Restoration of Whitehorse Trail well on its way

DARRINGTON — Crews have knocked back brambles, hauled out trash and widened the shady gravel pathway.

There’s still work left to do on Whitehorse Trail between Darrington and Arlington, but the project is well under way. It’s part of an ongoing effort to kickstart the economy in the Stillaguamish Valley after the devastating Oso mudslide.

The slide killed 43 people and covered a stretch of Highway 530 between Arlington and Darrington. It also wiped out part of Whitehorse Trail, a county-owned corridor along a former Burlington Northern Railroad line.

Restoring the trail is a priority for officials focused on boosting business in the area, specifically tourism and outdoor recreation.

Crews have cleared about 15 miles of the route starting at Darrington, Snohomish County Parks Director Tom Teigen said. Their next focus is cleaning up the west end of the trail near Arlington.

A mile of trail destroyed by the mudslide likely won’t be rebuilt until next summer, Teigen said.

Trail crews are set to finish their projects in October. From mid-October to December, the county plans to redeck and rerail up to 14 bridges along Whitehorse Trail thanks to a $301,000 private donation.

Other projects on the trail include new bridges in the slide area and safer crossings over Highway 530.

Once complete, the 27-mile Whitehorse Trail is expected to connect Darrington and Arlington. But the long-term vision is bigger than that, said Blake Trask, policy director for Washington Bikes*.

State, county and local officials plan to celebrate progress on Whitehorse Trail at 10:30 a.m. Saturday near Fortson Mill off Highway 530.

“There’s just a lot of things coming together that I don’t think any of us would have expected before the tragedy on SR 530,” Trask said. “Real progress is being made in the valley, and this is an example of that progress.”

Eventually, he hopes to see Whitehorse Trail connect to Centennial Trail, which would then link into the King County trails system. More than 100 miles of trails would traverse the area, from Seattle to the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

Whitehorse Trail is a largely untapped recreational resource for Snohomish County, Trask said.

Near Fortson Mill, the path yields glimpses of the winding Stillaguamish River through barriers of trees and brush. It would be a good spot for a stroll, or a ride on a bicycle or a horse.

That wasn’t the case two months ago. Workers had to shimmy sideways through tangled brambles and blackberry bushes along parts of the trail, said Josh Howe, part of a trail cleanup crew. His crew is one of 10 who spent the sunny summer sprucing up Darrington, including Whitehorse Trail, Squire Creek Campground, the rodeo grounds and several local parks.

Workforce Snohomish hired about 70 people using federal relief grants geared toward employment and economic recovery in the Stillaguamish Valley, Teigen said. The goal was to hire local.

Howe can point to his neighborhood from Whitehorse Trail. If the trees weren’t there, he could probably see his house. It feels good to be working in his back yard on a project to help his hometown, he said.

“We’ve had a lot of bad stuff going on up here,” Howe said, recalling the weeks after the slide when the most direct route to and from Darrington was blocked by debris. It took him more than two hours to get to work in Island Crossing, normally a 45-minute drive. Few out-of-towners were making the extended drive to Darrington.

Things are turning around, he said.

“Now we see a lot of people on the trail and it’s always a lot of really good, positive feedback,” Howe said.

Dalton Grant also lives nearby and has been weed-whacking and widening the trail for a couple of months. Earlier this summer, he helped repair and repaint the Darrington Rodeo Grounds.

Much of Whitehorse Trail was overgrown and littered when crews started, Grant said. He and Howe removed bags of trash. They also found some treasures while clearing brush along the trail, including a pile of old railroad spikes and the door of a boxcar.

Grant hopes improving the trail will help other people discover the valley’s treasures.

“Hopefully it brings some people out here to Darrington,” he said. “There’s a lot of really cool places to see.”

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

* Correction, Sept. 15, 2014: This article originally used an incorrect name for the group.

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