7 Things You Need to Know About Washington’s Big Four Ice Caves
Hiking out to snow is always tons of fun. Add in a warm summer day and you might start to get confused. Take out the use of actual hiking boots and you will assume the traveler is kind of stupid. Throw a toddler and an infant into the mix and you start to think those parents should be committed. And did I mention the slippery ice and gravel?
I never claimed to be the world’s smartest mom.
For four years I have dreamt of going to the Big Four Ice Caves in Mount Baker National Forest just outside of Granite Falls, Washington. Pregnancy and other travel plans had always prevented it. Not this year. This year it was our turn to check out this natural wonder.
What are the ice caves you ask? Well they are a natural phenomenon that occurs on the north face of Big Four Mountain. Avalanches fall off the mountain all winter and spring. As that snow continues to melt it turns into waterfalls that melts more snow at the base, creating caves.
I picked up a few tricks during our visit; tips a wiser parent or visitor would probably now already.
Best time to visit
The caves pop out from under a mountain of snow sometime in August. You have until about October before fresh snowfall covers them back up again. Keep an eye on the weather. Early snowfall could close them up sooner.
Kid friendly, but bring your carrier
I saw a family pushing a stroller up the path. Learn from their mistake. Just bring a hiking pack for your toddler and Ergo for your infant. You will save yourselves a world of trouble and give yourselves more leeway in what you can see and do.
Let your kids tackle the path
This is probably one of the most well maintained hiking paths I have ever been on. The 2.2 mile round trip barely phased Dek until the end. About a quarter mile from the trail entrance his legs had walked enough and he rode on my shoulders. I love that we could let Dek walk as much as he wanted without worrying about him falling off a cliff.
Hiking boots might be a good idea
Once you reach the ice caves the path pretty much disappears. You can hike up a hill, over rocks, branches and along slopes to reach the farther caves, which in my opinion are the coolest. Wearing street sneakers does not make the journey easy, especially if you have an infant strapped on one parent who has to keep their footing and the other parent is holding the toddler’s hand. Hiking boots for parents is highly recommended.
Know your limits
Mike and I tried to get to the very last cave. Another hiker had told us it was the best. You could peek through and see a waterfall rushing down behind it. We would have had to walk a little bit on the snow and rock. It was slippery; too slippery. Mike started sliding with Ty strapped onto him. Dek and I were taking smaller than baby steps to keep from slipping. Mike did the responsible thing and called it quits. We walked back to the more family friendly section of the caves.
Do NOT step on the ice. No really. Don’t.
The caves themselves usually are exposed during August and remain visible through October, for they are in reality melt outlet openings at the base of a permanent snowfield. – USDA Forest Service
The ice caves are fascinating to look at, but warning signs posted as you make your way up the forest trail to the side of the mountain explain the risk over and over again. You should not step on the snow and you should definitely stay out of the caves. Just look, don’t step. People have died there because of sudden cave ins.
Pack a first aid kit
You would think that I would own a travel first aid kit with a rambunctious daredevil of a toddler in my house. I don’t.
Naturally Dek slipped and fell on his face as we were walking back down the gravel section of the path. I had nothing but a few baby wipes to clean of his face and cuts. Luckily our friends with a 5 month old had a first aid kit with them. They saved the day. I was able to get a little antibacterial ointment on Dek’s face, which of course made everything all better.
In case you are wondering, we now own a first aid kit.
Snow on a warm and sunny day was just about as Pacific Northwest as you could get in my mind. We are not professional hikers, as I’m sure you can tell, but we were able to tackle this hike with ease even with the kids. Dek could have easily spent the whole day throwing rocks and sneaking little tastes of the snow. Maybe bringing him out to such a cool spot makes me a pretty good mom after all.
Know Before You Go
- Big Four Ice Caves, about 26 miles outside of Granite Falls, Washington
- You will need a Northwest Pass for your car, which costs $5 day or $30 annually. You can get the pass at the Verlott Ranger Station after you enter the park.
- Parking is available
- Hiking boots are recommended
- Pack water and snacks to keep that blood sugar up and kids happy
- Strollers? No, not if you actually want to have fun. Bring the carrier instead.
- Restrooms are available at the trailhead
- Picnic tables are about a ½ mile from the trail head for the caves.
- Warning: Never, ever enter the ice caves. People have died there and been caved in after sudden avalanches and falling ice. Enjoy the elements, but respect them too.