Hike the Emerald City: Seattle's 10 best trails

April 04, 2016                 6m read time
Sarah Hoenicke


Finding a great place to hike during your trip to the Emerald City might not be high on your list, but it should be: Once you’ve done the fun tourist stuff—Pike Place, Woodland Park Zoo, the Space Needle, the list could go on—venture beyond the urban hubbub for a nature-centric vantage on the Pacific Northwest.

1. De-stress at Wallace Falls

Wallace Falls cascades amid Douglas fir trees. https://www.flickr.com/photos/flyingdutchphotos/3999501088/

Wallace Falls cascades amid Douglas fir trees.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/flyingdutchphotos/3999501088/

 

Find your zen in this peaceful state park filled with wooden bridges, trickling streams and mossy trees. Aside from some switchbacks at the end, Wallace Falls Trail is appropriate for all hikers, winding a casual 5.6 miles round-trip. En route, walk alongside the river, inhaling air from the old-growth forest spread across the park. Peaking with majestic views of three cascading falls—including one that drops 265 feet—breathe the dewy air and feel your stresses float away with the mist.

2. Find untamed wilderness at Marmot Pass

Hikers on Washington's Marmot Pass. brewbooks

Hikers on Washington's Marmot Pass.

brewbooks

 

Weaving through mountainous Buckhorn Wilderness on the Olympic Peninsula, the Marmot Pass-Upper Big Quilcene trek delivers scenery worthy of a John Denver ballad. Hiking alongside the Quilcene River, your inner environmentalist will relish the purity of the untamed landscape as burbling waters roll beneath canopies of cedar and hemlock. Traverse well-groomed trail through old-growth forests, rushing waterfalls and mountain meadows, emerging on open slopes where sweeping views unfurl in all directions. The ultimate reward for conquering 3,500 feet of steady elevation gain unveils itself when you reach the pass at 6,000 feet. Stop, catch your breath and savor the spectacular panorama of the Dungeness Valley, Olympic wilderness, Hood Canal and Mount Baker. You can even play a game of slug bug along the way—just replace Volkswagens with mountain goats, which dwell among the craggy peaks.

3. Worth the trek: Lake Serene & Bridal Veil Falls

Lake Serene reflects the rocky peaks of the Central Cascades. jyl4032

Lake Serene reflects the rocky peaks of the Central Cascades.

jyl4032

 

When the destination is this picture-perfect, you might be tempted to whip out your cell and take a bunch of yoga pose pics for your Instagram feed. We dare you to resist and focus on the present. Clear your mind in the Central Cascades with an 8.2-mile round-trip day hike to Lake Serene, an alpine oasis that lives up to its poetic moniker. The hike begins in dense, mossy forest and Jurassic-like sprawls of giant sword ferns, with an optional half-mile detour to Bridal Veil falls about 0.5 miles in. Get an up-close dose of this wispy, misty wonder, then hunker down for a series of stairs and switchbacks as you ascend another 1,300 feet into the mountains. Right about the time your quads are screaming and you’re cursing gravity, the foliage breaks—and you’re there. Enter a clearing to find yourself transported to a Middle Earth-esque landscape, a shimmering alpine lake sparkling at the foot of snowy Mount Index. Get the best views by hiking on a weekday in spring or summer, lest the hoards of hikers—or fog and snow—cramp your sense of serenity.

4. Play at Discovery Park

People exploring Discovery Loop Park's beach and lighthouse, just a few miles north of Seattle. Checubus

People exploring Discovery Loop Park's beach and lighthouse, just a few miles north of Seattle.

Checubus

 

Located northwest of downtown Seattle, head here if you’re short on time but still want to get immersed in the area’s natural beauty. Spanning 534 acres on the shores of Puget Sound in the Magnolia neighborhood, Discovery is the city’s largest park and your best bet for a quality hike within city limits, according to locals. With sparse crowds and more than 12 miles of trail, the park boasts a little of everything: Giant trees, quaint steps down to a sandy beach, grassy fields, a lighthouse, eroding cliffs and waterfront views framed by the Olympic Mountains. Not sure where to start? Discovery Park Loop is the perfect introduction to this metropolitan oasis, with 2.8 miles of meandering through meadows and forests.

5. Get tunnel vision at Iron Horse State Park

A wooded trail in Snoqualmie's Iron Horse State Park. Roman Khomlyak

A wooded trail in Snoqualmie's Iron Horse State Park.

Roman Khomlyak

 

Hikes are more exciting when there’s an interesting twist—abandoned ruins, historic landmarks, old lime kilns, Sasquatch… Or, in this case, an unlit, two-mile train tunnel built in 1912 that runs beneath 1,500 feet of solid rock. Part of the John Wayne Trail in Iron Horse State Park, the Snoqualmie Tunnel pits you against total darkness...and that little voice in your head. But we digress: This is actually a popular route to hike and bike, and no one has been abducted by Bigfoot (at least, there are no confirmed reports of it). Connecting the Puget Sound Basin to the Kittitas Valley, the tunnel allows continuity of the 116-mile trail—not to mention a respite from the hills and heat on sunny summer days. If you can get past the dripping walls, damp air and echoing voices, follow the pin of light as it gets bigger. Once on the other side, break for a picnic at the shady tables with a generous helping of Cascade Mountain views. Note: The tunnel is closed November 1 through May 1, so come in the summer to get your pitch-black hike on.

6. A different kind of rockstar: Little Si

Hikers taking in the view at the summit of Little Si. Trailspotter

Hikers taking in the view at the summit of Little Si.

Trailspotter

 

We know, you’re totally picturing a miniature version of the South Korean singer-songwriter. But we’re talking about Little Si, the 1,575-foot “bluff” resting in the shadow of its larger neighbor and big brother, 4,167-foot Mount Si. Located in the North Bend region (a short 40-minute drive from Seattle), Little Si offers epic, jaw-dropping views of the Emerald City and Olympic Mountains on a clear day. Friendly enough for beginners but still appealing to experienced hikers thanks to challenging detours, Little Si might be a shortie when it comes to altitude, but serves up a tall order of scenery and wildlife.

7. Feel the spray at Snoqualmie Falls

A wintry morning at Snoqualmie Falls at sunrise. Checubus

A wintry morning at Snoqualmie Falls at sunrise.

Checubus

 

Sure, it’s one of Washington's most popular attractions, with more than 1.5 million visitors every year. But there’s a good reason for that—and you should see it for yourself at least once. Plummeting a colossal 268 feet, the cascades provide a spine-tingling backdrop for a brisk, one-mile hike along a well-marked path. The falls are particularly glorious in the fall (eh? EH??) when the Pacific Northwest landscape is ablaze with fiery reds, oranges and yellows. Swing by the Snoqualmie Brewery and Taproom before or after your visit for an equally refreshing pint of Wildcat IPA.

8. Solitude and beauty at Bench and Snow lakes

Clouds reflect off Snow Lake near Mt. Rainier National Park. Ariena

Clouds reflect off Snow Lake near Mt. Rainier National Park.

Ariena

 

As far as lakes go, these picture-perfect havens belong in a Bob Ross painting. In just 2.6 miles, get a serious calf workout and poster-worthy views on a trail where moderate ups and downs culminate in a wilderness cathedral of rock, water and sky. Rise early and head to Mt. Rainier National Park, pulling into the trailhead about three miles east on Steven Canyons Road. Flanked by miles of wildflower meadows along the way, arrive at Bench Lake a mere 0.8 miles into your hike, stopping to admire Mt. Rainier’s fantastic reflection on the glassy surface. Continue another 0.5 miles to arrive at glorious Snow Lake, pooled in a steep-walled basin surrounded by snowcapped mountains. This is the part where you take off your backpack, find a flat rock to lay on and blissfully surrender yourself to an overwhelming fortress of beauty and solitude. Keep your eyes peeled for black bears, and come in July or August to see wildflowers like glacier lilies and marsh marigolds paint the mountainside with color.

9. Make like Monet on the Arboretum Waterfront Trail

A mossy bridge on Seattle's Arboretum Waterfront Trail. Lee LeFever

A mossy bridge on Seattle's Arboretum Waterfront Trail.

Lee LeFever

 

Inarguably one of the coolest public spaces in the city, connect with nature on the Arboretum Waterfront Trail, a breezy half-mile amble that takes you through and over the largest remaining wetland in Seattle. Meander under canopies of giant sequoias on the edge of Union Bay’s Foster and Marsh islands, swapping traffic sounds for the chirps of marsh wrens and humming of dragonfly wings. Well-maintained bark paths eventually lead to a picturesque floating walkway, winding through a labyrinth of lily pads. It's an urban escape that feels far away, without actually having to leave town.

10. Bikes and beer on the Burke-Gilman Trail

A woman jogs along the Burke-Gilman Trail in Bothell, Washington. Parker Knight

A woman jogs along the Burke-Gilman Trail in Bothell, Washington.

Parker Knight

 

Following a historic railway route from Seattle to Bothell, the Burke-Gilman Trail (aka, the BGT) takes you through five Seattle districts and three surrounding cities. From the 18-mile paved trail, enjoy endorphin-inducing views of Lake Union, Lake Washington and the Ship Canal. How the itinerary evolves from there is up to you: Access Golden Gardens Park at the Puget Sound trailhead, or continue on to iconic Gas Works Park. Once an abandoned post-industrial landscape, this inviting public space is now cherished by locals for its kite flying hill, plenty of green lawn to sprawl out on, unrivaled panoramic views and—our favorite—having served as the backdrop for that unforgettable paintball fight in "10 Things I Hate About You." If biking and beer sounds like your cup (err, growler?) of tea, snag a ride at Recycled Cycles on 35th and hit up the bevvy of breweries scattered along the trail: Hale's Ales Brewery and Pub (the longest-running independently owned brewery in the Northwest), Maritime Pacific Brewing Company, Reuben's Brews and Peddler Brewing Company. Just give yourself a little time to sober up post-pub, as a wobbling along on two wheels is never the way to go.

Sure, Seattle's known for unholy amounts of coffee, technology to rival Silicon Valley and plenty of drizzle. But getting to know the real Emerald City means going beyond the Space Needle, so avoid the monorail and traipse through the Pacific Northwest on your own two feet.

Sarah Hoenicke

Sarah Hoenicke is a staff writer for the Campanil, the student-run independent newspaper of Mills College. She has also had essays, a prose poem, and a short story published by Wait(er) Magazine, Forum Magazine and JukePop Serials, respectively. She lives with her fiancé in the S.F. Bay Area.   

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