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Big Four Meadows and Ice Caves, North Cascades — June 2001

By Brenda Senturia

The Big Four area in the North Cascades is a popular tourist attraction. Its spectacular scenery and famous Ice Caves draw large crowds in summer, especially on weekends. This area is also rich in flora and well worth a botanizing expedition. The distance is about 2¼ miles round trip and the grade is gradual.

From the parking area, start by finding the trail along the railroad grade (past the restroom). This trail is a loop through a wetland and rejoins the main trail in a short distance. The trail to the Ice Caves begins with a boardwalk crossing a scrub-shrub wetland, with willows, hardhack, skunk cabbage, black twinberry, and sedge species. Cross the south fork of the Stillaguamish, looking for American dippers and spotted sandpipers along the river. The trail next crosses the outlet creek for the Ice Caves. The trail heads into mixed-age silver fir forest, interspersed with mountain hemlock. Some of the trees here are very large and there are many impressive snags. The herb layer includes bunchberry, bleeding heart, queen’s-cup, foamflower, and false lily-of-the-valley. Both rosy and clasping twisted-wtalk and star flower can be found. Deer fern and oak fern are both seen along the trail.

As the trail opens out into meadow, the vegetation is very different. Look for rufous hummingbirds in the salmonberry. At the base of the talus slope, the subalpine plants include Sitka valerian, cow parsnip, meadowrue, lupine, arnica, hellebore, and columbine. The trail opens out into the gravel outwash below the caves. Fireweed is common in these constantly-changing areas. Look also for partridge-foot, goatsbeard, spirea, and mountain ash. As you explore the outwash area, note the dramatic changes in temperature caused by the presence of the ice. Looking toward the caves, note the growth form of the trees on the small knob ahead and to the right. You can see the obvious effects of wind on the hemlocks and western red cedars. There is a trail up this knob and you can make your way back down to the gravel beyond. Note particularly the beautiful bunches of parsley fern growing in the rocks. There are a few Alaska yellow cedars to the north. Pikas can be heard giving warning calls. It is dangerous to explore the ice caves.

The plants mentioned above are but a few of the colorful highlights. There are species to be found well into September and I have enjoyed comparing the early summer plants with the late summer ones.

To reach the trailhead, go to Granite Falls (take I-5 north to Rte.2 in Everett, proceed east on Rte. 2 to Rte. 9 north and then State Rte. 92 east). In Granite Falls, go through town and turn sharply left on the Mountain Loop Highway. Continue on the Mountain Loop Highway through Verlot (information center on left) and continue about 15 miles from Verlot to a signed turnoff on the right. Driving time is about 1¾ hours. There are restrooms at the parking area.

Updated: July 2, 2016
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