Monte Cristo, a ghost town that was once a booming mining settlement, is just one of the attractions — along with autumn colors — along Snohomish County's Mountain Loop Highway.

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OLD MONTE CRISTO TOWNSITE — Back in the 1890s they swarmed to these here hills by the thousands — dollar signs in their eyes, overcome as they were by an epidemic of gold fever. (Silver flu, too, though that doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily.) Seemingly overnight, in this narrow gulch surrounded by 7,000-foot peaks, a bustling town of 2,000 sprang up, complete with saloons, hotels, railroad, aerial tramway, a school, even a newspaper — all just 35 air miles east of present-day Everett.

They called it Monte Cristo, after the book, “The Count of Monte Cristo,” in anticipation of the vast wealth that would hopefully be hauled out from here.

But things never really panned out. (Ahem.) Harsh Cascade winters and isolated terrain, exorbitant mining costs, and various national financial panics conspired against the enterprise; most of the mining activity, as well as the town itself, fizzled out by 1920. Today, however, Monte Cristo makes for a delightful outing, visited annually by thousands of day hikers and history buffs drawn by the dozens of artifacts and outbuildings that are still standing.

Some come searching for their own memories.

“This place is so neat — I used to come here with my family when I was little,” says 24-year-old Briana Knight, of Brier, who, along with two friends — Trey Pesek, of Everett, and Thomas White, of Lynnwood — enjoys a sunny afternoon picnic not far from the remains of an old railway turntable which, remarkably, still turns.

“We’ve been looking for this rock where I had my picture taken when I was, like, 8,” she says. “I could swear it was right around here.”

Adds Pesek: “She’s had us looking all over the place but we haven’t found it yet.”

No matter. Like most visitors to Monte Cristo they’ll likely stumble onto surprises that will create new memories. And over the next few weeks, everyone who heads to Monte Cristo is pretty much guaranteed to strike gold. As well as reds, oranges, greens, yellows and more. For, with its leafy understory and largely deciduous second-growth forest, the four-mile (one-way) mostly flat hike to Monte Cristo is a terrific place to see fall colors. It’s one of numerous places — hiking trails, picnic areas, and campgrounds — located off the Mountain Loop Highway that offer front-row seats for fall’s annual forest fashion show.

Road with second thoughts

A 55-mile east-west roadway — it’s north of Highway 2, but south of Highway 20 — the Mountain Loop Highway looks, on a map, like it set out from Granite Falls with every intention of crossing the Cascades into Eastern Washington. But after getting one look at the mountains, it thought better of it and decided to high-tail it back west to Puget Sound via Darrington.

From Granite Falls the Mountain Loop Highway follows the Stillaguamish River, climbing gradually for 30 paved miles to Barlow Pass and the road’s high point at 2,361 feet. (This is the trailhead for the Old Monte Cristo Townsite.) Sections of this stretch follow the old Everett and Monte Cristo Railway route, built in the 1890s during the rush for riches.

Pavement ends at Barlow Pass and the next 14 miles of the Mountain Loop Highway — here also called Forest Road 20 — are gravel, much of it one lane as the road here follows the Sauk River drainage. Floods in 2003 washed out sections of this stretch and for the next five years access here was either limited or nonexistent. The last 11 miles to Darrington are paved.

On the same day that Knight and her friends look for that special rock from her past, my sister Kath and I trek to Monte Cristo. Fans of the sadly departed HBO series “Deadwood”, which detailed — oft in foul-mouthed Technicolor — the Black Hills gold rush of the 1870s, we’re eager to unleash our imaginations on a trip back in time.

To bike or not to bike

At Barlow Pass, we walk around a gate and duck into the shady forest on a wide, flat former railbed that immediately has me wishing we’d brought our bikes. The trail is one of only a handful in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest on which bikes are allowed and it seems a shame not to take advantage of it. A mile in, however, I’m glad we left them at home.

Just a couple hundred yards past a well-marked stretch where the trail negotiates a large clay slide, a braid of the Sauk River has washed out a bridge; to continue requires crossing the river via a large downed log. On this dry sunny day when the river is not particularly high, walking across is relatively easy and feels safe; still, it can be intimidating for some. (Say for instance, the author’s sister.) Walking a bike across it would require great care in dry weather; it’d be downright unfun were it raining or the river was high.

Across the river, it’s three more miles of mostly flat, easy-to-follow railbed, with occasional breaks in the forest to reveal stunning peaks, hanging valleys and the snaking Sauk River cutting through the valley below. With the leaves just starting to turn, the effect is breathtaking. There’s also some privately owned land along the river — patented mining claims and vacation homes (as well as some blue tarp-sporting lean-tos) — the domain of folks who no doubt want their privacy respected.

Milepost signs nailed to trees let us know how far we’ve gone and just past one that reads “4”, we reach an interpretive sign pointing the way to Monte Cristo Campground (up) and the old townsite (straight ahead). After again crossing the Sauk, this time via a sturdy bridge, we come across a couple rusted signs from the post-mining days when there was a lodge at Monte Cristo and attempts were made to turn it into a tourist destination.

Just ahead we reach an open grassy field strewn with rusty mining artifacts — pulleys, various wheels, an ore bucket, old motors and lots of scrap metal — and ringed by old cabins and outbuildings in various states of disrepair. There are layers of history here. Signs point out the old railway depot from the mining days as well as cabin sites from when a lodge operated here in the 1950s. Today, picnic benches provide a perfect lunching spot so that’s what Kath and I do, ogling, between bites, the 7,000-foot peaks and fall color-splashed hillsides that surround us.

And then we mosey on up a short trail to Dumas Street.

Imagine this

Dumas was Monte Cristo’s bustling main street, a 40-foot-wide boardwalk strip where the saloons, hotels, mercantiles, barber shop, newspaper, post office and dozens of residences were located. Today, it’s a head scratcher, an exercise in imagination, for it appears to be little more than a narrow, semi-cleared swath through the woods between a couple of rushing creeks. It could be almost any trail in almost any forest in Washington. Except, that is, for signs pointing out where the Monte Cristo Hotel, School House, Assay Office, Blacksmith Shop, and more, once stood.

One sign that catches our eye points down a hill and reads: Concentrator. Intrigued, for it sounds like the name of some mind-reading Vegas mentalist, we head down to where, instead, we find the remains of the United Companies’ Concentrator, a five-story 200-ton machine-building that crushed ore in preparation for shipping to Everett.

“Can you imagine the noise that thing must’ve made?” Kath wonders. “It had to have been deafening.”

Looking at what remains of the Concentrator today — a pile of twisted wood, rock and metal that appears to be melting into the silent wooded hillside — all we can do is imagine.

That’s the fun of a trip to Monte Cristo. It’s a hike for the body, a feast for the eyes, and a true workout for the imagination.

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “Day Hike! Central Cascades” and “Day Hike! North Cascades” (Sasquatch Books). Contact: mikemcquaide@comcast.net. His blog is mcqview.blogspot.com.