You might say Rattlesnake Ledge got too popular for its own good.

When it was hand-built in 2003-2004, planners expected the North Bend trail to host up to 70,000 hikers annually. Today, 300,000 pairs of hiking boots hit the trail each year, and that number has kept growing through the pandemic. AllTrails lists Rattlesnake Ledge Trail as the second most popular hike in Washington, after Mount Rainier’s Skyline Trail.

In fact, it was the pandemic that paved the way for an ongoing maintenance project on the popular trail, which closed in 2020 and received more than 1,000 hours of volunteer work during the closure and into 2021 — the beginning of a face-lift that will carry on through spring 2022 and require an estimated 5,000 total volunteer hours.

When social media rippled with drone photos of a packed Rattlesnake Ledge summit one March weekend during the early days of pandemic lockdown in 2020, Seattle Public Utilities — which owns and operates the trail — closed Rattlesnake Ledge as Washington moved to close many state parks, too.

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SPU used the long closure to upgrade the trail, making it safer and easier to navigate, with help from original trail partners including the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, Washington Trails Association and EarthCorps. The Nonhighway and Off-Road Vehicle Activities Program, the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office, and SPU funded the project.

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“The way this trail was built was never intended to withstand the usage it’s seen in recent years,” said Mike Stenger, recreation projects manager for the Greenway Trust.

Other Western Washington recreational sites are also continuing to see increased use, due to rising population and a “heightened interest in outdoor activity” due to the pandemic, noted a news release about the project from the trail partners.

Those partners and the hundreds of volunteers (and counting) working on the trail have had their hands full. Ongoing improvement projects on the trail include enhancing the tread of the path, reducing erosion, regrading and planting along 2 miles of trail, enhancing trail drainage, eliminating 200 feet of rotting wood crib walls (or replacing them with rock walls), and reinforcing and armoring two main switchbacks.   

During the park closure last year, a contractor cleared the trail of large rocks with a miniature excavator, which allowed the initial group of 130 WTA volunteers to get to work. This year, volunteers from Washington Conservation Corps and EarthCorps joined the project. The goal is to finish the work by this coming spring.

What makes a good trail from a structural standpoint? A stable, clear, well-drained route.

“A lot of the focus is on building the upper switchback rock walls to discourage switchback cutting, which damages trails,” said LeeAnne Jensen, Puget Sound field manager for Washington Trails Association, referring to hikers going off the trail to avoid switchback turns headed up or down the mountain.

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Also, although the grades are “pretty gentle,” Jensen says the project is working to mitigate some steeper grades.

Liz Ulloa has volunteered with WTA since 2007 and has been working Rattlesnake Ledge at recent work parties this year.

“What we did today was narrowing the trail corridor, so making, hopefully, a less wet trail and offering ways for water to get off trail through drainage. Basically just delineating the trail better,” she said after a workday this fall. “We were adding ferns and rocks into the grounds and wooded debris to make the trail clearer so it’s not just a giant runway.”

She noted that addressing the drainage helps avoid “braided trails,” another human error issue caused when hikers, to get around soggy spots, make their own trails. Add time and vegetation, and soon the original trail becomes obscured.

What makes a good trail from a Seattle recreation standpoint? Just 40 minutes from Seattle by car, Rattlesnake Ledge Trail delivers views of Mount Si, Mount Washington, the Cedar River Watershed and two lakes — all in a 4-mile out-and-back trek with only 1,160 feet of elevation gain, making it accessible to beginning hikers and families. With an eastern exposure, it makes a stunning sunrise hike for early risers. Its high point at 2,079 feet is typically free of snow for much of November. No permit is required, and parking is free. There are few barriers to entry.

“Rattlesnake Ledge is a very iconic Puget Sound hike,” Jensen said. “A lot of folks are out for their first hike, or it’s the one you bring your family to when they’re in town. If you get up there in the sunshine, it’s a gorgeous view of the valley. It’s one of those better work-to-reward ratios.”

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It’s safe to say the secret is out on this popular route: Reviewers on AllTrails and the WTA website give Rattlesnake Ledge trail 4.5 and 4 stars, respectively, with many commenters echoing two things: how well maintained the trail is and how crowded it is.

Ulloa, an avid hiker and year-round volunteer, sees tangible benefits for herself and the volunteers she coaches on the Cascade favorite. She stands at a desk all week working on mortgages and likes to hit the woods on the weekend.

“I really like the camaraderie, I like teaching people new skills, I like the sort of gleam in people’s eyes when they recognize they’re really making a difference for a lot of people by doing this work,” she said.

At Rattlesnake Ledge, Ulloa’s work is pausing now for the winter, but the trail will be open to hikers.

“It’s definitely passable,” said Jensen. “We want to make sure the trail is left safely so everything is solid and walkable. Most hikers probably won’t really notice what work is left to do. Most of the remaining work is widening or narrowing trails.”

If you do hike this winter, note that the cliff ledge has been the site of several deadly falls, so children and leashed dogs should be watched closely, and all hikers should take extreme care during wet or icy conditions.  

To preserve these efforts for years of future hiking, trail builders stress to always follow the “leave no trace” standards on the trail — such as packing out trash and staying on the trail.

Afraid you missed out on the fun? Jensen estimates there will be about 17 more work parties next year. No experience is necessary — if you are interested in joining volunteers next spring, you can register on WTA’s website at wta.org.