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Cutthroat Lakes via Walt Bailey. Photo by Karla Clark.

Northwest Weekend: Explore the Mountain Loop Highway, from River Valleys to Soaring Peaks

The Mountain Loop, which runs between Arlington and Granite Falls, offers endless options for a weekend of exploring — both on trail and in town. | By Anna Roth

North and slightly east of Puget Sound, a narrow highway lined with towering evergreen trees winds along the crashing, glacier-fed Stillaguamish River. This is the Mountain Loop Highway, where rugged trails lead to brisk mountain lakes and peaks soaring to more than 6,000 feet. You could spend days here hiking or simply sitting riverside and soaking in the gorgeous scenery. And thanks to the businesses in the small towns dotting this valley, you can enjoy good food and a warm bed close by after a long day’s hike. 

Mountain Loop Highway Map
Map by Lisa Holmes.

Granite Falls 

The southern gateway to the Mountain Loop Highway, Granite Falls is a rapidly growing city with access to dozens of trailheads within an hour’s drive of the town center. These trails offer riverside rambles or heart-pounding ascents. If you’re after a workout, try the WTA-improved Walt Bailey Trail to Cutthroat Lakes, an excellent fall destination when the huckleberries are ripe. Or climb Mount Dickerman — an all-day uphill trek to absolutely stunning views of the Glacier Peak Wilderness. 

Want something more low-key? The 0.5-mile Verlot Nature Trail connects the Verlot and Turlo campgrounds, both great options for a camping weekend. Or try Old Government — a short forested trail at Barlow Pass that will have you hiking in the opposite direction of the many visitors heading for Monte Cristo. Of course, if you’re a history buff, you’ll want to follow the crowd — the Monte Cristo townsite is a former mining settlement with historic buildings. 

Once you’re done, head back toward town. If you were lucky enough to score a room at Paca Pride Guest Ranch (yurts and tent-pad rentals available), go freshen up and visit the adorable alpacas on site before heading into town for some food to refuel. 

Historic buildings at Monte Cristo
The town site of Monte Cristo is a trip back in history, kept in good condition thanks in part to volunteers from the Monte Cristo Preservation Society. Photo by Laurie Robertson.

You can find Greek, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Thai and American cuisines in town. Personally, I can recommend Playa Bonita, a Mexican family restaurant where the portions are generous, the staff is friendly and the food is filling and delicious. I always take home leftovers, even after a big day!

If you’re in town for the weekend, be sure to include a visit to the award-winning Granite Falls Historical Museum, which offers a rich history of the Mountain Loop Highway and the Verlot Ranger Station (on the National Historic Register). Round out your trip by stopping by the fish ladder just east of town, where you can see the waterfall that gave the town its name. 

Green forest around the Stillaguamish River
The Stillaguamish River running beside Old Robe Canyon. Photo by Aaron Peabody.


On the northeast end of the highway, you’ll find the town of Darrington. Set at the base of imposing White Horse Mountain, it is a gateway not only to trails on the east end of the loop but to hikes and recreation on the Suiattle River Road and the North Cascades Highway. 

Start off by booking some time at the cottage at Whitehorse Meadows Farm, a sweet little Airbnb rental that will be your quiet basecamp. From here, you can hit up the 6-mile Old Sauk River Trail for some low-key riverside time; take a drive to Crystal Lake for a short, family-friendly hike; or challenge yourself on the uphill grind that is Mount Pugh. Parking at Pugh is really limited; so be prepared for that. Also, reaching the summit requires a scramble, so be sure to read up on what you need to know to be safe before you head out.  

If you have more time to explore, head north to Highway 20. Sauk Mountain (with an optional side trip to Sauk Lake) offers incredible views with little effort (if your car can make it up that last switchback in the road). And a few miles east, the steep route to Cow Heaven (named because it’s an old cattle trail) leads to views of the buttes and peaks in the area.

Colorful sunset atop Mount Pugh
Mount Pugh, off of the Mountain Loop Highway, offers stunning views of the valley below. It’s one of many hikes around the loop for those who enjoy views and a workout. If you’re in the mood for less elevation, you can explore one of the river hikes in the area. Photo by Andrew Koch.

This is a dramatic, ever-changing landscape, so trails here can have really variable conditions. Of course, check trip reports before you go, but if you’re in Darrington, you could also stop in at the Darrington Ranger District office. If it is open, you can get beta about trail conditions as well as parking passes, maps or guidebooks. Or you can chat with rangers by phone Monday to Friday between 8:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. There are also lots of shops along the loop that sell parking passes (you’ll to need a Northwest Forest Pass for many trailheads here). See the sidebar for a few businesses where you can pick one up. The money for the passes goes to maintenance, and if you hike more than six times a year, it’s worth buying an annual pass. 

Refuel at River Time Brewing once you’re back in town. They have a wide range of beers to choose from, as well as food. I like their red ale — Another Red Headed Stranger — best. Order a flatbread pizza, sandwich or nachos to go with the brews.

Make time for at least one day to relax in town. Stop by Moe’s Coffee and enjoy its outdoor seating area, then head to Long Hearing Farmstand, a local co-op and organic farm with a stand that’s open on weekends.

Want a souvenir? Clear Creek Candle has locally made candles, and you can check out the thrift shop downtown for a selection of treasures. Before you take off, stop in at Hometown Bakery Café for some of their excellent pizza and one last porch-sit with views of White Horse Mountain. This local business donates food to trail cleanups and work parties in the area!

A view up a tree along the Old Sauk River
Tree lined trails along the Mountain Loop. Photo by Dan Bretl.


Just off of I-5 on the northwest end of the Mountain Loop is Arlington. It’s a good spot to stop in for food or last minute supplies before or after your hike. If you can, make time for a short detour to Silvana and Hazel Blue Acres, a farm with U-pick blueberries, wild-caught salmon, hazelnuts, ice cream and sorbet, and all sorts of other excellent items. It’s on the west side of I-5, but well worth the detour.

Visitors who need a bike tune-up (or just some gear) can stop at Velo Sport. Hungry hikers heading home should check out Taj Grill N’ Spice for Indian cuisine or the Fountain Drive-In for classic diner food. Nutty’s Junkyard Grill also has big portions of filling food. Nutty’s is set up inside an old garage, so the car references come fast and furious on the menu. If you want a little entertainment with dinner, the downtown location of Moe’s Coffee has a lounge with live music. 

There are dozens of trails accessible from the Mountain Loop Highway and many more reasons to visit each of these towns on your way into or out of the area. And when you support their local businesses, you can feel good knowing that you’re helping to keep these small communities around for many years — and many weekend getaways — to come.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Washington Trails Magazine.Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.