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Easier hike delivered to the top of popular Mailbox Peak

By Alexa Vaughn
The Seattle Times
For years, climbing Mailbox Peak has been a rite of passage for Seattle-area hikers. Many have had to turn back before finishing the steep, heavily eroded ascent. But on Saturday, a newer, easier trail to the top will open. Will this change what it means to have “done Mailbox?”

“Doing Mailbox” used to mean you weren’t just any amateur weekend hiker.

You were the kind who didn’t need switchbacks to slog and scramble through a steep, erosion-prone mess of tree roots and crumbled rock to ascend almost 4,000 feet in about 2 miles.

Even after summiting Mount Rainier, hiking the Mailbox Peak trail was a rite of passage for hikers such as Nathan Barnes of Seattle’s Capitol Hill. He felt his reputation as a hiker just wouldn’t be complete without climbing the North Bend-area peak — and having that first-time story to share.

“You’ve gone through some tough portions, and you think, ‘I’ve worked really hard, I think I’m finished here,’ ” said Barnes, talking about reaching a false summit about three-quarters of the way up. “I just remember that moment when I realized, ‘Oh God, wow: I have so much more left to do.’ ”

But starting Saturday morning, an easier route will open to the peak’s craggy summit and its famous tchotchke-and-message-laden mailbox.

The new trail climbs the same 3,800-foot elevation and is longer — 4.7 miles — but its wider dirt walkways and switchbacks will make it a much safer and easier hike, on par with the route up nearby Mount Si.

As the number of annual treks to Mailbox Peak skyrocketed over the past decade from about 2,000 to 20,000, so did visits from King County search-and-rescue teams that attended to lost hiking parties, broken bones, and twisted joints. Despite a sign reading “Please respect your own ability,” many unprepared for the hike would continue up.

“It was just packed and unsafe,” said Doug Schindler, deputy director of Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization. “The old trail was never really built to any standard. It’s not like an agency built it — it just kind of showed up.”

To build the new trail, the Washington Department of Natural Resources contracted with Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. The $580,000 project was funded through a combination of private and public grants.

Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust spokeswoman Emily Neff said that since 2012, volunteers from several outdoor-recreation and youth groups including the Washington Trails Association, EarthCorps, Washington Conservation Corps and the Boy Scouts logged more than 12,000 hours carving the new route, which links up with the old trail near the top.

A trailhead with bathrooms and spaces for 50 to 60 cars was also recently built near the new trail’s entry.

Schindler expects hikers looking for a challenge will still climb the older route, but not nearly as many.

The older trail started showing up around 1960 when a North Seattle letter carrier named Carl Heine delivered and posted the first mailbox on the peak, said Thom Proehl, director of Valley Camp, a Lutheran retreat and recreation area near the base of the mountain.

Heine, who was director of Valley Camp at the time, began sending restless teenagers on missions to beat their way through the brush and reach the top, where they would take a book out of the mailbox and sign their names to prove they made it.

The hike remained largely unknown for decades until the term “Mailbox Peak” started appearing in hiking journals in the 1990s, when Proehl says hikers started leaving behind blue toothbrushes at the trail’s then easy-to-overlook entry point.

The path’s unforgivingly steep grade became a popular training ground for hikers preparing for tougher treks, such as Mount Rainier. Then, a little over 10 years ago, Proehl says its popularity exploded as a growing number of athletic hikers recommended it to each other.

Although there’s usually only one mailbox at the top, Monty VanderBilt, a former Amazon.com principal engineer and sometimes Mailbox Peak janitor, says he thinks the peak has gone through at least 12, each of which has been quickly covered in messages and filled with odd pieces of memorabilia. In recent years, he’s noticed that the peak gets a new mailbox at least once a year.

VanderBilt says the original mailbox was a sturdy one that lasted until 2001, when someone suddenly replaced it with a new, green one. VanderBilt has two of the mailboxes at his Seattle home — one he found in bushes and the other given to him by the Department of Natural Resources.

The new Mailbox Peak trail is only accessible on weekends for now. That changes at the end of October when paving work on Southeast Middle Fork Road will pause until next spring.

The new Mailbox Peak trail is just the first of many improvements to the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River Valley, where the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust is also helping with work on other trails and creating access points for kayakers and fishermen.

For those who wish their trek up the older, storied Mailbox Peak trail is on record somewhere, there is hope.

Though some logbooks, including a “Green Eggs and Ham” book, have been lost, VanderBilt has been collecting and scanning several others for years and has archived them at the University of Washington’s Special Collection Library.

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or avaughn@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.

New Mailbox Peak trail to open

When: 9 a.m. Saturday

Where: Mailbox Peak trailhead. Take Exit 34 from Interstate 90. Head north on 468th Avenue Southeast for a half-mile until it intersects with Southeast Middle Fork Road. Turn right, follow road 2.2 miles to stop sign at junction with Southeast Dorothy Lake Road. Head left on Southeast Middle Fork Road and go .3 miles. Take turnoff to trailhead on the right and go a short distance to the parking lot. You usually need a Discover Pass to park at or near the trailhead, but Saturday is free because it’s National Public Lands Day.

Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, Washington Trails Association

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