A beautiful park on the Snoqualmie River with campgrounds and trails
Hike Length: 0 to 5 miles
Elevation Gain: 0-400 feet
Hike Difficulty: easy
KIng County’s Tolt-Mcdonald Park is one of the finest in their extensive system of parklands. Tolt-Mcdonald is small in area, just over 200 acres, but so full of natural attractions that a full day is hardly enough to enjoy them all.
Much of the park is located on flood plains adjacent to the Tolt and Snoqualmie rivers. Some of the flood plain has been developed into campgrounds, while other parts remain wild. These lowlands invite easy rambling, picnics by the river, or even a swim on a hot summer day when the river is low. A trail ascends the steep, forested bluff rising west of the river, allowing access to a dense network of trails popular with mountain bikers (although you won’t see many on weekdays).
Much of the area above the bluff is actually owned by the Port Blakely Tree Farm, who graciously allow non-motorized public access to their land. The tree farm serves as a de facto extension of Tolt-McDonald park, effectively doubling its size. Hopefully, King County will acquire this land in the future, as development of the tree farm would seriously degrade the natural beauty of the park.
Bus service to Carnation has become difficult and slow, with multiple transfers. Plan carefully
Foot bridge over the Snoqualmie River, Tolt-McDonald Park
Access to this hike has been affected by the Fall 2013 changes. There is no more Metro bus service to Carnation. Snoqualmie Valley Transit offers a bus service that fills this gap, but access has become difficult.
From downtown Seattle , ride the Sound Transit 545 bus to Redmond Transit Center.
Here, transfer to the Metro 224 minibus, which has a sparse schedule--plan your arrival at Redmond Park & Ride carefully. Once safely aboard, sit back and enjoy the long and scenic ride past the rapidly suburbanizing Redmond highlands to the rural Snoqualmie Valley.
In Duvall, get off the bus at the end of the line at Brown and Richardson Streets, and transfer to Snoqualmie Valley Transit, which departs every two hours or so. Ride south to Carnation.
In Carnation, the bus passes two marked bus stops. The first one is located in downtown at BIrd Street, and the second one by the Tolt-McDonald park access road (NE 40th Street), marked by a large sign. Get off the bus at this stop.
Weekend Service: There’s none, alas.
Walk west on the park access road, which leads in a short half mile to the park headquarters and the lawn-covered campground by the east bank of the Snoqualmie River. From here, you have several choices as to where to go:
Wander #1: Tolt Confluence
Walk south along the bank of the river on bits of trail and road to the confluence of the Tolt and Snoqualmie Rivers. During the low water of summer, nearby gravel bars are a pleasant place to linger on a warm day.
Wander #2: Snoqualmie River Flood Plains and Bluff
A loop trail of about 2 miles explores the flood plain on the west side of the river. To get there, cross the river on the impressive foot-only suspension bridge, then follow the path heading toward the bluff. A few steps beyond the bridge, the path forks; follow the trail diverging right (south). This trail heads through the spacious flood pain alongside the river, and in a short half mile, reaches a large lawn and picnic shelter. Walk-in campsites are scattered about the area, suggesting that a bus-based camping trip here would be a unique possibility.
The trail continues south beyond the camp area, passing through groves of large cottonwood trees. Note a side trail branching left, marked by a signless wood post. About a mile from the footbridge, the trail reaches the shore of the river at the north edge of the park, where it fades out.
After exploring the river bank, return to the junction at the wood post, and follow the side-trail as it heads east through the flood plain toward the bluff. The trail climbs a bit up the side of the bluff in a few switchbacks, then heads north on a level traverse back toward the footbridge. This stretch of trail is a delight, as it passes through a lush forest of mossy trees, ferns, and trickling creeks.
Forest Trail, Tolt-McDonald Park
Wander #3: The Port Blakely Tree Farm
A more energetic adventure is possible if you climb to the top of the bluff, where a maze of trails and some impressive viewpoints await. To get there, follow the path heading toward the bluff from the footbridge. The trail passes two log shelters, then climbs the bluff in steep switchbacks. The grade relents a bit when the trail reaches and follows an old roadbed. After passing a sign marking the boundary of the Port Blakely Tree Farm, the trail reaches a four-way junction where several old roads meet at odd angles. You're climbed about 400 feet above the river to get here.
Study and remember this spot well, because the trail you just came up is the only way back. There is no signage here or anywhere on the tree farm. A pile of rocks may mark this important trail junction, which I will refer to as the “Main Junction”.
Mountain bike users have over the years created a complex web of trails on the tree farm. The mind-bending maze of trails almost defies mapping, although some technologically savvy folk with GPS units and mapping software have made some good attempts (search the Web for “Tolt McDonald”). Fortunately the road system is much more comprehensible, basically consisting of a two mile loop in the center of the tree farm.
To explore this loop road, turn left at the Main Junction and follow the road branching south. Just past the junction, the road dips and crosses a small creek, then heads straight and level through a young, spindly second growth forest. After a third of a mile, the road bends right (west) at a sharp curve.
At this curve begins the short side trail to a not-to-be-missed viewpoint. Turn left off the road onto a trail, which soon leads to a 4-way intersection. Here ignore the roadlike trails branching off to the sides, and take the narrow trail heading straight on into the woods. This trail winds a a hundred yards or so to the viewpoint at the brink of the bluff, which drops away at a startlingly steep, almost cliff like slope. Watch your step and enjoy the view of the meandering river, valley farms, and the distant Cascades.
When you’ve had your fill of the view, return to the road and follow it as it heads in a straight shot due west. Seemingly countless bike trails branch off the road along the way. After a long half mile, you will arrive at a prominent four-way intersection. The road leading straight ahead leads to a gate and the Ames Lake neighborhood; the left road accesses the south portion of the tree farm. To continue the loop, turn onto the right (north) branching road.
This section of the loop road is curvier and generally more interesting as it climbs over dry sallal- covered hilltops and dips through reedy wetlands. The road gradually turns east and after a long mile reaches the the Main Junction.
Vista point overlooking Tolt-McDonald Park
Wander #4: The Tolt-McDonald Highlands
Not all of the bluff top plateau is owned by Port Blakely; the Tolt-McDonald Park covers quite a chunk, too. To explore this area, go on the right(north) branching road at the Main Junction. This road climbs to the summit of a 560’ hilltop, the highest point in the area. Near the top, the road splits. The right branch leads in a few steps to another viewpoint, somewhat hemmed in by trees but still worth a look. The left branch road passes a water tower, and enters the King County property. The difference in vegetation is immediately apparent when you cross the boundary line. The the less-logged trees on King County land look positively huge compared to the spindly second growth typical of the Port Blakely lands.
Just past the water tower, look for a trail branching right off the road toward the edge of the bluff. This little-travelled path travels north along the bluff’s edge, passing some fair viewpoints along the way. After a gradual quarter mile descent, the path reaches a shady cedar-wooded saddle and a junction with what is called “302nd Avenue” by King County, but is actually just another woodland path heading left(west).
You can follow the “avenue” a quarter mile to a 4-way junction with the water tower access road; turn left(south) to return to the water tower and the Main Junction. Following the road right (north) quickly takes you to a gate at the edge of private property.
When you’re tired of the plateau trails, return to the Main Junction and descend to the park lowlands via the same trail you used for the ascent.
Walk east on the park access road (NE 40th Street) to Tolt Avenue, the main highway. Catch the northbound Snoqualmie Transit bus and ride to Duvall. Transfer to Metro 224, and ride to Redmond Transit Center. Transfer to Sound Transit 545.