Norma Vasquez makes a splash in the Reiter Foothills State Forest on a tour led by Index-based Chinook ATV Expeditions. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Norma Vasquez makes a splash in the Reiter Foothills State Forest on a tour led by Index-based Chinook ATV Expeditions. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Tour company leads ATV treks through Snohomish County’s foothills

Reiter Foothills, with 30 miles of trails between Gold Bar and Index, is a mecca for ATV buffs.

There’s beauty to be found in the Reiter Foothills State Forest, but it takes a bumpy ride to get there.

With 30 miles of trails for all-terrain vehicles, the 15-square-mile recreation area between Gold Bar and Index is a mecca for ATV buffs.

That’s where Chinook ATV Expeditions comes in.

The Index tour company leads half-day and overnight excursions into the forest throughout the year. The half-day tours, the most popular option, can accommodate up to four drivers of all skill levels. All safety gear is provided.

Riders steer the ATVs across the Reiter Foothills’ hilly landscape, pausing to admire gushing waterfalls and panoramic views.

Anthony Henry-Vega, Chinook co-owner and lead guide, grew up riding the foothills on a dirt bike. He doesn’t take any of its beauty for granted.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s my Shangri-La.”

It’s a sentiment often shared by riders at the end of a trip.

“Nobody comes off the mountain without saying, ‘Oh my god,’” he said. “It’s pretty mind-blowing to give that experience to people.”

Henry-Vega, 44, of Skykomish, started the business in 2018. Since then, Chinook ATV Expeditions has taken about 1,200 customers for rides, including tourists from more than 25 countries.

The tours last around four hours and climb 3,500 feet in elevation. Riders are first treated to views looking west to the main fork of Skykomish River and even, on clear days, the Olympic Mountains. Then, from an elevation of 2,700 feet near Index, the north fork of the river and the Cascade Range can be seen. The last stop overlooks the south fork of the river from Index all the way to Stevens Pass.

Along the way, riders park their vehicles and go for hikes. At this pace, they’ll see wildlife such as spotted owls, black-tailed deer and mountain goats.

Since the closest formal off-roading area to Snohomish County is Walker Valley east of Mount Vernon, tours through the Reiter Foothills are becoming increasingly popular, Henry-Vega said.

“We can take you to places you can never get to unless you’re on an ATV,” he said. “We have a ton of repeat customers.”

Chinook ATV Expeditions is not all about the ride. One of Vega’s missions is to tell riders about Reiter Foothills’ conflicted history and the importance of forest management.

For many years, the land — which belongs to Snohomish County but is managed by the state Department of Natural Resources — was an untamed playground for off-road enthusiasts.

Riders created unofficial trails over the years in the foothills, which border the Wallace Falls and Forks of the Sky state parks. An estimated 40,000 riders a year by 2008 strained the forest.

“Basically, people loved it to death,” said Benjamin Hale, DNR recreation manager. “The trails were ridden so extensively that people were going through fish-bearing streams and sensitive wetlands.”

DNR closed the forest to recreational vehicles in 2009. After official trails were built, Reiter Foothills reopened on weekends for off-road vehicles in 2012, then expanded to seven days a week in 2016.

Hale said the foothills’ rocky terrain makes for some difficult riding, but there are plenty of smoother trails for beginners.

“It’s the closest ORV (off-road vehicle) area to the Seattle metro area, so we get a lot of first-timers,” he said. “We’ve been building more trails year after year.”

Plans are in the works to develop a trail system for hikers, bicyclists and horseback riders, Hale said. But until then, off-road vehicles are the best way to access the area.

“You can go 25 miles up into the wilderness in a couple of hours on an ATV,” Chinook’s Henry-Vega said. “You can’t do that hiking.”

The trails, typically about 4 feet wide, include obstacles, such as fallen trees and boulders. With ATVs, riding over obstacles is part of the fun. But if an obstacle is too tough for a beginner, a tour guide will step in and help them over the hump.

Before he started his own company, Henry-Vega was an ATV tour guide on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where he led trips through backcountry terrain, mountains and rain forest. While the scenery was beautiful, Henry-Vega said large groups of up to 30 riders were a drawback.

He said Chinook ATV’s smaller groups allow for a better experience.

“The customers really get to know their guide and where they are at,” he said. “We go out and see the top of mountains and learn about the forest. You see the forest, deer and bears, and then talk about mushrooms.”

The Reiter Foothills trail system allows for speeds up to 30 mph, but most riders cruise under 15 mph. Others take it slow at 3 to 6 mph, which fits Chinook ATV Expeditions’ conservation philosophy. Within four years, the company plans to switch to electric ATVs to minimize their environmental impact.

“It’s a really mellow, slow tour,” Henry-Vega said. “There’s a huge stigma with all-terrain vehicles being rowdy and kicking up dirt. That isn’t us. We don’t invite people who want to go out there and rip.”

Trips can be customized to fit your interests. Groups have split into two, with half tackling tough terrain and the other half spending time off their ATVs learning about the area.

“If you want to go out and have an adventure and get muddy, we can totally do that,” he said. “But most tourists have never ridden before. Some people are interested in seeing the Pacific Northwest. If you want to go hiking to a waterfall and talk about the fauna, we can do that, too.”

Trips for hunters and anglers also are available.

There’s no age limit, either. Henry-Vega will never forget the time he took a couple in their 90s on a trip.

“They had a blast,” he said. “They came down with the biggest smiles on their faces.”

If you go

Chinook ATV Expeditions offers guided rides on ATVs, plus fishing, hunting and overnight expeditions. A half-day tour of the Reiter Foothills Forest on ATV is $169 for a driver and $79 for passenger, and includes lunch. More at www.chinookatv.com.

Washington North Coast Magazine

This article is featured in the spring issue of Washington North Coast Magazine, a supplement of The Daily Herald. Explore Snohomish and Island counties with each quarterly magazine. Each issue is $3.99. Subscribe to receive all four editions for $14 per year. Call 425-339-3200 or go to www.washingtonnorthcoast.com for more information.

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