Over the years, I’ve visited the Mountain Loop Highway countless times. I’ve hiked and run the trails. I’ve jumped in the lakes and eaten a bounty of huckleberries. I’ve skied under the moon and had picnics with my 5-year-old daughter Hazel.
Yet for all the times I’ve been out there, there’s so much I’ve missed.
For instance, until recently I’d never taken Hazel sledding at the snow-play area at Deer Creek.
So, we headed out there recently with a plentiful supply of hot chocolate to see what fun we could find.
First stop was at Green Gables General Store, where I chatted with Edith Farrell. She’s a wealth of information about the area. She was able to verify that the road was wet but clear of most ice. The store, which offers hot food, baked good and drinks, in addition to useful information, is just before the Verlot Public Service Center. The Verlot center is closed until Feb. 6 for the winter season.
By the time we arrived at end of the road, Hazel was eager to play in the snow. I parked near the snow-play area and let her out of the car. After the usual contortions required to attire a child in snow clothes, she bee-lined for the snow piled up at the edge of the sledding area.
Figures. A hill just perfect for sledding and all she wanted to do was climb up on the pile from the snow plow. Well, whatever makes you happy, kid.
We did eventually get in some sledding. The hill was fun and mellow enough for small kids, yet bigger kids could start higher and get up more speed.
While I was there, people were parking at the bottom of the sledding area. A small berm stopped most sledders before they ended up in the parking area, but I did see a few slide into the parking area. Usually, there is a gate that prevents people from parking in that area, making for a safer runout for sledders. Erika Morris, information specialist for the Darrington District, said that the Forest Service plans to close that gate, but it’s been difficult because there are usually too many cars there. So if you do sled there, use caution.
The main road is gated just beyond the sledding area. After Hazel got in a few sledding runs, we spent a lot of time digging for treasure — also known as pinecones — in the snowy woods just off of the closed road.
When she started to get whiny, we headed back to the car for muffins and cocoa, which perked her up quickly.
We headed back toward Granite Falls, stopping occasionally to admire the views of the river or read some of the signs about the history of the area. The Monte Cristo Rail Line ran through this area at the end of the 19th century until the 1930s, when the Mountain Loop was constructed.
Back in the car, Hazel asked me about the “fish ladder” I’d mentioned earliers.
“Is it really a ladder, Mama? And do fish really climb it?”
She was fascinated by the idea of stairs for fish, as I explained it, so we stopped at the Granite Falls Fishway — another place I’d somehow never been. The fishway was built in 1954 in attempt to encourage salmon to reach the area above Granite Falls. The ladder and a tunnel bypass the falls.
There’s grating over the ladder and Hazel was entranced by staring down to the water down below. Usually she would have been interested in the waterfall — there’s an excellent view of Granite Falls — but she gave it only passing notice. The water swirling below us was much more interesting.
It made me a little dizzy to walk on the grating, but I could understand why Hazel liked it. It was fun to feel like you were floating above the water.
After a longtime playing pretend, having races and tossing a few rocks into the river, Hazel was ready to head home. I was, too, but as usual a trip to the Mountain Loop only made me want to come back again soon. I’ve never skied to the Big Four picnic area, and I think it’s time to give that a try.
Jessi Loerch: firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-339-3016; www.heraldnet/com/explorenw.
If you go
Deer Creek snow play area: Follow the Mountain Loop Highway east from Granite Falls until you hit the closed gate at Deer Creek, about 12 miles past the ranger station. Park so you’re not blocking the road or the snow-plow turn around.
You can go sledding or tubing on Deer Creek Road, on the north side of the Mountain Loop Highway. There is a privy there, but if the snow gets too high it will block the door.
Skiing or snowshoeing: Erika Morris of the Forest Service says the Mountain Loop Highway is good for skiing right now. It’s not great for snowshoeing because the snow is so firmly packed. Although all of that could change if we get more snow. At higher elevations, if you have the skills to safely snowshoe, you’re more likely to find softer snow. The Big Four picnic area makes for a nice trip, about 5 miles. There’s a covered picnic area there. If you go, remember that the trail to the ice caves is closed. Anywhere beyond the river is extremely prone to avalanches. Starting Jan. 25, you can register for snowshoe trips to the Big Four area with the forest service at http://bit.ly/1UekLm8.
Picnic: There are a number of picnic areas along the Mountain Loop. Many have lovely views of the river.
More areas to find snow: Morris said that you can snowshoe and ski on the Helena Ridge Road/Forest Road 2070, which is about 6 miles south of Darrington. The road is blocked by a tree at about 2 miles. It is rough but driveable up to that point.
Clear Creek Road/Forest Road 2060, also south of Darrington, is another spot snowshoeing and skiing. It’s driveable for about 2 miles if you have 4-wheel drive.
U.S. 2: If you want more snow ideas, The Foss River Road and the Miller River Road off of U.S. 2 are both options for snowshoeing, sledding or skiing. Both roads are plowed about two miles out. Park so you’re not blocking the turnaround.
The Mountain Loop Highway does not have cell service. If you head out there, be prepared for winter driving and keep an emergency kit in your car: www.wsdot.com/winter/emergencykit.htm. Beware that many side roads aren’t cleared and it’s easy to get stuck. Check forest road conditions at http://1.usa.gov/193sGRE.
Avalanches: Always check the Northwest Avalanche Center before you head out, regardless of where you’re going. Beware that Lake 22, although it’s a very popular hike, is also a dangerous hike. Several avalanche chutes cross the trail. Don’t hike it unless you have the skills to effectively assess the avalanche risk.
Winter hiking/snowshoeing/skiing: If you head off the main drag, you’ll need the 10 essentials and the skills to use them; www.heraldnet.com/winterhiking.