MOUNTAIN LOOP HIGHWAY, Wash. (AP) — Early morning, on the first of a new series of ranger-guided snowshoe walks here, Mother Nature blessed us with sun rays illuminating Big Four Mountain and a fresh track of snow, perfect to slush-slush our way along the south fork of the Stillaguamish River.
I had to eat crow. The day before our hike, our guide, ranger Matthew Riggen, said, “Bring your shades.”
I was skeptical. It was wincing cold when we pulled up, down-jacket weather for sure. But his words proved prescient.
On the trail, rows of hemlocks and alders shielded us from the wind. And with the sun beating down on our foreheads, we started peeling off layer after layer. One guy was in shorts. He didn’t seem that crazy after all.
We snowshoed on the Mountain Loop Highway — yes, the same two-lane road 50,000 visitors drive over during the summer tourist season to get to the historic mining town of Monte Cristo, Lake 22 or the Big Four Ice Caves.
What a gem, one hiker in our group said: only about an hour drive from Seattle and no parking or recreation fees.
They say you can make out the numeral “4’’ outlined on the eastern face of this mountain, hence the name. Around the turn of the last century, gold prospectors built a railroad along the Stillaguamish River — “the Stilly,” locals call it. Eventually, the tracks were uprooted and became the Mountain Loop Highway, partly because no one found much gold and partly because winter snows made it impassable and damaged the tracks, Riggen told our group.
During the two-mile walk to the Big Four Picnic Area, the ranger regaled us about popular fall coho runs on the Stilly and pointed out tiny paw prints off the roadside: Douglas squirrel, snowshoe hare and other small critters. Cougars and bobcats lurk deeper in the woods.
The picnic area is the former site of the grand Big Four Inn, a five-story resort that opened in 1921, with a tennis court and nine-hole golf course. Couples waltzed in the dance hall or strolled along a man-made lake. The hotel burned in 1949; only the remnant of the stone fireplace remains.
From here, you can walk about a mile to the Big Four Ice Caves, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Snohomish County.
The ice caves occur after the snowpack slides down and piles up at the base of the 6,135-foot mountain; by summer the bottom thaws out and forms cavern-like hollows. They can collapse, so entering is prohibited, and visitors should stay well back; this is an avalanche zone in all seasons.
At the picnic area, dozens unstrapped their snowshoes and skis to take a break, some snapping iPhone pictures of the snow-capped vista.
The staff boiled water under the picnic shelter to make hot chocolate. Then the ranger motioned for us to pack up to head back. The sun was out. I was lollygagging in the open field. No one else was in a hurry to leave the foot of Big Four Mountain either.
The original story can be found on The Seattle Times’ website: http://bit.ly/VQAONJ
Information from: The Seattle Times, http://www.seattletimes.com
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.