All Over The Map: Mountain Loop Highway selected as ‘Treasured Landscape’

The Mountain Loop Highway has been a popular recreation area since the 1930s. This week, the Forest Service and the National Forest Service Foundation announced the launch of a multi-year initiative to make some big improvements to trails, campgrounds, and other destinations along the route.

Mountain Loop Highway is the official name of a road between Granite Falls and Barlow Pass, and the unofficial collective name for a series of connected roads in Snohomish County that follow the south fork and the north fork of the Stillaguamish River, and part of the Sauk River, through the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The name “Mountain Loop Highway” first came into wide use in the 1950s, but advocates for its construction were calling it that as early as 1931.

The southern portion of the road goes east from Lake Stevens (initially along State Route 92) through places such as Granite Falls, Robe, Verlot, Silverton and up to the Big Four Ice Caves, where a famous lodge once stood. The route of the highway follows much of the route of an old railroad that was first completed in 1893 and which went from Everett all the way to the gold and silver mining town of Monte Cristo; before the highway was built, the railroad was the only mechanized way to travel through the area.

Monte Cristo, named after the Dumas novel by miners looking to attract investors, has been a ghost town since before World War II; in photos from the 1940s, the decrepit buildings give the town a look like something out of an episode of “Scooby Doo.”

A writer a century ago – when the railroad was still in operation – described the area this way:

One of the most scenic parts of beautiful Snohomish County is that traversed by the railroad known as ‘the Monte Cristo Line,’ which pierces into the very heart of the Cascades, to the mysterious, romantic mine-land, the scene of so many disappointments but which still glitters with the rainbow promises of hidden wealth.

Much of the wealth remained hidden, apparently, and the mining in and around Monte Cristo was pretty much done by 1920 – so much for that particular brand of “rainbow promises.” The railroad was halted permanently in April 1933, and the highway was built, in part, because of the efforts of the Seattle and Everett Chambers of Commerce to lobby for recreation interests and for those hoping to revive mining in the area.

The lobbying began in 1930, and the roadway was built in segments, east from Granite Falls, beginning in the early years of the Great Depression. It was officially dedicated on October 19, 1942.

The 104 or so miles of the Mountain Loop Highway are best enjoyed from late spring to late autumn. As of early May, the Mountain Loop Highway east of Big Four remains closed for the season, as it is every year from roughly November to May. Matt Phelps of Snohomish County Public Works told KIRO Radio it will probably open up around the end of the month.

When it does, drivers can continue up over Barlow Pass (elevation 2,361 feet) and down into Darrington. From there, head west on State Route 530 roughly 28 miles to Arlington. For the latest closure and opening information from Snohomish County Public Works, click here.

Most of the route of the Mountain Loop Highway is paved, but there is a 13-mile stretch beyond Barlow Pass that’s not – though it is considered passable by most regular vehicles.

With its proximity to Everett and Seattle, the Mountain Loop Highway is a popular place. Parking can be tough to find at places like the trailhead for Lake 22 – which was named either for Township 22 or for a nearby Monte Cristo railroad bridge that was also numbered 22. With the region’s booming population – and even before pandemic-related increases in outdoor recreation – the trails, campgrounds and other amenities are showing the wear and other effects of their popularity.

And that’s why it was big news this week that the National Forest Foundation – which is the non-profit fundraising partner of the Forest Service – announced that it has chosen the Mountain Loop Highway for its “Treasured Landscapes” program. The Forest Service has identified about $14 million worth of planned improvements, and the National Forest Foundation is now aiming to raise at least $2.5 million of that, as well as to leverage a lot more private and public support, and harness volunteer horsepower, too.

“Treasured Landscapes” are typically a minimum four-year commitment – and the Forest Service aims to address some long-term needs in the years beyond this initial phase. But, later this year, visitors to the area begin to see changes, including reopening of the bridge crossing the river at Big Four; new and improved restrooms in multiple locations; and improvements to several trails.

Michael Schlafmann, public services partnerships and public affairs staff officer on the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, told KIRO Radio that partnering with the National Forest Foundation is terrific for the private resources it will bring, but it also makes the Mountain Loop Highway more likely to receive other federal dollars, too.

“Being designated as a ‘Treasured Landscape’ has already raised the profile of the Mountain Loop, certainly, within the Forest Service,” Schlaffman said. “And so it’s made this kind of geography more competitive for internal grants and other kinds of capital improvement funding” including the Great American Outdoors Act, the $9.5 billion funding package passed last year by Congress.

Marcus Selig, vice-president of field programs for the National Forest Foundation, says his organization will be looking to public and private partners – and individual citizens – to invest time and other resources in support of the goals for the Mountain Loop Highway.

“The public can get involved from a funding standpoint,” Selig said. “We are able to accept donations from anybody to support this work, so that is a great way for individuals, corporations and foundations to get involved.”

Selig says that like so many of the trails and other public recreation areas in the Northwest and other parts of the country, donated volunteer labor by user groups is key to making many of the planned improvements.

“We will be working with local stewardship groups to do a lot of the work, and we hope to create some volunteer opportunities up there,” Selig said.

Which seems like a great way to pierce into the very heart of the Cascades – which are indeed a “treasured landscape” that still glitters with rainbow promises … for classic Pacific Northwest outdoor recreation.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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