Looking for that perfect weekend camping and hiking getaway trip from Seattle? Only one hour’s drive away you could experience the Mountain Loop Scenic Byway, one of Washington State’s most popular scenic drives. There you’ll drive past three wilderness areas, hundreds of miles of hiking trails, snow-capped mountain peaks, thirteen U.S. Forest Service (USFS) campgrounds, and wild and scenic rivers. Wildlife enthusiasts would be interested in the fact that eagles, beavers, black bears, mountain goats, black-tailed deer, and barred owls make homes here.
The Mountain Loop Scenic Byway, one of 11 scenic byways in the state, traverses through the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in the western section of the Cascade Range. It’s paved for 34 miles from Granite Falls to a low mountain pass, Barlow Pass, where it becomes an unpaved road. At Barlow Pass, you’ll see mountain peaks on either side of you and a stream running alongside that make for a gorgeous setting and a feeling that you’re in another world. After 13 miles of bumpy driving, a paved surface resumes for the remaining 9 miles to the town of Darrington. Portions of the unpaved section are narrow and rutted but are drivable in a passenger car.
Of the 13 USFS campgrounds, the largest is Gold Basin with 83 sites for tents or RVs, and even an amphitheater. You’ll appreciate the convenience of showers and piped water, a rarity in most USFS campgrounds. All the campgrounds between Granite Falls and Barlow Pass are situated very close to the South Fork Stillaguamish River, or “Stilly”, where skilled anglers can catch summer steelhead, cutthroat trout and whitefish.
Most of the campgrounds along the Mountain Loop Scenic Byway are more rustic than Gold Basin, but many campsites are literally a few feet from a river’s edge. Even though most of the campgrounds are within earshot of the highway, the placid sounds of the moving water over river rock create an ambiance that overshadows the sounds of passing cars.
Half of the campgrounds are “group camps” and available for reservation by organizations such as church groups, scout troops, and family reunions. One campground, Wiley Creek, a favorite of scouts, has three Adirondack shelters which are open-air rustic cabins with open-plank bunks and attics where groups can spread out sleeping pads.
One of my favorite campgrounds is Red Bridge because of its 16 campsites, half are right above the river’s edge. From Red Bridge campsites you can also get glimpses of snow-capped peaks as you peer through the dense evergreen forests on the far side of the Stilly.
If you continue driving past Barlow Pass you’ll find that the rest of the campgrounds are situated next to the Wild and Scenic Sauk River. The Sauk is one of the best kept whitewater and scenic rafting trip secrets in the Cascades. As the river tumbles out of the pristine Glacier Peak Wilderness, the clear, free-flowing Sauk River is considered exceptional by whitewater enthusiasts.
You can camp next to the Sauk River at Bedal and Clear Creek campgrounds. Bedal is one of my favorite Washington State campgrounds. With the sound of the river in the background and set in an old-growth forest, it offers a more primitive out-of-the-way experience. If you choose to camp there you may see groups of kayakers using the spot as a launch point for a day’s whitewater outing.
Hiking in the area includes easy jaunts such as one along the old Monte Cristo Railroad bed, a nature trail for the wheelchair-bound, short and steep hikes to high lakes, an easy one-mile hike to the unusual Big Four ice caves and even treacherous, cross-country traverses through untamed wilderness.
The Mountain Loop Scenic Byway loops almost entirely around the Boulder River Wilderness, which not many people venture into. This is mainly due to the fact that there are few trails and it has some very steep ascents. If you want to go explore, do some orienteering and cross-country travel, that’s a good place to do it.
For technical climbers, the Sloan and Bedal peaks in the Jackson Wilderness offer sheer rock challenges.
The next time you visit Seattle, if you want to experience some of the best of Washington State camping, try to find time for a weekend drive to the Mountain Loop Scenic Byway!