The reopening of the flood-damaged road restores access to 120 miles of hiking routes.
DARRINGTON — After more than a decade of flood-damage closure, the scenic, fir-shaded Suiattle River Road is open again, restoring access for this summer to a 120-mile trail network in and around Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
The whole area looks like it got a few teeth knocked out. Mother Nature swept through and washed out the road in 2003 and again in 2006, denying hikers access to the Suiattle (“soo-AT-tl”) River Valley.
But just in time for the hiking season, the Forest Service says the valley’s long-unused and overgrown trails — including the popular Green Mountain, Suiattle River and Downey Creek trails — have been cleared enough for even novice hikers.
The trail network east of Darrington includes access to Glacier Peak Wilderness and the Pacific Crest Trail.
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The reopening is expected to alleviate crowding on other nearby trail systems.
Cleanup crews have been frantically working on the trails since the Suiattle River Road reopened last October. Much work remains. Volunteers from Washington Trails Association and other groups will work throughout the summer to clear the overgrowth of ferns and salmonberries that had overtaken popular routes.
Also high on the cleanup list is clearing remaining downed trees to make it easier for horse riders as well as hikers.
The Forest Service says the Buck Creek campground will be ready for summer getaways by the end of June, but the Sulphur Creek campground won’t reopen until summer 2016.
Here are trail updates:
• Suiattle River Trail, about 6.5 miles one way, 900-foot elevation gain. Part of the trail had to be reconstructed.
This is the longest family-friendly hike in the valley. Plus it’s connected to the Pacific Crest Trail, a topic of fascination since Cheryl Strayed’s hiking memoir, “Wild,” which became a film.
I counted a couple of dozen downed trees over the dirt path this spring, including a couple of giant firs that a child might need a boost to get over in the first two miles. Other fallen trees can be easily ducked under or walked around.
Horses would have difficulty in the first 2.5 miles, though dogs would have no trouble getting by. The Forest Service hopes to clear all the downed trees on this trail by the end of June.
The first mile remains in the shade, under a lush landscape of Western hemlocks, Douglas firs and old-growth, with here-and-there views of Glacier Peak and Grassy Point. After a mile, the forest thins to give a look at more of the valley and a peek down at the river.
You might get your feet wet. About a mile in are about a dozen small waterfalls and water crossings, all shallow. I easily found rocks and logs on which to hop. Rangers report that by July most of those water crossings will dry out.
It’s a tranquil hike. The roar of the river was the only soundtrack, replaced by chirping birds and breeze in the evergreens once the trail snaked deep into the forest. Crowds are more likely to be found on the area’s more-popular Green Mountain Trail.
For most hikers on this river trail, a rebuilt cedar suspension bridge, about 6.5 miles in, is the finish line. Most will lunch or snap pictures on the bridge and then turn back. Backpackers pitch their tents here (there’s a toilet and campsites down by the water) or continue on to Miner Creek Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail.
Many downed trees remain on the Pacific Crest Trail. The largest will be cleared, though local rangers doubt available work crews will allow for clearing every obstacle.
Four other trails near or connected to Suiattle River Trail:
• Sulphur Creek Trail, 1.8 miles one way, easy, 540-foot elevation gain. Starting near the Suiattle River Trail parking area, the winding trail passes old-growth trees and waterfalls.
• Sulphur Mountain Trail, 5 miles one way, difficult, 4,200-foot elevation gain. Just off the Suiattle River Trail trailhead, it’s a steep climb — the toughest hike in the area — but you’ll be rewarded with views of Glacier Peak.
• Miners Ridge Trail, about 10 miles one way, difficult, 2,600-foot elevation gain. The trail offers views of Glacier Peak, Plummer Mountain, North Star and Fortress Mountain. Mid-July through August, expect great wildflowers. The fire lookout is closed.
• Milk Creek Trail. The trail’s bridge over the Suiattle River is out. Rangers suggest you don’t try to cross the river. It’s unclear when work crews will get to this maintenance project.
Other major trails off the Suiattle River Road:
• Green Mountain Trail, 4 miles one way, moderate to difficult, 3,000-foot elevation gain. Arguably the most popular Suiattle destination, the trail passes through old-growth forest and subalpine terrain during the first mile before opening up to breathtaking wildflower meadows in season. Bring your camera. It’s not a hard hike at first, but the last 1.5 miles is tough, gaining 1,500 feet to the fire lookout. On a clear day, you’re rewarded with a view of Mount Baker, Glacier Peak and Puget Sound. The Darrington Ranger District anoints it as one of the loveliest trails with views of the North Cascades. In a mild winter, such as this past February, you can backcountry ski here.
• Downey Creek Trail, 6.6 miles one way, easy, 1,000-foot elevation gain. It’s a popular mountain-climbing area. Rangers warn of steep creek crossings along with many springs feeding the creek. Many areas will dry out by early summer. A lot of downed trees but the trail is passable. Work crews are scheduled here through the summer.
• Huckleberry Mountain Trail, 7 miles one way, difficult, almost 5,000-foot elevation gain. A parking lot and a quarter mile of trail were reconstructed. Look for the sign to the new trailhead. The trail zigzags up. Other than a few waterfalls, you don’t get a great view until you’ve reached the top. Oh, but what a view on a clear day: Glacier Peak, Mount Baker, Whitehorse, Three Fingers and Mount Pugh.
If you go
Pick up a detailed map at the Darrington Ranger Station, 1405 Emens Ave. N. in Darrington. Then drive north 7 miles on Highway 530 toward Rockport, cross the Sauk River bridge and turn right onto Suiattle River Road (Forest Service Road 26). Continue about 22 miles to trailheads at the road’s end.
The first 10 miles of Suiattle River Road is paved. The last 12 miles is gravel with many potholes; go slowly.
• For trail info and conditions, check fs.fed.us (search under “Suiattle”)
• No recreation pass is required at this writing, but that may change in the near future; check the website or inquire at the ranger station: 360-436-1155.
• More trail information: Washington Trails Association, wta.org