Hiking, exploring the historic Monte Cristo mining town

Land managers balance site preservation with environmental concerns
August 16, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
A group of Bellingham hikers, including Elliott Almond (back row, second from left), stop June 14 next to the old sign welcoming visitors to the mining town of Monte Cristo.
A group of Bellingham hikers, including Elliott Almond (back row, second from left), stop June 14 next to the old sign welcoming visitors to the mining town of Monte Cristo. (Photo courtesy of Ken Harrison)

CDN Contributor

MONTE CRISTO, Snohomish County — A peaceful hike along the south fork of the Sauk River leads to a bygone era in the historic mining town of Monte Cristo.

The flat 4-mile path follows the old Everett and Monte Cristo Railroad that went from the port to the boom-and-bust township burrowed deep into the Mountain Loop Highway corridor.

We did a 10-mile hike on an overcast “Junuary” day by going beyond the ghost town to explore the suddenly steep trail toward the rugged Glacier Basin.

But this was a historical journey that led me to an intriguing backstory involving the tightrope walk land managers balance while considering the preservation of a historical landmark versus environmental concerns in the Sauk River Valley.

As sometimes happens with federal lands, competing regulatory policies intersect at Monte Cristo. Almost everyone will have an opinion on the best route forward: save a piece of Washington history or let wildlands return. 

photo  Hikers roam through the Monte Cristo mining site June 14 where some old buildings have been maintained by the Monte Cristo Preservation Association. The relatively easy trail to the site is 4 miles on an abandoned road along the south fork of the Sauk River. (Photo courtesy of Ken Harrison)  

I doubt the artifacts at the site would look like museum pieces without the Monte Cristo Preservation Association volunteer group of about 100 members. They have done much of the upkeep with some support from the U.S. Forest Service, which took over managing the area in the 1990s.

The volunteers have erected beautiful interpretive signage about a town that once had — don’t laugh — a Trump hotel. The grandfather of former President Donald J. Trump opened lodging here in the 1890s. Historians note the place served as a brothel for the three years Friedrich Trump owned it.

No judgment. I’m just reporting the historical account.

Trump’s hotel is a footnote to the rich history of the gold and silver mines that bloomed as Washington gained statehood in 1889.

Within two decades, miners abandoned the enterprise because continual storm damage made it unprofitable. The town named for Alexander Dumas’ book, “The Count of Monte Cristo,” eventually morphed into a tourist resort.

photo  Relics from the late 1800s provide a sense of life when Monte Cristo was a thriving town where miners had to drill and blast hard rock to get to the precious ore. (Photo courtesy of Ken Harrison)  

Again, nature had other plans. Floods continually washed out the rail line, and then the lodges burned down like the Trump hotel had years earlier.

All of this led to questions about who are the volunteers keeping the ghost town alive, and why.

I reached Index historian David Cameron, a founding member of the preservation association that began in 1983. 

Cameron’s group teamed with the national nonprofit River Network to win a grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 1994 to purchase portions of the townsite, including '50s-era recreation cabins and other private holdings. 

“It guaranteed the area would never again be destroyed or endangered by future mining,” Cameron said.

The acquisitions were given to the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, which must work around private dwellings and mining rights that add to the complexity of management.

Cameron, a retired Everett high school history teacher, bought one of the 1950s cabins from a friend and promised her to keep it as is. Monte Cristo has been his summer home for years.

photo  Michael Botwin of Bellingham peers into one of the dilapidated dwellings still standing at the Monte Cristo ghost town on June 14. More than 200 mining claims were made by 1893 but the unsuccessful operations in the Cascades ended in 1907. (Photo courtesy of Ken Harrison)  

Cameron, 82, and Lindgren, 80, recently visited their cabin for the first time in five years because the Snohomish County road to Monte Cristo has long been closed to motorized vehicles. 

Floods in 2003 and 2006 destroyed chunks of the road, essentially turning it into a hiking and mountain biking route that people use to reach the townsite.

Hope for motorized access surfaced in 2015 when federal officials closed Monte Cristo for months to clean up mine tailings contaminated with high concentrations of arsenic and lead.

The forest service got permission to build a narrow access road to haul heavy equipment for the cleanup. The locals call it the CERCLA road for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act that funded the project. 

Federal officials had to build a road mindful of the habitat for the marbled murrelet and spotted owl — birds protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The Sauk also is important to the salmon and steelhead ecosystem.  

A district ranger gave Cameron and other cabin owners access to the CERCLA road until 2017 when leadership changed. Since then, Forest Service officials declined the request to open the gate for preservation work.

photo  The Monte Cristo Preservation Association has erected interpretative signage to pay tribute to an important piece of Washington's history. Prospectors discovered a vein of gold and silver at the site in the summer of 1889, the year Washington joined the Union. (Photo courtesy of Ken Harrison)  

“Every sign, every sack of cement, every shingle we use to reshingle the cabins at our expense, is being backpacked in,” Cameron said.

Without access, Cameron — who used to bring students to the site for history lessons — fears Monte Cristo will fall into disrepair and the piece of history eventually will disappear. 

For now, Monte Cristo remains a place to learn about Washington’s pioneering past. 

The trail begins at Barlow Pass at the end of the Mountain Loop Highway. The biggest obstacle these days is crossing the river near where a bridge once stood. Within the first mile, a giant fallen log makes the crossing possible, though the forest service warns it is not a bridge. 

Cameron’s group tries to maintain the log crossing as part of trail and townsite conservation. The association schedules work parties for the third Saturday of the month from June until the snows return, usually in November. The next one is scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 19, at the Barlow Pass gate. 

Forest Service officials advise visitors to carry all the water they need because of the river’s contamination. The backcountry techniques of filter systems and boiling water for removing biological hazards don’t remove the heavy metals found here. 

The trail traverses a second-growth forest that has dramatic views of Cadet, Lewis and a few other peaks. The combination of landscape scenery and the handful of remaining relics scattered about the townsite makes the trip worthwhile.

At least as long as the Monte Cristo Preservation Association continues its work.

photo  Vernon Brown of Bellingham, right, balances himself on a fallen log June 14 to cross the Sauk River on the way to the ghost town Monte Cristo. Flooding has made it impossible to maintain a Snohomish County access road to the historical site and a new bridge across the river is not forthcoming. (Photo courtesy of Ken Harrison)  

If You Go

The trailhead is about 80 miles, or 2 hours, from Bellingham. Drive south to Marysville and then east to Granite Falls to reach the Mountain Loop Highway. Go another 30 miles to the Barlow Pass parking lot, where the pavement ends at the gate.

For information: The Verlot Public Service Center is 11 miles east of Granite Falls at 33515 Mountain Loop Highway. Phone: 360-691-7791.

Parking fees: $5 a day. Federal Northwest Forest Passes and Interagency Passes are accepted.

Elliott Almond's outdoor column appears monthly. Email: elliottalmond4@gmail.com.

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