Group wants forest road near Darrington reopened for day hikes

DARRINGTON — A group of volunteers wants to reopen a forest road this summer that would connect people to multiple day hikes.

The trails lead to meadows, huckleberry fields, expansive views and the site where a fire lookout once stood.

About 5 miles of the 7-mile Circle Creek Road — Forest Service Road No. 2703 — need to be cleared and repaired in places so people can drive up to the trailhead for Circle Peak. The trail also splits off toward Crystal Lake. The trek to the peak, where the lookout once stood, is a steep two miles one way. From Circle Peak, there is a rough path to Indigo Lake.

Hiking opportunities are abundant around Darrington, but many of the routes are too long or challenging for older adults or families with young children. Opening Circle Creek Road would create more options for enjoying the striking scenery of the North Cascades Range, according to volunteers with Friends for Public Use and Darrington Area Resource Advocates.

“We have very few high alpine day hikes,” said Martha Rasmussen, who founded Friends for Public Use in 2012 in hopes of protecting Circle Creek and other forest roads from being decommissioned. “I did hike Circle Creek. It’s an all-day hike. It’s a short hike but it’s steep, and it’s worth it.”

Circle Creek Road was built decades ago for timber removal. The hiking trails there became especially popular among locals. The road has been closed past its first 1.7 miles for about five years, said Peter Forbes, Darrington District Ranger with the U.S. Forest Service.

In 2012, the Forest Service finished an analysis of its roads in the Suiattle River Recreation Area. With dwindling budgets for maintenance, officials were looking for routes that could be decommissioned. Circle Creek Road was one of them.

Advocates in Darrington sought to save the road. The Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe also expressed interest in maintaining access to Circle Peak. In a letter, tribal chairwoman Norma Joseph wrote of huckleberry fields and groves of yellow cedar used for ceremonies and basketry.

Through the nonprofit River Resource Trust, run by some of the same volunteers involved in Friends for Public Use and the resource advocates, donations are being collected to pay for road repairs. The goal is to raise about $25,000 to start, then collect donations for annual upkeep.

Several thousand dollars would go toward hiring a geotechnical engineer. The trickiest part of the repairs is a short stretch damaged by flooding. An engineer needs to approve a fix that meets Forest Service standards.

Other tasks include clearing debris and brush, said Frank Urbanski of Stanwood. He retired from the Forest Service after more than 30 years and now volunteers with the resource advocates.

Urbanski, Rasmussen and fellow volunteer Walt Dortch want to make Circle Creek Road an example of how to save public areas put in jeopardy by strapped budgets. Adopting forest roads could become a trend for protecting access to Washington’s wildlands, they said.

“We would hope that this would be a showcase project and that once this is done and successful, it’s something we can do in other places,” Urbanski said.

There has been a push to promote outdoor recreation and tourism around Darrington to strengthen the economy. Adding short hikes and places where families can take a scenic drive would help, Dortch said.

The Circle Peak trails are “at the top of the list in terms of spectacular views along with the meadows and the huckleberry fields,” he said. “It’s a lot of wonderful things packed into a day hike.”

The goal is to start repairs once the snow melts and finish this summer. The timeline depends on weather. Every mountain has a different winter, Rasmussen said.

Forbes thinks a summer reopening of the road is possible as long as the engineering gets done. The rest of the work isn’t expected to be as complex.

Volunteers also help monitor and maintain other forest roads. It didn’t take long for people to step up when they heard some could be decommissioned, Rasmussen said. The way she figures it, they had two options.

“You can complain,” she said. “Or you can find a solution.”

To donate to the Circle Creek Road project, go to riverresourcetrust.org.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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