ADVENTURE: Big 4 Ice Caves – Granite Falls, WA
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The Big Four Ice Caves trail is one of the few hikes that can look completely different from one trip to the next. Why???? … because the main, and any side caves, are constantly changing from the time the trail becomes accessible by car in late May, on throughout the summer and fall, and up until the time where snow shoes become required again.
Ice melts and, in this case, it does so both spectacularly and dangerously. Walls and mounds of ice gradually begin to melt from a combination of heat and the waterfalls that make their way down behind the snow. Eventually openings form, creating caves that get increasingly larger until, in the case of the side caves, they collapse or disappear all together. We’ve been fortunate enough to visit at different times of the year, allowing us to see how much Big Four’s ice caves actually change.
Before getting to that though, I should probably point out that the Big Four in this hike’s name doesn’t refer to how many ice caves are to be found there, although I’m sure that sometimes there are in fact four. The name is a bit misleading if you aren’t from the area or just don’t spend a lot of time in the great outdoors. The name instead refers to the mountain, under which the ice caves form. Big Four Mountain is quite the the sight to see, with or without ice caves.
It is one of the few mountains that you can get a clear view of from base to summit thanks to the wide open field in front of it. The waterfalls that scatter its face year round are beautiful, and like the ice caves sometimes few and sometimes many. They are one of my favorite things about the hike, but if you aren’t a hiker, not to worry, you can get a clear view of them from the picnic area after a short walk from your car.
Enough about all of that though, back to our experiences with the hike. Our first trip to the Ice Caves was early fall of 2016. At the time, the main ice cave was massive, and all but one of the side cave was gone (it was so tiny, it could barely be considered a cave). Having never been there before, we had no idea what we were missing out on. Even without as much to see as there would have been earlier in the year, it was still an amazing experience, one we decided very easily to have again.
Our return trip took a bit longer to happen then planned. It took place in early summer of this year and was far different. The main cave itself had barely begun to form, but luckily for us, there was an abundance of much larger and more interesting side caves and tunnels this time around. Reaching them requires traveling a bit further, mostly uphill and a bit rocky, along the main path, but the extra work is more than worth it.
Whether the side caves are present or not, however, I highly recommend making the side journey. It does add length and difficulty to the easy, and just over 2 miles in and out trail. You will get a work out, but what you will find makes it more than worth it. It is by far, my favorite part of the trail. Why … because of the amazing waterfalls, of course.
You will not only find numerous smaller waterfalls running down the sides of the rocky mountain, but a larger waterfall tucked away into a crack in the mountainside (pictured right or below). There is just something about it that I couldn’t help but capture with my camera both times. Of course it just happens to be the farthest thing from the main ice cave, and involves quite a bit of climbing to get to.
The best photos never come easy and capturing this one again was a challenge I rose to. You see, the last time around, my not as good and nearly dead camera, caught a photo that should have been amazing, but was far from it once I got home. A do over was required! This time around, an ice cave, or rather tunnel, was blocking part of the shot, but I still went for it. I think it turned out pretty well.
So … I got my photo and, before heading home, we memorialized our adventure, constructing what was only our 2nd cairn in the last three summers of hiking. How have there not been more? We are going to have to work on that. Would make for an interesting View From Here spread … hmmmm the possibilities.
Despite the dangers, the Big Four Ice Caves Trail is a must hike trail. If you live in Snohomish County and haven’t gone at least once, there must be something wrong with you. Whether you have or haven’t been though, be sure to be careful when you do. Know the risks, use common sense, and, most importantly, have fun! The “Adventures + Escapes” portion of this magazine means we do dangerous things all of the time. We raft, we zip line, we hike, and we face climbs, drop offs, and even bears) its just part of the job. That doesn’t mean the things we do, or the choices we make, when it comes to them are for everyone.
Just because we make the choice to get closer to the ice caves despite the warnings posted and potential danger involved, doesn’t mean you have to. Do what is right for you, you will enjoy this hike either way.
WARNING: As with any hike you will find across Snohomish County, the Big Four Ice Caves Trail is dangerous. Ice caves are dangerous, by their very nature, and warning signs are appropriately posted at the trailhead and at the caves letting you know what those dangers are and advising you to stay on the trail.
Four people have died in the last 20 years as a result of the dangers warned of. That being said, there is no outright prohibition from approaching and no attempts have been made to block access or to remove the well established paths that lead down off the main path to the ice caves.
Leaving the main path is at your own risk. You will find most choose to do so, myself and my family included. If you choose to do so, NEVER enter or stand directly under the ice caves or their openings. Melting is ongoing and things can and do fall within them.
Always remember that, as is the case with all of the hikes along the Mountain Loop Highway between Granite Falls and Darrington, there is no cell service in the area or quick access to aid if the dangers warned of do occur. Be smart, maintain a safe distance, and you will have an experience to remember.