People explore along the South Fork Stillaguamish River near the repaired bridge that heads to Big Four Ice Caves on Oct. 28, in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest near Granite Falls. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

People explore along the South Fork Stillaguamish River near the repaired bridge that heads to Big Four Ice Caves on Oct. 28, in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest near Granite Falls. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Long-awaited repair: Bridge to the Big Four Ice Caves reopens

In 2019, erosion damaged the footbridge leading to one of Snohomish County’s most iconic destinations off Mountain Loop Highway.

GRANITE FALLS — After three years, the bridge leading to one of Snohomish County’s most popular nature destinations has been restored.

The Big Four Ice Caves are located off Mountain Loop Highway, about 20 miles east of Granite Falls. An easy walk on a path and over the bridge leads to the caverns carved out by an avalanche chute, shaped by millions of years of shifting tectonic plates. The ice caves are typically visible and accessible between spring and fall.

Thousands of visitors flocked to the caves until 2019, when the aluminum footbridge gave out along the 1.1 mile path that leads to the icy mountainside. Years of erosion on the bank of the South Fork Stillaguamish River damaged one of the structure’s footings.

Late last month, lengthy repairs on the footbridge were finished, reopening the completed path to the public. U.S. Forest Service rangers spearheaded the restoration, using funds from the Great American Outdoors Act. The restored bridge has been extended to reduce the risk of erosion. Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest ranger Colton Whitworth said the updated bridge is estimated to weigh a total of 6,600 pounds.

The ice caves vary in size from season to season and are incredibly dangerous. Four people have died in and around the caves from falling snow and ice since the late 1990s. Several others have been injured. Warning signs and memorials remind people that melting, unstable ice can kill.

Whitworth said the public must heed caution when visiting the area.

“Big Four Mountain and the ice caves are part of an ever-changing environment,” he said. “Avalanches and rock fall are a potential hazard year-round. We want people to enjoy that ecosystem. But we urge visitors to maintain a safe distance, stay on the designated trail and never enter the ice caves.”

The gentle trail to the caves is accessible to people with most every level of mobility — a unique thing in the heart of the North Cascades.

At Big Four, the ice caves aren’t the only attraction. The nature preserve is considered one of the best birding areas in the North Cascades with a myriad of visiting species, including red-breasted sapsuckers and spotted sandpipers. Familiar calls of red-winged blackbirds can be heard echoing across the marshland. If you’re lucky, look down and you might just spot an elusive beaver.

In a past life, the area was home to a bustling railroad hotel.

The Big Four Inn was built in 1921 to increase tourism on the Monte Cristo Railway. One busy season, more than 6,000 visitors slept in the fancy, 35-room inn.

In September 1949, the inn burned to the ground. All that remains of it today is the lobby’s large stone fireplace.

More repairs are on the horizon for the path in the nature preserve, ranger Whitworth said. The Forest Service has plans and funding to repair sections of path’s boardwalk in the near future.

Big Four will be open to the public as long as the Mountain Loop is open. When the Washington State Department of Transportation closes that highway, the nature preserve will be closed off until spring when it’s reopened.

Getting there

From Highway 92 east, turn left onto Mountain Loop Highway. In 10 miles, pass the Verlot Ranger Station on the left. A mile after the ranger station, cross a blue-and-gray bridge. Thirteen miles from the bridge, look for a sign marked “Ice Caves Trailhead” on the right side of the highway. Turn in and park in the paved lot.

Visitors must pay for a $10 day pass fee or bring a Northwest Forest Pass.

Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486; ellen.dennis@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @reporterellen.

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