MOUNTAIN LOOP HIGHWAY — 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.

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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.

But come winter, when this loop gets buried under 10 feet of snow and is closed off to car traffic, it becomes something else: a play land. Cross-country and backcountry skiers come. Kids tow their sleds. Snowshoers treat it like Green Lake.

What a gem, one hiker in our group said: only about an hour drive from Seattle and no parking or recreation fees.

Good for first-timers

For the first time, Darrington Ranger Station has also started a weekly, guided four-mile interpretive walk to the base of Big Four Mountain, and the Forest Service even provides the snowshoes. A donation is requested, but not required.

“It’s a good route for beginners. There’s only a 200-foot elevation gain,” said Riggen. “From a history standpoint, you got the Big Four Inn and you are walking on the old Monte Cristo rail line.”

You can, of course, strap on some cross-country skis or your own snowshoes and go out on your own. Veer off to other trails. Or go 14 miles until the loop highway opens up to car traffic again.

But on a lazy Saturday, a guided snowshoe walk seems more appealing.

They say you can make out the numerical “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 also damaged the tracks, Riggen told our group.

We saw the depth of the snow firsthand, walking over an access gate that was buried under six feet of snow.

Coho and cougars

During the two-mile walk to the Big Four Picnic Area, the ranger regaled us about the 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 cavernlike hollows. They can collapse, so entering is prohibited, and visitors should stay well back; this is an avalanche zone in all seasons. A woman was killed in 1998 when one of the caves partially collapsed, and another visitor died in 2010 when a car-sized chunk of ice fell from the mountain.

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.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or On Twitter @tanvinhseattle