Stepping through a forest of fir trees, I emerge in a vast clearing at the base of a towering cliff face. Jagged black rocks are covered in pale white snow. Waterfalls tumble to the earth from above. And at the base of the cliffs is a unique geological feature not commonly found in the US- ice caves.
Formed by water trickling down the cliff and hollowing out the snowpack, the Big Four Ice Caves make me feel as if I’ve traveled far away to a wintry wonderland. But only 90 minutes outside of Seattle and less than 3 miles long roundtrip, this trail is plenty close to home. Better yet, it doesn’t have to be wintertime to experience this icy wonder. Even in the height of summer, the dark cliffs surrounding the cave keep the area shaded and cool. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about hiking to Big Four Ice Caves.
About The Trail
The trail itself is 2.3 miles round trip and begins in a picnic area where an old hotel used to stand. Read the nearby signs to learn more about its history! Once you’re done, cross the marsh via the boardwalk to begin hiking. At the first split in the trail, turn right to cross a bridge over the south fork of the Stillaguamish River. From here enjoy a languid hike through the forest before you reach the viewing area at the end of the trail. Nestled at the base of a rocky amphitheater, there’s more to admire here than just the ice caves. Intimidating black cliffs tower overhead and cast a shadow over the valley while waterfalls formed by snowmelt cascade freely down the sides.
Despite the temptation to do so, it is highly advised that you do not enter the ice caves. They are unstable and both falling ice and avalanches pose a risk to hikers who venture too close. Instead, enjoy them from afar while also taking in the spectacular view of the surrounding mountainside. When you’re done, make your way back out the way you came. This is an out-and-back trail that will take most hikers about an hour to complete.
For more experienced hikers looking for an extra challenge or to avoid the crowds, consider going in November or early December to view the caves. The forest service will close the road leading to the trailhead for the winter adding an extra 5 miles of road walking (round trip) to the hike. This will up the total mileage to just over 7 miles. Hikers should pay attention to the weather forecast and be prepared for snow and ice on the trail. Micro-spikes are recommended and snowshoes may be necessary. Avalanches can pose a threat in this area.
How To Get There
From Seattle, take I-5 North. Get off at exit 194 towards Snohomish/Wenatchee. Then, hop onto WA-204 East towards Lake Stevens. Turn left onto WA-9 North and stay on it for 2.5 miles before turning right onto WA-92 East. You should soon begin encountering signs for Granite Falls, the town which sits at the entrance to the scenic Mountain Loop Highway. Taking the
roundabout onto Quarry road, cut over to Mountain Loop Highway and stay on it until you reach Big Four Ice Caves parking lot and picnic area. You should pass several campgrounds and other hiking trails before reaching the turn out.
It’s worth noting that in the winter, Mountain Loop Highway is closed for roughly 14 miles from Deer Creek campground to Bedal campground. If you want to do this hike in the winter, you’ll need to park off the pavement before the gate at Deer Creek and walk approximately 2.5 miles on the road to reach the trailhead. Want to find up to date information about road conditions and closures? Follow this link to the U.S. Forest service’s page.
Bonus Stop: If you have an extra 15-20 minutes to spare, consider stopping at the granite falls fish ladder along the way. Look for a well marked parking spot off the roadside for this easy but steep walk. It will lead you to both the salmon ladder and a small waterfall.
When to Go
For best views of the ice caves, the US forest service recommends visiting anytime from late July to October. This is when the caves are most likely to be visible and not covered by snow. It is also the time of year when the trail will see the most traffic.
The road to the trailhead closes for the winter 2.5 miles before the trailhead and reopens in the Spring. So if you are planning to visit anytime between November-June, be prepared for an additional 5 miles of hiking roundtrip.
That being said, I visited in mid-November and found the caves breathtaking. The road walk was fairly flat and paralleled the south fork of the Stillaguamish river offering beautiful views of the crystal clear water and surrounding mountains. The trail itself was somewhat icy and snowy. Micro-spikes weren’t necessary but would have been helpful.
Those who choose to visit the ice caves from December-May report varying degrees of snow on the trail and road as well as the frequent rumble of avalanches. The likelihood of seeing the caves greatly diminishes during these months, and the forest service encourages hikers not to go past the bridge crossing the south fork of the Stillaguamish river due to avalanche risks. Carrying micro-spikes and snowshoes is highly recommended.
|Trail Length 2.3 miles (7.3 in winter/spring)|
|Kid-Friendly? Yes (Summer/early Fall)|
Pass Required? Yes, Northwest Forest Pass
This has just become a new bucket list item for me
Beautifully written and so informative! Top of my bucket list now. The pictures are gorgeous, can’t wait to read more of your articles.
Super cool post! Love the fact that you add pictures an the quick facts is such a cool bonus! Keep up the great work!