Monday, June 12, 2017

Monte Cristo Ghost Town

Monte Cristo Ghost Town
8 miles round trip, 600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate; river crossing on log and a few eroded sections of trail
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

The rugged peaks of the Monte Cristo Group in Washington State's North Cascades hide the crumbling ruins of a mining town with an outsized impact on the history of both Washington State and these United States. The Monte Cristo Ghost Town is the remnant of what was once a bustling silver mining town that brought investment and fortune-seekers to the Northwest; the failure of the mines to produced the promised quantities of silver led to the town's demise. This fairly easy hike visits the town by following an old road trace down to the ghost town from the Mountain Loop Highway. While the history at the end of the trail is itself worth the trip, the hike delivers some nice views of the Cascades along the way as well as a fun-for-some, difficult-for-others log crossing over the Sauk River.

I hiked to Monte Cristo with two friends on a June day that was sunny in Seattle but overcast with showers at times in the mountains. We headed northwest from Seattle to Granite Falls via Everett, then followed the Mountain Loop Highway east about 30 miles past the Verlot Ranger Station to the trailhead at Barlow Pass. There was parking both alongside the road and in a gravel lot to the north of the road at the pass. After putting up a Northwest Forest Pass, we walked briefly east along the road to a gated road on the south side of the Mountain Loop Highway. This road, which was once the main vehicle route to Monte Cristo, is still the principal trail leading to the ghost town today.

The first mile of the hike was a straightforward walk along the old road to Monte Cristo; this road was once the main access route to Monte Cristo and was open to traffic until 1980. The primary route to Monte Cristo varied greatly over the course of the town's short history: the earliest miners arrived from what was perhaps the most rugged route, climbing over Poodle Dog Pass to reach the townsite from Index, Galena, and other points in the Skykomish River watershed. A later route connected the town to the Skagit Valley via a road along the Sauk River, while a railroad connection funded in part by the Rockefeller family connected Monte Cristo with Everett through Barlow Pass and the Stillaguimish River, a route that is today covered by the Mountain Loop Highway.

At points, the road was washed out by the ever-changing course of the Sauk River, so the trail was frequently rerouted around those washouts. A little over a mile into the hike, the trail emerged alongside the Sauk River, with decent views of the surrounding mountains. Here, the road was mostly washed out but the trail had yet to be rerouted, so a short stretch of trail required following the narrow remaining strip of road along the riverbank, which may be challenging for some hikers.

After the narrow riverbank trail, we found ourselves on a much narrower single track through the forest. At this point, I became a little confused about the route: the smaller trail seemed as if it might be the Gothic Basin Trail rather than the trail to Monte Cristo, which made me worry that we had missed the river crossing over the Sauk River. My concern was poorly founded; the actual crossing point was about 300 yards further along. We hiked further along the trail past a sign for Gothic Basin and past a turnoff to Weeden Creek down to the riverbank of the Sauk River, where we crossed the river on a fairly wide log. We found good views of the surrounding peaks at the river crossing.

Sauk River with peaks of the Monte Cristo group rising in the distance
The log for the river crossing was not difficult to negotiate, as it was sturdy and fairly wide, but it may be troublesome for those with poor balance or a fear of heights. Falling off the log ultimately seemed fairly tame, as the fall to the river was just a few feet, so despite any potential difficulties this did not seem like a dangerous crossing.

Sauk River crossing
After crossing the log, we followed pink tape marking the trail on tree branches to a bridge: while the other bridge on the road had washed away, making the log crossing necessary, this second bridge had survived, allowing a much easier crossing over the remainder of the Sauk River.

The remaining three miles to Monte Cristo consisted of easy hiking along the road with occasional detours at washouts. While the trail came to clearings with views of the nearby mountains at multiple points, many of the summits remained cloaked in clouds for the remainder of the day. The mossy forest and views of waterfalls tumbling down distant cliffs kept us good company. We were joined along this stretch of trail by Renee, who was also headed to Monte Cristo and like us had experienced a brief moment of confusion on the trail near the river crossing.

Four miles into the hike, we arrived at an info board with a hand-drawn map informing us that the Monte Cristo townsite was just ahead. After crossing a bridge over the South Fork Sauk River, two faded signs welcomed us to Monte Cristo.

Entering Monte Cristo
Walking a little further down, we came to a clearing with a number of well-preserved wooden houses set beneath the stern rock walls of the mountains of the Monte Cristo group. The center of the clearing was littered with artifacts from the ghost town: wheels, axles, tools, even a kitchen sink. All artifacts at Monte Cristo are protected under the Antiquities Act: don't remove pieces of a history that belongs to us all.

Well-preserved houses at Monte Cristo
A few picnic tables and a bike rack were scattered around the perimeter of the clearing. We sat underneath a tree near the porch of one of the houses to avoid the light drizzle while we ate lunch.

This pail has seen better days
An old railway turntable was preserved right next to the set of houses. The turntable, which was used to rotate rail cars and locomotives between various tracks, was in remarkably functional condition: we found it surprisingly fun to push the turntable around its track.

Railway turntable- it still turns!
In 1889, silver was discovered near the headwaters of the South Fork Sauk River near the townsite. Speculation that the surface deposits were only a hint of the area's greater mineral wealth led to a frenzy of development resulting in the construction of the town of Monte Cristo. By the early 1890s, the town was connected to the Puget Sound region by rail and road, with the rail link and many of the mines owned by the Rockefeller family. In the mid-1890s, the town boasted over a thousand residents.

In 1894, Frederich Trump, a German immigrant who had arrived in Seattle after the city's great fire, sold his restaurant in Seattle and traveled to Monte Cristo. Instead of joining the miners, Trump sensed a more lucrative opportunity, opening a hotel near the town's train station to mine the miners. By the late 1890s, as it became apparent that the promised silver lodes of Monte Cristo were only a myth, Trump was one of the few people to walk out of the town with more in his pocket than when he arrived. Frederich Trump later participated in the Klondike Gold Rush, opening a restaurant in the Yukon to feed miners heading to Dawson. With his combined earnings from the silver veins of Monte Cristo and the gold of the Klondike, Trump returned to Germany, married Elizabeth Christ, and moved to Queens, New York. Following his death, Elizabeth Christ Trump and their son Fred founded a real estate development company; a little over a cenutury after Monte Cristo's heyday, Frederich Trump's grandson became the president of the United States.

Events in the United States today likely reflect underlying concern about the future due to accelerating economic, social, and technological change and are perhaps not as strongly shaped by individual public figures as we'd like to imagine; but still, I couldn't help but wonder throughout this hike what the world would look like now had Frederich Trump's time at Monte Cristo turned out differently.

We chose to continue past the clearing and explore the ghost town further. We first came to the foundation of the Monte Cristo Resort, which operated in the town after the end of silver mining but burned down by the second half of the 20th century. A little further, we came to an info board detailing the trails to Glacier Basin and Silver Lake; at the trail junction just past the info board, we followed the bridge across the Sauk River towards Glacier Basin.

Sauk River
Across the bridge, we followed the trail up a few short switchbacks uphill to Dumas Street, where we found a number of abandoned dwellings. These houses were in much shoddier shape than the ones at the clearing and more resembled our imagined appearance of century-old houses. I wondered to myself whether the choice to name a street Dumas in a town called Monte Cristo was a deliberate reference to the French novelist.

Decaying house on Dumas St.
Rather than continue towards Glacier Basin, we chose to turn back and return to the trailhead after seeing the ruins on Dumas Street. We saw plenty of other hikers that day, which was unsurprising: Monte Cristo is a good hike for a cloudy or rainy day, as the history at the end of the trail is equivalently intriguing (or boring, depending on your point of view) regardless of the weather.

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