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The Mountain Loop Highway

Playtime for paved and dirt lovers alike

As dirt road access along the west side of the North Cascades has shriveled up over the years, The Mountain Loop has remained open for the most part and likely will for years to come.

The 53-mile-long road creates a southern access to Darrington from Granite Falls. While the majority of it is paved, the eastern most 14 miles of it are not, where it follows the Sauk River north from Barlow Pass. That section is closed in the winter and reopens in mid-spring. Once it’s ready to open, it gets a fresh grading making it doable even on a street bike. But by summer, the road gets a tad worn from all the vehicle traffic at which point you’d be better off attempting it with a bike that has a little more suspension travel. A dual sport or adventure mount comes to mind.

Of course, in order to make it an actual loop, you’ll need to continue from Darrington to Arlington, then ride south on your choice of Burn Road or Jordan Road back to Granite Falls. The official loop includes SR9. Snore...

Photo by Dave Richardson

The west end of it is a sweet length of pavement that runs 30 miles. For road riders, you could grab a few friends, meet in Granite Falls early on a Sunday morning, get your kicks out and back to Barlow Pass, before settling in for brunch back in Granite Falls. Most of the campers aren’t up early enough to crowd the roads just yet.

There are a number of tributary roads that can be explored along the road. They are all out-and-backs for the most part. A good atlas, like the Benchmark Washington Road and Recreation atlas, provides the detail you need to know where to go.

Hikes are not out of the question if you have the appropriate footwear. There are several to consider.

You could take the fork from Barlow Pass to the Monte Christo trail head and walk down into the old mining town that once featured a number of brothels owned by the grandfather of the 45th president of the United States. The brothels are gone, but the memories live forever here. You could use a little exercise -- this may be the walk for you.

But if it’s not and you don’t want to go off the pavement, you can visit the Big Four Ice Caves. Viewing the caves from afar is nice. Because of falling ice, it is not advisable to go near or enter the caves, but several curious daredevils have proven how the process of natural selection works over the years.

Dual Sport riders can pick up FS 4060 and ride up to the 3,000’ point for a panorama view of the Stillaguamish River and Robe Valley below. Other off-pavement options include Rat Trap Pass, Green Mountain, and Gold Mountain.

Besides snow, the highway can be closed at any time for other reasons. Windstorms in 2003, 2006, and 2007 had the road closed for five years until it reopened in 2008.

A weather phenomenon known as a micro burst can lay acres of timber low and completely block access until all the wood can be cleared. Then, any other resulting damage must be repaired. If the repairs are substantial and will have any implications to area wildlife, a long process of permitting must occur before anything can be repaired. Such was the case with the Mountain Loop Highway during this time frame.

In 2015 the road was temporarily closed in late spring following a major mudslide.

Stuff happens in the woods.

TM/June 2019

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