Land of Loops Pt. 2: Mountain Loop Highway
The Mountain Loop Highway is a real trip “out there”— a self-contained cycle, a circuit that takes you out to the wild woods before returning you to your urban origins.
This is about as “far out” into the PNW wilderness as you can get on four wheels. A car camping dream spot. Expect to see breathtaking beauty.
This route is also known as the Mountain Loop Scenic Byway. Byway as in, you don’t really need to go there. And maybe that’s the whole point: it’s out there just to be enjoyed.
Here’s a guided tour of the best places to visit when you go.
1. GRANITE FALLS
Granite Falls is an old lumber town at the base of Mount Pilchuck.
“Granite,” as the locals call it, is the jumping off point to the Mountain Loop. Stop at Granite Falls Hardware (108 S Granite Ave, Granite Falls, WA 98252) to pick up firewood, hatchets, and other camping supplies. The IGA grocery store (115 N Granite Ave, Granite Falls, WA 98252) has ice and food for your trip.
On your way out of Granite Falls, look for the town’s namesake: a giant waterfall pouring over boulders. It’s a short hike from the roadside turnoff.
One of the most accessible camper-friendly parts of the ‘Loop is Verlot. Located a few miles out of Granite Falls, it’s a forested camping area next to the Stillaguamish River.
Camping spots here are only $12 a night for one vehicle, tax included. Most sites at Verlot come with picnic tables and fire rings.
The Stillaguamish River, or the “Stilly”, is shallow enough here in the summer to wade or swim in. Across the river is the peak of Mount Pilchuck.
Verlot is not deep wilderness, which makes it ideal for the casual outdoors person. If you want to see more, then continue out on the Mountain Loop.
3. THE BIG FOUR ICE CAVES
A short drive from Verlot are the spectacular Big Four Ice Caves. They make for a fail-proof hike. The ice caves are a mile trek from the highway; easy to get to along a cleared path that has a low gain in elevation.
The Big Four Mountain has a microclimate on its north face that sustains ice year-round. The mountainside is marbled with veins of frozen water and patches of snow. Majestic.
There are two paths leading from the trailhead that meet up at the base of Big Four. I recommend the boardwalk route through the wetlands. The trail leads through lush horsetails, willows, and calm pools.
A word of WARNING: never go in, near, or climb on top of the ice caves.
Learn more about the Big Four Ice Caves by checking out the WTA hiking guide here.
4. DEEP LOOP
Far out on the ‘Loop, past the ghost town of Monte Cristo, the Scenic Byway turns into an unpaved road. The route here is steep, and the road is made of compact dirt and gravel.
This is where things get really “off the grid.”
Here you’re guaranteed stunning panoramic views. The timber-carpeted slopes and waterfalls might actually take your breath away. Turn off on the White Chuck Overlook and look for mountain goats.
Coming out of the wilderness, you’ll drive into the small lumber town of Darrington.
Darrington’s cozy downtown has some of the best views in the county of Whitehorse Mountain. I spent an afternoon in Darrington and I never quite adjusted to the seemingly-distorted perspective of a giant mountain looming over the city.
Darrington is a “jumping off point” if you’re headed on the ‘Loop in the other direction.
Check out the WTA guide for the Darrington’s best hike, Whitehorse Trail, here.
Just outside of Darrington is Squire Creek (41415 State Rte 530 NE, Arlington, WA 98223), a wonderful campground for car/tent camping. Beautiful, quiet and rural. It’s close to lots of hiking, equestrian, biking, and rafting opportunities.
Between Darrington and Arlington is the Rhodes River Ranch (22016 Entsminger Rd, Arlington, WA 98223). This ranch is exactly what you don’t expect to find in a Northwest wilderness. Is it a giant luxurious horse-training arena? Is it a classy place for steak dinners and whiskey? Yes to all of the above.
Yep: the roadside restaurant is built around an equestrian arena. Stop by for dinner and a show.
Then head into historic downtown Arlington for some small PNW town hospitality, a little shopping and maybe a yummy ice cream cone at the classic Blue Bird Cafe (308 N Olympic Ave, Arlington, WA 98223).
6. END LOOP
Closing out the trip was a stop by Biringer Farms (21412 59th Ave NE, Arlington, WA 98223) on the outskirts of Arlington. We picked up a half flat of strawberries at the roadside fruit stand. Berries fresh from the field are a perfect juicy summer treat to wind down a road trip.
The Northwest tastes good in Seattle NorthCountry.
What a lovely day to get lost in the middle of nowhere.
WHEN YOU GO
It’s possible to see the Mountain Loop in one day. But it might be better as a two day trip: camp overnight, come back the next day.
No matter your plans for tackling the route, you simply can’t go wrong with the views on this scenic byway.
Don’t forget your camera.