Scenic forest route remains out of the loop
Times Snohomish County bureau
GRANITE FALLS — The main road through this city is called the Mountain Loop Highway, but now it's a dead end, and the implications of the change are just beginning to emerge.
So far, it's not too bad, and something of a phenomenon is appearing.
"We see cars drive up along the road and then watch 'em go back 15, 20 minutes later," said Laurie Bennett, who lives in the tiny settlement of Silverton, east of Granite Falls.
"It's like, 'Let's go check it out,' " she said of drivers who apparently can't believe road-closure signs and have to see for themselves.
They find the Mountain Loop Highway is closed by slides that washed out hundreds of feet of road during October flooding.
That flooding destroyed four sections of road, ranging from about 100 to 375 feet long, and left pieces of pavement hanging above water where there once had been riverfront land.
Travel has been further impeded by a lack of maintenance, leaving dozens of trees across the road, some small enough that four-wheel-drive vehicles have made a path by driving over them, but others measuring 4 feet or more in diameter.
Drivers on the Mountain Loop Highway can travel east from Granite Falls or south from Darrington on paved roads maintained by Snohomish County. But they have to stop when they reach an unpaved, 14-mile section of Forest Service road that connects the paved portions.
It is that Forest Service road that has been destroyed, and administrators are trying to decide what to do about repairs.
"I'm assuming we're going to put the road back the way it was," said Terry Skorheim, a ranger in the agency's Darrington district.
That's not a sure thing, however, and not easy.
"When you add up all the bits and pieces, it's a pretty big project," Skorheim said.
It'll probably be summer 2006 before the Mountain Loop Highway is passable, he said.
The Forest Service is gathering public comments about the repairs at open houses this month in Darrington and Mountlake Terrace. About 40 people attended the first session in Darrington, Skorheim said, and most favored restoring the road, although some people have argued that it should be left unrepaired because of environmental concerns. A decision is expected by the end of the year.
A nearly three-year closure would be a sizable disruption for a road that dates more than a century. Forest Service histories relate how the route was first traveled by miners in about 1891, leading to the founding of Monte Cristo, a mining town that was supposed to make Everett wealthy and that now is a much-visited ghost town, although largely destroyed by snows.
Loggers later used the route from Darrington to Barlow Pass, now the trailhead to Monte Cristo. It was developed as a gravel road by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and designated a federal scenic byway in 1991.
In recent years, about 30,000 vehicles a year have used the summer-only gravel section of the loop.
Despite the road closure, visitor counts at the Forest Service public-service center in Verlot, a few miles east of Granite Falls, are running about the same as ever, information assistant Diane Boyd said.
Granite Falls Mayor Lyle Romack is optimistic there are enough attractions — even on a dead-end highway — that visitor traffic won't be severely affected.
"There's so much to do that it's still a wide-open highway," he said, noting it's possible to reach such destinations as the Big Four Ice Caves, Monte Cristo and many trails even though the loop itself is impassable. "I think there'll be a lot of curiosity to see what happened," he added.
But others were more cautious.
"It hurts a little bit," said Vince Henry, the owner of the Mountain View Inn, the last restaurant and motel east of Granite Falls before hitting the gravel at Barlow Pass.
"We're just starting our season," he said, noting that an estimated 500,000 vehicles use the paved sections of the highway each year.
"It's hard to tell right now because of the Washington economy," he added.
The Green Gables General Store, just across from the Mountain View Inn, seems to be enduring the closure.
"We're alive and kicking," said Lana Stowell, who has been a clerk there about three years. "It's picking up little by little."
But she noted the store does about half of its annual business in summer, so most of the season is yet to come.
"It's just too bad when you can't go to Darrington," she said.
After all, what would normally be a scenic summer mountain drive would instead require a lengthy trip to Arlington and then a turn to the east.
Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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