Sunday, July 5, 2009

Big Four Ice Caves and Mountain Loop Highway

July 3, 2009

Big Four Ice Caves, Mountain Loop (Granite Falls to Darrington)

Part I

We hoped to beat the crowds by visiting the Big Four Ice Caves on Friday but no matter when you go, expect company on this trail. However, sharing a popular trail with others is part of the experience. There are lots of other places where solitude is guaranteed, especially in the Monte Cristo area.

It’s hard to get grumpy when you see the “Oh Wow!” reactions of those seeing the ice caves and Big Four Mountain for the first time. The trail just recently-reopened as floods destroyed the original bridge (some intrepid hikers managed to get across the Stillaguamish River by fording before the bridge was replaced).

As you hike witness the aftermath of the climatic violence that continues to shape this wild and scenic landscape. Storms, avalanches, washouts, floods have taken a toll. Now imagine those winter floods and how high the river must have been to take out the old bridge that spanned the river. After crossing the river you’ll see where the trail was rerouted around a jackstraw pile of trees, rocks and dirt where a hillside was taken out by avalanches.

Before you hit the trail visit the Big Four Picnic Area and look at the chimney, the only remnant of Big Four Inn, a historic lodge that burned down long ago. The trail from the picnic area to the Ice Caves begins on a boardwalk over a marsh – here, we noted Jurassic Park-sized leaves of mature skunk cabbage.

You can also get to the Ice Caves from the Ice Caves Trail a little past the picnic area on the Mountain Loop Highway (you can also make a loop). From the picnic area go straight on the boardwalk (or left to walk to the Ice Caves trailhead – the Ice Cave trail loops back to the trail from the Picnic Area); all junctions are signed. Straight ahead (on the boardwalk) are views of Big Four Mountains and in the quiet waters of the marsh, a reflection of the peak on a sunny day.

Shortly past the marsh cross the river on the bridge – the new bridge is about two feet higher than the old bridge and made out of aluminum (lightweight and strong). While not as picturesque as the original bridge, it was more attractive than we imagined and will play a vital role in keeping this gem of a trail accessible.

We enjoyed the river of hikers we encountered on the trail – families toting coolers, tots in backpacks, elderly gents in faded shirts that looked like they’d worked in the woods decades before, a pretty pregnant lady in green shading herself beneath a purple parasol.

After crossing the river there’s a short stretch through shady forest – Canadian dogwood, Devil’s club, false lily of the valley and bead lily predominate the forested setting. The trail then contours below an opening cleared by avalanches, landslides and storms. Stacks of knocked-down trees resemble a giant’s unfinished game of pick-up-sticks – you don’t want to be anywhere near this stretch when the game resumes and resume it will.

As the trail breaks out into the open more flowers appear including lupine and rosy spirea. The trail crosses a small creek and makes a beeline toward the snow-flanked massif of Big Four Mountain, beribboned with waterfalls.

Near the base of the peak notice moving black dots on the snow – these, of course, are hikers who cannot resist the siren call of the ice caves. Though signs warn of lurking dangers therein, visitors are drawn to the ice caves and accumulations of snow at the foot of the peak. The snow is melting – you can see where holes have already appeared on the surface - tread carefully (we hope you won’t venture very far out onto the snow).

Purists differ on whether or not these are actually snow caves or tunnels created by melting snow (snow melts out from beneath accumulations of snow as well as on the surface). It has been at times referred to as the Big Four Glacier (in jest or in earnestness, who knows?) Do be careful – there have been fatalities and near misses where hikers break through the snow (it can be hollow beneath the surface) or enter a snow cave that collapses.

There are many choice spots to settle and enjoy the views. A rough path, lined with wildflowers climbs a knoll to a jumble of rocks, a good spot for better views, a break or turnaround.

Wherever you stop, enjoy the grandeur and be prepared to share it with others. The combination of marshes, river, wildflowers, the ice caves, the peaks where most fear to tread are compelling and beautiful.

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