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Lime Kiln Trail—December 2005

New trails and protected open space in development-crazy Snohomish County are cause for celebration. Spurred by the Stillaguamish Citizens’ Alliance and River Network in the early 1990’s, county and state funding were combined to purchase nearly 1000 acres (about 7 miles) of forested land along the wild canyon of the South Fork Stillaguamish River. The resulting Robe Canyon Historic Park is chock full of interesting vegetation, geology, and history, but until 2004 only the 1.6 mile Robe Canyon Trail (see the February 2003 Walk of the Month), built by boy scouts in the 1960’s, was open to hikers.

Trains once chugged through the canyon, carrying ore, then logs, then tourists. Built in 1892, then rebuilt in 1893, then again and again until its abandonment in 1934, the Everett and Monte Cristo Railway opened this rugged area to resource extraction. The river and landslides that foiled the railway eat away at trails that follow the old rail grade too. Intrepid volunteers from Volunteers for Outdoor Washington maintain the Robe Canyon Trail at the park’s east boundary, and spent 7 years building the Lime Kiln Trail, which allows 3.5 miles of exploration at the park’s west end.

The Lime Kiln Trail begins at the end of Waite Mill Road, southeast of Granite Falls, past a string of houses, some still being built. Walk first through dark forest of even-age Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) with an understory of sword fern (Polystichum munitum), evidence of a past clear-cut. The trail soon opens onto a logging road through an even more recent clear-cut. Here the even-aged Douglas-fir are just beginning to overtop the shrubs who dominated the most recent successional stage. Solar radiation is still high at the shrub layer, and plenty of thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), salmonberry (R. spectabilis), and Sitka willow (Salix sitchensis) are passed. The high light and disturbed post-logging conditions would earlier have supported an herbaceous stage dominated by native fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) and non-native foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). Both can be seen lining the logging road.

Western red cedars (Thuja plicata) and hardhack (Spiraea douglasii) herald Hubbard Lake at about 1.6 miles. Most of the hills glimpsed through the clear-cut are glacial moraine, but large rock outcroppings also abound. A particularly intriguing limestone outcrop lines the trail at Hubbard Lake and begs for a bryologist to tell the stories of the many mosses dripping water down the rock face.

Logging roads are left behind as the trail turns down a ravine along Hubbard Creek to meet the old rail grade. Sasquatch seems a more likely encounter than artifacts of human industry under the arms of moss and fern draped bigleaf maples (Acer macrophyllum) amid the roar of the mighty river. But artifacts there are along the rail grade, best of all the 30’ high lime kiln at 2.6 miles. Used to melt local limestone into lime powder for a fluxing agent, the kiln is now a dandy fern grotto. The rest of the trail travels down to a loop at the river, under towering Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) to the site of the old bridge, across from collapsed tunnel #1 of the Railway.

About a century ago, hardy workers risked their lives (some died) to keep this canyon open to the extraction of its natural resources for the profit of financiers. Today, volunteers keep the trails open to protect those natural resources, for nobody’s financial gain, but the enrichment of us all.

Allow four hours for this easy 7 mile round-trip hike. Bring the 10 essentials, and expect rain. Directions: from SR 92 in Granite Falls turn right onto S. Granite Ave., then left onto Pioneer St., which becomes Menzel Lake Road. Turn left onto Waite Mill Road and find the trailhead and parking lot past the school bus turn around.

Updated: July 3, 2016
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