Repair begins on storm-damaged Suiattle River Road

DARRINGTON — Storm damage from a decade ago on popular a U.S. Forest Service road is finally getting repaired.

The Suiattle River Road runs 23 miles from Highway 530 north of Darrington up the Suiattle River Valley and is popular with backcountry hikers. But it was severely damaged by flooding in 2003 and 2006.

While some of the initial damage was cleared and parts of the road stabilized, the road has been closed to motorized traffic at Milepost 11.6.

Contractors for the Federal Highway Administration began work on the road on May 19, and their contract calls for the work to be completed by Oct. 6, Forest Service spokesman Kelly Sprute said.

Whether the contractors complete the work on time depends on weather, however.

The Suiattle River Road is a popular destination because it provides access to a number of trails in the backcountry.

“It’s hugely popular,” said Andrea Imler, advocacy director of the Washington Trails Association. “It’s a primary access point to the west side of the Glacier Peak Wilderness.”

The Green Mountain Lookout, which recently was given federal protection, has long been a favorite destination for back country hikers, although access has been limited: the trailhead to the lookout is a 13-mile walk past the roadblock.

“Of the principal access points to the back country, the 2003 flood event took two out of the three out of the picture,” said Peter Forbes, district ranger for the Forest Service’s Darrington Ranger District.

The other damaged trail is the White Chuck Bench Trail, whose upper reaches are still inaccessible, Forbes said.

Repair work has been slow in coming primarily because of a lack of money.

“We work with the bridge we have,” Forbes said. “There are lots of opportunities but we’re limited by capacity.”

Historically, work on Forest Service roads was funded by timber sales.

“Now 99 percent of road maintenance comes from the appropriated budget, and it isn’t nearly enough,” Forbes said.

The Federal Highway Administration awarded a $2.7 million contract to MidMountain Contractors of Kirkland to repair five sites along Suiattle River Road, ranging from Milepost 6, where 2,500 feet of the road will be moved about 400 feet farther from the river, up to milepost 14.4, where the road will be moved 900 feet from the river and the Huckleberry trailhead and parking area will be rebuilt.

The Forest Service has awarded two more contracts totaling $1.1 million to AM Excavating of Rice, Washington, and Big R Manufacturing of Greeley, Colorado, to work three sites higher up the road. At one, the bridge over Downey Creek will be lengthened to prevent future damming and flooding.

The Forest Service contractors are scheduled to start work in June.

Repairing the road will ultimately be more good news for the town of Darrington, which, before Highway 530 was blocked by the March 22 Oso mudslide, saw about 4,000 vehicles per day, some of which headed for the back country.

Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin estimated that, even with a local access road open as a detour, traffic through town has been about half of the former volume.

Rankin worried that visitors might still head out to hike the trails, raft the rivers or climb Glacier Peak — but they probably won’t stop in Darrington to stock supplies because the town is no longer on the way to the wilderness or to the North Cascades Highway and the Methow Valley.

Some of that worry was abated when the state Department of Transportation announced that Highway 530 could reopen in June.

But, Rankin said, “One of our biggest worries is once people’s patterns change, it’s hard to get them to come back.”

Rankin has been working to promote Darrington’s annual events, such as the Bluegrass Festival, as well as to come up with new ones.

“We’ve got to work really hard on creating an interest for people to come visit,” he said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com.

Suiattle River Road (Forest Service Road 26) is accessed from Highway 530 north of Darrington, just east of the Sauk River bridge. The road remains open to motorized traffic up to milepost 11.6, and to hikers, bikers and equestrians above the closure, although there will be periodic closures and delays this summer for construction. The Forest Service recommends checking road and trail conditions at www.fs.usda.gov or by calling the Darrington Ranger Station at 360-436-1155.

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