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Trailhead Direct Hiking Shuttle: How's It Work for Families?

Grab the kids and head for the hills — but first, sleep in

Published on: May 31, 2018

hikers enjoying a view
Paragliders in the air near Poo Poo Point. Credit: Gemma Alexander

The outdoor lifestyle is a major draw for people moving to the Pacific Northwest, but I never managed to get my own kids out on the trails until we went to Iceland. After that we were determined to take advantage of the abundant nature opportunities right here at home.

But these days parking lots at popular trailheads fill up early in the morning, resulting in long rows of illegally parked cars along rural roads. Who wants to spend over an hour driving to a fantastic hiking spot only to find the parking lot full? Enter Trailhead Direct.

Trailhead Direct

Trailhead Direct is a pilot project that aims to reduce congestion and improve safety on rural roads while also granting access to natural areas for people who don’t drive. After a limited pilot last summer, King County Metro has expanded its weekend trailhead shuttle service this year. The Issaquah Alps route, the first of three routes, began operating last month. It runs a loop from South Seattle to Bellevue and Issaquah and serves four trailheads. Most families will be interested in this route as the other two will serve more challenging trails (Mt. Si and Mailbox Peak).  

The test case

Like many local families, our Sundays are for soccer, but we also have scheduled activities on Saturday mornings. By midday on Saturday there is no chance of finding parking at a popular trailhead, so the shuttle service seemed like a great opportunity for a weekend hike.

After reading about the trails served by the shuttle on the Washington Trails Association web page, I picked the Chirico Trail to Poo Poo Point. (I figured the kids would get a kick out of the funny name, and I was right.) This trail has an added advantage: You can watch paragliders launch from Poo Poo Point and then land in the field at the trailhead.

Getting to the shuttle

Our house is nearly an hour by bus from Seattle's Mount Baker transit center, where the shuttle picks up, so we drove there and paid $8 to park near the station for the day. Important for us: We left the house about 10:45 a.m. and caught the on-time 11:40 a.m. Trailhead Direct van.

Including our family of four, seven people boarded. I think we were the only ones who used the seatbelts. Unexpectedly, my kids ignored their phones and stared out the windows for the entire 40-minute ride. The shuttle emptied out at the full Chirico Trailhead parking lot about five minutes ahead of schedule.

hikers at the Chirico trailhead credit Gemma Alexander
Hikers at the start of the Chirico Trail. Credit: Gemma Alexander

Trail party

Increased accessibility to already crowded trails can only result in more crowding. The trail felt more like a backyard barbecue than Thoreau’s idea of outdoor recreation. But you know what? That was fun, too. Instead of solitude, we found community. Normally, I would have been annoyed by people blasting music on the trail (that’s what headphones are for) but honestly, we weren’t going to hear birdsong anyway. Instead, we heard a lot of Chinese, Hindi and Spanish. We passed grandmas and toddlers who rested every 50 feet, we got passed by whooping teenagers and hardcore athletes, and we leapfrogged a puppy on its first hike.

We ate lunch midway up, where the crowd started to thin, and took a break to watch the paragliders at the top. We reached the parking lot about three hours after we left it and waited 10 minutes for the on-schedule shuttle to take us back to the city. The return shuttle was more than half full of tired, happy people. My teenager pulled out a book and my 9-year-old fell asleep almost immediately.

Bottom line

Even though the trail was too crowded to feel like we were way out in the wilderness, we had a lot of fun. It was a full day of being active outdoors as a family, and we didn't have to deal with the stress of competing for limited parking spaces or dealing with traffic on the way home. 

If we do more hiking, we might try driving to less crowded trails for a different kind of experience. But when we hike the popular trails, we will definitely take the shuttle rather than drive.

Paraglider launching from Poo Poo Point
Paraglider launching from Poo Poo Point. Credit: Gemma Alexander

Service details

Trailhead Direct shuttles run every half hour between 7:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekends and select holidays. They're mainly intended for hikers, but one trail, the East Sunset Trail, is open to bicycles. Note that the shuttles can carry only two bikes at a time.

Fares are payable by Orca card or cash, and the current each-way adult fare is $2.50 (youth fare $1.50 and kids ages 5 and under free). The fare will increase to $2.75 each way in July.

Three routes will run this season, with two under way now:

  • The Issaquah Alps route picks up passengers at the Mount Baker Transit Center, Eastgate Freeway Station and Issaquah Transit Center. It serves the trailheads for Margaret’s Way, Chirico/Poo Poo Point, High School Trail and East Sunset Way. Service began in April.
  • The Mount Si route picks up passengers at the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station, Broadway & John Street, Pine Street & Ninth Avenue, Eastgate Freeway Station and the North Bend Park & Ride. It serves the trailheads for Mt. Si and Mt. Tenerife. Service began May 19.
  • The Mailbox Peak route will shuttle passengers from North Bend to the Mailbox Peak trailhead beginning June 16. Details have not yet been announced.

Tips for parents:

Bring more water than you think you need. We drank all of our water on the way up and felt parched all the way home. Extra snacks and the Ten Essentials are always a good idea.

Crowded trails mean busy bathrooms. Chirico has toilets at the top and the bottom but bring your own tissue and hand sanitizer.

Even well-traveled trails can involve potential risks. Keep kids safe in the woods with our safety tips from a local search-and-rescue expert and dad.

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