The Road To Monte Cristo
Mountain Loop Highway
When I set out to conquer the road to Monte Cristo I got more than I bargained for. I don’t necessarily mean in terms of difficulty, although at 8 miles round trip it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. Instead, I’m referring to the history of the short lived gold town that could, one that is wrapped up in much of how Snohomish County as we know it today came to be. So much so that I would consider it more of a railroad tale than a gold one. Why?
When Monte Cristo and its bounty of gold and other minerals were discovered, its founders had to find a way to get it in and out. Not an easy problem to solve, particularly high up in the mountains where snow and washouts make the journey impossible for almost half of the year. It’s the same problem adventurers along the Mountain Loop Highway between Granite Falls and Darrington face each year. Yes, the struggle is real, even today.
The railroad was facing its own problem though, how and where to cross the mountains between Eastern and Western Washington. Long story short, our Monte Cristo founders teamed up with another set of founders who were dreaming up a port city that would become the NYC of the west. Together they evaded attempts by surrounding cities, who were also eager to reap the rewards of the railroad, and blazed a track of wood and steel across Barlow Pass, down through Granite Falls, and on to Everett.
If you have never taken the time to look into the history of Everett, I strongly recommend it. It is an interesting tale and sheds light on many of the names found around the city, like Rucker, Hoyt, Hewitt, and Colby. The history of Monte Cristo does much the same, allowing you not only new information and insight into the city it helped make great, but a connection to the names behind Barlow Pass, Mount Dickerman, and more.
Enough of that though, on to the trail. First things first, you will likely read a lot of reviews that say there is nothing to see along the trail. Don’t listen to them, they are full of you know what. There are views of mountains, waterfalls, and of course the Sauk River as you make your way up to where it gets its start. The hike up alone took far more time than expected thanks to frequent stops to take photos of our surroundings.
Second, this is a heavily used trail, so unless you like the crowds pick your day and time wisely. We went up on a Thursday morning, got on the trail about 10ish, and ran into only a few people along the way and up at the town site. So your best bet is likely on a weekday morning. Beat the crowds and you get the added bonus of getting up close parking. Believe me, after 8 miles, your car being close will be as good as ice cream on a hot day.
You’ve seen it twice now, 8 miles. So yes, this is a long one. It can be made to seem even longer if you happen upon ranger or other vehicles along the trail past the halfway point. If you are like me, running into one will make you wonder why you had to walk so far and whether you can feign an injury to hitchhike back (I would never actually do this, but it was a nice thought). The one we ran into told us we were almost there, thus cursing us to a tortious final 1.5-2 miles of thinking the end was just around the corner only to find there was much more to go.
Thankfully, we did not take the long journey alone. We were accompanied by Paula of Vivid Experience Candles. With my health problems, and a sometimes whiny 10 year old in tow, it would have been far more difficult, and taken much longer, without her there pushing us along and providing us with an incentive to get back to the car. It was one that was somewhat humorous though, as I think most couldn’t imagine going to a karate class after an 8 mile hike, let alone walking a step further.
Don’t let the length of the trail dissuade you though because it is more than worth it. The initial stretch is mostly like a road or you guessed, a railroad. It gives way soon enough to a bit of up and down as the trail has had to shift to avoid damage in certain areas. There will be a bathroom before the halfway point, the only one other than at the top of the campground just before Monte Cristo, so take advantage unless you like going in the woods.
A short distance further you will come to the downed railroad bridge that once transported trains across the Sauk River. You will be headed across as well, obviously not via the bridge. Instead there is a massive tree laying across the river that you must balance your way across. As you do, be sure to look off to your right for an amazing mountain view serving as backdrop to the river. The tree starts out fairly thick but gets narrower after the halfway point, so use caution. I find it best just to push through quickly and not worry about it too much.
Once across it can be easy to lose the trail, be sure to follow the tape markers and before you know it you will be back on it and crossing the second of the railroad bridges. If you look behind you as you cross, you can get a better view of the fallen bridge. Then it is off once again for a very rocky stretch which, although still following the railway line, clearly has been taken over by a creek or the river as it aged. There will be a sign signaling the location of the Weeden House, as well as an information sign adjacent to it. Take the time to learn about the building’s history and its role in Monte Cristo, but other than that not much to see.
Rocky road behind you, you will once again return to a fairly easy roadway, one that has a few hills here and there, but not enough to make this trail difficult. Be sure to keep an eye out to the right as there will be several opportunities to view the mountains and the waterfalls cascading down them, as well as the Sauk River.
I easily get confused about direction all along the Mountain Loop Highway, there are after all a lot of turns where you don’t realize you’ve turned or no turns where you feel like you have. Easy enough to do. My complete lack of direction has had me working on my own little map and carrying a compass around to figure these kinds of things out in the future. Its actually become quite a fun game for us, and we’ve gotten into our fair share of arguments over mountains.
I guess you could say we actually make mountains out of mountains. My map is growing peak after peak and as soon as the wildfire smoke clears we will be out trying to spot those we haven’t already identified, but now have potential names for. I’ve gotten off track again haven’t I. Back to the trail.
As you get closer to Monte Cristo, the low to medium elevation gain will become more apparent. After miles of easy flat land you find yourself having to work for it a bit. The good news is, its all downhill on the way back. In the last stretch you will start to see cabins off along your right, some still occupied. Yep, people still live up at Monte Cristo, and no they don’t have to walk the 8 miles like you do. Try not to be too envious.
Off to the left you will come upon a creative little map of Monte Cristo which tells you what lies ahead as well as a fork in the road that takes you up to the campground. Pushing on, however, you will soon come upon what you have hiked so far for. As you cross the wood bridge that will lead you into the town of Monte Cristo, you are almost instantly transported back in time. Take the time to appreciate the creek running beneath you and the mountain off in the distance beyond it, then press on.
Once your feet are back on dirt you will be greeted with historic signs from the town and further on with the sight of the first old building. As you climb up past it a field will open up in front of you, scattered with many more old buildings, some of which are still fairly in good shape and clearly designed by the same person. While most will lay to your right, be sure to look off to your left as the mountains and hills in front of you are pretty impressive themselves. At least they are in this photographers opinion anyway.
Moving on, you will find the remains of old buildings and town streets off to the left and right. There are also many trails that will take you further into the wilderness to other scenery and mining areas. We stuck to the main part of town and found not only remains of old buildings, a but artifacts scattered about and signs telling us of buildings and streets that once were. We were also fortunate enough to run into some folks who had just come back from hiking into the great beyond. They were nice enough to offer the SnoCo Kid a rock containing fools gold, iron, and more from their mine explorations. She loves rocks.
While we were impressed with what we did find, it was sad to see so much had been lost to fire and nature as the years went on. There is not enough remaining to get a true picture of what the town looked like and how life was there, but the scenery is more than enough for me to know it was the kind of place I would not have minded calling home, at least in the warmer months anyway.
Once you are ready to call it a day, it is just a quick hop, skip, and a jump back to your car. Okay, no its not, its still 4 miles, but you will make a much quicker go of it. We made it back in half the time, impressive I know. Once back in our cars, we began the long journey home. We did so with cameras and minds full of beautiful sights and history. Not only that we had an awesome story to tell, and you will too should you choose to journey along the road to Monte Cristo.
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