Well it is the season for the weather to turn stormy, wet, and gloomy here in the lowlands and snow will be returning to the mountains. Add to that the approach of Halloween and it is the perfect time to visit the Northern State Recreation Area (NSRA). The NRSA is a Skagit County park that houses the remains of a supposedly haunted mental institution. The Northern State Hospital, which was built in 1912 and closed in 1976, housed around 2,700 patients at its peak. The concept of the institution was a self-sustaining community where the patients worked a dairy farm, a slaughterhouse, fields of crops, a cannery, and a bakery. The NSRA grounds contain all of those community elements and a graveyard where over 1,500 of the former patients are buried including some that died from experimental procedures. This is supposedly the hospital where the lobotomy was perfected and it seems to have left some unrest amongst the dead here.
The dormitories and some other buildings are in use for things like job training and the grounds are off limits to park visitors. Don’t worry, there are still five miles of trails and plenty to see. And if you are into disc golf, there is course running throughout the park and if you lose your disc, you can blame the ghosts.
From I-5 take exit 230 for WA 20/North Cascades Highway and head east. Soon after passing through Sedro Woolley, take a left on to Helmick Rd and then a left into the parking lot. A porta potty is provided.
All-Terrain Stroller Options:
All of NSRA is all-terrain stroller friendly, although some spots of the trail behind the cannery may get a bit tricky in very wet weather.
Start your walk by the park sign at the north end of the parking lot. Unfortunately, the park sign does not explain much about the history of the area and the interpretive signs within the park are sparse. I’d love to see Skagit Parks add signs at all the buildings explaining their history and former use. If you are here for disc golf, the signs do have a map of the course.
From the sign, start out along a wide flat trail heading north, at the junction with what used to be an old road, turn right and head up a small hill to the big old barns that likely caught your eye upon arrival. These are the old dairy barns and milking stalls. Take some time to wander the paths between these beautiful and haunting buildings. You can admire the buildings and look for ghosts by peeking in the window and door openings, but do not enter the buildings as they are historic structures, unstable, and the ghosts would not take kindly to you entering. These were built by the patients themselves and have stood up rather well considering their age and the harsh conditions of winter in the area. Where the outer concrete/stucco has broken away you can see the quality construction of brick underneath. In the spring, watch for the swallows that nest on the building exteriors. This is also a hot spot for the local Skagit County Rocks group so keep an eye out for painted rocks.
There are a lot of buildings in this first grouping, once you have explored, continue down the old road from the silo, across fields, past a central picnic shelter (a great snack stop!) to another junction. Take the trail to the right to visit two more buildings. The first is a red stable-like building, with no signage, that is partially fallen over. It is largely engulfed in bramble but a path still goes to the doorway where you can peek through. Those bramble vines hang eerily down through the rafters. (Have you ever read or seen The Ruins? Don’t let the vines touch you!)
Continuing on the side loop, the second building is a white concrete structure with old boilers visible through the windows. While over 1,500 patients are buried in the hospital cemetery, many others were cremated. I have heard this may have been the crematorium. Another visitor we ran into, who was there taping audio of the ghosts, suggested it was a slaughter house. Either way it is a creepy spot. Finish the loop to rejoin the main trail.
The main trail now enters the shady forest and curves around the back of the big loop. At another junction, you can continue straight to walk past one more building that has completely collapsed and is only a large roof amongst the weeds, through fields, to an old pump house. Taking a left at the junction, loops you back through the main park. Take the left. Meander, paralleling Hansen Creek which is just out of view, through fields and young evergreens to two red brick buildings. An interpretive sign on the far side explains the patients used to pick berries and one of these was a cannery for them. I’ve heard the other was a bakery. Peek in where you can but don’t go off trail here, there are some openings in the ground that are covered by the brush where you might fall in. Perhaps traps set by the ghosts?
The section between the last junction and the red brick buildings can get rather muddy in high water times. We got our stroller stuck in the mud here once and had to have assistance to lift it out, but we made it. If it is too muddy for you, you can always return the way you came and go right on the old road after the main barns to visit the bakery and cannery buildings.
Past these buildings you have completed the north loop. From here you can head south to make a second loop through the fields and wetlands or return directly to the parking lot and main picnic shelter.
There are signs warning of danger from collapse on some of the buildings. Use you best judgment around all of the buildings and do not enter, warning sign or no warning sign. They are in various stages of deterioration, some are in good shape for now, some have already suffered from a total collapse. All are hazardous, haunted, and historical.
Besides danger from above, the buildings, and immediate surroundings, contain a lot of broken glass, rusted metal, and barbed wire amongst other hazards. It is also obvious that some folks have used the buildings as “party” locations. I have never seen anything worse than broken bottles and a dirty mattress, but you never know. A less obvious hazard is lead paint. These buildings are old and the paint is flaking.
I have been here many times as have many other families, don’t be scared off by these warnings! Just wear good shoes, watch where you step and what you touch, keep a close eye on the kiddos if you let them out of the stroller/carrier, and bring your proton pack.
If you are heading east on 20 or are looking to make a long scenic loop of the area, head over to Rockport State Park for a walk in an enchanted forest full of more fungus and moss than you can imagine.
If you want to make the scenic loop, head south on 530 after Rockport to Darrington where there are lots of options for more add-ons, I suggest stopping at the old Fortson Mill and its ponds for another quick trip to the ruins of a spooky building. The remains of the mill are covered in moss and graffiti but the graffiti here is rather artistic at times, more like murals done with spray paint. I don’t advocate defacing old buildings and certainly would not add to it, but I have to say the sea serpent one is pretty cool. From the mill you can wander around some of the ponds and pick up the Whitehorse Trail which is another all-terrain friendly option. Continue down 530 to rejoin 9 or I-5.
If you are heading back west on 20, consider continuing past I-5. You can take 20 out to Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands where Deception Pass State Park is a great destination. Or take a scenic drive up the coastline on Chuckanut Drive to Larabee State Park and Bellingham. Or split the difference and drive out Josh Wilson Road to the Padilla Bay Shore Trail for an all-terrain stroller friendly option with shorebirds.
If you don’t already have a shelf, or entire bookcase, full of local hiking guides and maps, here are some of my favorites featuring this hike and/or others in the area: