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
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
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
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
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
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
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
*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
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
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
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!