There’s history in them thar hills.
Hiking in the Pacific Northwest, it’s easy to focus on the majestic waterfalls, rugged peaks, deep valleys and alpine meadows and lakes. What can be easily overlooked are hidden relics of the past.
Here, we take a step back in time and imagine what life was like in the Cascades more than a century ago, and marvel at the herculean efforts that were required to cut through mountains of granite, whether it was for a rail route to the West or a way to unearth gold and silver.
For old time’s sake, here are two classic hikes for history buffs.
Iron Goat Trail
Talk about a leisurely stroll through history. There’s so much to like about this trail, it’s hard to know where to begin.
But let’s start with this: It’s easy. This is a great trail for hikers of all ages, from kids to retired folks. Yes, even an old goat can navigate the Iron Goat.
The grade is gentle because it follows the old Great Northern railroad grade that was built over the Cascades in the late 1890s. The temptation is to put yourself in overdrive and cruise this wide, gravel trail at a fast clip. But that would be a serious mistake.
Take your time reading the interpretive signs along the 6-mile loop that tell of the history of a rail route that’s been abandoned for nearly 100 years. The signs along the trail with numbers are the miles to St. Paul, Minnesota, where the railroad originated. You pass old tunnels and snow sheds in various stages of collapse. Once engineering marvels, they have been reduced to ghosts of the past as they slowly succumb to the forest.
The place reeks of history. You can smell it in the air. Peering into a tunnel I could almost imagine the whistle of an oncoming train rumbling along the railroad grade that is now engulfed by ferns, trees and boulders. Then I actually hear a train whistle, only to realize it’s coming from Highway 2 below as a train enters the current tunnel near Scenic. It’s an eerie feeling.
We started our hike at the Martin Creek Trailhead just east of Skykomish, choosing to do the loop counterclockwise beginning with the lower trail. Fairly early on, the trail passes the famed “twin tunnels.” Sandwiched between the two concrete behemoths is what’s left of a wooden show shed made of large timbers, some of which were up to 30 feet long. Remnants of the old timber snow sheds are plentiful along the loop, most of them totally flattened over time by avalanches and blowdowns.
At one point you’re hit by a continual blast of cold air coming from a wall of rock. The kiosk nearby describes this as an “adit,” a short tunnel that was used to gain access to the center of one of the twin tunnels during construction. Once the tunnel was in use, the adit served as a ventilation shaft. On this warm day, the cold air was refreshing. I could have spent hours sitting here during our heat wave in late June.
One can’t help but note the date 1914 stamped into the concrete of the tunnel portals. These concrete tunnels were not a part of the original track, which at the time of its construction was considered the model transcontinental railroad route in America.
Of course, this well-intentioned route to reach the enormous quantities of timber, minerals and agricultural lands west of the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest — when there was neither road nor railroad access — had a short life span. The old rail route was no match for winter weather in the Cascades. Trains were constantly delayed by sliding snow in the winter, known today as “Cascade Concrete.” In the summer, boulders falling onto the track also caused delays.
And then on March 1, 1910, the unthinkable happened. As two trains were waiting out a late-winter storm on the tracks at Wellington, a wall of snow 14 feet high swept down Windy Mountain and slammed into the trains, hurtling them 150 feet down into the Tye River gorge.
The “Wellington Avalanche” claimed 96 passengers and crew, one of the deadliest rail disasters in U.S. history. By 1929, trains were diverted to the newly built 7.8-mile tunnel at a lower elevation under Stevens Pass between Scenic and Berne that is still in use today.
The majority of the massive concrete tunnels and concrete-sided snow sheds were built after the 1910 avalanche to avert a similar tragedy. These “combination snow sheds” were built of concrete on the mountain side of the track and covered by a timber roof. The most impressive concrete-enforced snow shed can be seen on the east end of the lower loop, stretching for more than one-third of a mile. The amount of concrete used for the project, likely hauled by steam donkey in that era, is mind-blowing.
Just before the 3-mile mark, a paved turn to the right leads to Scenic and an alternative trailhead by the red caboose. It should be noted that by starting at Scenic at Highway 2 and doing the 6-mile loop clockwise, the elevation gains along the railroad grade are more gradual, and you lose 700 feet of elevation on the crossover trail back to your vehicle.
We pressed on ahead, climbing the Windy Point crossover trail to the upper trail, which requires a climb of 700 feet to reach the upper switchback of the old railway. A left turn at this intersection takes you back to the Martin Creek Trailhead. By turning right, it’s 3 miles to the Wellington Trailhead and by the 1910 avalanche site, adding about 6 miles to your round-trip mileage.
We took the signs for Wellington, stopping for lunch one-quarter of a mile down the trail at the Windy Point Overlook. But after scrambling around a couple of tree blowdowns on the trail, we came upon a section of the trail taken out by an avalanche that was too expansive to get around. Disappointed, we turned around and headed back to the Martin Creek Trailhead.
The upper trail isn’t as wide and well maintained as the lower trail. But it’s still beautiful. A short side trail up a set of stairs takes you to the “Spillway Spur” and the area where an old reservoir was. It’s worth taking, though the trail is rough.
I’m told remnants of the old Martin Creek horseshoe tunnel and trestle can be seen by leaving the designated trail. That will have to wait for another day.
There really was gold and silver in these hills back in the day. Joseph Pearsall and Frank Peabody discovered the rich vein of precious metals in the summer of 1889, the same year Washington became a state.
Between then and 1907, the town of Monte Cristo was teeming with activity. Mines above the town pumped out millions of dollars in minerals. This was not a poor prospector’s game, but rather was backed by big corporations with deep pockets. A railroad was built between Monte Cristo and Everett to carry the processed silver ore to a smelter. The mining boom lured thousands of men to this isolated mining town, which is about 4 miles from today’s Mountain Loop Highway in eastern Snohomish County.
All that’s left 114 years later: traces of what this town was.
Rusted-out bed frames, mining tools and pieces of railroad track and railway cars, among other relics, are randomly strewn around, as if they’re props for a play. Street signs are posted where the town’s busy streets used to run — which is hard to imagine, because while the swaths are wide enough, the ground is hardly level. Only portions of the foundations of the town’s original buildings remain. Other weatherworn, ancient-looking, wood buildings in various stages of collapse at first glance appear to be original structures — until you realize they were actually built after this boom town went bust.
Having said that, if you like history and beautiful scenery, this hike is for you.
The trailhead is at Barlow Pass on the Mountain Loop Highway 30 miles east of Granite Falls, and is popular with hikers and bikers. There are several parking spots by the trailhead and a parking lot across the highway. If you’re hiking on the weekend, get there early.
Like the Iron Goat Trail, this 8-mile round-trip route to the ghost town of Monte Cristo is easy. The trail follows a route taken by miners more than a century ago and, more recently, a gravel road that has been closed for several years. The trail for the most part sticks to the road, except for a large section where it is diverted around a portion of the road that was washed out by flooding of the south fork of the beautiful Sauk River.
A nice pedestrian bridge over the Sauk marks the entrance to Monte Cristo. Remnants of an old railway turntable are off to the right. On a recent summer hike, a group of boys pushed one end of the rusty girder, swinging it in circular fashion. Interpretive signs tell of the town’s history. Private cabins built in the 1950s ring the grassy area, which not only includes remnants of a power house and water tower, but modern picnic tables for lunch.
Head farther up the trail to get the full Monte. Soon you’ll pass the foundation of what was once the Monte Cristo Lodge, the last bastion of tourism at the old mining town.
While the financial crisis in the U.S. in 1907, better known as The Panic of 1907, signaled the end of most of the mining at Monte Cristo, the town for years afterward was a resort destination. Tourists could board a train in Everett and travel to Monte Cristo for a picnic, or even stay at the Royal Hotel, which would eventually become the Monte Cristo Lodge. The railroad was scrapped in 1933, leaving tourists to travel by car, which they could still do up until 1980. But when there was flooding in December of that year, and the county decided not to make bridge or road repairs, it proved to be the death knell for the lodge. It promptly closed, and burned to the ground in 1983 under suspicious circumstances.
Another footbridge heads toward the “downtown district” of what once was the heart of this old mining town. We were stopped by a woman wearing a cap that read “The Mayor of Monte Cristo.” She offered us a Tootsie Pop — which we declined — but we took her up on her offer to let us tour a cabin she owns that was built in 1926 from the ruins of the old town. She wears the cap because she says the cabin was once owned by her hero, the self-anointed, unofficial mayor of Monte Cristo, Garda Fogg, who began backpacking in the Cascades in the early 1900s.
Located near the top of (the route formerly known as) Dumas Street are the remains of the famed “Concentrator,” where tons of ore arrived by tramway from hillside mines and were processed by coal-powered steam machinery. In its heyday, a typical week’s shipment to the American Smelting and Refining Company in Everett in the summer of 1896 was more than 1,000 tons, worth $920,000 in 2016 dollars.
While those days are long gone, the history in these hills will never fade way. You just have to look for it.