Turning Back Time on the Mountain Loop Highway

Hank and Sauk Mountain along the Mountain Loop

When the sun came out on the first Thursday in November after weeks of rain, we realized our annual drive around the Mountain Loop Highway, one of Washington State’s most scenic and historic byways hadn’t yet happened. We decided it was then or never. Within weeks, snow would likely close the road for the winter. We grabbed some snacks and a thermos of coffee and headed east on Highway 530 toward Darrington.

A rain-soaked, steaming world awaited us, but White Horse and Three Fingers Mountains stood brilliant in new snow against blue skies. Beyond the nearer mountains, we even glimpsed massive Glacier Peak, its volcanic slopes glistening like a mound of ice cream .

After a stand-up picnic at Squire Creek Campground, one of our favorite picnic spots, we turned south at Darrington. Almost immediately we left civilization behind and soon reached the start of an unpaved dirt road that would connect us with the western leg of the loop at Barlow Pass.

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Rain forest moss shrouds the trees
Sword fern decorated for fall

We drove through rainforest that burgeons with life and decay at the same time. The greenest of moss wraps standing trees like untidy mummies. On the forest floor, it blankets rotting logs among gardens of sword fern. Between the last leaves clinging to maples and alders, vistas of mountains and the wild Sauk River, hidden from sight in the summer, now revealed themselves.

Dozens of large and small creeks tumbled down the steep slopes, sometimes only yards apart. We drove through spots where recent rock slides had spilled down the mountain and across the road.

Sections of the route badly needed grading . . . for long stretches the road was pitted with large, water-filled potholes. We couldn’t guess how deep they were, so we had to pick our way through a slow obstacle course to find the least jarring route. We also dodged broken trees and downed branches.

Old Man’s Beard glitters with raindrops and steam rises in the sun

In the hour or more it took us to travel the approximately fourteen miles of unpaved road, we saw only four other vehicles. We were especially glad to meet no oncoming traffic at two places where the flooding Sauk had, in years past, washed the road completely away, causing a closure of five years. Crews cut new roadbed, the width of a vehicle, into the rock cliff and the Mountain Loop Highway reopened in 2008. Those rebuilt stretches were now pocked with potholes upon potholes. The river boiled menacingly below us, but we made it safely across.

Sauk River scenes

Twilight had fallen when we reached Barlow Pass, where the railroad once ran from the Stillaguamish Valley up the last few miles to the 1890s’ mining town of Monte Cristo.

Fog rising below Big Four Mountain

Would we go again so late in the season? Yes. In summer, more people drive the route, and many drive too fast for the narrow, twisting road. They stir up dust that coats the roadside greenery. Autumn rains bring a new perspective, a different beauty. It’s easy to imagine how it might have felt to be a miner following the original wagon road to Monte Cristo.

Should you go? Yes, if you have a sturdy, dependable vehicle that won’t easily bottom out on rocks or potholes. Yes, if you’re willing to take your time and drive carefully. You can check weather and road conditions at the Verlot Public Service Center or the Darrington Ranger Station. Pack some food and warm clothing. Let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back.

Then enjoy a one-of-a-kind autumn adventure.

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.