Taking a Day Trip in Our Own Back Yard–the Mountain Loop Highway

Growing up in the logging community of Verlot, Washington, I loved our occasional family drives around the Mountain Loop Highway. Then, as now, the road connected the North Cascades towns of Granite Falls and Darrington. We lived on the south end near Granite Falls, so the area was almost in our own back yard. Now Hank and I live near the mouth of the Stillaguamish River, near Stanwood. 
When we drive the Mountain Loop, we drive the opposite direction, through Arlington to Darrington, on the north end of the mountain section of the loop. It’s still a peaceful, lovely, and sometimes rough route through rainforest, rugged peaks and valleys, and along the Sauk and South Fork Stillaguamish Rivers.

The country is full of history. As you peer through overhanging branches, up forested slopes, you can feel the shadowy presence of Native American hunters on the trail of elk or mountain goats. In the 1890s, the mining boom at Monte Cristo broke the silence of the forest as wagoners hauled heavy machinery and freight along a puncheon road following the Sauk. That first route was soon replaced by the Monte Cristo railroad, built to carry the ore to the smelter in Everett. Trains ran through our valley along the Stillaguamish to Barlow Pass and four miles beyond, ending among the spectacular peaks that surround the townsite of Monte Cristo.

By the early 1900s, the railroad’s frequent washouts made it economically unfeasible to continue large-scale mining. The work at Monte Cristo slowed to a halt.  Then tourists discovered the area. Train excursions continued for a while, then what had originally been a wagon road through our valley of the South Fork Stillaguamish was pushed through to Monte Cristo. In 1936, a dirt road connecting Barlow Pass with Darrington was begun. In 1941, the Mountain Loop Highway was completed. The whole area became a destination for outdoor recreationists, with hiking trails and campgrounds all along the way.

Snow still closes the route in the winters, and in recent years several bad storms have caused enough damage to keep the road closed in summer too. It’s open now, except for the private four-mile section that leads from Barlow Pass to the old mining town site.

 Work is presently going on to remove arsenic-laden tailings from around the old mine tunnels, so Monte Cristo town site is closed to visitors. In order for trucks to reach the area, a road along the route of the old Sauk wagon road was reopened. Many who love Monte Cristo for its recreational values hope that the public will someday be allowed to use this road.

We recently drove our California daughter and her friend around the part of the Loop that begins in Arlington. We stopped to reflect at the temporary monument to 43 men, women, and children who lost their lives in March, 2014, during the horrific landslide near Oso.

When Hazel Hill broke away, it unleashed tons of mud and debris on the Steelhead Drive community and temporarily dammed the North Fork Stillaguamish. A more permanent memorial is planned someday.

Forty-three cedars stand watch over the site.

Outside Darrington, we also took time to circle through Squire Creek Park, one of the loveliest and least-used parks along the route. Quiet campsites and picnic spots are tucked among large evergreens. The park has a shelter, restrooms, and a grassy area next to the sparkling stream. In the fall, salmon swim past on their way to their birthplaces, where they’ll spawn and then die.

A peaceful scene at Squire Creek.

After a satisfying lunch in Darrington at the recently reopened Bradley’s Diner, we turned south for the first nine miles of the connecting road. They’re paved, and alongside creeks tumble down to join the Sauk. We glimpsed rocky peaks through the trees. Just beyond the White Chuck Mountain overlook with its unobstructed view of the mountain—bottom to top—the paving ended. For the next 13 miles, everything looked about the same as it did when I was a child, except the road was a little wider. It’s still one lane with turnouts, it can still be washboardy and potholed, and people still pull out into cleared spots in the forest to camp.

I think fall is the best time to make the trip. September’s bright blue skies and crisp temperatures redden the vine maples. Yellow aspen leaves sift through the evergreens. Rivers run clear and shallow. We were surprised to find salmon spawning in the high reaches of the Sauk. They were battered from their long trip up the Skagit River and the rock-filled Sauk, but they were determined to complete their purpose.

This salmon was exhausted but determined to make it over the foot high channel to where the female waited, circling above the redd she’d scooped out to receive her eggs.

Counting spawned-out salmon on the bank of the Sauk River

Daughter Kari and her dad. The tree has grown on and around a big chunk of granite that an ice-age glacier probably bulldozed from one of the surrounding mountains.

As we neared the spot where the Sauk hurries down from its beginnings near Monte Cristo, we noticed a gash in the forest.  This was the rough road, closed to the public, that has been built along the route of the old Sauk wagon road. Trucks loaded with mine tailings dump the arsenic-tainted debris into a depository that will be be capped with clean material.
Of all the many places of interest along the Mountain Loop west of Barlow Pass, we had time to stop only at Big Four Mountain before making the hour-and-a-half trek back to our starting place in Stanwood. Snohomish County’s most popular short hiking trail, to the ice caves at the base of the mountain, starts here. It is still closed after a cave collapsed this summer, causing the death of one and injury of others who had ignored warning signs. But we still  enjoyed the view of the mist-shrouded mountain and of the Stellar’s jay that came to beg for a cookie. Our California visitors were in awe of the wild scenery along the way. They agreed. Driving the Mountain Loop Highway makes a perfect day trip.

Kari beside the chimney base, all that remains of the elegant Big Four Lodge that once stood at the foot of Big Four Mountain.
Coffee and lemon bars at Big Four.

Summer Windstorm

This year, we took granddaughter Annie to lunch in LaConner to celebrate her August 28 birthday. The weather was warm, with clouds flying overhead and bursts of wind flinging leaves across the road, but nothing  unusual for a late summer day.

Then the wind picked up. We sat at our table in the Calico Cupboard, watching passing tourists laughing and trying to keep their streaming hair out of their eyes. On the way back to Mt. Vernon, the wind buffeted the car. It yanked leaves and branches from the trees. They pelted us as we pushed through the debris. We dropped Annie at her home and left her dragging fallen branches out of her driveway. A few blocks later traffic stopped. A workman told us a tree was down, blocking the bridge that led into town. So back we went the way we’d come. We dodged many trees that had fallen, mostly deciduous maples, cottonwoods, and alders which still held their heavy canopies of leaves.

I wasn’t quick enough to catch any of the larger branches we saw falling.
A windbreak doing its job for a Skagit Valley farm

With each gust, the air darkened with flying leaves.

A broken table seemed to be our only damage from the wind.      

After our power was restored the next morning, we noticed that my favorite tree in the yard, a native American cranberry bush tree with multiple slender trunks, had spread out all around, with branches nearly touching the ground. Then we saw that the wind yanking on its heavy canopy had lifted the roots and weakened their support for the trunks. Hank cut the leaning parts off, in hopes that what’s left will stay upright.

The American cranberry bush tree in bloom, several years ago.

We were fortunate.  Throughout the Salish Sea region and further south and north, wind speeds equalled some of the stronger storms Western Washington typically receives in the late fall and winter. Gusts in the Seattle-Tacoma area reached 40-50 mph, while gusts to 60-70 mph were common in the North Sound and along the coast.

Because of the four-month drought we’d experienced, leaving trees stressed and weakened, and because trees were still fully leafed out, many that ordinarily could have weathered the storm went down, snapping utility poles and taking out power to many thousands of people. Some were without electricity for nearly a week. A number of homes were damaged by falling trees, and two deaths were reported.

For those who didn’t suffer losses, our unusual summer storm brought concerns, and also excitement such as Annie’s parents experienced. While we celebrated her birthday, they had taken the train to Vancouver, hoping to visit world-famous Stanley Park. Falling trees closed the park, and when they attempted to return the next day, Amtrak, with no electricity, had to stop frequently so crewman could man the switches by hand.

Gardening by Accident

Cantaloupe in Western Washington? Purely accidental.

Time for blog posting seemed as fleeting this summer as the sun breaks for which my blog is named, and I apologize. I do have an excuse: we’re moving. Part of the reason has to do with the burgeoning growth in our yard and garden. We can’t keep up with it any longer.

I’ve written before about our funny garden, with peas and potatoes and all sorts of growing things sprouting from every available cranny in our tiny back yard. This summer of our final garden we’ve found great entertainment in watching what our plants were up to.

The cantaloupe vine above sprouted next to the dahlia patch alongside the driveway. Perhaps the seed was in the compost we added, or maybe a crow dropped a stolen piece of fruit there. At first we thought we might have cucumbers, but as the fruits grew round and hard and baseball-sized, we realized a visitor from warmer climates had found our hot summer to its liking. The cantaloup on the right is nearly ripe, though it should be more the size of the rocks edging the drive.

The three photos below are a species of solanaceae, belong to the nightshade family. These have pretty lavender-blue blossoms which last only a day and then form papery, green and purple lanterns that hold the next  year’s seeds. (I didn’t realize when I planted some in pots last year that I would find solanaceae this year in the oddest places.

When I pulled some spent petunias from this pot, I found these miniature solanaceaes,  each complete with a tiny dried lantern.
This plant, a more normal size, came up under the blueberry bush.

This one, still growing, came up just as the sweet peas finished. Compare the size of the leaves above the hat to those in the previous picture.

What do you do when you can’t use all the zucchini? Let it grow!