Friday, September 1, 2017
My last summer hike was to the Big Four Ice Caves, outside of Granite Falls. I had one last summer Friday off at the beginning of the Labor Day weekend, so my girlfriend Katie and I took her kids to see the caves.
They are named the Big Four Ice Caves, not because there are four caves, as the number and composition of the caves changes every year; rather they are named for the Big Four Mountain. The mountain is apparently named that because of the large “4” shaped snow patch visible on the east face of the mountain. There is debate about whether the “4” forms anymore, but you can see an old photo of it here (scroll down a bit).
The trail starts with a paved path through the woods; you can turn right to head to a grassy field with a picnic area. There used to be an old hotel there, but only the chimney remains. Of course, I didn’t find that out until after – I would have checked it out had I known!
The trail continues over a large aluminum bridge over the Stillaguamish River; it was built after multiple floods kept wiping out the footbridge and the trail. After crossing the bridge, the trail gets a little tougher, heading up the hill, but it is still easy enough for even little kids. The trail is gravel and boardwalk and winds through the forest. The kids enjoyed checking out the stumps and the rocks and the sticks and the mushrooms and the flowers and the pine needles and the moss and… Well, you get the idea…
The trail comes out of the woods and we were surrounded by whispy white seed pods being carried through the air. A flower was going to seed and releasing all its pods to float on the wind; it was neat to just watch them being carried along. Bonus: the kids loved it!
At this point you can see Big Four Mountain looming above, with its steep granite face. We teased the kids and let them know that we were climbing to the top of the mountain!
We came around one last corner on the trail and saw the caves; they are a fascinating sight! These caves are formed by avalanche snow and ice that slides down the Big Four Mountain each winter and accumulates here. The caves are made from a huge slab of ice that generally remains year round at the base of the mountain, because it is in the shade. The melting ice creates caves beneath the ice pack. Of course, the fact that they are melting also makes it extremely unstable.
A word of caution here: it is NOT safe to enter the caves, or even go close to them. At least half a dozen people have died here in the last decade, including an 11-year-old girl named Grace Tam who was crushed in 2011 when a giant slab of ice destabilized and rolled down the top of the cave, crushing her as her family looked on. She was standing outside of the cave. There is no cell service here, and help is a one mile hike down the mountain and a 15 mile drive to reach an area with cell reception.
Of course, we saw lots of people standing right outside the cave, in the cave, and even walking around on top of the cave. Not only adults, but adults with their small children and their dogs. It would be hard to say they hadn’t seen the signs explaining the danger, which are numerous, so we’ll just have to chalk it up to the, “it won’t happen to me mentality.” And it probably won’t, until it does…
We stayed a safe distance back, and sat on the rocks and enjoyed a picnic with the kids. We talked with them about why we didn’t go any closer, and talked about how other people get to make other choices, and how sometimes those choices have risks. There was a slight mishap with some dropped gum (not mine!) and we decided to make our way back to the car to find some food!
The entire hike is 2.2 miles round trip, with a 220 foot elevation gain, so it is easy enough for small children and those who are less physically fit. Even though it’s easy, the destination is impressive!
On the way back, we did a very brief stop at a mining tunnel that was carved into the mountain around the turn of the last century. A man dug it himself looking for mineral laden ore, although I’m not sure what he was mining for. Like many mining claims, I can’t imagine it was long lived or profitable, but it did make for an interesting pit stop to see a tunnel dug into the mountain…
We finished our day with lunch and a beer at RAM – always delicious and a worthwhile stop!