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Introduction to Metro hiking

Seattle is blessed with an abundance of close-in parks, forests, and wilderness areas that provide almost unlimited hiking opportunities. However, for those who do not have access to a car, these hikes may seem inaccessible. Parks and trailheads tend to be located away from public transportation, whose routes are designed more for the convenience of commuters, not hikers. With more and more people choosing to live car-free in various “urban villages” of Seattle, and with roads and parking lots already overflowing with excess cars, there certainly is a need for better auto-free access to trailheads.

Despite the limitations of the current transit system, it’s quite possible to use public transit right now to get to the outdoors. This guide  shows you how to make use of King County’s extensive bus system, as well as other transit options, to get out and enjoy many hikes without a car. And these hikes aren’t necessarily all just strolls in the park, although some walks through city parks in Bellevue and Seattle are included. Full day outings are emphasized here, and quite a few of the hikes are strenuous. Some multi-day backpack trips are included as well. These trips are real wilderness adventures, and proper wilderness skills and equipment are needed to accomplish them enjoyably.

An overview of the Seattle area bus system

Experienced bus riders can skip this section; if you’re new to bus riding, or just need a refresher course, read on.

Most public transit journeys to hikes will be on a bus of some form or another, although increasingly there are rail options using Amtrak, Sounder Commuter Rail, and light rail.  Most of the hikes in this guide utilize two different bus systems; King County Metro and Sound Transit. Metro buses tend to run on short-haul routes in the cities and rural routes in King County. Sound Transit specializes in providing express connections between major urban centers. Sound Transit buses have a different paint job, tend to be newer and have nicer seating than Metro buses. If you’re trying to cover a long distance, turn to the Sound Transit system. Since both systems use the same transit centers and are otherwise semi-integrated, combining trips on both bus systems is not usually a problem.

The first problem a would-be bus rider may face is simply finding out where to catch a bus, especially in downtown Seattle, which is a pretty darn big place. Buses may stop on First, Second,Third,Fourth, or Fifth Avenues, depending on the bus route. Furthermore. a given bus route only stops on every third block or so. So even if you know the correct avenue, you may have to search a few blocks to find the bus stop.  So study the bus schedule and route information before your hike if you can, otherwise you may never even find the bus you’re looking for.

To add to the complication, many of the buses in Seattle use the Metro Tunnel, a sort of underground bus subway. Stops for this tunnel can be found at the Convention Center, Westlake Mall, University Street, and Pioneer Square. The tunnel is a comfortable and safe place to catch a bus, usually much preferable than waiting out in the open on a street.  Seattle's new light rail system uses the tunnel, also.

Outside of the city of Seattle, finding your bus is usually simpler. Many major bus connection points in recent years have been organized into “transit centers”, some of which are new and furnished with many amenities ( for example, Everett Station). These new transit centers, along with the creation of Sound Transit, have remarkably improved the bus riding experience in the Seattle area. For this, you can thank the voters and taxpayers who approved the creation of Sound Transit in the early 1990s.

If you head out of King County, you will encounter some different bus systems. Pierce County, located south of Seattle, has its own bus transit system, Pierce Transit. To the north, Community Transit and Everett Transit serve Snohomish County. Another important bus option is Greyhound, the only way to get to the high Cascades from Seattle. The Greyhound station is located in downtown Seattle at Stewart and 9th Avenue, conveniently close to the Convention Place stop in the Seattle Bus Tunnel.

Sources of bus information

There are many sources of information on the various bus systems. In downtown Seattle, the Westlake Mall Bus Tunnel station, located in the central shopping district, has a staffed information office and racks containing every possible bus schedule. If you’re new in town, the centrally located Westlake information office is the best place to start collecting information. Elsewhere, libraries and public buildings in most Puget Sound cities usually have at least partial collections of bus schedules.

The Sound Transit bus system schedules and maps are published in a single handy book called “Get Ready to Ride”, available at these locations. Less conveniently, Metro bus schedules come in individual pamphlets for each route.   Metro publishes a map called “Transit Map and Rider’s Guide”, available at the Westlake info center, that graphically shows every bus route in King County. The map is awesomely complex, but it’s worth having despite being a bit confusing to use. The main problem with the map is that it shows a huge number of commuter routes with only a few runs a day--useless for most bus users-- along with the useful high-frequency routes.

Pierce Transit, Everett Transit, and Community Transit publish their own handy bus schedule booklets which are available at the Westlake Metro information office and many other locations. Be sure to collect copies of these booklets when you find them.

As is often true these days,there is a wealth of information on the Internet. Google is your friend, of course. See transit.metrokc.gov for Metro and Soundtransit.org for Sound Transit. For Community Transit and Pierce Transit, see communitytransit.org and piercetransit.org. Fully up-to-date information on every bus route and schedule is available online. 

As a last resort, look on the buses themselves, which usually (but not always) have schedules books on board. Schedules are posted at a fair number of bus stops, too.

Bus Riding basics

After you have collected bus schedules and identified a hike in this guide that you want to do, its time to do a little planning. The night before your hike, recheck bus schedules (the Internet is handy for this) and write down a simple “flight plan” on a sheet of paper, showing departure and arrival times of all the bus rides needed to get to the trailhead. Such a plan might look like this:

72 bus: leave U.W. 10:03, arrive Downtown University Bus Tunnel station 10:20 a.m.
554 bus: leave 2nd and Union 9:56, arrive at Issaquah Park and Ride 10:31 a.m.
209 bus: leave Issaquah park and ride ,10:33 a.m.; get off bus at High Point. Start Hiking!

Having such a plan is handier than trying to sort through bus schedules on route. It can also save you time, especially if you’re heading into an area of sparse bus service. You want to make sure that at a critical transfer point, you don’t have to wait ages for a bus that may come only hourly. Optionally you might prepare a plan for the return trip, although the unpredictability of timing the end of a hike makes this trickier. This is one reason why it’s best to plan a hike so that it ends at the point with better and more frequent bus service.

When it’s time to go, arrive at the bus stop a few minutes early. Seattle area buses tend to stay on schedule fairly well, typically arriving a few minutes late. But sometimes they come a bit early just to keep you on your toes; you want to be ready for that.

You usually pay for the ride when boarding the bus, although on most buses leaving downtown Seattle you pay when getting off--a point of continual confusion for locals as well as visitors. Payment can be with coins or dollar bills, however, no change can be given.  If you pay with cash, ask for a transfer slip that allows you to ride on different buses for a certain amount of time (about 2 hours) without additional payment. If you try to use the transfer to switch between bus lines (Metro v.s. Sound Transit, for example), complications may ensue, as fares are different and you may have to pay extra money to make up the difference.  Or they simply may not accept your transfer. One reason to get an ORCA card...see below.

If you are going to be in Seattle any time at all, it is worth buying one of the new ORCA payment cards and using that to pay your fare.  They can be purchased at the Westlake Station service center in downtown Seattle and online.  When you buy the ORCA card for the first time, you create an account associated with the card and "load" it with cash (the amount is up to you).

Tap the ORCA card on the reader next to the driver when boarding the bus. When using Link Light Rail, tap the card reader near the boarding platform, and also tap again after arriving at you destination (this second tap allows proper fare calculation). After tapping your ORCA card, computer servers will instantly calculate and deduct the proper fare from the account linked to your card. What's great about this is that the magic computer will handle all the complications of transfers, peak v.s. non-peak, and different bus agencies,  and then charge you just the right amount of money. Easy!  Other types of bus passes are being discontinued in favor of the ORCA cards.

Be aware that bus service is frequently reduced on weekends, especially Sundays. Some hikes cannot be done at all on weekends. If there is a problem with weekend service, it will be noted in the hike description. As a rule, don’t plan on long bus trips out to the countryside on Sundays, it’s just too much trouble.

One of the hardest things about bus riding is knowing when to get off. If you’re not familiar with the area, don’t hesitate to enlist the help of the bus driver or a passenger. For tech-savvy bus users, I've provided some GPS coordinates for bus stops. Bring a GPS unit, program in the bus stop coordinates as a way point, and let it tell you when to get off.

Different buses have different means to request a stop. Usually you pull on a cord running by the windows of the bus, but Sound transit buses have yellow strips mounted to the wall that you push. Be sure to figure it out before your stop comes up. 

I don’t want to make all this sound too complicated, it’s not. Bus drivers are usually happy to answer questions if you are confused. This is especially true on the lightly traveled rural routes that hikers use. If you do miss a connection, relax. Another bus will be coming, often quite soon. If you are faced with a long wait, look around and find something to do. Shop in nearby stores, read a paper, or have a latte.

Combining bus rides with car and bike transportation

Pro public transit that I am, I have to admit that access to some hikes can be greatly improved by combining both car and bus rides to get to the trailhead. You can enjoy both the speed and comfort of a car trip with the point-to-point hiking freedom of public transit. Hikes originating near certain major park and rides work well with this “hybrid” transit approach. For example, to do the Squak Mountain hike, you can drive to the Issaquah Park and Ride, park there, then catch the Metro 200 bus to downtown Issaquah. Next, proceed with the hike, which returns you neatly back at the park-and-ride, where your car awaits. Other such “hybrid” hikes can be done by parking in downtown Issaquah, Preston Park and Ride, and Redmond Park and Ride. For those living in outlying suburbs with poor bus service, the hybrid trip is the only realistic way to take advantage of buses for hiking.

Carrying your bike along on the bus can open up some more hiking possibilities. Most buses have a rack in front that can accommodate two bikes. North Bend is rich in bike/hike possibilities. For example, you can ride a bike up the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, to Rattlesnake Lake Trailhead, then hike up Rattlesnake Ledge. I’ve met people who have permanently stored a bike in North Bend for just this purpose.

Why Ride The Bus?

Using a car to get to trailheads has many obvious, even overwhelming advantages. And there's no getting around it, riding buses is always slow and can be downright unpleasant, especially on crowded urban routes. But the advantages are not all on the car driver’s side. Riding the bus does has its own significant rewards, which you may come to appreciate. Some of these are:

  • It’s cheap. It’s amazing how far you can go for the price of a  bus ticket. And you avoid proliferating trailhead parking fees.
  • It’s safe. A bus is much larger than the largest SUV. Guess who’s going to win in a collision?
  • You save the earth by parking the polluter at home.
  • You avoid car break-ins at trailheads, an ongoing expensive nuisance for car users.
  • Bus riders can enjoy The bus riding “esprit du corps”, especially on the less crowded suburban routes. Many bus riders are regulars, who treat the bus ride as an social event. You can listen in on interesting conversations, or even participate. Sometimes, you can start to pity the solitary road warriors trapped in their cars.
  • You can sight-see. Freed from the effort of driving, you are able to watch the passing scenery. Many King County bus routes are quite scenic. Or use the time to catch up on your reading.
  • You can do point-to-point hikes. Freed from returning to a parked car, bus riders can finish hikes far from the starting point. Startling distances can be covered in a point-to-point hike, such as going from Lake Washington to Issaquah. When planning a point-to-point hike, it is helpful to start the hike at a point with more difficult bus access, and end the hike at a point with better bus access. This guide features many hikes of this type.

What to bring along on a hike

Most of the hikes in this guide are in urban or suburban areas. Such hikes require only a minimum of equipment, such as:

  • comfortable walking shoes,
  • a day pack to carry stuff.
  • some snacks
  • water bottle, 1 liter
  • sun protection in summer (hat, sun cream),
  • wind breaker, and rain parka or umbrella in rainy weather
  • street maps as needed.

Bus riders will need to carry these “Bus essentials” also:

  • Cash or an ORCA card.  Five one-dollar bills and four quarters should cover the bus ride costs.
  • Bus schedules appropriate for the trip
  • An accurate watch (or cell phone with clock)
  • Ear plugs--some bus stops are in awfully noisy locations.
  • Reading material for long bus rides and waits
  • Metro’s Transit Map and Riders Guide, a detailed map of all Metro routes in King County

Good maps are valuable to bring along on all hikes, and a necessity for wilderness hikes. For urban hikes in and around Seattle, having a standard street map is handy. If you don’t mind the weight, the “Thomas Guide” for KIng County (published by Rand-McNally) shows every street in detail, and even some bike/hike trails, such as the Snoqualmie Valley Trail. Thomas Guides are found in most bookstores.

Other maps you might need depending on location are:

*Green Trails Maps, which are topographic maps especially designed for hiking use. They are widely available at major bookstores and sporting goods stores.
*King County Bicycling Guidemap, available at most  bicycle shops.
*Bellevue Park Guide, available at the Bellevue Botanical Garden visitor center and Lake Hills ranger station.
*Issaquah Alps Trail Club (IATC) Maps cover Tiger, Squak and Cougar mountain parklands. These maps are sporadically available at REI or you can order them from the club web site. They’re printed in black and white and are not as pretty as Green Trails maps, but cost much less.

The REI outdoor equipment stores, located in downtown Seattle and several other suburban locations,are one good source of maps. The Seattle store is located at 222 Yale Ave North, phone (206)-223-1944. It’s a fairly short walk from the Convention Place bus tunnel stop. Walk northwest on 9th Ave to the Greyhound Station, then go right (NE) on Stewart St for several blocks . Bus M 66 goes right by the store on the Eastlake Avenue side. You also might try Metsker’s Maps of Seattle, conveniently located in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, 1511 First Ave, (206)623-8747. The University Bookstore has a good selection of hiking maps in their University District location.

Some of the longer hikes describe here on Tiger Mountain, Squak Mountain, Cougar Mountain, and Cascade Mountains are real wilderness adventures. For comfort and safety,  you need to carry a more robust set of  equipment in your pack--  ideally, enough to  survive a night out in the woods in possibly rainy and cold weather.  Here is a list:

  •   Clothing for cold and rain.  Having a rain parka, synthetic fleece sweater, and fleece cap is essential. Do not wear  cotton clothes of any kind, which become dangerously chilling when wet.
  •   Emergency shelter for overnight survival and medical emergencies...very lightweight and compact versions can be found in sporting goods stores.
  •   Ample water, at least two liters on hot days. Water purification tablets are useful to treat suspect water sources.
  •   Extra Food-so that something is left over at the end of the trip
  •   Sun Protection: Broad-brim hat, sunglasses, lip balm, and high SPF sunblock-especially important for alpine and snow travel
  •   Knife-for first aid and fire building:
  •   FIrestarters--storm-proof matches, and firestarting aids such as a candle to deal with wet wood. But don't count on being able to start a fire for warmth, it can be very difficult without superb skill.
  •   First aid kit--and the knowledge to use it
  •   Flashlight or headlamp--with extra bulb and batteries.
  •   Map-- preferably a up-to-date topographic version with good detail.
  •   Navigation aids--compass, or reliable GPS unit with extra batteries.

Safety in the Wilderness (and the Urban Jungle)

Hiking in the wilderness is in general a safe sport but here are a few things to be careful about:

Getting lost. It’s possible to do even in foothill areas, such as Tiger Mountain. Carry navigation aids (map, compass and GPS unit) and know how to use them. Let people know where you are going before setting out on a hike. If you think you are lost, sit down and stay calm. If night is falling, which can happen swiftly and early in winter, prepare to camp overnight instead of thrashing about in the dark. Stay together if you are in a group. If you have packed properly with the Ten Essentials, there is no immediate danger.

Hypothermia. Loss of body heat in cold weather is a lethal threat to poorly dressed hikers. It does not have to be below freezing to be dangerous; A cold, windy rain is enough to cause hazardous chilling. To avoid hypothermia, have extra warm clothing in your pack, and avoid wearing cotton clothes (such as jeans), which chill the body when wet.

Steep snow fields. They can present a real hazard in the higher elevations of the Cascades, where snowfields can linger long into the summer. Slipping on snowfields has caused a lot of wilderness accidents, often fatal. Uncontrollable slides occur with unbelievable suddenness; without proper equipment, you may not stop until you hit rocks, or trees at high speed-- or slide over a cliff. If you are not equipped with an ice ax, and training in its use, it is best to go around the snow slope, or just turn back.

Drinking creek water. Unfortunately, many creeks carry various kinds of bacteria that can make you very sick. Don’t drink out of streams without properly treating the water with an effective filter device, or at least using iodine or chlorine tablets (such as Potable Aqua).

High Wind and toppling trees. A under-appreciated hazard, especially in the foothill areas of the Cascades and Tiger Mountain. These areas are not only prone to sudden, powerful windstorms in winter (often blowing in from the east), but have many deciduous trees, which frequently have rotten trunks and topple easily. Falling trees have caused fatal accidents. It’ s best to avoid hiking in strong windstorms; pay attention to weather forecasts (which are quite accurate these days ) and leave the forest as quickly as possible if the wind is rising to an excessive level.

Cougars and bears. Sightings of cougars are extremely rare, and no fatal attacks have occurred in Washington in a long time. Yet, encounters seem to be happening more often these days. Hiking in groups prevents problems with cougars. If you do see one, make a lot of noise, throw things at the animal, and in general act aggressive. Do not run away, as that may trigger the cat to chase. Keep children close by when hiking, as (putting it harshly) cougars see them as easy prey.

In Washington, bears are shy and mainly cause problems when they raid camps for food. Study a good backpacking book for more information of proper food storage techniques in camp. Using bear proof storage canisters is one good solution that’s becoming more popular.

Urban Safety: Many of the walks featured in this guidebook are in urban areas, where the natural hazards listed above really don’t apply, but where encounters with human malefactors are possible. The best rule is to not walk alone in urban parks and trails, and to avoid these areas at night. Obviously, use your best judgment about hitchhiking or accepting rides with strangers, modes of transportation which I do not recommend.

Road Walking: When walking on roads with no shoulder or sidewalk, something the bus riding hiker has to do a lot, the general rule is to walk on the side where you’re facing the oncoming traffic. That way you can keep an eye on approaching cars. Most drivers are considerate, but there are all too many drunks out on the road. You want to be able to spot inattentive or intoxicated drivers, who may weave off the pavement.

Some final words

The more people use buses, the better service will get. Right now some rural routes are very underutilized and threatened with extinction by cash-strapped public agencies. If hikers get out and use these routes, they will be saved from cancellation and perhaps new runs will even be added.

Perhaps city buses will one day go all the way to Snoqualmie Pass, as they once did. Or we can dream of having passenger rail service restored over Stampede Pass, with a train station near the pass for skiers and hikers. In the meantime, ride buses as much as you can, and write letters to Metro requesting better rural bus service.

See you on the trail!

Rev. 4/18/11