Land Agency: Snohomish County Parks
Roundtrip: 2.0 miles
Elevation gain: none
Contact: Snohomish County Parks
Green Trails Map: Darrington, WA- No. 78
Notes: Dogs allowed on leash
Access: From Exit 208 on I-5 (Arlington) travel east on SR 530 for 25.2 miles turning left onto Fortson Mill Road (near Milepost 42). Continue 0.2 mile to large parking lot and trailhead.
Good to know: snow free winter hiking; historic; dog-friendly; kid-friendly; open to mountain bikes
Once the site of a bustling mill and community of over 300 residents, all that remains now of Fortson are some concrete walls and two beautiful mill ponds. While the concrete walls of the old mill are covered in graffiti and not exactly pretty to look at—the mill’s ponds are quite the contrary. Lined with stately cottonwoods, the two ponds reflect these tall trees as well as the rugged mountains surrounding them. And the two ponds are important habitat for local fisheries.
After years of neglect, this historic site was recently purchased by Washington Fish and Wildlife. And Snohomish County Parks will manage a new trailhead here for the adjacent Whitehorse Trail. Work crews this past summer opened up a new section of this 27 mile long trail-in-the-works that will eventually connect with the Centennial Trail in Arlington. With this new section opened at Fortson Mill, the easternmost seven miles of this trail are now available for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and trail running.
From the big trailhead, walk north on a wide path just to the left of the old mill remains. Soon come to the Whitehorse Trail. Now walk right crossing a creek on a bridge. Soon come to short fishermen paths leading left to the Stillaguamish River—and shortly after that a path leading right to one of the two mill ponds. This one once housed the mill’s de-barker and now serves as a spawning ground for coho and chum salmon. Both of the ponds account for 5 to 8% of the total coho smolt production in the Stillaguamish drainage. Look for them—and look for eagles, kingfishers and herons at the ponds too.
Walk along the pond and come to a junction. The trail left leads back to the Whitehorse Trail. The trail right crosses a creek on a bridge and then circles around the first mill pond leading back to the mill ruins and trailhead in about 0.5 mile. Definitely walk it and enjoy the reflections of Mount Higgins in the pond’s waters.
Then return to the Whitehorse Trail and continue walking it east soon traversing a large marshy area near the second mill pond. The view here across pools of water and batches of bulrushes to glacier capped Whitehorse Mountain is quite impressive. While this area is now in a fairly natural state, try to envision it as it was a century ago. At that time a major sawmill stood here as well as a town with over 100 people. By the 1920s over 300 people called Fortson home. But by the 1950s the mill was moved to Darrington and nature began reclaiming this area.
Continue hiking the Whitehorse Trail reaching 379th Street in about 0.8 mile. Consider walking left here to the Whitehorse Fish Hatchery. You can walk around the rearing ponds and admire some great mountain scenery too. Then either retrace your steps one mile back to the trailhead—or consider walking on the Whitehorse Trail east some more soon passing some great views of Round Mountain, Mount Higgins and Segelsen Ridge. Reach Swede Heaven Road in 0.6 mile. From here the trail continues another 5.5 miles to Darrington. There are a couple of nice sections along the Stillaguamish River as well as a bridged crossing of Squire Creek. Arrange for a shuttle in Darrington and walk the trail one way from Fortson.
For information on lodging and other attractions near the Fortson Ponds visit www.snohomish.org
For more information on snow free hikes in Western Washington, check out my Winter Hikes of Western Washington Deck.