Big four ice caves are located in a beautiful area of the Cascade range in Washington state. They are also beautiful in their own rite, but beware the dangers involved in seeing them up-close.
The ice caves don’t get their name from the number of caves. The number of caves varies from year to year. They actually get their name from Big Four Mountain where they’re located. Big Four Mountain got its name from snow fields on the mountain that sometimes resemble a big number 4.
Visits to Big Four Ice Caves started many years ago. In the 1920’s through the 40’s a resort named Big Four Inn occupied the location of the picnic grounds near the trailhead. It burned down in 1949 but you can still see the fireplace today.
Although the caves are sometimes called glacier caves, they aren’t formed in a true glacier. What happens is this: Avalanches during the winter and early spring bring lots of snow and ice down to the base of Big Four Mountain. The mountain shades this area and keeps the ice from ever melting completely.
During the summer, the snow melt runs off the mountain and through the accumulated snow and ice. Streams carve out tunnels and allow warm summer air to enter, melting more ice and enlarging the tunnels to the point that they emerge as caves.
Because of this process, the caves will look different at different times of the year. They may not even be visible during the winter and early spring. They will also look different from year-to-year.
Visiting The Big Four Ice Caves
Getting to the ice caves is a tranquil and easy experience. The trailhead is located in an ample parking area with picnic facilities near-by. The trail may be the most well-groomed trail you’ve ever been on as you make your way through the quiet forest. It’s only 1 mile long and a 200 foot elevation gain.
As you start to come out of the forest, closer to the caves, you’ll see warning signs about avalanches. If you are visiting during the winter or early spring, take them seriously. You can see the trees that have been knocked down by them.
As you approach the caves, you will see other warning signs like this one.
Take these seriously also. I saw a memorial cross nearby that drives the point home. People have died here. If it’s winter or spring, there’s a good chance of an avalanche. If it’s summer or early fall (I was there in September) and all the snow is gone from the mountain, it’s safe to approach the caves but foolish to go inside or try to walk over them.
This is melting ice and a cave-in can happen any time. Yes, we like our adventure, but let’s live to experience the next one.
The caves are much larger up-close than they appear from a distance. You can feel the cold, like standing in front of a freezer. You can also see what appears to be rain inside the caves ̵̶ the dripping of melting ice.
One of the caves was actually foggy inside. As I was taking pictures I would occasionally feel a warm gust of air around me, interrupting the chill. It was immediately clear that the warm air from outside mixing with the humid cold from the cave was causing the fog.
The following pictures show what the caves are like up close. Although it may seem like some of these photos were taken inside the cave, rest assured that I never passed the opening.
Big Four Ice Caves is a nice and easy adventure, best done in the summer or early fall. This is a somewhat remote area however and it’s governed by the forces of nature. Cell phones don’t work and a forest ranger may or may not be close by. So respect the potential dangers while enjoying the beauty of the caves.
Location: Big Four Ice Caves are located about 70 miles North-East of Seattle in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. They’re bout 26 miles East of Granite Falls, WA on the Mountain Loop Highway. You’ll need either a day or annual parking pass available here or you can pick one up at:
Verlot Public Service Center
33515 Mtn. Loop Highway
Granite Falls, WA 98252
You can find current conditions at the caves here.