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.

Snohomish County’s Favorite Hike…The Big 4 Ice Caves

Early visitors at the ice caves.
Photo courtesty of Granite Falls Historical Museum

Hot Weather Weakens Ice Caves. This recent headline told a familiar story. The ice caves at Big Four Mountain are a favorite hiking destination for people in our part of Washington State and have been ever since Big Four Resort was built in 1921 at the foot of its namesake mountain.

Every spring, snow avalanches fall from Big Four’s sheer cliffs and pack to glacier hardness. Cascading waterfalls burrow under the ice, forming caves that tempt the ignorant or foolhardy to enter. Almost every year, in spite of warning signs at the trailhead, someone is hurt. A few people have died under collapsing ice. The newspaper story in question was triggered by another such incident. Someone, probably climbing on the glaciers or the cliffs above, had slipped and fallen. Rescuers passed through one of the caves to help him, and got out just as chunks of ice came crashing down behind them.

But for those who use good sense, the ice caves make a spectacular outing. The trail is smooth and mostly level for a good part of its one-mile length, making it handicapped-accessible to and even past the newly installed bridge over the Stillaguamish. It begins as a plank walkway over wetlands, where you can lean over a railing to watch small trout schooling in the shallow water. Walkers have a choice of turning off on a trail which loops back to the trailhead via the roadbed of the old Everett to Monte Cristo Railroad or continuing on through some old growth trees to the river and up to the foot of the mountain.

Steve and Lenora Anderson on the new metal bridge

Beyond the bridge, the stream from the glaciers enters the river and the trail begins a moderate climb. Along the way, hikers see all stages in the life of the forest, from seedlings growing on nurse logs to decaying snags that house bugs and birds. Once we were lucky enough to see one of these snags topple to the ground without warning. We were also fortunate to be far enough away that the many-ton behemoth missed us!

Yes, if a tree falls in the forest, it does make a noise.

The last part of the trail is the most difficult. A recent winter’s avalanches, adding to the devastation of previous slides, snapped trees in half or completely uprooted them. One of the avalanches took out part of the trail, necessitating a detour. But the new gaps in the forest afford one a sneak preview of what awaits around the last corner. The massive wall of rock, with snowfields sloping upward from the base, is breathtaking.

Below: Avalanche passed this way

Up close, wildflowers springing from newly uncovered ground bloom madly to finish their cycles before snow comes again.

Tiger lilies and budding fireweed

In fact, in whichever direction you turn, the scene is breathtaking, even with a summer’s worth of dirt begriming the glaciers. Just remember, if you go, obey the signs warning against too close an inspection!

Snowfields at the base of Big Four

Don’t climb on this cave’s roof !

Cooling off in the rush of chill air from the caves

Feeling close to creation and its Creator