Last week we traveled east with a group of new friends to stay at the Nature Conservancy Field Station in Central Washington. It's in an otherworldly place created by the great lava flows and flooding of the early Miocene epoch. Today it's mostly farmland, providing a stunning contrast of bright green fields, breezy plateaus and a deep river gorge that has developed over the past 20 million years. As a result of the erosion, beautifully textured igneous rock canyon walls are abundant and easily accessible by foot. On this trip, we spent most of our time driving down old dirt farm roads in search of abandoned buildings and great views. Hopefully, we can make it back soon to experience the some of the riverside camping and day hikes we found while exploring.
At the end of last fall we started exploring an area just outside of Granite Falls on the Cascade Loop Highway. Once there, we found an abundance of riverside campsites and trailhead access roads. Our first trip was an overnighter to Gothic Basin, which began with a steep set of switchbacks leading a bounty of lakes, hidden waterfalls and unparalleled views. A month later, we came back to do a day hike through boulder fields and changing leaves up to a retired fire lookout atop Mount Pilchuck. Then, most recently we took a short walk through the snow in search of ice caves at the base of Big Four Mountain. After this last trip we were convinced that this is one of the best stretches of hiking and camping in the state.
Photographs by Travis Gillett, Forest Eckley, and Alisa Furoyama
- Fuel up in Granite Falls. This area is beautiful, but most of the small businesses on this highway have been abandoned and there are no filling stations.
- For day hikes, pack snacks, water, and an extra layer of clothing.
- For overnight trips make make sure you have a proper water purification setup. Mining in the area has damaged the water supply of some nearby streams.
Directions to Mount Pilchuck
From Granite Falls follow the Mountain Loop Highway east. One mile beyond the Verlot Public Service Center you will see a large blue bridge. Turn right immediately after crossing the bridge onto a graveled road named Forest Road 42 or Pilchuck Access Road. Then drive 7 miles on the gravel and dirt road to the trailhead at the road end (elev. 3100 ft).
Directions to the Ice Caves at Big Four Mountain
From Granite Falls follow the Mountain Loop Highway east for 26 miles. Turn right once you see the sign for Big Four Picnic Area. If this parking lot is closed or full, you can also access the caves by traveling 1/2 further down the Cascade Loop Highway to the road labeled Ice Caves. Both roads are short so you may park outside the gate and walk from the highway if necessary.
Directions to Gothic Basin
From Granite Falls follow the Mountain Loop Highway east for 31 miles to Barlow Pass and park there.