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Old Robe Canyon with Jeff.
Round trip 7.45 mile "loop", total time about 7.5 hours, total elevation gain about 1600 feet.
Click here for TOPO.EXE v3.4.3 TPO file.
Click here for MAPSOURCE.EXE v6.9.1 MPS file.
Click here for GPX text file.
GPS data includes tracks and waypoints for parking, trail forks, points of interest (the tunnels, the slides, the "bridge"), etc. The GPS data also include some tracks and waypoints and logging road tracks for the purpose of aiding an exit from the canyon north to the highway.
Trip Report 6/13/05 sun
Hiked Robe Canyon on the south fork of the Stillaguamish River and explored the old railroad grade that follows the river.
Getting there: Drive north out of the town of Granite Falls on the Mountain Loop Highway. The road immediately crosses the south fork of the Stillaguamish and then turns east. 7.2 miles after leaving town you'll see a brick sign marking the trailhead.
Gear: Headlamps, climbing gear?, escape skills.
My long time hiking buddy Jeff is in town. I always save up my favorite hiking projects for Jeff. The ones with lots of unknown, potential trouble, isolated beauty, lots of logistics - long on adventure and short on the beaten path. Between us we have the skill set to get ourselves into trouble and hopefully back out, often with a good story to tell about it. Just as an example, when it's just the two of us, we have NEVER in 30 years, hiked out in the daylight.
Robe Canyon has been on my list for a while. This ***CAN*** be a relatively easy 2.5 mile walk... if you turn around where the sign tells you to. In fact I've hiked the "main" trail several times. It's a fun hike with pretty forest, a wild river, little elevation change, old railroad tunnels to explore and neat history. It's perfect for out-of-town visitors who don't have a lot of time. The trail officially ends after about a mile and a half just after the first (long) tunnel but clearly people have continued. Each time I visit I coax my group a little farther. The farther you go, the harder it gets. Passing multiple landslides, more train tunnels, collapsed tunnels, rocky, slippery, muddy, scary scrambling, tiny trail, overgrown trail, no trail...
This time I was ambitious and planned on hiking (hopefully) the entire length of the canyon from Old Robe Canyon trailhead to where the highway crosses the river approximately eight miles east. I assumed, (wrongly as it turns out) that the railroad grade would continue the length of the canyon and all we had to do was find it and follow it. I didn't expect it to be easy... In fact I discovered later that the RR grade does NOT continue the length of the canyon but crosses to the other side of the river near the left edge of the map up above. But what's an adventure without a little false information... Oh yah, we left a bike for a shuttle, hidden near the highway bridge.
Realizing that we might not make it, we did quite a bit of reconnoitering of the plateau above the canyon thinking we might run out of time and be looking for an escape route back to the highway. The area has several gated logging roads and a couple that aren't. The GPS track (above) shows where we drove one ungated road until some workers told us we weren't supposed to be there. The USGS map shows other roads as well. The problem is that a lot of that area has been logged over the years and it now very overgrown and nearly impassible. I loaded up my GPS with the appropriate maps and lots of estimated waypoints in hopes that they would guide us out of the canyon if and when it came to that.
We finally reach the park entrance and trailhead at about 2:30pm (apparently timeliness/punctuality isn't part of the "skill set" I mentioned above!). This is such a cool hike: starting off in the woods, winding down to the level of the river past wetlands, the river at first placid and then wild and rocky where the canyon starts, the railroad grade with its cross ties that were imbedded in concrete in order to survive the frequent floods and finally the first tunnel. This is "tunnel #6" by the railroad's counting. It's long and dark with lots of poor footing and it curves around the corner so that at the start you have no idea how long it will be. (A headlamp is a good idea here.)
south fork stillaguamish
west side of tunnel #3. Jeff near the small slide before the "bridge".
Now the trail gets a bit harder: the railroad grade is washed out in some places and the trail crosses big rocks and fallen wood. Slippery when wet - BE CAREFUL here. We pass the "trail closed here" sign and continue another quarter mile or less to Tunnel #5. This tunnel is very short and is followed immediately by a big slide that has completely washed away the RR grade for a good 100 feet. Most people stop here - on a summer day it's a great place to stop and picnic, enjoy the view and maybe catch sight of daredevil kayakers running the river below.
The trail gets faint here but you can see where people have crossed carefully over the slide. The last two years there have been some small fallen trees stuck right in the middle. I always imagine them cutting loose just as I'm tangled in the middle and riding them all the way to the bottom. 8-| The section that follows is one of the most beautiful - we regain the railroad grade which winds though a cool green world past a mix of big old firs and maples filtering the summer sunlight. Small firs grow up right out of the middle of the trail. After a bit is a spot that seems like a dead end. The RR grade is between high, steep, rocky walls and is blocked ahead, filled by a small slide. I think this is the site of "tunnel #4" which was apparently "day lighted" to ease maintenance issues. Don't turn around here. At least climb over the easy slide and see the other side!
We climb over to my favorite spot - the "bridge". The first time I found this, I couldn't believe it. It's apparently an old concrete retaining wall where the hillside it was retaining has since washed away through an arch in the bottom - completely. The moss layer along the top has been worn away by those who came before us. This is not for those who are scared of heights. You are easily a good 60 feet above the river, sheer drops on both sides, walking a 3 foot wide sidewalk in the sky! Don't freak or slip here or you WILL die! (Note, there is apparently a little trail that skirts the old slide here. I haven't ever used it but it could be an alternative route.).
The trail continues a short ways to another tricky, loose slide that guards the partially collapsed entrance to "tunnel #3". The rest of the tunnel can be seen collapsed a short ways inside. Nearly everyone stops here as climbing around the point originally breached by the tunnel is not easy. A short section of "path" now winds up, over, around rocks with big, vertical exposure to certain death (or worse). I've been here twice before and no one would ever go any farther with me! (Somewhere beyond here lies the fabled source of the Nile, life's blood of the gods ;-) This time we've brought climbing gear with us for just this spot - I didn't want to get this far this again and not get past this spot. However, today is dry allowing an easy if airy scramble to a path heading straight up the steep hillside and over the top (now way above the river). Here another REALLY big slide has wiped out the RR grade and everything else as well. The trail isn't clear here and it takes a while to find a safe way down and through this mess. Again, this would be big problem if it were wet and slippery! Jeff said he saw the other entrance to tunnel #3 here but I never saw it.
Once we re-found the railroad grade the path was visible if not obvious. People have been here before us but not many. During next half mile the grade came and went, slid and got slid over, lots of bushwacking, lots of beautiful forest. The next major obstacle is a huge rock slide that has opened up the whole hill slide. It feels good to be out in the sunshine but requires scrambling over a lot of big rocks. We stop here for a moment to plan. At the far end the trail just seems to disappear into the brambles but eventually reappears, faint, in the forest. Even if the path is mostly gone, the flat platform of the RR grade is always easy to see if not so easy to follow. At about 6:30pm we stop to eat and make a decision about going on or going back. I'm not very interested in going back but it would be the easiest way out and it is also known ground. This strategy did have the drawback that it would require us to reverse the steep scramble near tunnel #3 probably in the dark which neither of us wanted to to. it might be possible to follow the RR grade, even in the dark all the way to the bridge but there's no guarantee there won't be more big slides. We decide on a plan - to continue onward but to keep an eye out for the next possible escape route to the top of the canyon. From there we'll find a logging road and walk out to the highway and back to the car... hopefully a fast option than retracing our steps all the way back.
Crossing the tangled ravine
Fifteen minutes further on, we find a couple very faint trails (probably game trails) that seem to head up for the rim of the canyon. We follow one which peters out, then the other which goes much higher but then disappears as well. The forest here is old and the undergrowth isn't very thick so we continue up following our own line about 200 vertical feet to the top. Here the forest gets thick and impassable. We traverse along the canyon rim trying to follow the line of least resistance. We're moving north and northwest but occasional views show evidence of clear cuts to the east - so it's in that direction we're most likely to find a road but that direction is utterly impassable. We continue north making slow time, over rough ground and lots of blow down. I have a GPS waypoint that's about a half mile ahead that marks the end of road from the map - we head for that. At one point our passage is stopped by a dry ravine full of snags. We find no easy crossing but finally walk a log a good 20 feet off the ground! A bit further along I spy an opening to the right - I poke my head through briars and underbrush and discover a road! We're saved!
One last adventure awaits us - that of finding our way out of this maze of roads to the highway. We pick a direction and walk. We encounter a fork - using logic and quantum mechanics we discern the proper direction (ok... we flipped a coin) - we wander some more. Around a corner we discover... green boxes...? They look a bit like bees nests - I throw a couple rocks at them expecting to scare the bees out but nothing happens. I creep carefully close when suddenly BRAAAA a huge (really huge) awful noise has me leap nearly out of skin. Holy shit what was that. After a moment the ear splitting wail finally stops. A device nearby labeled a critter gitter had apparently detected our presence and "gitted" us right good. We walked around the siren in order to inspect the boxes - no sign of bees but we were chicken to open them up. They remain one of the mysteries of the Old Robe Canyon.
A few more coin tosses and we find our way out to the highway as the dusk turns to dark. A mile and a half walk and we're back at the car, home, where the beer is.
Next time: I still want to try to find Tunnel #1 (the "kissing tunnel" it was called back in the olden days), explore the rest of the railroad grade, find the old RR bridge abutments, and see if it's possible to continue on to the highway bridge.
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