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.

Oso Strong—God’s Love Endures

Waiting for the pilot car. Oso mudslide visible in the distance. Undamaged home in trees at right.

South edge of the slide. Temporary road followed power line beyond.

Broken trees, broken hillside, broken hearts at Oso.

The Steelhead Haven neighborhood after the slide

Surreal…what else could one call it?

A piece of corrugated drain pipe protruding skyward from heaped gravel on our right; a broken board, the shredded bole of a tree…all the same gray. Such an expanse of dullness, stretching across the once green and lovely valley to where a hill called Hazel had broken open like some monstrous overripe fruit.

A mile of Washington State Highway 530, buried since the hill’s collapse on March 23, 2014, opened again to single-lane traffic on Sunday, May 31. Survivors, volunteers, friends and neighbors solemnly walked the route with Governor Jay Inslee. Only a few days earlier, big shovels were still clearing rubble. Volunteers searched as they dug for families‘ keepsakes and for the remains of people still missing.

On Monday, we followed a pilot car leading log trucks, commercial vehicles, locals, and tourists through the slide area. After a short line of westbound traffic had passed, our line slowly moved uphill, through familiar country. This area between Oso and Darrington has always been one of our favorite drives. On the hill to our right sat a modest home with a fringe of trees to the east…and nothing but gray rubble beyond.

We drove in overwhelmed silence. A mile to the left, the raw interior of the mountain exposed layers of gravel and other sediments laid down during the glacial age. The rest of the mountain, supersaturated by weeks of heavy rain, had turned to mud and slurry in the blink of an eye. It rolled and roared with the sound of a freight train across the forests and the Steelhead Haven neighborhood. It smashed homes and swept away the rubble, burying the Stillaguamish River, backing it up to flood homes spared by the wicked mixture of rock, mud, and broken trees.  It covered vehicles and people on the very roadway on which we now drove. Its energy finally ran out on the opposite hillside.

My mind couldn’t encompass the expanse of gray ruin, focusing instead on two spots of color…a blue plastic container, a red jug. A lone fir stood near the road, still green: the Oso Memorial Tree. On it someone had fastened a sign with the date and time of the slide: 10:45 AM, 3/23/14, lovingly crafted from a board found in the wreckage. On the far side a couple of homes stood in a sea of dirt that might have been left by the backed-up river. Then we were back in Washington’s green jungle of brush and trees. Where we glimpsed the river above the slide, it looked its normal color, not gray with the mud it picks up as it chews its way through the slide.

As traffic sped up, I realized my mind was playing the song we sang at church the day before: “The love of God is greater far, than tongue or pen can ever tell; it goes beyond the highest star and reaches to the lowest hell….When hoary time shall pass away, and earthly thrones and kingdoms fall, when men who here refuse to pray on rocks and hills and mountains call, God’s love so sure, shall still endure, all measureless and strong, redeeming grace to Adam’s race—the saints’ and angels’ song.”

Hell had visited the Steelhead Haven neighborhood, but God’s love was there, too. It was in the love of friends and neighbors who refused to obey orders to stay away and put their own lives in danger to rescue the few still living and to keep on looking for the missing. It was there in the love of hundreds of volunteers who found ways to help, and in the generous sharing of people all over the country who gave to assist those who’d lost everything.

 “Oso Strong” became the slogan that encouraged and drew people together. I’m proud of neighbors near and far who worked together to help shoulder the burdens of those most affected. I’m proud to be a citizen of a country whose strength lies in people like this.

The Memorial Tree, photographed in passing

Flaggers at the eastern edge of the work zone

This home narrowly escaped destruction.

Oso Slide, Part of a Bigger Picture

A rock and mud slide along the Mountain Loop Highway

    A water-logged hillside in the Cascade foothills east of tiny Oso collapsed Saturday morning, sending a mile-wide wall of mud and debris crashing over a riverfront neighborhood. It buried the highway and dammed the North Fork Stillaguamish River. Horrified, we’re watching rescue efforts, along with the rest of the nation.

    We live in a region prone to such disasters because of unstable soils left by ice-age glacial events. Just this morning a newspaper article mentioned an 1820 tsunami caused when a headland on Camano Island’s south end collapsed into Puget Sound. Three hundred years ago, a mudslide near Lake Ozette on Washington’s coast buried and preserved a Makah Indian village. It was rediscovered in the 1960s when a fierce winter storm eroded the shoreline to reveal long-hidden artifacts.

    Smaller slides halt railroad trains every winter along the Sound between Everett and Seattle. We see slides along nearby Pioneer Highway, cutting into the bluff bordering the Skagit Delta farmlands.

    I remember a devastating slide in 1950 at Gold Basin, in the valley of the South Fork Stillaguamish where I grew up. That fork flows through Verlot and past Granite Falls before joining the North Fork at Arlington. Then the combined rivers make their way through the lowland valley to salt water near Stanwood.  Geologists tell us that historically as well as recently, slides are common in both the North Fork and South Fork valleys. Though the Gold Basin slide did not result in loss of life, it changed and is still changing the land.

    Both forks of the Stillaguamish share a geologic history with other river valleys in the Western Cascade Mountains. The river basins of the western Cascades begin as narrow, steep-sided mountain valleys whose floors are generally less than 3000 feet above sea level. The rivers flow into broad lowland alluvial river valleys, through flood plains to the extensive glacial outwash plain along Puget Sound. 

    The Puget Lobe of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet came down out of the north, as far as Olympia. It advanced, then retreated many times, shaping the geography of this region. Old channels and terraces that mark the retreat of the ice margins are still visible. As the ice pressed southward, smaller glaciers filled the upper river basins. Only the tops of peaks like Mt. Pilchuck protruded from the ice. The smaller glaciers scoured away the mountainsides. They pulverized solid rock into flour-fine clay and left bowl-shaped amphitheaters called “cirques.”

     About 14,000 years ago, the glaciers filling the lower mountain valleys melted. But remnants of the big ice sheet still plugged the valley outlets, blocking drainage. Long lakes formed in the valleys as the alpine glaciers melted and dropped deposits of rocks, gravel and lighter sand and clay. Finally, the retreating Puget Lobe allowed rivers like the Stillaguamish and the Skagit to find their way to the sea, carrying tons of silt along with them to form the rich soils found in the Skagit-Stillaguamish deltas.

SkagitValley clay soils, once part of the mountains in the distance
Dad and little brother David beneath the Gold Basin cliffs, c. 1947

     Old lake deposits are visible at many places, wherever the river cuts through embankments of sand, clay or gravel. Some are very deep, like the hillside that collapsed near Oso or the cliffs at Gold Basin State Park.  At Gold Basin, the forest-crowned palisades, layered with fine tan dirt and gray silty clay, towered nearly straight up from the river’s edge.  Fans of crumbled sand and gravel scalloped their base. In places, water seeped between layers of permeable and less permeable materials to streak the face of the cliffs.

65 years later, showing trees growing on slide and new location of river

    The winter of 1950, we had a lot of rain. It saturated the soil to a great depth and sent the river roaring toward Port Susan Bay. Water percolating down through the layered deposits at Gold Basin hit less permeable material. The water moved out toward the face of the cliff. And the waterlogged soil above the interface began to move with it. The cliff and its crown of trees collapsed into the river. With no place else to go, the river forced its way into the park, chewing away great chunks of the opposite bank and following the lines of least resistance to gouge temporary channels along and across what had been park roads. The sparkling waters of the Stillaguamish turned an opaque gray-brown. For years, banks and boulders wore a slick coating of clay.

    More than fifty years later, the bluffs at Gold Basin are still unstable. The river eats away at the bottom, dissolving the soil into gray fluid and making life difficult for fish and the creatures they live on. Below the slide, new forest has grown on the island that formed where the river once flowed.

    Storms and the river still combine to challenge those who live along the river and those who attempt to keep it healthy for the wild things that live in and near it.

    More recently, in October, 2003, huge amounts of rain fell throughout the northwestern Cascade Mountains. Back country trails washed out or were obliterated by slides, bridges crossing mountain streams were damaged, and sections of the old Mountain Loop Highway between Barlow Pass and Darrington crumbled into the Sauk and disappeared. People living near the Stillaguamish below Granite Falls found the river racing through their houses.

    The hill that collapsed on March 22 has been the focus of concerns since the 1950s. The Seattle Times refers to a report filed in 1999 with the U.S. Army corps of Engineers, warning of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure.” The report was written by Daniel and Lynne Rodgers Miller.  “We’ve known it would happen at some point,” Mr. Miller said. “We just didn’t know when.”

    A lidar map is made by lasers which can visually strip away vegetation to reveal the underlying landforms. The Times published one such map that shows the semicircular scars of many past slides in the area of Saturday’s disaster.

    There were slides in 2003 and in 2006 on the same hillside, yet homes continued to be built in the path of danger. All of us should remember that it was Nature’s job to sculpt and change the land long before human history began, and she will continue to do so, regardless of our wishes.

The river sculpts the land.