Mountain Loop Highway
The state highway ends at Granite Falls; at the second traffic signal in town, turn left and continue east on the signed “Mountain Loop Highway.” The 53-mile section from Granite Falls to Darrington is designated as a National Scenic Byway. Just north of town and west of the bridge over the Stillaguamish River (locals call it the “Stilly”) look for the sign for Granite Falls. A short trail leads through the woods to the falls and the adjacent old fish ladder.
Beyond here the Mountain Loop Highway follows the north bank of the south fork of the Stillaguamish River into heavily wooded foothills. Much of this landscape has been logged, some of it twice. Just past the 3-mile marker is a great view of the snowcapped crags of Three Fingers, which climbs to 6,854 feet. The valley widens through the tiny community of Robe with its scattered homes. Beyond Turlo Creek we enter the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
In the hamlet of Verlot, population around 400, is a U.S. Forest Service information center where you can inquire about road and trail conditions as well as recreation activities in the area. This is also the place to pick up the required National Forest Service pass to legally park at trailheads and in recreation areas along the route. The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is also accepted.
A few miles east, Forest Road 42 branches to the right, winding up Pilchuck Mountain to a Forest Service picnic ground on the site of a former alpine ski area. Unreliable snows caused the ski area to close in the late 1970s. A 2½-mile trail climbs up to the 5,300-foot summit. Back on the Mountain Loop, the valley narrows to a canyon. Moss cloaks the trees.
The highway passes dozens of Forest Service recreation areas. Most of the trailheads, picnic areas and campgrounds are closed in the late fall, winter and early spring. Along this stretch you’ll glimpse old mine tunnels, the route of the long-abandoned railroad and remnants of ghost towns, all indicative of the gold, silver and copper mining boom that swept the canyon in the 1890s.
At an altitude of 1,535 feet, you reach tiny Silverton, which was founded in 1891 and became a notable silver and copper mining camp. Its brightly painted buildings, some dating back to the late 19th century, dot the hillside north of the highway. Just east of Silverton at Deer Creek, the Mountain Loop Highway is gated in winter.
Four miles down the road is the site of the Big Four Inn, a popular resort opened in 1921. By 1924, 6,000 visitors per year were riding the train from Everett up to the resort where they could golf, hike, dance, attend conventions or just relax amid the mountain scenery. Fire destroyed the resort in 1949 and concrete foundations are all that remain.
An easy 1-mile trail leads to the Big Four Ice Caves. This unusual feature forms where a stream emerges from a perennial snowfield at the base of Big Four Mountain. The peak towers above the site, soaring to over 6,100 feet, keeping the north-facing site in constant shade. A cool microclimate exists in the environs of the snowfield and many sub-Arctic plants thrive, despite the low elevation of 1,900 feet.
Note: it is very dangerous to approach the snowfield; debris often falls down the precipitous slope making the proximity hazardous. Don’t enter the ice caves under any circumstance!
The Mountain Loop continues climbing between high peaks, reaching the 2,360-foot summit of Barlow Pass. This marks the watershed between the Stillaguamish River and the Sauk River, which flows north to the Skagit River, which in turn empties into Puget Sound.
At the crest a branch road strikes off to the east, reaching the ghost town of Monte Cristo at an altitude 2,756 feet, and spectacularly set amidst high snow clad peaks. This was a wide-open gold mining town of 2,000 people in the 1890s. Today the remains of its buildings are crumbling ruins. Mine workings can be seen on the surrounding mountainsides.
Ore was transported down to the townsite on tramways, then loaded onto the railway for transport to the smelter in Everett. Mining dwindled in the early 1900s, and the last mine closed in 1920. Monte Cristo continued to be a popular recreation destination, accessible by train. This ended in 1936 when the railroad was abandoned. Floods seriously damaged the Monte Cristo access road in December 1980. It remains closed to vehicles but is a relatively easy 4-mile hike following the railroad right of way from Barlow Pass.
At Barlow Pass the Mountain Loop Highway becomes a narrow gravel road. There are usually some sections of washboard surface. Normally the road is fairly well maintained during the summer and early fall months and is easily passable by a passenger car. Speeds on the gravel section average 25 to 35 mph, but watch for oncoming traffic on curves. There are several primitive recreation sites along this stretch of the loop and tantalizing glimpses of the nearby high peaks.
At the White Chuck viewpoint, just south of the junction with Forest Road 23, the panorama stretches across the White Chuck River to the craggy heights of its namesake mountain. The name partially derives from the milky color of this stream born on the slopes of 10,541-foot Glacier Peak, out of sight to the east.
Just past the Forest Road 23 junction, the valley widens and it’s a smooth 10-mile drive into the old logging town of Darrington (population 1,400). The 6,800-foot peak of Whitehorse Mountain towers over the town to the southwest. The settlement dates to the 1880s when the area was known first as Sauk Portage, later as The Burn.
Darrington started out as a way station on the wagon road to the Monte Cristo mines, then prospered as a logging center and railhead. A number of Tarheels settled here from North Carolina between 1900 and 1950. Many of their descendants still live in the area. Although their regional accents have largely disappeared, some of their traditions are kept alive during the Bluegrass Festival, normally held each July.
–Written by John King, last updated in November 2022.
–Top image is of Whitehorse Mountain. By Chris Boswell/Getty Images