Hike of the week: BIG FOUR ICE CAVES

Hike description: The pesky storms of 2006 took out the bridge over the South Fork Stillaguamish River and cut off access to the Big Four Ice Caves. With its replacement in June, this trail is again available for a fun family outing. The ice caves are at the base of Big Four Mountain, so named because, when conditions are right, the shape of the numeral “4” is visible on a snowfield high up on the eastern face of the mountain. Unfortunately you’ll be too close to the mountain to see the number on this trip.

From the trailhead parking lot take the paved 1/4-mile path to the picnic area. You’ll be following the path of an old railroad line that brought people to the Big Four Inn, a resort that offered a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts and an artificial lake. A fire in 1949 claimed the main building, leaving the hotel fireplace and some sidewalks. Beavers, doing what they do, built dams and turned the lake into marshland.

From the picnic area take the trail to the left to the ice caves, in another 1/4 mile passing the junction (on your left) of the trail back to the trailhead. Three bridges will get you across the South Fork Stillaguamish River and over Cross Creek. After your second crossing of Cross Creek you will be at the base of Big Four Mountain. Avalanches in winter and spring descend the 4,000-foot rock face, heaping snow at the base. In spring and summer, snowmelt turns the avalanches into waterfalls, creating the caves at the base.

Important caution: Ice caves and other snow structures are for looking – experience them with your eyes and camera and resist the urge to explore.

Directions: Drive the Mountain Loop Highway east from Granite Falls. At 25 miles, you will pass the Big Four Picnic Area exit. In another mile you will come to the trailhead on your right.

Difficulty rating: 1 (1 is easiest, 5 is most difficult) Miles round-trip: 2.2 Elevation: 200 feet Best time of year: May to November Map: Green Trails No. 110 Silverton Pass: Northwest Forest Pass

Also: Vault toilet available at the picnic area. Even on a short hike such as this one, you should always carry adequate food, water and clothing. On a hot summer day the area near the ice caves will be cool.

Info: Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs; Verlot Public Service Center, 360-691-7791; Darrington Ranger 360-436-1155. “Best Hikes with Kids Western Washington and Cascades” and “Day Hiking North Cascades,” both Mountaineers Books.

Hike of the Week is presented by The Mountaineers Tacoma Branch Hiking/Backpacking Committee. For other hikes, visit www.thenewstribune.com/hiking.