Hiking: Mountain Loop Highway Day Trip
The Mountain Loop Highway is a 95 mile route that lies northeast of Everett in the Mt. Baker – Snoqualamie National Forest. Cloaked in dense evergreen forests, the road meanders through the Sauk and Stillaguamish
river valleys as it passes through the towns of Arlington, Granite Falls, and Darrington. Bring your hiking boots, a sack lunch, and, if you’re brave, a swimsuit for a dip in the chilly (but beautiful!) rivers and lakes found in the North Cascades.
We prefer to drive the route in a counter-clockwise direction, beginning in Granite Falls, with the necessary stops for picnic lunch supplies, gas, and a NW Forest Pass. Annual and day passes can also be purchased online.
Leaving Granite Falls, it’s time to decide upon the day’s activities. Families with small children will likely aim for the Big Four Ice Caves as this is an easy hike with minimal elevation gain. This popular trail is well-maintained and at 2.2 miles roundtrip, most eager little hikers will be able to make it all the way. The ice caves are formed by water streaming down Big Four mountain and under a year-round ice patch. The best time to view the caves is in late summer as increased runoff enlarges the cave openings. The rocky field below the ice field is a perfect place for a picnic.
For those hikers seeking a more demanding hike, the also-popular Lake 22 is 5.4 miles roundtrip with 1,350 feet of elevation gain. Set amid gorgeous rain forests on Mt. Pilchuck, Lake 22 is a Pacific Northwest gem. Be sure to arrive early as the parking lots often fills quickly on pleasant-weathered summer weekends.
Seeking a reprieve from the often-crowded southern route, Boulder River Hike near Oso is ideal for both families and hikers interested in longer treks. The trail follows an over-grown logging road before gradually climbing on a narrower track. A twin falls at 1.5 miles in makes a nice turn-around point for the little ones.
Folks looking for a quiet picnic by a picturesque river should stop along any of the unoccupied pull-outs. The area immediately east of the Hemple Creek Day Use areas has some particularly nice stretches. Hemple Creek itself is a nice place to go if the river is crowded, although it’s deeply shaded with limited access to the river.
The Mountain Loop Highway is typically open May-Mid October, depending on the conditions. Visitors should call the Forest Service Center at (360) 691-7791 to check on road closures. A one-mile segment of the highway was closed in March 2014 following the Oso Mudslide Disaster that buried the road and claimed the lives of forty-three residents. The road has since reopened although roadwork in that area is on-going. Additionally, visitors should note that the far eastern portion of the Mountain Loop Highway is unpaved; however, the road is in good condition and a 4×4 vehicle is not required.
Lake 22 Hike: 5.4 miles roundtrip, 1,350’ elevation gain. NW Forest Pass required.
Big Four Ice Caves Hike: 2.2 miles roundtrip. Visitors should note that the caves are for viewing only; people have been killed by collapsing ice, thus making it ill advised to walk or play at the base of the mountain. NW Forest Pass required.
Boulder River Hike: 8.6 miles roundtrip, 700’ elevation gain. NW Forest Pass required. No restrooms at trailhead.
Verlot Campground: All campgrounds are fairly close to the road but Verlot is small, fairly quiet, and close to the river. Aim for spots 1, 2, 3, or 11 (our personal favorite). http://www.recreation.gov
Esswine Group Campground: Bring 25 of your closest friends. $75/night for the whole camp. http://www.recreation.gov