Seattle's Child

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Hiking to the Big Four Ice Caves

Cool off at the ice caves

Hike to the Big Four Ice Caves and witness an environmental phenomenon.

Located in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest this hike is kid-friendly, short, and an easy day trip in the summer and fall months. My kids (ages 9 and 11) and I went on this 2-mile out-and-back trek and spent the day exploring the outside of the caves, climbing rocks, and playing in the river.

Getting there:

The Big Four Ice Caves trail is located north of Seattle and just about a 1.5 hour drive. Pack your picnic and hiking gear with all the essentials. We found that walking sticks helped us step up and down the boardwalks and over the rocks as we got closer to the caves. Don’t forget your Northwest Forest Pass too. Purchase a day pass online for $5 or an annual pass for $30.

There are two parking locations, one that takes you to the picnic area and the other that is closest to the trailhead. Watch for signs to help find the way.

Bathrooms are only available at the beginning of the trail so be sure to use the facilities before your journey into the woods. Note: The vault toilets had not been cleaned in some time and because this is a very popular trail, the smell was unbearable. We skipped using the facilities altogether.

Big Four Ice Cave history

In the winter and spring, snow tumbles down the face of the Big Four Mountain forming avalanche debris piles. In the summer the temperature heats up and the snowmelt works its way through, creating changes in airflow. This airflow continues to grow as more channels are created, eventually carving the cave’s openings.

You might think that the name “Big Four” comes from the four caves that are on site, however, the real story is that it comes from the observation of a few miners who noticed the number “4” etched into the side of the mountain one day. Since then, the mountain itself has been called Big Four.

The picnic area, to the right of the trail, is the site of the old Big 4 Inn that opened in 1920. After changing hands several times, over the years, and then the economic downturn from the Great Depression, the Inn perished in a fire in 1949. All that remains is the Inn’s original chimney. Walk over to that side of the park and informational placards will detail the history of the Inn and the area, made popular by the railroad that once ran through.

The Big Four Ice Caves trail

Start at the signs that tell the history of the Big Four Ice Caves then head down a paved path to a fork in the trail. Signs will help direct you to the caves or the picnic area. Head left and continue your trek through a lush green forest and over several boardwalks.

It’s a great place for kids as young as 3 to toddle along, although your trip will take longer and you may never reach the caves, but that’s okay. The paths are wide enough for a stroller however, we saw a family struggling with theirs as they were lifting the pram off and onto the boardwalks. The rocks at the end also will make it difficult to maneuver anything with wheels. It’s best to carry young ones in a pack when their little legs get tired.

Bridges, wildflowers, beavers and a forest retreat

On the way, you’ll come across a few bridges that are quite beautiful. A newly built bridge, recently opened after the old bridge washed out, still smells of cedar and goes across a marsh. Another bridge, made of metal, crosses over the Stillaguamish River, and yet another crosses a smaller runoff. Be sure to stop and take in the views. On a sunny day, families play in the river, skip rocks, and listen to the river’s currents lapping against the rocks.

Also along the way, you’ll find a variety of wildflowers and native trees. The trees offer a good amount of shade, while the flowers showcase a pop of color on your short walk. Watch for wood shavings at the base of trees and beaver teeth marks on the trunks of trees. Perhaps you’ll see a beaver dam or an animal wading in the water. Stop at the bench to admire the large roots of a fallen tree or climb into a trunk of a hollowed-out tree and find your perfect hiding spot.

As you get closer to the Big Four Ice Caves look to the right of the mountain and observe 2 waterfalls. Ice melting at the top of the mountain creates this cascade of water.

There’s so much to see and admire along the way it will be easy to occupy little ones. Although a little noisy on the trail there are moments you must look up and appreciate all the nature that surrounds you.

Warning signs

The boardwalk trail that leads to the caves is adorned with signage warning of avalanches. No one is allowed in the cave since the ice continues to melt by the heat of the sun and causes instability within the structure itself. Unfortunately, there have been deaths because hikers have entered the caves, unable to be rescued in time. There is not cell service here. Adhere to the rules and stay out of the caves.

The ice caves: Natural air conditioning

Once you are near the caves, you’ll have to go off-trail to get an up-close look. Walk over a sea of rocks to four gigantic mounds of snow. As you approach the cave, the weather gets a little cooler. “Ah this feels so good, it’s like nature’s air conditioning,” my youngest son remarks. And it is, it gets very cool by the caves, a welcome relief on a hot day.

Peer into the largest cave and you can see a bit of water trickling down. Some years there is a waterfall, but this year, there’s a lot more snow so it has been slow to melt.

Stop for pictures and then choose a rock to rest. We see some kids touching the ice, while others stand on the ice, to the side of the cave. This is not recommended because of the unpredictability of the cave structure.

Once you’ve cooled down get back on the trail to see a few of the other ice caves. Note: The trail becomes very steep and can be difficult for young children to climb.

The trails will also take you to the opposite side of the caves to get an elevated view of the entire space.

Climbing and dining al fresco

My kids discovered ice mounds covered with rubble and huge boulders to climb. The gargantuan size of these boulders is amazing. It’s hard to believe that these pieces rolled right off the mountain at some point in time.

So much activity had all of us starving for sustenance, so we chose a flat boulder and sat to have lunch. Once finished we were ready to head back to the river.

A river runs through it: Stillaguamish River

Under the metal bridge is a path to go down to the river. On this particular day, the water level was perfect. We kicked off our shoes and walked into the cold water, crossing through the slow current. Splashing around in the water, my kids perfected their skipping rock technique, while I relaxed, seated on a fallen log.

In the distance, we saw kids and adults dipping into the deeper parts of the river. Bring a float for some added fun.

Note: The rocks are slippery. It’s advisable to bring your water shoes to walk on the rocky shore and into the water.

We ended our day with a short walk back to our car and a lot of excited chatter about the adventure that we just completed. Worn out and tired from all the activity, my kids fell asleep on the way back home. I don’t know about you, but that looks like a successful trip in my book, one we will do again.

Know before you go

  • The Big Four Ice Caves trail is located in Granite Falls, WA 98252
  • Be sure to pay and have your NW Forest Pass displayed on your car dashboard.
  • Bring walking sticks to help climb up and down boardwalks and over rocks
  • Bring water shoes for play at the river
  • Trail is 2 miles out and back and is easy to moderate

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About the Author

Jasmin Thankachen

Jasmin is the Associate Publisher at Seattle's Child and an Eastside mom of two boys. She enjoys parenting with lots of love and laughter. Co-Founder of PopUp StoryWalk, she also loves children's picture books, essay writing, and community stories.