For those in the mood for an adventure in ''extreme birding'' and who have excellent stamina, the Mt. Hardy burn near Rainy Pass offers a most uncommon experience. The fire, in 1994, left much of the area dusty, dry, and birdless. With a 45-degree slope and downed timber, it is a difficult hike. Hey, this is extreme birding - spectacular scenery with sweat on your brow, and the prospect of some tantalizing new east-slope bird (and first Skagit County record) coming into view. The Mt. Hardy burn has attracted a remarkable number of east-slope species in this remote part of Skagit County.
The burn is visible on the upslope side of Route 20: watch for an interruption in the montane forest green, as bleached gray tree trunks above become visible, first singly or in small groups, then in pure extensive stands. Raising your eyes even more vertically, you'll see the rocky peak of Mt. Hardy above the burn. The burn is now regenerating with various shrubs and seedling trees like Western white pine. In this regenerative condition, flora and fauna of forest margins occupy the burn, which is quite arid and dry compared to nearby shady forest.
The parking area for the Mt. Hardy burn offers birds similar to those at Rainy Pass, but as the burn is shrubbier and more open, other species are likely. Eastside visitors have included Calliope Hummingbird, Dusky Flycatcher, and Lazuli Bunting; and Lincoln's Sparrow nests some years. Black-backed Woodpecker was seen regularly in the years immediately after the burn, but has become much less common recently; Three-toed is more likely.
To hike the burn, proceed uphill through the deep forest from the right part of the parking area as you entered, staying to the right, paralleling the stream valley on your right. It will not be long before you come out of the conifers at the edge of the burn. Right where you emerge, the birding improves - a Spruce Grouse family was seen here one year (birds were seen along the Easy Pass trail, just down-slope, that same year). Twice, Pygmy Nuthatch has shown up here. Three-toed Woodpecker and Mountain Chickadee are also possible, and a Boreal Owl was heard in July 2002.
The burn has generated July-to-September records of Prairie Falcon, Calliope Hummingbird, Say's Phoebe, Western Kingbird, Chipping Sparrow, and Cassin's Finch. Regulars include Mountain Bluebird and Townsend's Solitaire. Try to get just far enough from the stream valley so that the noise does not drown out bird calls.
If you are really fired up, keep ascending through and then beyond the burn. In this steep, rocky habitat, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch and American Pipit become more likely, and a White-tailed Ptarmigan has been seen occasionally. More surprising, dozens of hummingbirds attend vast mats of the brilliant rose-purplish Davidson's penstemons in July; most will be Rufous, but a female Black-chinned was also here in July 2002, the second record for Skagit County. Just as surprising, four singing Rock Wrens were also here in July 2002, an amazingly out-of-range and high-elevation outpost for them. Although the scree eventually gives way to nearly impassable rock spires and chasms, and the hike becomes more rock-climbing than hiking, it is possible to climb the very summit of Mt. Hardy (7700 feet) by continuing up-slope. The views from the spire summit are simply incredible. However, it takes an entire day from the parking area, as this is about a nine-mile round trip.
Directions and Suggestions
Take I-5 northbound from Seattle, exit at #230 (Mt. Vernon) to Route 20, and head east. After you have left the grand views of Ross Lake far below on your left, continue east, watching for Canyon Creek, then the Skagit County sign. About eight miles past the sign, watch carefully for the Easy Pass trailhead on your right. About 2.5 miles farther, watch on your left for a small dirt road that goes up into an open area with a huge pile of soil. (This is the parking area for the burn; the soil was evidently intended for use during the fire.) Note: mileages are approximate. Consult the DeLorme, p. 112, D-2. The Mt. Hardy burn parking lot is easily missed. The good news is this: given that you are inside a national park, small dirt roads off the highway are very few. If you cross the Swamp Creek sign, you have gone about a half-mile too far.