Hike to Ice Caves and Historic Railroad Tracks

By Lara Dunning

Many believe the Mountain Loop Highway in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is the undiscovered gem of the Cascades. There are majestic mountains, gushing waterfalls, cyan colored rivers, pristine lakes and over 1,500 miles of hiking trails. On the Verlot side trails range from paved and easy to rugged and backcountry.

Sign for Old Robe Trail

Before venturing out it’s important to make a stop at one of these two locations: Green Gables and Verlot Public Center. At Green Gables ask for Edith. She’s hiked the area for over thirty years and her wealth of knowledge is exceptional. If you are unsure of what trail to hike, she’ll guide you. If you’ve forgotten a leash for your dog, or need a trail snack, the store has them. If you’ve hurt yourself on a hike and need help, she’ll keep you warm until aid arrives. It is also the only spot to get a meal and supplies before entering the park. At the Verlot Public Service Center day-passes can be purchased at the automatic pay station or if you plan to visit again purchase an annual $30 Northwest Forest Pass inside. If you have time, check out the museum dedicated to the area’s gold rush history. Helpful Forest Service and volunteer staff are available to answer questions about hiking, camping and road closures on the seasonal portion of the highway.

As a first-timer I suggest two hikes: Big Four Ice Caves and Old Robe trail. Both are connected to the area’s history and good day hikes. Be warned cell phone service is practically non-existent inside the park.

Big Four Ice Caves Trail

Start at the Big Four Picnic Area, which is about 15 miles from Verlot. This is the site of the former Big Four Inn. Wyatt and Bethel Rucker opened the resort in 1921 and in its hey-day used buses designed to ride railroad tracks to bring guests to the resort year-round. During the 1930’s it switched owners several times and on September 7, 1949 the three-story, fifty-three room wooden building burnt down. The only remaining structure, a large chimney, stands in the meadow.

Ice Cave Chimney 2

From the meadow, take the boardwalk that crosses over the marsh. This trail connects with the Big Four Ice Cave trail which totals 2.2 mile roundtrip. The trail is well-maintained and many parts of it are gravel. A large aluminum bridge traverses the greenish-blue Stillaguamish River and a small bridge crosses over Ice Creek. From there the trail switchbacks through the woods with an elevation gain of 220 ft. When you come to a section of wind-snapped trees you’re almost there. As the trail comes out of the woods to an open meadow hikers get their first glimpse of the ice caves that have formed from waterfalls cascading down Big Four’s high-angled cliffs into the accumulated snow. Continue down the path to a circular gathering spot to take in the view and snap photos. With Big Four towering at over 6,100 ft. it’ll be hard to fit it all in. While it might be tempting to trek out to the caves it’s important to heed the signs. The ice caves are nature in action, which means they are melting and can collapse. This is a popular hike and many families and small children trek up to see the caves.

Old Robe Trail

The brick trail sign is easy to miss as it’s worn and difficult to read. The trail head is approximately 7 miles from Granite Falls and cars pull over and park on either side of the road. Following the 2.8 mile trail is like stepping back into gold rush and railroad history. The beginning of the trail meanders through forest with tall pines and then switchbacks 300 ft. downhill toward the Stillaguamish River with marshy areas, maples and cottonwoods covered with moss. As the trail starts to parallel the river it passes the former train station and the town of Robe which had a dry kiln, shingle and planning mill, and a line and freight shed. Along the river’s edge spots of erosion emerge and log jams appear. All signs of the challenges builders faced in constructing and maintaining the railroad tracks during the Cascades biggest gold rush in the 1980’s. As the river narrows it shifts into rapids and eddies and the trail is now on the old railroad tracks. Trekking this terrain is rocky and bumpy and small children might find it difficult. The trail ends at a rock slide and on the other side a short distance away is tunnel # 6. Signs warn hikers not to venture any further as it is point is unsafe. As you make your way back, pick a spot near the river to have a snack and revel in days past.

Old Robe trail RR Tunnel (1)