On Thursday, Lisa and I drove up to Big Four Mountain, a couple hours north of Seattle in the Central Cascades. I've done photo expeditions in the area twice before, once to Darrington and once to the abandoned mining town of Monte Cristo. However, despite driving past the Ice Caves multiple times, I had never had the opportunity to stop and hike up to them, until now.
The Ice Caves are a short, relatively easy hike from the parking lot, over a mile-long gravel trail up to the base of Big Four Mountain. Over the course of the winter, lots of snow and ice fall down and collect in a sheltered corner at the bottom of the cliff; then, as the summer progresses and the snow and ice melt, caves are formed in the ice.
Often there are no visible caves at all as a snowfield persists until mid-summer, but this year's warm dry winter meant that the ice caves were already well-formed, looking in early June the way they might look in late August on a typical year. I wouldn't be surprised if they disappear entirely by the end of the summer.
The Ice Caves are also quite dangerous; several people have died while exploring them, crushed by chunks of snow and ice falling from the roof. Visitors to the area are strongly warned against approaching the entrance, and cautioned over and over again to stay on the trail. However, we saw more than a few folks get pretty close, and a couple people actually entered the cave itself-- as for me, I stayed well back and contented myself with the views I could get with my long zoom lens.
To me, the towering cliffsides, with their striations and crevices and countless tiny waterfalls making their way down from the rapidly-thinning snowbanks on the upper slopes, were even more impressive than the caves themselves. As we approached, the cliffs felt more like a matte painting or a movie special effect than reality-- it was a reminder that even though I've traveled to some amazing places recently, like the Himalayas of Nepal, I'm lucky enough to live in an area where there are some world-class natural wonders close to home, too.