Hiking · Local Adventures

Local Adventures: Northern State Recreation Area

When I was a lot younger, I once lived in Skagit County in Washington State. At the time the Northern State Recreation Area was a mess of decay, after the mental health hospital/farm had been defunded in the 1970’s. It hadn’t been developed yet, and was a place where the young and stupid went at night to claim they experienced the paranormal and to do the dumb things 18 year olds do. The difference is stark now, with the changes that came, as it was developed into an area of gently rolling trails, dog friendly and even a disc golf course to use.

“In 1991, Skagit County purchased a 726-acre portion of the former Northern State Hospital from the State of Washington for the purpose of developing a major regional recreation facility for the citizens of Skagit County and beyond. The site, now called the Northern State Recreation Area (NSRA), is located on the eastern edge of the urban growth area of Sedro-Woolley in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.”

But it still holds the starkness of what once was there. When asylums were tucked away from society, and mental health care was in its infancy. When this land sat far away from civilization. Northern State ran as a self sufficient town. It had a dairy farm, a regular farm and had a canning facility to preserve the food. The farm is now what is the Northern State Recreation Area.

To find the trailhead, pass thru Sedro Wooley on Hwy 20 and look for the sign to it, take a left onto Helmick Road. It’s a short drive up, on your left. It is very easy to spot, as the parking area is newer and very nice (it is a veterans park).

There is a bathroom and a trail kiosk near the parking area. One side is a map, take a photo for reference. Cell service was great here (even for T-Mobile) and I opened up Google Maps and I could follow where I was as I wandered. You might get misplaced here, but you won’t get lost if you have both.

I left on the main trail heading across a field that is open. The trails are wide (they are former gravel/dirt roads). At the first junction, take a right.

Keep the barns in your eyes, and you will find it.

The path winds uphill and brings you to the decaying dairy farm.

Think to when this was providing for a community. It wasn’t that long ago. Or maybe it was and I am just getting old.

I was the only one up here, listening to the winds off the Cascade Mountains.

Walk around the complex. Take your time. Listen to the energy that still exists here.

Winding thru the dairy farm, the path leads out.

Old farmland exists to the right. Another loop goes to the right, out to an old barn that is slowly disappearing into the brambles.

Winter is still deeply holding in the mountains.

As I kept on the main path I passed more side paths, which with time would lead to more hiking. The graveyard is off of one. I often visit historical graveyards, but this one, I couldn’t take visiting. It was not a good place even with the many things they did. 1,500 souls are buried there.

The main path winds along, crosses Hansen Creek and edges the still used sections of the Northern State area (Job Corp for example). I wandered downhill and recrossed Hansen Creek on a large bridge. There are more trail options, to make wider loops. Look at Google Maps in satellite view for best results.

After you cross Hansen Creek visit the canning facility, where they processed the food to last all year long. In those days it wasn’t possible to grow 12 months of the year (where now it is using things like high tunnels), so this area is fascinating.

It’s an interesting hike, a good leg stretcher on the long drive into the Cascades. Or just itself as winter winds down.

History is powerful and should be visited. And listened to, even if disturbing.


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