UTM coordinates given are zone 10, NAD 27 datum to correspond with USGS topographic maps. Set your odometer to 0.0 here.
- Turn right on this gravel logging road, and head up the hill. At about 0.2 mile, you may note a trailhead on the left marked by large rocks, with parking on the right. This side trip goes through the woods a couple of hundred yards to the rubble-choked course of Racehorse Creek. A short hike out this trail reveals effects of the January 2009 debris flows. Prior to the debris flows, Racehorse Creek was closely hemmed in with trees and brush. Now it is a wide, vegetation free gravel bar. You can walk up stream a few hundred yards to the lovely multi-tiered water fall. Believe it or not, kayakers go over the falls! But, we digress.
- Continue up the road beyond the trailhead. You will pass a few side roads, but stay on the main line. May 2016: LOCKED GATE 2 miles from the junction at point 4 above. It is a 3.7 mile road walk to Point 8.
- Turn sharp left at 5.1 miles (UTM E563745 N5413464). This left turn is just after a white ’1′ painted on a tall tree on the right, in a clump of woods. The road switchbacks up into a big clear-cut, where you remain for the rest of the trip.
- The road ends at a fork 5.7 miles from Mosquito Lake Road; it is a 100 yard hike up the left road to the access trail. There are some deep ditches and mounds of gravel to block off the road.
- Walk up the blocked road to the next switchback swinging to the right, next to a high pile of logs. Here is where you take a path into the clear-cut (UTM E564451 N5413353). The elevation is approximately 1450′, and there is a nice view out to Kendall and the North Fork from here.
- Walk the path, which can be brushy, toward a tall dead tree, killed by the debris flow. You should start to find leaf fossils in the vicinity of this tree, up and down hill. Brush is reclaiming the area.
- Head up or down the slope from where the trail comes out, but you won’t have to go far. The landslide is becoming overgrown, but still plenty of exposed fossil-bearing rocks.
The entire field trip is on Washington State Department of Natural Resources timber lands. Total driving time from Bellingham is less than an hour. Please consider taking some pruners with you to help keep the trail open, especially where it leaves the road.
Note the large blocks of Chuckanut rocks along the trail, remnants of an ancient landslide that dwarfed the 2009 slide. Reach the open area of the landslide in about 100 yards, by a large, isolated Douglas fir (2011- now dead) use this tree as a landmark to find the trail back to the car. Start looking for fossils! Your predecessors may have left little stacks of fossils on logs for you to enjoy. You may have more success if you take the time to split the small rock slabs with a hammer and cold chisel. Head up or down the slope from where the trail comes out, but you won’t have to go far. The landslide is becoming overgrown, but still plenty of exposed fossil-bearing rocks.
Keep your fossils indoors when you get back home. These rocks tend to decompose into uninteresting little chips if they are repeatedly exposed to wet and dry conditions. Feel free to send me photos via the email address above. Please put ‘Chuckanut Fossils’ in the subject line. Perhaps I can help identify your finds; if you find something that is new to the Chuckanut fossil inventory, your photo could end up being a useful addition to science. With your permission, I’ll post selected photos on the Chuckanut Fossils page (under construction) of this website.
Learn more about the Chuckanut Formation, and the subtropical environment these fossil plants grew in, by going to this excerpt from a field guide by WWU paleontologist George Mustoe and colleagues.
Visit the North Fork Beer Shrine and Wedding Chapel (and Beer Museum) after your trip to the fossil field. The brew pub is east up Baker Highway from the junction with Mosquito Lake Road- 3.8 miles on the left at Markel Road. They have great pizza and other food, too.