Delays short on road to Darrington five months after deadly Oso mudslide

When Lawrence Jacobson of Olympia set off on one of his outdoor adventures earlier this month he considered a trip to the Darrington area in the North Cascades.

Then he reconsidered. After the deadly Oso mudslide on March 22 that covered state Route 530 about 12 miles west of town, he envisioned sitting in his car when he should be hiking.

“After sitting through traffic at Fort Lewis (Joint Base Lewis-McChord) and Seattle I wanted to avoid another traffic jam,” Jacobson said.

So he headed to Mount Baker. And when he wanted to squeeze in a side trip on the way home, he once again skipped Darrington, this time in favor of a ferry trip to Orcas Island.

The impact of the Oso mudslide on Darrington’s outdoor recreation visitors depends on whom you talk to. Mayor Dan Rankin says the little town of almost 1,400 has done well getting the word out “that we are open for business.”

He believes visitation is normal.

But Martha Rasmussen, manager of www.destinationdarrington.com, says “I get the feeling it (outdoor recreation visitation) is down a little bit.”

The town’s Forest Service ranger station is reporting fewer visitors than last year. In July, the station had 678 information requests by phone and 1,167 visitors, said Erika Morris, a Forest Service information assistant. Those numbers are down from 810 calls and 1,408 visitors in July 2013.

“It’s been my personal observation that people are still unsure whether the road is open at all,” Morris said. “We have to keep getting the word out.”

Not only is Route 530 open, but it’s been open since June 1. And while crews still are working in the slide area, delays usually are short.

While there will be at least one more midweek, 31-hour stretch (Aug. 19-21) where drivers will take an approximately 15-minute detour on an access road, typical delays usually last only a few minutes.

Shayla Rounds commutes from Bellingham to her job at the Darrington ranger station and says it rarely takes longer than five minutes to pass through the slide area. “At the longest, you’re talking about the length of time it takes a dump truck to turn around after dumping its load,” she said.

Judging from interactions with people at the ranger station, Morris says she believes traffic concerns aren’t keeping away people with specific plans such as climbing nearby Glacier Peak or rafting the Sauk and Suiattle rivers. But Morris says she’s noticing fewer people who stop just because they were passing through.

Brian Pernick, owner of the Darrington-based rafting company Adventure Cascades, says concerns over traffic delays haven’t impacted his business. He says business “is up 100 percent” over last year for his 3-year-old business.

“A lot of the time people who book with us might not even know where Darrington is,” Pernick said. “We explain that they will drive through the slide area and that it could be slow. But it doesn’t keep them away.”

Pernick and others in a town where the economy is fed by logging and recreation, hope a new map brochure sponsored by companies such as Seattle-based REI and Outdoor Research will lure more visitors.

The free map (it can be downloaded at destinationdarringtonmap.com) offers a guide to some local recreation opportunities and proclaims Darrington the “Gateway to the North Cascades.”

“That’s really been a big help,” Pernick said. “I think that’s really helped get the word out that we’re open and there is so much to do here.”