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Old Robe Canyon, East of Granite Falls—February 2003

By Holly Zox

Travel back in time on the grade of the Monte Cristo Railroad into the rugged Old Robe Canyon. Though close to town, and once the site of a town, this valley feels deep in the middle of wilderness. The trail starts in second-growth western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and switchbacks down 200 feet. While on the switchbacks, look out at a large beaver-constructed wetland, the former town site.

Proceed towards the roar of the mighty South Fork of the Stillaguamish River. You don't have to drive to the Olympic Peninsula to see Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis). The foggy river bottom provides plenty of moisture for the open stomata of this pioneer conifer. A few of these spruces are old enough to have seen the town come and go. See also western hemlock, cedar (Thuja plicata), even a few grand fir (Abies grandis). Note the hummocky nature of the forest. These conifers got their start on nurse logs that fell or were washed in with the floods.

Though a hike for all seasons, this is not a hike for all days. High wind, high water, and ice all make this trail treacherous. This is an area of constant disturbance, both from the river's flood and flow and the unstable rock of the canyon walls. It is possible to tell what happens in wild times by looking at the vegetation. The conifer forest is inundated only during the highest flood events. Frequently flooded areas are dominated by deciduous trees and shrubs like salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), stink currant (Ribes bracteosum), and red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea).

A large colony of scouring-rush (Equisetum hyemale), an impressive Indian-plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), and a picnic table mark the site of the old train depot and the boundary between the above riparian forest types. When the river is high, the walk ends here, as the deciduous forest will be under water.

Past the depot are two stream crossings. Before the first, a dandy side trip can be made 100 feet to the right on an animal trail through shrubs, including Oregon crabapple (Malus fusca) and twinberry (Lonicera involucrata) to the beaver wetland and woolly sedge (Scirpus atrocinctus). Past the second stream, enter the canyon proper. Fern grottos, dripping rocks, little waterfalls, big roar of the river…wow!

Here too, vegetation gives clues of what happens when we are hopefully safe at home. Where rocks have stayed in place long enough to garner a mantle of mosses, lichens, liverworts, and herbs, you even find trees. Where rocks fall all through the year, find only a few clumps of small-flowered alumroot (Heuchera micrantha).

The first, biggest active slide is usually easy to cross. Turn back here when conditions are icy or otherwise difficult. If easy, cross and then walk on old rocky rail to tunnel #6. On entering, you at first can't see the light at the end of the tunnel. Then a narrow band of light becomes a glowing emerald jewel of drooping hemlocks, leaning moss-covered snags, maidenhair (Adiatum aleuticum) and sword ferns (Polystichum munitum), water droplets, and mist. In cracks you will even find maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomones ssp.trichomones). Move carefully in the tunnel. The ground, nowhere level, is littered with huge boulders that fell (and fall) from the tunnel's roof.

Walk through that green world to the trail's end at tunnel #5. Though it is possible, and risky, to cross the rockslide, any progress is stopped in a few hundred yards at collapsed tunnel #3, which requires rope and mountaineering moves. Instead, turn around, pick your favorite rock, pop open your thermos, and drink in some chlorophyll and negative ions.

Allow at least 2 hours for this rough 3.2 mile round-trip hike.

Directions: Drive east from Granite Falls on the Mountain Loop Highway to MP 7.1, across from Green Mountain Road. Park on the shoulder and enter the trail by the red brick sign.

Updated: July 3, 2016
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