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Trail to ice caves reopens Saturday

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By Gale Fiege
Herald Writer
  • Work continues on a new bridge across the South Fork Stillaguamish River on Monday.

    Michael O'Leary / The Herald

    Work continues on a new bridge across the South Fork Stillaguamish River on Monday.

VERLOT -- The new bridge to the ice caves at the base of Big Four Mountain is scheduled to open Saturday, allowing hikers access to the one of the most popular sights in Snohomish County and arguably the best-used trail in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
Designated a National Recreation Trail, the one-mile hike has been closed since the November 2006 floods washed away the old bridge over the South Fork Stillaguamish River.
The new $425,000 bridge makes it easy for fans of the ice caves to get to the beloved snowfield, which attracts tourists from around the world.
"This is huge news, and really something to celebrate," Everett hiker Pam Roy said. "Getting that trail open again is a milestone as we recover some of the valuable hikes lost to the flood damage over the past few years."
A contributor to the Washington Trails Association magazine, Roy said families and older hikers especially enjoy the accessible, easy walk, and she plans to get one of her favorite hiking friends, who is 80, out on the trail soon.
"It's one of my favorites. The scenery is quite spectacular as you walk through woodlands that open up to stunning alpine views, and all without much of an elevation gain," Roy said. "It's a great introduction to hiking for anyone."
The new aluminum bridge on the ice caves trail is higher, longer, stronger and lighter than the one washed out in 2006, said Forest Service bridge engineer Peter Wagner.
"We hope these attributes will keep it from being damaged in any future floods," Wagner said.
Several delays plagued the building of the replacement bridge, he said.
The money just wasn't available until last year, and then last winter's floods further eroded the stream bank. This forced engineers to adjust the bridge design, adding another 16 feet to the span, which is now 224 feet long. To top it off, the late snowmelt kept work from starting until late May, Wagner said.
Built in Florida, the bridge sections were trucked to the site in June. A helicopter flew the seven sections into place and workers assembled it in about a week. The construction was finished in about five weeks, Forest Service spokeswoman Renee Bodine said.
Funding for the repairs came from an emergency relief program for federally owned roads, she said.
The ice caves trail crosses the river about a third of a mile from the trailhead and ends at the 4,000-foot north wall of the Big Four Mountain, which features the lowest-elevation glacier in all states except Alaska.
Winter avalanches pile tremendous amounts of snow at the base of the mountain. The ice caves, formed by stream channels under the melting snowfield, normally don't appear until temperatures rise in August. No matter what the weather, the Forest Service warns against entering or climbing on the ice caves because heavy ice can fall at any time.
More than 50,000 people a year visited the ice caves before the old trail bridge washed out, said Diane Boyd of the ranger district's Verlot visitors center.
The upper end of the trail was damaged by heavy snow and avalanches during the winters of 2007 and 2008. More work is planned to complete repairs on the besieged trail later this year.
Several small bridges need to be replaced and the entire trail will not be wheelchair accessible until next year, said Gary Paull, the district's wilderness and trails manager.
Located about 25 miles east of Granite Falls, the Big Four trail head and picnic area is along the Mountain Loop Highway at the site of what once was the Big Four Hotel.
The Forest Service plans to celebrate the official opening of the ice caves trail bridge with a ribbon cutting at 10 a.m. on July 10. The public is invited to attend.
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427,

Trail information

For information about conditions on forest service trails, roads and campsites in the Darrington Ranger District, call 360-436-1155 or 360-691-7791 or go to

Story tags » HikingVerlot

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