By Jessi Loerch
Special to The Herald
Now is an excellent time to take a drive around the Mountain Loop Highway. The loop, which travels from Granite Falls to Darrington, is lovely any time of year, but the fall is particularly pleasant with colorful leaves, cool temperatures and few bugs.
Here are suggestions for stops along the loop. This assumes you’ve started from Granite Falls, but you could just as easily start in Darrington. In addition to these stops, there are a number of areas to pull over and enjoy a picnic or simply take in the river views.
Granite Falls. No, not the city. The actual falls. The falls are 1.5 miles north of the junction of Highway 92 and the Mountain Loop Highway. Watch for parking areas on both the left and the right. Walk a short way down the hill to take a look at the falls and the Granite Falls fishway. Kids will enjoy walking on the grates that let you look down to the stones and water below.
Old Robe Canyon. This is an excellent, easy hike. Look for a wide spot in the road about seven miles from Granite Falls. There’s an old brick sign there, but the words are worn away. The trail is mostly flat, except for a brief drop at the beginning (which, of course, means a brief climb at the end). Be sure to follow the trail until it begins to narrow at Robe Canyon. It’s amazing how the river changes from wide and meandering to narrow and wild. There are clear signs of the old railroad that used to run through here. The trail is closed a short ways into the canyon due to a landslide and unstable tunnels, but you can get a good view of the canyon before you have to turn around.
Verlot Public Service Center. Stop in the ranger station, which is 11 miles east of Granite Falls, for information on road and trail conditions. You can also pick up maps and a Northwest Forest Pass, which is necessary for parking at some trailheads. The center is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Monday; 360-691-7791.
Boardman Lake. This is a very short – 0.8 mile one way – hike to a lovely mountain lake. It’s great for kids or for anyone who wants a quick, easy trip. To get there, turn onto Forest Road 402 about 4.5 miles past the Verlot Public Service Center. Bear left at a signed junction. The trailhead is about five miles from the Mountain Loop. The road is rough, but passenger cars can make it with careful driving.
Big Four Ice Caves. The trailhead is about 15 miles past the Verlot Public Service Center. It’s a great spot to stop for a lunch. In the fall, the colors are lovely. It’s also a cool hike to the ice caves, 2.2 miles roundtrip on a smooth trail. Just remember to stay on the trail and view the caves from a distance. The ice caves are extremely dangerous. Don’t go in or near them.
Monte Cristo. The trailhead to this old mining town is at Barlow Pass, where the pavement ends, about 30 miles from Granite Falls. The hike is eight miles roundtrip with about 700 feet of elevation gain. The trail had been closed until June to allow for cleanup of the old mining operations. The site includes a ghost town that kids and adults will enjoy. Respect the area and don’t pick up artifacts. For those who want more challenge, there are a number of more difficult hikes that continue from the ghost town.
Goat Lake. The hike to Goat Lake in the fall is a joy. The trail is likely to sport a wide range of brightly colored mushrooms. The trail splits not far from the trailhead. Take the upper (left) path to the lake for a gentler climb. The trail will eventually rejoin and then begin a final climb to the lake. On the way down, take the lower path for mushroom viewing and some nice scenery along the river. The trail is 10.4 miles roundtrip, with 1,400 feet of gain. The turnoff to the trailhead is signed and is about 3.5 miles past Barlow Pass.
North Fork Falls. Just past Bedal Campground, turn right onto Forest Road 49. Drive for about a mile to a small parking area on the right side of the road. A 0.2-mile path leads to an excellent view of a large waterfall on the North Fork Sauk River. The trail has a washout at the end. Keep kids close and be careful while you enjoy the view.
Harold Engles Cedar Grove. This short but awe-inspiring walk is also off Forest Road 49. From the North Fork Falls, continue along the road for a few more miles. Watch for a green sign on the right-hand side of the road. The sign tells the story of Harold Engles, a Darrington District forest ranger for many years. In the 1930s, the Sauk River watershed was being logged. Engles recognized the need to save some of the huge western red cedars . He was able to save an area about 200 yards wide and a mile long. The trail winds past some of these huge trees. Looking at these giants, it’s easy to feel a sense of reverence.
Beaver Lake. This is an excellent hike for all ages. It’s on an old railbed, mostly flat, that runs along the Sauk River. There is a small section that is partially washed out, but it’s easily crossed with a little care. Attractive wooden bridges span a beaver pond near the end of the trail. Come early or late for the best chance to see the beavers or other wildlife. Look for the trailhead on the left side of the road, it’s just before the Sauk River.