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Testing a car-free adventure with the Trailhead Direct shuttle

How does the municipal shuttle between city and trail work?

Courtesy of King County

There’s plenty to consider when packing for a hike. Did you remember the map? Pack enough snacks and water? Do you need a Discover Pass or NW Forest Pass to park? Did you leave early enough to actually get a parking spot at the trailhead? These days, the answer to that last question is often no. Last summer, a friend and I rolled up to the popular Ira Springs trail at 7:30 on a Saturday morning and there were already 25 cars in the lot. My wife and I once made the mistake of trying to visit Issaquah’s Chirico Trail on a sunny Saturday morning and bailed after finding the parking lot at capacity and stubborn hikers walking a mile to the trailhead down the shoulder of busy Issaquah Hobart Road.

Given that everything in the Puget Sound region is feeling a little crowded lately as the population continues to explode, it’s not surprising that popular hiking trails are also getting overwhelmed. The Seattle Times’s Gene Balk recently reported that the number of Seattle-area hikers more than doubled in the last decade.

Last summer, King County Metro and King County Parks launched a shuttle service to try and help ease the parking problems at several of the popular trailheads in the Issaquah Alps. The shuttle took hikers from the Issaquah Transit Center park and ride to the Margaret’s Way trailhead on Squak Mountain and the Chirico, High School Trail and Sunset Way trailheads on West Tiger Mountain. According to Parks program manager Ryan Dotson, the service saw about 50 riders each weekend day it ran last year.

On Saturday, April 21, Metro and Parks along with the Seattle Department of Transportation relaunched Trailhead Direct. This year the service has been expanded to include stops at the Mount Baker Transit Center in Seattle and the Eastgate park and ride off Interstate 90 near Bellevue. In late May, service will start on another route from the Capitol Hill light rail station to Mount Si, and this summer, there will be a route to Mailbox Peak.

Curious about the possibilities of car-free hikes and trails runs, my wife Abby and I headed to the Mt. Baker Transit Center to catch the shuttle to Squak. As we crossed the street from the Mt. Baker light rail station to the transit center, we could see a group of a dozen or more people gathered waiting for the shuttle. It turned out only three of them were hikers. The rest were Metro and Parks staff, a TV news cameraman, and King County Executive Dow Constantine there to add a bit of fanfare to the first day of service.

The shuttle left promptly at the scheduled 9:42. Nobody joined us at the Eastgate Park and Ride stop, but we picked up three more hikers at the Issaquah Transit Center. About 35 minutes after setting off, the bus dropped us off at the Margaret’s Way trail on the west side of Squak—only about 10 minutes slower than it would take to drive from home.

Abby and I set off at a jog up the trail, legs burning on the climb, but happy as always to be in the woods. Since the bus stops at three locations on the eastside of Issaquah, we decided to run up to Squak’s summit and back down the other side into town. There’s something about a point-to-point hike or run that feels more satisfying than backtracking after reaching your halfway point. And with no car to deal with, there was no reason to limit ourselves.

The Issaquah Alps are a gem. They’re crisscrossed with well-maintained trails that wind through thick forest and across streams. It’s easy to forget you’re on the edge of one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in the country—especially on Squak, which sees far less traffic than Tiger and Cougar. The nickname Issaquah Alps were something of a tongue-in-cheek branding effort by conservationist Harvey Manning and his cohorts as they worked to preserve the foothills in the 1970s. But it’s not a total misnomer. Tiger, Cougar, and Squak are all steep and getting to their summits is a bit of a grunt. Our route to Squak’s summit climbed more than 1,700 vertical feet in just 3.5 miles. We were hiking as often as we were running to give our sore legs a break.

After about 50 minutes, we reached the old Bullitt fireplace, one of the coolest things I’ve found up there. The wealthy Bullitt family—matriarch Dorothy Bullitt founded KING Broadcasting—owned 590 acres of land on top of Squak and built their summer home there. In 1972 they donated the land to the county for preservation as a wilderness park. The county has since expanded the park to about 1,545 acres.

The fireplace and foundation are all that remains of the Bullitt family’s former summer home on the Bullitt Fireplace Trail.
Josh Cohen

The large stone fireplace and foundation are all that remain of the original summer home. There’s a picnic table there and it makes an excellent destination, especially since Squak’s summit, which we reached about 10 minutes later, has views of microwave radio towers and little else. The fireplace is on the appropriately named Bullitt Fireplace Trail between the Central Peak and West Peak Trails.

The nice thing about running up a mountain is it is often literally all downhill to the end. And though running downhill hurts in its own way, it was a nice change of pace to leave the summit and tip down the East Ridge trail that winds down the northeast corner of Squak. After about three miles, we got dumped out of the woods and into a suburban neighborhood. We hopped on the gravel Squak Access Trail which traverses between houses and Issaquah Creek and ends a mile later at the corner of Newport Way and Front Street. Tired, sweaty, and hungry, we ended our run at a coffee stand for iced coffee and cookies. We had just enough time to refuel in the sun before making the 10-minute walk through the cute houses of Olde Town Issaquah to the Sunset Way trailhead to catch our shuttle home.

As promised, the bus rolled up right at 1:05pm. We joined a family of five and a solo hiker for the ride back to the city. With stops at the Issaquah Transit Center and Eastgate Park and Ride, the return trip took about 40 minutes. It gave us plenty of time to relax, chat about the highlights of our mini-adventure, and think about the merits of the Trailhead Shuttle.

I don’t foresee using the service regularly. Letting someone else do the driving is inarguably nicer than being behind the wheel on I-90. But leaving from my home in my own car is more convenient than the two-part trip of taking the bus or light rail to the Mount Baker Transit Center and getting on the shuttle.

Still, I can imagine using it again to string together more point-to-point routes around Squak and Tiger, or on days where I want to get out and my wife needs the car we share, or maybe even to go mountain biking (the Sunset Way trailhead is a short pedal from the Grand Ridge Trail and the shuttle buses have racks that hold two bikes). And for the 17 percent of Seattle households that don’t own a car, Trailhead Direct opens the door for weekend hikes without the cost of a car rental or the need for hitching a ride with a car-owning hiker friend.

I hope Trailhead Direct is a success and Metro and Parks continue to expand it in years to come. More convenient, car-free trail access can only be a good thing for a region groaning under the strain of its growth.