The easternmost trailhead of the Whitehorse Trail near downtown Darrington. (Aaron Swaney photo)

Whitehorse Trail showing signs of rebirth after Oso mudslide

The intersection of decay and rebirth along the Fortson Mill section of the Whitehorse Trail is hard to ignore.

The crumbling concrete ruins of the old Fortson Mill, a steam mill that powered the once-thriving town of Fortson, are draped with lush vegetation, from ferns to trillium.

It’s spring, so a deluge of water rushes through the abandoned metal dam structure that still creates a pond behind the mill. Buds appear on the tree branches that line the trail and the historical wooden bridges that dot the trail are adorned with brand new, unvarnished boards.

Nowhere is this dichotomy greater than at the site of the 2014 Oso mudslide, just a few miles west of the Fortson Mill area. With the remnants of the giant mudslide — uprooted trees, huge mounds of earthen material — as a backdrop, visitors can now see vibrant green grass sprouting and a fresh gravel trail running across the mouth of the slide area.

Destruction and reconstruction.

I recently stopped and visited the memorial site after a ride on the Fortson Mill section of the trail. Soon, the 1-mile portion of the Whitehorse Trail that was swallowed up by the mudslide will reopen after months of work to repair it. It’s one of the first steps by Snohomish County to turn a 13-acre area near the slide into a memorial site, and is another step in the revitalization of the Whitehorse Trail, which runs 27 miles from Arlington to Darrington.

The rebuilding of the Whitehorse Trail is part of the North Stillaguamish Valley Economic Redevelopment Plan, which was developed by leaders from Arlington and Darrington in 2015. The plan was created after the U.S. Economic Development Administration granted money for redevelopment in the wake of the mudslide. Among other things, the plan calls for improving high-speed internet access for residents, enhancing public transportation and developing recreational opportunities.

The Whitehorse Trail is a big component of that last part. (Another is new mountain bike trails on North Mountain, but that’s another story.) Currently, there are only a few open sections of the Whitehorse Trail, including the 7-mile section that runs from Fortson Mill to the city of Darrington. A few years ago, I wrote about another open section near Trafton that is accessible for short hikes.

My goal was to enjoy a bike ride on the Fortson Mill-to-Darrington section of the trail. It’s been open for a few years, but I had yet to try it. The months of gray weather had me itching to get out and go on a cross-country bike ride, so I picked a day and made plans.

It had rained all week leading up to the day (big surprise), and it was forecast to rain later the day I had circled to go. According to my weather app, there was a slice of four hours that looked dry. I had to hurry and dress warm.

On the way out to the trailhead the rain beat my windshield. Driving east along Highway 530, I tried to spy the trail whenever I could. There was plenty of evidence of trail work being done or already finished, especially on the bridges.

The rain had stopped by the time I reached the trailhead, which has a huge open area to park. I layered up and set off. The trail isn’t paved, so the soggy ground made for tough going at certain points.

Overall it was a glorious ride. I’d describe this as a hike on a bike, especially when the trail crosses Squire Creek and enters Squire Creek Park. From there, the Stillaguamish River winds and bends into view at a number of places on the trail, the view of the woods deepens and little creatures and birds come in and out of view.

Near the end of the trail, it crosses behind the Whitehorse Amphitheatre and runs past a lumber mill that was quiet on the weekend day I visited. The sound of rushing water and breaking branches can be heard often on the trail — as well the pop-pop-pop of some guns firing. I guessed there was a great spot for shooting north across the river, but there was nobody around to confirm that. I’m excited to revisit the trail when the weather warms up.

I’d read about the Fortson Mill trailhead a few years ago, but I was reminded of it recently when I learned about the inaugural Ride to Remember Oso memorial bike ride, which took place March 19.

The main ride was a 28-mile ride from Arlington to Darrington, but there was a smaller family-friendly trail ride called the JoJo Trail Ride, which started at Fortson Mill and followed the path I took. The ride was created by Arlington Velo Sport owner Mark Everett and Jose Mangual, who lost his son, Jovan “JoJo” Mangual, in the mudslide.

More evidence of loss and rebirth.

Fortson Mill Trailhead

Getting there: From Exit 208 on I-5 travel east on Highway 530 for 25.2 miles. Turn left on Fortson Mill Road (at milepost 42). Continue a short way to a large parking lot.

Trail: A mix of hiking, biking and horse riding. Mountain bike or knobby tires only, as the trail is mostly rutted grass and gravel. About 13 miles roundtrip to Darrington and back. Easy. Other small paths lead to ponds near the trailhead. Dogs on leash are allowed.

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