Last year’s good news for those who love mountain scenery, hiking, camping and history is still this year’s good news – the Granite Falls to Darrington Mountain Loop highway is still open, at least until the snow begins falling in November.
Marked as a National Scenic Highway, the route was severely damaged by heavy storms and floods in 2003, then opened again last fall after $800,000 of repair work, including moving part of the highway between Barlow Pass and Darrington away from flood zones.
October offers the last opportunity of the year to travel the road, which is built alongside forks of the Stillaguamish and Sauk Rivers as they wind through forests and meadows.
The road is paved about two-thirds of the way, except for 23 miles of graded and graveled roadway between Barlow Pass, where the old road to the Monte Cristo mining site is barricaded, and the logging town of Darrington.
Leaving from downtown Arlington, where nearly 20 cafes and restaurants such as the Blue Bird Café, The Local Scoop and Eaglecrest offer before-or-after trip meals, the loop drive covers 105 miles and fills a full day of exploring for those who stop and linger often. A casual drive with a stop for dinner in either Darrington or Granite Falls takes about five hours.
Heading south from Arlington on Highway 9, the first route to Granite Falls comes at 84th Street NE. Coming north, a Highway 9 turnoff to Granite Falls is at the intersection with State Route 92. There are gas stations at Granite Falls and Darrington but nothing in between so be sure gas tanks are filled. Also, there’s no cell phone service along most of the loop route.
Granite Falls has small town charm and a variety of stores and eating places, including the Whistle Stop Coffee Shop, Robin’s Nest gifts and fine jewelry, Granite Falls Flowers &Gifts, Alfy’s Pizza Parlor and Bodacious Barbeque.
If you stop at The Nook, at the main intersection when you drive into town on Highway 92, you’ll meet Kelly Gruol who has at least three businesses in that space – a 1950s-décor ice cream parlor, gift shop, hobby shop, videos and a sign business.
“The Mountain Loop re-opening has been good for us but not as much as we had hoped,” said Gruol, who’s also president of the local chamber of commerce. More people need to know about the loop being open again, he said.
Two miles outside of Granite Falls is the popular fishway, with a small parking lot on the left side of the road. It’s only a short walk down to the south fork of the Stillaguamish River and the fish-ladder for close-up views of the falls.
Driving on through woods and meadows, the road leads past the Green Gables General Store, with its prominent sign: “Last chance for Espresso for 40 miles.” Beyond is the entrance to the Mt. Baker/Snoqualmie National Forest and the Verlot Public Service Center. Farther on, just past the river bridge on the right, is the road to the Mt. Pilchuck Lookout trailhead.
Driving along the river, you pass hiking trails such as the one for Lake 22, a popular climb to a mountain lake. Further on, just over the red bridge, on the left, is the Black Chief Mine entrance. It’s cool inside on a hot day but boarded up a few feet inside.
A short drive after passing Silverton, an early mining town where a number of residents still have homes, you’ll come to the turnoff for Big Four Mountain, which offers restrooms, picnic areas and spectacular views of the 6,135-foot-high mountain. You’ll see five predominate peaks along the top of the mountain but signs will tell you about the historic inn site and that Big Four was named for the number “4” often seen when snow accumulates on the mountainside.
Driving further, you may find a one-lane road where work is going on at Buck Creek bridge, then you’ll come to Barlow Pass, 23 miles from Darrington over an unpaved but fairly smooth road with occasional “washboard” bumps. Not quite wide enough for two cars, there are turnouts and wider spots that work well. Generally there is no heavy traffic volume. Don’t expect much better than 20 to 25 miles per hour until you reach paved road again just south of Darrington.
Another rest stop with scenic mountain views is at the White Chuck Overlook picnic area off the right side of the road.
Passing along the Sauk River there are huge second-growth cedars and the sounds of water rippling over rocks and songbirds. Tall stumps from the first logging in the area can be seen through the edge of the forest.
At Milepost 52 you’re back in civilization at the Darrington city limits. There are grocery and Espresso stores, bakeries and cafes, as well as the Darrington ranger station. One of the best places for food is just off the left of Highway 530 as you’re leaving Darrington – the Glacier Peak Café.
For the 45-minute drive between Darrington and Arlington there are farms and meadows with cattle, horses and sheep, and mountain views. Just before Arlington there’s a worthwhile stop at Ray and Joey Strom’s unique Outback Christmas Tree and Kangaroo Farm (www.christmastreesandroos.com). The gift shop is open Mar. 1 through Oct. 30 with several daily tours of ‘roos and other exotic animals.
As always, if you go, check with the ranger station in Darrington or Verlot on road and trail conditions, as well as campground information. Even though the main road is open, some trails may not be ready for hiking.
This time of year, even just the leisurely, scenic drive itself is well worth the trip.