While camping last weekend, we hiked to the ghost town of Monte Cristo. It was a gold and silver mining town in the late 1800’s, located way the heck in the middle of nowhere. The mining era only lasted about twenty years and the town has been forsaken mostly ever since. A few small cabins remain. I never figured out for sure if they are from the original settlement, or later additions built for recreation. But they are old, at least.

The hike in is an easy four miles in on a gravel logging road which is closed to public vehicle traffic. The elevation gain is about 400 feet, and mostly gradual. We walked at a good clip with no stopping, it took us about 90 minutes each way.

There are a few places where the road has washed out and you have to either walk rocky dry riverbed stretches, or take detour trails which are pretty choppy and muddy. This propensity for landslides is one of the reasons the mining town didn’t last longer, the trains apparently had a lot of trouble running because of continual washouts.

The printed trail guide warns that hikers must ford the river in one of the damage areas. But when I asked at the Ranger Station what to expect, I learned that there is this nicely made log crossing which prevents getting wet. It even has little stair steps chainsawed into the root ball.

A few pamphlets about the town give hint to what it used to look like. So, the inbound hike is filled with anticipation of what might be left of this bustling, yet very isolated community, which was originally reachable only by rail or pack mule.

Rounding the bend past the welcome sign into town reveals that nature has largely taken over again. It is definitely a beautiful area.

One of the major pieces left from the industrious days of the mine is the old railroad turn table, too big for anyone to remove from the site. I’m not sure how it worked, I’m guessing that railroad engines back then could only go in one direction; so the engine must have been unhitched from the train cars and spun around on this device so it could push the cars back out of town, after pulling them in. It still turns readily, some hikers tested it out while we were eating our snacks.

Rusted artifacts from the mining days lay collected in a spontaneous museum on the lawn. There are warnings in the literature about toxic contamination of the site left over from the mining operation, specifically with arsenic. So we avoided letting the dogs swim or drink near the townsite.

Most of the buildings are long gone, but detailed records and photos remain of what was once there. The Monte Cristo Preservation Association and the Forestry Service have posted signs marking the major sites and streets. How ironic to imagine “Mercedes Street” now, with nothing to hint that there were ever any streets here at all.

But rounding several bends, more cabins come into view, all with the classic cedar shingle siding that seems to last forever.

The interiors of some of the cabins haven’t fared so well, due to marauders both human and animal. There is something eerie about peeking inside to see the sum of someone’s belongings, either for living or vacationing, all turned asunder by some disrespectful beast. Apparently malicious or accidental fires have destroyed several buildings in the previous decades, caused by irresponsible visitors squatting in the region.

And nature has taken its toll on the buildings too. Snow loads have collapsed roofs, and the wet has rotted out post-and-pier foundations, buckling floors and misaligning chimneys.

But I love the traces of humanity left in such abandoned places. The hint of some long-ago decorator choosing paisleyed fabric to pleat into cabin curtains, now teased by the wind in wood frames long since missing their glass.

A few of the cabins are locked tight with padlocks and remain in good care. This one even revealed inhabitants within, with smoke puffing out of its chimney and No Trespassing signs all around its perimeter. There is apparently a camp host program to help keep the area feeling occupied and monitored, in order to cut down on vandalism. And still many of the lots are privately owned; presumably property and mining rights handed down from great-great-grandparent generations inside families who managed to keep track of what was theirs in this mostly forsaken place. But maybe half the lots are now owned by the Forest Service. I reckon due to reclamation from unpaid taxes, donations or fire sales by other heirs who couldn’t imagine what use in owning a plat in Monte Cristo, WA.

Though the road to the township is closed to motorized traffic, there were vehicles back there, all of the four wheel drive bent. Kirk was intrigued by this Land Rover, with a “horseless carriage” license plate, dating it to more than forty years old. First it was parked with a for sale sign, which I thought might have been a joke on a broken down and abandoned old car. But no, later it drove past us, carrying four people clutching gardening tools and a string trimmer. Volunteer trail maintenance crews.

Logging roads can sometimes be boring for hiking, but this one was definitely lush and green, making for a beautiful hike. We passed a few people along the way, but it wasn’t overcrowded. The woods are lovely, dark and deep…

The dogs, Maggie especially, kept an eye out for swimming opportunities the entire hike, constantly trying to dive down embankments whenever H20 was spotted or smelled. This always worries me a bit, imagining some strangulation episode of their flex leashes getting caught on the way down, and the climb back up being too steep to scramble. Twice that day both dogs lurched down into someplace they shouldn’t have, and needed help getting back up. They were mild predicaments, but they remind me to be careful. I swear, you really have to watch border collies, with the way they leap first, look later. We bordered and crossed rivers and streams multiple times, as well as tarns.

Finally, we let the dogs indulge in the way back, when we found a calm and deep pool with gentle current. The water was green and clear, revealing multi-colored rocks on the riverbed.

And we all slept well after a good day of hiking and a fireside meal at camp.

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