Suiattle River Road reopening after 11 years

DARRINGTON — The Suiattle River Road, with access to scenic campsites, hunting and fishing areas and more than 100 miles of trails, is reopening 11 years and four days after flooding wiped out part of the route.

The road stretches about 23 miles from Highway 530 north of Darrington into the Suiattle River Valley, but has been closed to motorized vehicles about 12 miles in and, farther up, to all access. The blocked-off upper half of the road includes connections to seven popular trailheads, two campgrounds, a rental cabin and a variety of hunting and fishing sites.

A grand opening of the repaired forest road is scheduled for Saturday, with a ribbon cutting at 10 a.m. near the Suiattle River Road’s intersection with Highway 530 and a celebration at noon in the Darrington Community Center, 570 Sauk Ave.

The afternoon event includes speeches from local politicians, a video about the Suiattle River Valley and a variety of booths from local businesses and organizations.

The road’s reopening has been a long time coming.

Part of the road was destroyed by floods in 2003. While repairs were under way in 2006, another flood washed out more of the road and ruined the initial progress, project engineer Peter Wagner said.

Two sections of road, totaling about a mile and a half, had to be shifted about 500 feet farther away from the river. The work also included realigning and widening sections, expanding and stabilizing bridges over Downey and Sulphur creeks, and putting in a new trailhead and parking area for the Huckleberry Trail.

The Federal Highway Administration handled the lower stretches of the road, a $2.7 million project. The U.S. Forest Service took on the upper reaches and the bridge work, totaling about $1.1 million. Most of the forest service’s share was funded by the highway administration’s Emergency Relief for Federally Owned Roads program.

“Each site had its own challenges,” Wagner said. “A lot of partners had to come together to make it happen.”

The road’s reopening is a welcome boost for Darrington, a town of 1,400 that relies on outdoor recreation to draw visitors. Local businesses were hit hard by the March 22 Oso mudslide, which killed 43 people and blocked Highway 530 between Arlington and Darrington. The highway reopened in May, and local leaders hope that reopening the Suiattle River Road will draw more tourists to the area in the future.

A plethora of recreational opportunities are hidden in Darrington’s back yard, said Gary Paull, wilderness and trails coordinator for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The Suiattle River Valley is as large as the popular Mt. Rainier National Forest, he said. But with less access than Mount Rainier, the area remains more rugged and wild, a draw for outdoor enthusiasts.

The opening of the Suiattle River Road also means the trail up to the Green Mountain Lookout will be accessible. The lookout gained federal protection earlier this year.

Don and Robin Wood, who own Bar 3 Quarter Horse Ranch &Outfitters, are anxious to get back into the valleys and mountains of the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

“You get up into these areas and there’s no question there’s a God,” Robin said. “It’s so breathtakingly beautiful.”

The couple’s business provides pack animals, supplies and expertise to bring hikers, hunters and campers into the wilderness. They started their ranch in 2000 and got a permit for a wilderness outfitting and packing business in 2012. They’ve struggled to make ends meet with access cut off to some of the most beautiful and popular attractions near Darrington, Don said.

And they still worry about maintenance on the trails, even after the Suiattle River Road reopens.

“If you haven’t done something for 12 years, you think it’s going to need some doing,” Don said. “The work is massive. I figure if I do something now to get these trails cleared, maybe my grandson can do something with them.”

The forest service hasn’t been able to work much on the trails during the last couple of years, Paull said.

“There’s a lot of work to do,” he said. “Trail maintenance will just start at the valley bottom and we’ll work our way out from there.”

The Sulphur Creek and Buck Creek campgrounds need tending to, as well. Part of the Sulphur Creek Campground was washed out by the same floods that damaged the road.

Work won’t start on the campgrounds until next year at the earliest, Paull said. In the meantime, the forest service is working with organizations like the Washington Trails Association to rally volunteer support and submitting grant applications in hopes of winning funding.

“It’s such a large area to open,” Paull said. “We’re going to rely quite a bit on volunteers.”

Paull expects local projects to start appearing on the WTA’s website, www.wta.org/volunteer, by the end of December.

Most of the valley is low enough that snow is spotty, he said. Crews will likely be able to get out there and start cleaning things up soon.

“But winters are tricky,” Paull said. “If you go up in the winter, you have to be really cognizant of the weather.”

Work parties are already planned for the spring, as well. The first Saturday in June is National Trails Day, and the WTA will have more information online about work parties in the coming months.

It’s going to take a lot of work to get the trails and campgrounds back to where they were before the flooding and the road closure, Don said. Doing so is important for the whole community.

“We need to care about the trails,” Robin said. “We need to get these trails open.”

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

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