Your Guide to Safely Visiting the Big Four Ice Caves

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Man standing inside big four ice caves

Have you ever explored an ice cave? Perhaps you thought you had to travel to Iceland to see these unique formations. But you can actually stay right here in the United States and see a few ice caves that the USDA Forest Service manages.

There are ice caves in the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska, in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington, and in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington. The latter is where the popular Big Four Ice Caves is located. 

Let’s look at how you can visit this yearly formation of ice and snow at the base of Big Four Mountain. The caves are only there for a few months out of the year, so let’s dive in!

About The Big Four Ice Caves

Located in the Cascade Range of Washington, Big Four Mountain rises about 6,180 feet high. Avalanches regularly occur here, yet the debris from these events remains piled high all year because of the ample shade from the mountain. 

The ice that rests here forms the lowest-elevation glacier in the lower 48 states. Snowmelt in the summer causes ice caves, and one of the most popular hiking trails is the Big Four Ice Caves Trail.

View of big four ice caves

How The Big Four Ice Caves Formed

Ice caves form as the ice melts every summer, and warm air streams in underneath the avalanche debris at the bottom of the mountain. When the snow builds up later in the year, these caves eventually collapse until they form again the following spring. 

The Big Four Ice Caves are like snow caves under an avalanche that cycle through melting and refreezing year after year. The caves usually begin to form during late July and August and remain until October.

Where Are the Big Four Ice Caves?

Big Four Mountain is located in northwest Washington, about 70 miles northeast of Seattle. The Big Four Ice Caves Trail starts in Mt. Baker National Forest along Highway 92.

You’ll travel about 26 miles from Granite Falls, passing through Silverton. Highway 92 becomes Mountain Loop Highway. You’ll see a sign for Big Four Ice Caves.

How Do You Get to the Big Four Ice Caves?

The Big Four Ice Caves Trail is about four miles from the Silverton Bridge on Mountain Loop Highway. There are two parking areas located at the trailhead for about a couple dozen vehicles in each lot.

The 2.3-mile out-and-back trail is easy and takes about an hour to complete. Along with hikers, you might encounter cross-country skiers. Dogs are welcome on the trail as long as they remain on a leash.

Keep in Mind: Some RVs can’t handle the journey of traveling all over the world, but this RV can!

About The Big Four Ice Caves Trail

The trail leads you through the hemlock firs of Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. You’ll traverse over elevated boardwalks through a marshy area. In the spring, you might catch a glimpse of beavers or songbirds. A picnic area offers stunning views of Big Four Mountain, so bring a snack to enjoy.

After passing the picnic area, you’ll cross the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River on a footbridge. If there is avalanche activity, this is where you’ll want to stop due to dangerous conditions. You’ll notice more and more trees that avalanches have broken.

If you can proceed to the viewing area, you’ll see all of the avalanche accumulation at the base of the north wall of Big Four Mountain. It’s important that you never go any farther from this point because of unsafe conditions.

View of big four ice caves

Is the Big Four Ice Caves Open Year-Round?

The Big Four Ice Caves don’t exist year-round. The snowmelt and warm air of late spring create the caves, so if you attempt to visit before May, it’s likely you won’t see anything but piles of snow at the base of the mountain.

But once late spring and summer arrive, this is a heavily-trafficked trail.

Can You Go Inside the Big Four Ice Caves?

The caves aren’t closed off, but it’s not recommended for anyone to enter. The US Forest Service warns of the dangers of entering the Big Four Ice Caves due to rock and ice fall.

This is why you’ll see warning signs posted on the trail recommending that you go no farther but simply see the caves from the viewing area. 

Explore More: Another cave you won’t want to miss is Sunset Cliffs Cave near San Diego, California!

Is the Big Four Ice Caves Dangerous?

There is always a risk when venturing into an area where avalanches, rock falls, and ice falls regularly occur. You’ll see signs on the trail that say “Danger! Ice Caves Kill.”

They are very dangerous to enter because lots of ice from the ceilings crashes every year. Unfortunately, people are injured and even killed from exploring unsafe caves.

Obey the posted warning signs and stay safe while viewing this natural yearly occurrence.

View of big four ice caves

Visit the Big Four Ice Caves But Practice Caution

The Big Four Ice Caves is absolutely worth visiting if you’re in the northwest Washington area in summer or early fall.

It’s incredible how nature forms these caves year after year. But always proceed with caution. Check local weather conditions and pay attention to posted notices at the trailhead about the trail conditions. The caves are cool but aren’t worth losing your life over.

Have you ever been to the Big Four Ice Caves?

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