Recreation Management Specialist Jonathan Sotherland of the U.S. Forest Service checks the feel of the gravel on Mountain Loop Highway on Thursday, June 6, 2024, in rural Snohomish County, Washington. Sotherland wanted to check the condition of the closed road, and said some spots were a consistency similar to chunky peanut butter. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Recreation Management Specialist Jonathan Sotherland of the U.S. Forest Service checks the feel of the gravel on Mountain Loop Highway on Thursday, June 6, 2024, in rural Snohomish County, Washington. Sotherland wanted to check the condition of the closed road, and said some spots were a consistency similar to chunky peanut butter. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Hikers rejoice: Renewed road to Mount Pilchuck, Mountain Loop to open

The notoriously rough route to an iconic hike got a makeover. And the full Mountain Loop Highway, with routine repairs, opens Monday.

VERLOT — Beyond the closed gate at Barlow Pass along the Mountain Loop Highway, it gets a little squishy.

It takes less than a quarter-mile walk to start feeling your boots sink into the center of the road. It’s not quicksand, just a little too wet to have cars on the road.

Come Monday, though, the gravel section of Mountain Loop Highway between Barlow Pass and Darrington will reopen after being closed for six months. That section — a key access point to many of the most gorgeous vistas in the Glacier Peak Wilderness — has been closed since Dec. 7.

Just in time for the longest days of summer, it’ll be a busy week of road openings for the U.S. Forest Service.

The gate at Barlow Pass Trailhead on Mountain Loop Highway remains closed due to wet conditions on Thursday, June 6, 2024, in rural Snohomish County, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The gate at Barlow Pass Trailhead on Mountain Loop Highway remains closed due to wet conditions on Thursday, June 6, 2024, in rural Snohomish County, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Pilchuck Road reopens with a ceremony 10 a.m. Friday at the Heather Lake Trailhead. Hikers across the region have been waiting a year for the upper road to reopen. For a long time, it was one of the most notoriously rough mountain roads in the Cascades. Also known as U.S. Forest Service Road 42, it’s the gateway to one of Snohomish County’s most iconic hikes: Mount Pilchuck.

Workers graded the road, added gravel and improved drainage, among other repairs, like 8 miles of gravel-brushing and 7 miles of ditch-cleaning. It remains partially paved, with the last 2 miles or so being asphalt.

“It’s been a big effort,” said Brian Hindman, a transportation planner with the Forest Service.

The road still has some lumpy spots but “you’re not going to blow your axle out with those repairs,” Hindman said. “It’s a vast improvement for safety and driving conditions.”

“We got a lot of complaints on it,” Hindman said.

Tire treads can be seen in the mucky gravel of Mountain Loop Highway on Thursday, June 6, 2024, in rural Snohomish County, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Tire treads can be seen in the mucky gravel of Mountain Loop Highway on Thursday, June 6, 2024, in rural Snohomish County, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Contractors added 16 tons of rock from commercial sources, along with 300 tons of rock from the Forest Service’s stockpile. Rock can only be used from certified dealers who have their product inspected, Hindman said.

“This is a key improvement for a popular trail,” Darrington District Ranger Camden Bruner said in a news release. “We appreciate the public’s patience while road work occurred and are excited to have the road ready in time for summer!”

At 10 a.m. Thursday, most of Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest’s biggest attractions were fairly quiet. Some hikers at Lake 22 and Heather Lake. A few birdwatchers near Big Four. Just a handful of cars parked at other trailheads along the highway.

At the Barlow Pass trailhead, a few cars parked outside the closed gate. It didn’t seem like many people were up for the Monte Cristo hikes on this weekday morning. Gothic Basin is still a snow bowl, but offers incredible views of the forest. Monte Cristo, an abandoned mining town, is a fairly flat 8-mile round-trip hike. Snow-free, right now.

So who was there? Mike Brown, a 61-year-old motorcyclist. He rides his yellow-and-black BMW R1250 GS motorcycle along the Mountain Loop often when it’s open. He doesn’t stop where the pavement ends either. Riding the rough road on the bike is pretty fun, Brown said. He knows how some of the turns can get when they get wet.

“There are a couple of, probably three or four places, that you get back in there a ways. And it can get a little bit muddy,” Brown said. “So I would imagine that’s why it’s still closed.”

Waiting for the road to dry out is important, Hindman said, both on Mountain Loop and Pilchuck Road. While walking on the loop, we came across recreation management specialist Jonathan Sotherland. Like us, he was trying to get a sense of how soggy the road is.

Mountain Loop Highway closes each winter, when snow covers the road. The ground can sometimes turn to a consistency close to peanut butter when wet, Sotherland said. Another reason to let the road dry out. Next week’s forecast could help — mostly sunny skies and temperatures into the 70s are predicted for Snohomish County.

Up to 200 cars travel each way on the highway each day in the busy summer months.

The opening usually opens around Memorial Day, but weather can cause the dates to move around. The highway fully reopened in mid-July last year. In 2022, it was fully opened on May 21.

Off-season repairs on Mountain Loop included the addition of 1,600 tons of aggregate surfacing (gravel, rock, etc.) to the 14-mile gravel stretch of the highway maintained by the Forest Service. Snohomish County works with the Forest Service on road repairs.

The work on Pilchuck Road was also done as part of the South Fork Stillaguamish Vegetation Management project. It coincided with the state Department of Natural Resources improving drainage and helping repair roads in other parts of the National Forest, through a Good Neighbor Authority agreement.

Going forward, the Forest Service is hopeful people will use extra care on the roads, especially around the turns. Outside of safety reasons, it will also make the repairs last longer.

“We want to keep these roads safe and usable for everybody,” Hindman said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified a pass where Mountain Loop Highway has been gated off.

Jordan Hansen: 425-339-3046; jordan.hansen@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @jordyhansen.

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