Contract will pave King County's treacherous Middle Fork Road
It's not a mega-project such as the new 520 floating bridge or the Highway 99 tunnel, but for the outdoors crowd, a new road into the King County wilderness is the most anticipated transportation project in years.
Sometimes, to get to the wilderness, you have to drive to the wilderness. It's not easy to do if your destination is the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River Trail.
Getting there, especially in the winter and spring, means navigating a road that's not much more than "a bunch of craters stitched together for 10 miles," said Mark Boyer, a longtime advocate for preserving and improving the Middle Fork Valley.
Almost since the gravel road was built more than 50 years ago, outdoor enthusiasts have been complaining about it.
"Our trip reporters have been talking about the road condition for years," said Andrea Imler, with Washington Trails Association. "It's riddled with potholes. I've heard about a number of people who've gotten broken axles over the years."
Just ask Boyar, who has long advocated for a plan to rebuild the Middle Fork Road.
"I can't tell you how much I've spent fixing the suspension in my poor Subaru," he said.
The road had a catastrophic washout just a few years ago, requiring a one-year closure and a $500,000 repair.
Now, after years of planning, the Federal Highway Administration has awarded an almost $15 million contract to Active Construction of Tacoma to pave that 10-mile stretch of the forested road, starting in April. It's hard to overstate the value of the road to the 3.5 million people who live within an hour of Middle Fork Valley.
"It's right in North Bend's backyard, it's a mecca for hiking," said Imler. Despite the difficult drive, an estimated 100,000 vehicles use the road each year.
It wasn't long ago that the Middle Fork Valley was a haven for illegal activity.
"It was the kind of place you'd go if you wanted to hide and have a meth lab. There were chop shops, totally out-of-control shooting up here," said Boyar on a recent drive up the valley.
Boyar and a coalition of outdoor and recreation groups, including the Mountains to Sound Greenway began working on a long-range plan for the valley.
"We thought, you know, this has to change. We have to take this place back."
And they have. With years of clean-up and diligent stewardship, it's safe for families. Now, it's time to fix the road. The finished project will feature two narrow paved lanes through the trees with speed limits between 15 and 25 miles per hour.
"We're not building a highway here," Boyar explained.
The road improvements will also increase the capacity of culverts, improve fish passage and reduce impacts on the rivers, according to project plans.
The 3-year road project begins this month but be warned, the construction will require complete road closures with only weekend access, at times, so you're advised to check for closures before you leave home.
Rebuilding the road is just the start.
"We're fixing a big problem that has to be fixed, but the valley needs to be prepared for a lot more visitors," warned Boyar. Fundraising is underway to improve the Middle Fork Trail this summer with plans for about 20 other projects, including new trail heads, picnic areas, improved access to the river, parking, and restrooms.
For those courageous enough to drive the Middle Fork Road and hike the trails, there are spectacular views of sheer cliff faces that rival Yosemite National Park.
Boyar likes to quote a friend who suggests that if it was located anywhere else, the Middle Fork Valley would be a national park. It features all manner of wildlife, fish habitat, and thousands of acres of old growth Spruce forest. The Middle Fork Snoqualmie's 35 miles of free-flowing river has been nominated in Congress for wild and scenic designation.
"I've been coming up here for 25 years," said Boyar. "Every time I come up here, I see something new. It's stunning."