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Originally published October 31, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 1, 2007 at 5:23 PM

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Mountain towns, visitors back in loop

The news spread quickly, faster than anyone at the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest office could have imagined. Town officials in Granite...

Special to The Seattle Times

The news spread quickly, faster than anyone at the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest office could have imagined.

Town officials in Granite Falls, Darrington and Arlington were among the first to find out, followed by people talking at espresso stands, general stores and ice-cream shops in and around those communities.

Over the weekend, Pacific Northwest hiking blogs were proclaiming the news: "Mountain Loop Highway Opens!"

After four years of being closed for repairs, the roughly 5-mile stretch of road along the 55-mile highway loop connecting Granite Falls with Darrington made its highly anticipated debut Friday to the delight of many Snohomish County residents, business owners, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts.

The Darrington Ranger District, part of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie Forest, could not have picked a better day to reintroduce one of the state's most beautiful stretches of highway.

The weather was clear and sunny, a perfect showcase for the red and golden autumn leaves spilling from the maples, cottonwoods and aspens dotting the Sauk River near Barlow Pass.

From Granite Falls, the highway winds its way through the tiny towns of Verlot and Silverton before reaching Darrington at the intersection of Highway 530. Arlington, about 30 miles farther west, marks the unofficial end of the loop.

Along the way, the road weaves past dozens of campgrounds, hiking trails and picnic areas, several of which were affected by the road closure.

"It's beautiful — just lovely," said Kibbie Hoobler, an Arlington resident who drove the road with her husband, John, on Friday.

"This is what we remember from years and years ago," said Hoobler, 65.

The highway repairs weren't supposed to take four years. But after the floods of 2003 shut down the route, a "perfect storm" of problems combined to drag out the process, said Peter Forbes, district ranger at the Darrington Ranger District.

One of the larger issues, Forbes said, was a lack of staffing at the office, which made it hard to direct time and money to the project.

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By the time an environmental assessment of the damage was completed in 2006, more winter storm damage had added to the problem.

In early summer 2006, the nonprofit Pilchuck Audubon Society filed an appeal with the forest supervisor of Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, objecting to the decision to reopen the road and citing environmental concerns. The appeal was denied, but it resulted in a longer process nonetheless.

The group still opposes the reopening of the road, said Kristin Kelly, smart-growth director for the grass-roots organization, in part because the Sauk is a federally protected Wild and Scenic River.

"It continually gets washed out every year, and it's a lot of money to keep restoring it," she said. "We don't think the amount of car traffic going through there is good for the environment."

Much of the repair work involved rebuilding washouts using a process that Peter Wagner, the project engineer, said will prevent the roadway from being destroyed by the swelling river again.

Fixing the loop's damaged areas cost $790,000, with some of the funds coming from the Federal Highway Administration for emergency repairs.

"Back in the day when we had a lot of staff and the budgets weren't quite so tight, we might have been able to react more quickly and get the project done," said Forbes.

The opening of the Mountain Loop Highway doesn't just mean the end of a drawn-out repair project, though.

It represents a likely uptick in business for dozens of shops and restaurants along the way, more tourism dollars flowing into nearby towns and an additional, more scenic way to travel between Granite Falls and Darrington.

Joyce Jones, mayor of Darrington, estimates the four-year closure of the route cost her town about $750,000 in much-needed tourism dollars.

That loss, coupled with the timber industry's downturn, led to a heavy hit for the picturesque mountain town.

"We've had to basically readjust our rate of income because of the shortfall," she said.

Now the towns are celebrating. Snow shuts down the road during the winter months, but the communities already are planning a joint party in the spring, when they anticipate the flood of visitors will begin again.

Lesley Cochran, a 23-year-old employee of the Fidalgo Bay coffee drive-through in Darrington, described the highway's reopening as "totally good news."

"We have a lot of tourists that go through here, and they would get disappointed when we would tell them it's closed," she said.

At Green Gable General Store in Verlot, employee Mike Elerson, whose grandparents own the business, anticipates more customers in the spring when outdoor enthusiasts rediscover the road.

Among other attractions, the Mountain Loop Highway provides access to the Big Four Ice Caves — currently closed due to flood damage last winter — and the deserted mining town of Monte Cristo.

The Forest Service estimates 55,000 tourists travel through Granite Falls and Darrington at the height of the season.

"I've seen a lot of cars going up already," Elerson said on the first day the road was open.

Jackie Wright, co-owner of The Nook Hobbies & Gifts in Granite Falls, was so overjoyed by the news that she placed a sign outside her business Friday announcing the highway had re-opened.

"People are always asking about the loop and the ice caves," said Wright. "Granite Falls is kind of like the entryway to the mountains."

Many residents were surprised by the news, not having expected the highway to reopen until spring.

"It's definitely a biggie for this town," said Wright.

It was a chief topic of lunchtime conversation Friday for John Lorock and D.J. O'Dell, who were eating at the Timberline Cafe in Granite Falls.

O'Dell, a tow-truck driver with Granite Falls Towing, is already anticipating an increase in calls to rescue drivers stuck on the highway.

While the damaged area has been repaired, a 13-mile section remains unpaved, potholed and very narrow in some areas. In bad weather, muddy conditions can create a driving hazard.

"Somebody's going to end up breaking down out there," O'Dell said.

That's why Forbes, of the Darrington Ranger District, urges drivers to be careful despite the recent repairs.

"In some places, it's two cars wide and you can pass people without much difficulty," said Forbes. "In other places, it truly is a single lane."

That likely won't keep away eager residents and visitors who have been waiting years to get back on the highway.

Jim Wyatt, 48, of Darrington, has lived in the town most of his life and has fond memories of driving the highway when he was a kid.

"I'll probably have to drive it again now that it's open," he said.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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