VERLOT — Sunlight broke through mossy tree branches Friday morning, illuminating thick campfire smoke floating through the air at the Gold Basin Campground.
About half of the 75 or so spaces were filled with tents and RVs. This summer is the first time in five years that people have been allowed to stay at the campsite along the Mountain Loop Highway, about 14 miles east of Granite Falls.
Gold Basin closed soon after the Oso landslide that killed 43 people in March 2014.
Officials worried about another slide happening on the bank of the South Fork Stillaguamish opposite from the Gold Basin campground. A hill on that side of the river is geologically similar to the one that fell near Oso.
The U.S. Forest Service partnered with Southern Methodist University to study the ridge. The report, finished this spring, followed a few years of research.
Experts determined the campground was safe to open. It will continue to be monitored, said Dave Redman, the recreation program manager for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
Gold Basin is the forest’s largest campground, with about 90 spaces. Nearly a dozen are going to remain closed because the river has moved too close.
In his 40 years with the U.S. Forest Service, Redman has seen about 15 feet of riverbank disappear there.
Other campsites along the Mountain Loop Highway also are in danger of washing away. The U.S. Forest Service hopes to make up for that loss with a campground on what was once Camp Silverton.
It had been a children’s camp since the 1940s with cabins, A-frames and a dining hall. Most of the buildings were demolished a few weeks ago.
The hope is to place around 40 campsites on the land. There’s already electricity, water and the potential for internet access.
“But we want to be cognizant,” Redman said. “We know that we can’t expand recreation willy-nilly because it’s going to have effects on the ecosystems.”
Gold Basin was reopened about a month ago, without a public announcement. For now, sites are claimed on a first-come-first-served basis. Even though some sites are closed, visitors can still walk around all of Gold Basin.
“We’re really confident that during the summertime especially, this is a safe environment to be in,” Redman said.
An estimated $80,000 was spent restoring the land. Trees that had died were cut down, picnic tables were replaced and overgrown plants were pruned.
“Being closed for five years caused a lot of problems in the campground, as you can imagine,” Redman said.
Cleanup is set to be finished by next summer.
In the past, the campground was open from May until October. Campsites are expected to be available for reservation again next year.
During the busy summer months, campers set up any place they can find along the Mountain Loop Highway. Closing Gold Basin didn’t really effect that, because it’s always been that way, Redman said.
At least now there’s a little extra room for those who want an escape to the woods.