Where: Mount Baker National Forest
Price: $5.00 all-day permit per vehicle.
Collect your permits at Verlot Ranger Station.
Hiked: Saturday, March 13th, 2010
Facilities for Big Four: the outhouse is pretty cute, looks like a hunter's shanty, was about as clean as a honey bucket. There is a covered pick nick area. Lots of information plaques. Large lawn where the Big 4 Inn used to be. Parking for around fifty vehicles. Dog-walk baggies are provided by Mount Baker State Park.
VerizonWireless Users: I lost cell reception a mile or so before driving past Robe Fire Station.
Condition of Mountain Loop Highway: as of March 13th (2010) the highway is clear and safe until you near Silverton. Motorcyclists, please watch out for the "Reduced Speed Ahead" sign. When you see it, reduce your speed immediately. Ten feet beyond said sign the asphalt has been removed in two areas and has been replaced with slippery gravel.
About five miles out of Silverton I encountered snow on the road. The road wasn't icy, but the snow was around four or five inches deep and I began to worry that my little Corolla wouldn't have enough ground clearance. I wouldn't suggest visiting the Big Four Ice Caves so early in the season unless you have an all-terrain vehicle of some sort. Or at least a car that sits more that six inches off the ground.
Condition of Trail: as of March 13th (2010) the first half of the trail is in excellent condition. It is paved and stroller-worthy its width is approximately four feet. The State Park built a new bridge across the South Fork Stillaguamish River. Its a gorgeous piece of architecture made of welded quarter inch and half inch Aluminium bar and extruded metal. I cant imagine a bridge lasting longer than this one will. Definitely worth tax payer's money. As a metal fabricator I was pretty thrilled.
Past the aluminum bridge the trail become's packed-down gravel and dirt. In many mud-prone areas the State Park invested in a common equestrian mud-prevention method that we generally refer to as a "hoof grid" but instead of a rubber composite it looks as though the State Park is using aluminum tube. Nice.
In swampy or uneven areas the park has wooden walk-ways. Only one walk way in particular has two-inch gaps that might be a problem for some strollers.
Trail Damage: In the trail's 4th quarter tree debris from what appeared to be an avalanche covered the trail. Hiker's hacked their own path and laid boards across a stream in plain view - creating a detour. Towards the Ice Cave a wooden pathway broke down - but it is easily hopped over.
Child Friendly: There's a limited number of switchbacks on this trail combined with low grade inclines. Its definitely child-friendly. In fact, I passed by nine children between the ages of five and thirteen being herded along by their parents. There wasn't any complaining, and everyone had a smile on their face. My only cautionary note would be, this early in the spring, there's plenty of snow and lots of hikers made comments about their shoes and socks being soaked. If I hadn't been moving so quickly, my toes might have gotten cold. So I worried a little about the children's feet.
Avalanche Warning: when I stopped by the Verlot Ranger Station to pick up my all-day permit there were three rangers in-house having their morning coffee break. I made them all aware of where I was hiking, and asked one of the rangers about the condition of the Big Four Ice Caves. The ranger said that there had been four avalanches in the past week and new snow accumulation. Hiker's are never encouraged to go near the ice caves, and especially not while there is a present avalanche warning. He promised that so long as I kept a safe distance, my hike would be safe.
Do NOT Enter: These warnings against entering or climbing the ice caves do not appear to be enforced (I'm not saying they should be) - citizens are expected to exercise self-control. Rangers have more faith in us and our intelligence than I do. Which is why I was not surprised to see six boys, my age, whooping and hollering inside the Big Four Ice Caves, throwing rocks at the walls, and climbing on the ice caves. Dumb. Dumber. Dumber-er.
While the boys were being dumb I took a video from the crest of an overlooking hill. An SUV-sized snow shelf broke away from face of the mountain and began to fall - an event these boys were all completely oblivious to. Nobody was harmed, in fact, they all made it back to their car before I did.
Other Comments: The Big Four Ice Caves are so much prettier in the summer - when the colors of the ice are absolutely brilliant. This early in the spring the Ice Caves were mostly white, and I didn't appreciate the cold flow of air exiting the Cave Mouth like I would in late July - when the weather's unbearably hot. If I were you I'd wait until then to visit this natural wonder.