This week Dan Rankin and his family are heading into the North Cascades backcountry for a weeklong vacation.
The mountains have beckoned since he was a kid growing up in Darrington. When he moved away, they called him back in 2000.
“When I was younger I loved to go rock climbing,” Rankin said. “Now I do a lot of hiking and a little mountain biking.”
Rankin runs a sawmill in the town with an economy fueled by logging and outdoor recreation. He’s also Darrington’s mayor.
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All this keeps him busy and often pulls him away from his one-time aspiration of “trying to do everything around here in my lifetime.” But that’s OK, he’s long since come to the realization that goal was probably unrealistic.
“I even got a horse so I could do everything, but I’m still not going to be able to,” Rankin said. “A lifetime is not enough.”
Darrington, with a population of almost 1,400, is an ideal base camp for outdoor enthusiasts. Tucked away in the Stillaguamish Valley, the options for play are numerous.
Three wilderness areas (Glacier Peak, Henry M. Jackson and Boulder River), more than 300 miles of hiking trails, scenic drives, waterfalls, camping, rafting, fishing, horseback riding.
Before the March 22 mudslide in Oso killed 43 people and destroyed a section of state Route 530, Darrington was arguably best known for its outdoor recreation.
And it still should be, Rankin said.
“It’s the best kept secret in the Northwest,” Rankin said. “I feel very fortunate to live in Paradise.”
While the bounty of outdoor recreation opportunities might be too much for a lifetime, it will assure you that your weekend will have plenty of action.
The key to unlocking the best of what Darrington has to offer is the maze of surrounding forest roads.
Because the forest is actively logged, the roads are constantly changing. Shayla Rounds of the Forest Service grew up in the area and has made the drive up North Mountain many times.
But on a drive up the mountain earlier this month she encountered so many new spur roads she thought she might get lost. Roads can also close.
“It’s important that you figure out the latest road conditions before you head out,” Rounds said.
The most famous drive in the area is the considerably-easier-to-navigate Mountain Loop Highway. The not-always-paved route between Darrington and Granite Falls is shoehorned full of roadside recreation opportunities. Some are easy to visit such as North Fork Sauk Falls or the flat hike to Big Four Ice Caves. And some are challenging, such as the hikes to the top of 7,201-foot Mount Pugh or 5,324-foot Mount Pilchuck.
The elusive fifth-wheel of Washington’s volcanoes is 10,525-foot Glacier Peak. While Darrington is the closest town to the mountain, views are hard to come by because it’s blocked by other, shorter peaks.
As one of Washington’s five volcanoes, Glacier has a place on many peak bagger’s to-do list. Most climbers take 3-night trips to summit the peak.
“There is lots of great climbing,” said Martha Rasmussen, manager of destinationdarrington.com. “… And we have some great rock.”
Three O’Clock Rock is the easiest to reach and the most popular, Rasmussen said. An online guide to rock climbing in the area is published at mattsea.com/darr.
Brian and Sarah Pernick grew up in Detroit before Mount Baker lured them west. They’ve made the North Cascades their home and opened a river rafting company, Adventure Cascades, in Darrington in 2012.
The Pernick’s run trips – both whitewater and floats – on the Sauk River all year. With three sides of Glacier Peak feeding the Suiattle River, the whitewater season in Darrington usually lasts until late August.
“It’s just awesome,” Brian Pernick said. “It’s very remote and scenic.”
The locals are quick to point out that there isn’t an abundance of single track mountain biking in the area. The forest service says it has only one mountain bike trail, the 2.5-mile Chocwich Trail.
However, the forest roads offer some scenic rides for those who don’t mind a little uphill grind.
Rasmussen says mountain bikers often pedal the loop around Gold Mountain. And the upper reaches of Forest Service Road 2435 offers stunning views of nearby peaks and less worry of logging truck encounters.
When Darrington unveils a completed section of the Whitehorse Trail on the former Burlington Northern rail line, it will be wider than most multiuse trails. A paved section next to an earth section running through a 100-foot-wide right of way.
“That’s because we have a large equestrian group here,” Rankin said, “And we want that trail to be an opportunity for all user groups.”
There are probably enough campsites in the forests surrounding town, the entire population of Darrington could head out for the night.
Campgrounds, both designated and undesignated, line the Mountain Loop Highway. The popular Gold Basin Campground, however, is temporarily closed because of landslide risk.
“But there are a number of great places to camp along the rivers,” said Erika Morris, information assistant at the Darrington ranger station.
There are more than 300 miles of hiking trails in the forests around Darrington.
“The hiking here is incredible,” Pernick said.
From trails up mountains, to riverside strolls to the 2,650-mile Pacific Trail, “there’s something here for just about everybody,” Rankin said. “It’s one of the most stunning places on earth for backpacking.”