The wait is over. Saturday the Ice Caves Trail Bridge is open, and after almost three years since floods washed it out, hikers can once again trek one of the most popular trails on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest to the base of Big Four Mountain.
The new $425,000 aluminum bridge spanning the South Fork Stillaguamish River is higher, longer, stronger and lighter than the one the 2006 floods washed out, according to Peter Wagner, bridge engineer for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. “We hope these attributes will keep it from being damaged in any future floods,” he said.
Several delays plagued building the replacement bridge. Wagner said funding was not available until last year, when the work was contracted and the structure designed. Last winter’s floods further eroded the stream bank, forcing engineers to adjust the design, adding 16 feet to the span. It is now 224-feet long. Then the late snow melt kept work from starting until late May.
“The structure was prefabricated in Florida and trucked to the site in June. A helicopter flew the seven bridge sections into place and workers assembled it in about a week,” Wagner said. The entire construction took about five weeks.
The one-mile Ice Caves Trail crosses the river about one-third mile from the trailhead and continues beyond the river to the base of Big Four Mountain, where the ice caves form. The easy hike gains 200 feet, and ends at the 4,000 foot tall north wall of the Big Four Mountain featuring the lowest elevation glacier in the lower 49 states. It is a designated National Recreation Trail.
Winter avalanches pile tremendous amounts of snow at the base of the mountain. Stream channels flowing down the mountain and running under the snowfield form the ice caves when temperatures rise in late summer. “It really is a very special place,” said Gary Paull, wilderness and trails manager for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. “Where else can you walk from a forest environment, past a beaver pond, cross a river, pass through a sub alpine ecosystem to barren rock and ice, all in one mile?” he said. Before the bridge washed out, more than 50,000 people hiked the trail annually.
Winter storms and avalanches during the last two years also damaged other sections of the trail. Paull said that while workers have cleared the debris, and the trail is passable, there is more work to do. Several small bridges need to be replaced and the trail will not be wheelchair accessible until next year. Right now it is accessible to just beyond the bridge. The Big Four Picnic Area and Ice Caves Trail are about 25 miles east of Granite Falls along the Mountain Loop Scenic Byway.
The Forest Service will celebrate the official opening with a ribbon cutting at the bridge July 10 at 10 a.m. The public is invited to attend.