The idea was simple enough: hike Tiger Mountain via Metro Bus – been dying to do it. Following two consecutive sunny days, at last a day I could plan for: Friday, May 20th – weather looking good. Recent extended range hikes had no adverse after effects – feeling great. Perhaps one last tromp for my trusty old Hi-Tec hiking boots – feeling sentimental…
Last week my blogging mentor Connie posted a link on her Facebook pointing to a blogpost for a “Saturday Transit Hike” and invited my comments. Naturally I was interested but as it turned out the trip from Bellevue requires three buses with 3+ hours travel time each way; so not a practical proposition for us.
Pretty much from the time we moved here, I have been researching our local “Issaquah Alps” for transit hiking opportunities. And to be honest I’d all but given up. From all the information I had gathered I concluded that neither Cougar, Squak or Rattlesnake Mountain are accessible by transit. However Connie’s post revived my interest, in particular with regard to Tiger Mountain.
I dug a little deeper and learned that the City of Issaquah, in partnership with WSDNR (Washington State Department of Natural Resources), manages “High Point Trailhead” a large regional facility adjacent to I-90 (exit 20); they also maintain two secondary trailheads in downtown Issaquah. All three trailheads connect Issaquah’s Tradition Plateau trail network with their urban trails, and they also connect with the mountain trail network managed by WSDNR.
From my standpoint, the most important thing I learned is that West Tiger Mountain Summits 1, 2 & 3 are all eminently doable as a “Transit Hike”. Metro route 209 provides hourly service to High Point Trailhead and there are Metro routes and a Sound Transit Express bus (route 554 to Seattle) servicing downtown Issaquah. The E. Sunset Trailhead is more convenient than the 2nd Ave. Trailhead for downtown bus connections.
So, with the backstory sorted, what could have gone wrong? Well, let’s just start by saying the only thing that went right on the day was the weather. In every other way Friday May 20th might just as well have been Friday the 13th.
First, as my still sore leg keeps reminding me, my 6 or 7 mile urban jaunts in no way conditioned me for the rigors of an 11 or 12 mile hike involving a 2000 foot vertical ascent and 2400 foot vertical descent over challenging terrain.
Next, there is the simple reality I must come to terms with: although my mind may still be 30, the body is not, and – let’s not kid ourselves – not 40 or even 50 anymore.
And finally, when it comes to trekking off into the backcountry, I was made to realize the stupidity of incorporating a sentimental component into my game plan.
At least the transit trip to the trailhead was OK. After boarding the 209 bus at Issaquah Transit Center, the short journey to exit 20 was made especially fascinating as I observed my fellow passengers. It seems the Neanderthals aren’t extinct: they’re alive and well and living in North Bend – where the 209 ultimately goes. I think the last time I enjoyed such an anthropological spectacle was while observing morbidly obese polyester-clad folks from America’s heartland trundling around Disney World.
Anyway, I digress: soon I was deposited at the bus stop on the ramp beside I-90 with the traffic roaring by. You realize you’re in the boonies when the posted speed limit goes up to 70 – which it does just before exit 20.
From there a short walk brings you to the access road that parallels the freeway. Most people will turn right here, headed to the former Tradition Plateau Trailhead, now renamed the High Point Trailhead.
However we’re different so we turn left; we’re headed to the High Point Trail. And there you go – first gotcha – the High Point Trail and the High Point Trailhead are in two totally different places.
If you should feel the need to hike roughly one mile along the access road to the trailhead, your trail choices to reach the highest elevations will be the Cableline, Tiger Mountain (aka “TMT”), or West Tiger #3. The most popular hike for most trailhead users: the car-bound; which makes it the most crowded trail, is straight up and back on the West Tiger #3.
This is probably a good time to check out the trail map I used. And at this time I should also mention my game plan: which was to hike up to West Tiger #1 via High Point/TMT/West Tiger #1 trails. At West Tiger #1 summit I planned to eat my packed lunch at the viewing spot near the hikers hut. I then planned to hike the ridge line to West Tiger #2 and West Tiger #3, then come down on the Section Line & High School trails to the 2nd Ave. Trailhead, where there appeared to be a bus stop – more about that later.
Stage 1: High Point Trail to TMT (elevation 1150 ft)
So we’ve left the bus stop, turned left on the access road, and we’ve gone around/over/under the large steel gate that blocks access to motorized traffic. In just shy of a quarter mile the paved road gives way to our first trail and we come to the first trail marker – for the High Point Trail.
The trail turns abuptly to the right, briefly emerging from the trees to cross a Puget Power ROW under power lines, then continues into the forest. The trail is well maintained and sign-posted.
After roughly half a mile and 500 feet of elevation gain you reach the first junction: Dwight’s Way Trail heads off to the left. Ignore this and continue heading up the hill on the High Point Trail.
A word about trail signage: it is positioned to be most visible to hikers ascending the trail from below. On a straight section this presents no problems. However where a trail junction occurs in conjunction with a switchback or any other essentially hairpin turn, be on a sharper lookout for signage. I’m speaking here from bitter experience.
Now a few words about the stupidity of sentimentality on an endeavor such as this. I spoke earlier about my trusty old Hi-Tecs. These were the first hiking boots I ever owned, purchased in 1999 specifically for a week-long trek with my son Ian along The Cumbria Way, a 70+ mile long distance trail through the Cumbria Mountains in NW England’s Lake District.
I remembered long evening walks around our neighborhood in Boca Raton to break the boots, and me, into shape. And they performed beautifully on the trek. Over the years I’ve only worn them a few times, mostly since we moved here to the PNW. However my footwear of choice lately has been Columbia Trail Meister hiking shoes and boots, of which I’m now on my second pair. So I figured I’d dust off the ol’ Hi-Tecs one last time for this Tiger Mountain hike. BIG Mistake!!!
Somewhere along the upper portion of the High Point Trail the upper portion of my right boot began to separate from its rubber outer sole. And this was only the beginning. Preoccupied now at every step with where I was planting my foot, in the hopes of reducing further boot separation, I made the fatal error of diverting attention away from my surroundings – and I missed a critical TMT marker.
If, after joining the TMT from the High Point Trail, the next sign you see is the one shown here, then you’ve just – as I did – unwittingly left the TMT and are now headed back down the mountain on the Lingering Trail.
Long before I reached this Dwight’s Way/Lingering junction I suspected I had gone wrong because I no longer seemed to be gaining elevation; it no longer ‘felt’ like an ascending trail.
One of my rules of thumb when hiking solo in wilderness areas is to not make decisions based on hunches or gut feelings. Be more watchful, certainly, for anything that can prove your suspicion – which for me usually means carefully watching my shadow (for direction) and locating a trail marker that I can find on the map. Then I figure where to go from there.
For a brief moment I considered turning back and returning to the trailhead but I stubbornly told myself I had been waiting months during this miserable excuse for a spring to make this hike and for all I knew these last three sunny days might turn out to be our ‘summer’ so no way was I turning back. I was determined to reach a summit, even if it meant adopting a plan-B on the fly.
I decided to give up on West Tiger #1 and instead make my way to West Tiger #3 by the most direct route possible, then head down as planned on the Section Line Trail. I knew from here on I would be moving at a snail’s pace and my primary concern became getting down before nightfall.
So, at Dwight’s Way junction, I turned around and retraced my steps back up the Lingering Trail to where it joins the TMT at a sharp hairpin bend – and there I saw my missed marker – right where the TMT does a 180 to resume its slog on up the mountain to west Tiger #2.
Turns out that from the direction I originally approached the marker on the TMT, you only see its back side. So, depending on lighting conditions and surrounding vegetation it’s easy to miss – hence my earlier comment about trail sign orientation.
Where the High Point Trail reaches its terminus at the TMT, distance from trailhead is roughly 1.1 miles, with an elevation gain of around 646 feet. These numbers yield an average grade for this stage of 11%.
Stage 2: TMT to K-3 (elevation 1440 ft)
Well, suffice to say, I reached K-3 my way; the lengthy detour by way of the TMT in the opposite direction was not a viable option for me.
In actuality the timber bridge structure is pretty much intact – it was knocked off its concrete abutments by debris carried down the hillside during a January 2009 landslide. But once the main spring snowmelt is over – as was the case for me – the volume of water is not much so the creek can be easily crossed without using the bridge.
And, as evidenced by the numerous boot prints I saw on both sides of the creek, many other hikers continue to use this section of the TMT. They are clearly not turning back at the warning sign. I’m not going to say what anyone else should do, just “tibi placet”.
After the washed out creek crossing, this section of the TMT is essentially a traverse around the base of the main ridge that rises up to West Tiger #2; the trail climbs quite gently until its final approach to K-3, where it becomes quite steep – a taste of what’s just ahead.
This section of the hike – I estimate around 6/10 of a mile – took me 30 minutes and gained around 290 feet of additional elevation. Average grade for this stage is around 9%.
Stage 3: K-3 to W Tiger RR Grade (elevation 1960 ft)
As the sign shows, the K-3 Trail is unmaintained. What this means is that WSDNR does nothing to the trail’s natural forest floor surface, its drainage properties, or surrounding vegetation – including blowdowns if they occur.
Nothing more than the constant movement of hikers through the area is used to maintain the existence of the trail and mark its path. In many cases, at least when the trail has been officially sanctioned, this is not a bad thing. Such is the case with the K-3 trail.
Be forewarned though: K-3 is very steep but it cuts off several miles by directly connecting the lower and upper TMT. It does this by going straight up the previously mentioned West Tiger #2 main ridge using a never-ending sequence of narrow switchbacks. The TMT meanwhile takes a much longer, meandering, and very circuitous route which, as I also mentioned previously, is ‘officially’ closed between K-3 and High Point. Because of this K-3 serves a very useful purpose.
For me K-3 was an absolute killer – heart pounding and thigh punishing doesn’t begin to describe it. And it was where my equipment problem went from bad to worse to critical: first the outer sole separated completely from my right boot; shortly afterwards the left outer sole began to separate too. Oh, crap!
Here’s the thing: a hiking boot is not made like a regular shoe; when it loses its outer sole its kinda like a truck tire losing its tread – you know, the stuff you sometimes see strewn across freeway lanes. Anyway, like the truck, the boot isn’t a complete loss: it still has its midsole, to which the upper is attached. So in a sense the boot now behaves like a moccassin – still closed but no longer waterproof underfoot, and with a smooth sole completely devoid of grip.
So now, besides getting to the summit as quickly as possible and getting down before nightfall, the most important thing for me was to keep the left outer sole on for as long as possible and to do everything I could to keep the right boot dry. I knew if it got wet the upper would quickly separate from the midsole, thus opening the boot and exposing my foot.
So I soldiered on up the K-3 Trail eventually arriving at the Railroad Grade. Oh, was I thankful for small mercies.
My trip up the K-3 Trail – I estimate around 5/10 of a mile – took me around 45 minutes and gained around 520 feet of additional elevation. Average grade for this stage is around 20% – steepest climb by far.
Stage 4: W Tiger RR Grade – Traverse to W Tiger #3 Trail
Wow, what a Godsend is the West Tiger Railroad Grade Trail. Following the route of an old logging railway, it begins on the west side of the mountain. It then traverses around to the north side hardly deviating from an elevation of 1960 feet.
After climbing steep trails like K-3, this mostly level trail provides a most welcome respite, and it provides the best way to move between the three summit approach trails.
To reach the summit of W Tiger #3 I could have stayed on K-3 and continued on to W Tiger #2 (then hiked the summit ridge to #3). However because the summit approach to West Tiger #2 looked so much tougher on the map than the much newer West Tiger #3 I decided to traverse between the two using the RR Grade. From there I could climb W Tiger #3 Trail to the summit.
It took me 30 minutes to reach the W Tiger #3 Trail; of course with no gain in elevation.
A quick word about the Cableline Trail: although originating at different trailheads, the Cableline and W Tiger #3 Trails converge just below the RR Grade. They then run essentially together all the way to the summit. I first encountered Cableline where it intersects the RR Grade just before the RR Grade reaches the W Tiger #3 Trail. It’s important to be aware of Cableline, and note where it emerges at the summit, because you’ll need it when it comes time to begin the descent.
Stage 5: W Tiger #3 Trail to Summit (elevation 2522 ft)
This was the only place (besides the summit) where I encountered other people on the mountain throughout my entire hike. The trail is wide, its surface mostly compacted rock and gravel, and it zig-zags its way up the mountain via numerous wide sweeping switchbacks. I saw as many trail runners as hikers.
A short distance below the summit the trees begin to thin out enough to provide the first views. The trail has a series of steps at this point where suddenly no trees block views to the east. It was from this vantage point, at around 2400 feet elevation, that I took this shot looking towards the Cascades.
Eventually the trail spills out onto the bald summit of West Tiger #3 at an elevation of 2522 feet. Views to the east are dominated by the neighboring summit at West Tiger #2. Views to the north and south are obstructed by trees.
However it is the views to the west that most people come up here to see: the neighboring peak of Squak Mountain, with Cougar Mountain further distant; beyond Cougar Mountain, weather permitting, there’s Lake Washington, Bellevue, Seattle, and Puget Sound. If you’re really luck you’ll see the Olympics on the far horizon.
The forecast on Friday was for a Pacific weather system to move in and the preceding high cloud already made the westward view hazy by the time I reached the top, but you can still see Squak, Cougar, the Lake, and the Sound in my picture.
I sat down on a large granite rock and took another photo of my boots; by now both outer soles had completely detached – but hey, I’d made it up there, right, that’s all that counted. And then my phone rang!
I must confess I was already thinking of asking The Spouse to come to the trailhead to rescue me rather than have me try to deal with buses when I got down to Issaquah. I knew the descent would be tough on whatever boots remained on my feet. Unfortunately the phone call was not good news.
It was my daughter letting me know The Spouse had just fallen down at the fitness center, victim of another vertigo episode while working out. I felt completely helpless. There I was sitting on a rock 2500 feet up on top of a mountain – an ascent that had taken four hours. I expected it could take me just as long to get home given that it was now 6 pm and I would have fewer bus choices at the trailhead due to less frequent off-peak bus service.
So I sat down, ate my packed lunch, and took one last look at the views before pulling on my backpack ready to start the downward leg.
My final climb to the summit – 9/10 of a mile – took me 30 minutes and gained 562 feet of additional elevation. Average grade for this stage is 12%.
Stage 6: Section Line Trail to HS Trailhead (elevation 135 ft)
The Section Line Trail begins just below the West Tiger #3 summit as a spur leading off to the left from the Cableline Trail. The trail marker shown here appears a few yards downhill and may not be visible from Cableline. Take note that the trail is unmaintained and also note the appearance of the trail in my photo – not very distinct – this is what you have to look out for from the Cableline.
Once on the Section Line Trail, it’s pretty straightforward and quite easy to follow. The trail descends straight down the mountain with almost no bends that might be described as switchbacks. Consequently in many places it is extremely steep – more so than K-3. And in places it is slick too.
Between the W Tiger #3 summit and Talus Rocks Trail junction, a distance of roughly 1.2 miles, the Section Line Trail drops 1400 feet, crossing the RR Grade along the way. The grade for this section is 22.1% – steeper than K-3 and about twice as long.
This was the only place where my lack of grip underfoot proved to be a problem. I ended up sliding several yards down the hill on my butt before coming to rest by a tree.
Other than this one fall my Section Line descent was mostly uneventful – just slow – but as hard as I tried I couldn’t avoid some wet spots and it wasn’t long before I could feel water getting inside my right boot.
At another particularly steep place, with no trees within reach to use as handholds, I resorted to a kind of side-stepping motion to control my descent – kind of the reverse of side-stepping on skis to move uphill.
It was then that gravity took over and my right boot completely gave way, my foot slid sideways, and the midsole detached from the upper along three quarters of one side, only staying attached at the toe. Now I could see my sock through the open side of the boot.
Decision needed: should I now dispense with this boot altogether and continue with one foot shoeless? I decided to keep the disintegrating boot tied on and try to place some portion of its structure between the sole of my foot and the ground with each step.
Of course, by now I was concerned about the same thing happening to the left boot. The good news is it wasn’t destined to get any worse than this – the bad news was from this point onwards every step I would take would resemble a Monty Python Silly Walk.
At last I reached the end of Section Line; it had taken me about an hour and a half from the top. The trail emerges at a clearcut, another Puget Power ROW similar to the one at the start of High Point Trail.
Here the Section Line Trail crosses the space under the power lines and enters the woods on the other side. From here the trail becomes the High School Trail, and there’s still about another mile to hike to the trailhead but it definately feels like the home stretch when you reach the wooden gate.
There must have been a Friday night game in progress at the High School because long before I reached the trailhead I could hear crowd noise and referee whistles carried into the forest on the breeze. Ah, civilization!
I emerged at the 2nd Ave trailhead around 8:30 pm, a little over two hours after leaving the W. Tiger #3 summit. Distance from the summit is 4.3 miles with an elevation drop of 2387 feet. The average grade for this section of the hike is 10.5%, but as I said earlier, there are parts of the Section line Trail that exceed a 22% grade.
The High School Trailhead is a very small area with no facilities; maybe only 4 or 5 parking spaces, with the trail entering from the back, but sure enough there is a Metro bus stop out on the sidewalk by the entrance. I fired up Google maps on my phone to see when the next bus was due – what? – next morning? I kid you not!
Here is where I encountered the one lapse in my pre-hike research. I determined that there is a bus stop at the 2nd Ave. Trailhead but I didn’t check to see which route it serves. Turns out it’s only the route 200 shuttle which is a weekday only service with a last bus from this stop back to Issaquah Transit Center at around 6:45 pm.
When planning your transit hike, be sure to factor this in. If you, like me, don’t start up the mountain until the afternoon hours, definitely plan to use the E. Sunset Trailhead. To get there after descending the Section Line Trail, take the Adventure Trail that branches off the High School Trail.
I don’t think it adds any appreciable distance to the overall hike and the E. Sunset Trailhead emerges only half a mile from the bus stop on Sunset outside Issaquah City Hall. With hindsight, I can’t really see any reason to use the High School Trailhead as part of a Transit Hike.
But now, due to my lapse, I had to hike yet one more mile from the High School Trailhead to reach a downtown bus stop. Access the concrete paved Rainier bike trail directly across the street from the trailhead – it got me away from the street in my disintegrating footwear and took me all the way to City Hall.
While there are other bus stops in downtown Issaquah, City Hall is probably the best one to use because not only do Metro buses stop there, so does the Sound Transit Express 554 to Seattle (calling at Issaquah Transit Center and the I-90 freeway stops at Eastgate and Mercer Island).
I was able to take the 554 and catch up with my Bellevue-bound Metro bus. I narrowly missed the 271 in Issaquah but got far enough ahead of it on the 554 that at Eastgate I was able to transfer – and make it home just before 9:30 pm.
Despite the trials and tribulations of my day – just look at how my boots ended up – I’m glad I gained some familiarity with Tiger Mountain. It provides a great Transit Hiking destination, one I look forward to returning to in the not too distant future.
As for my trusty ol’ Hi-Tecs: they are now on their way to a landfill somewhere – pretty much all that made it home with me were the biodegradable parts ;).
And as for The spouse: since my reckless adventure she has performed self-administered Epley Maneuvers three times; and each time she has regained some of her lost equilibrium. In addition to her ongoing recovery from Vestibular Neuritis, it certainly looks like she is going to be prone to BPPV in the future. Her response to Epley confirmed last Friday’s fall was a recurring BPPV episode. With my 20+ years living with Meniere’s Disease, and The Spouse now coming to terms with her own Vestibular Disorders too, don’t we make a fine pair :).