Jill Simmons is a Minnesota flatlander who moved to Seattle 17 years ago and found her place on a mountain path.
Jill Simmons, who is in her first summer as the new head honcho of Washington’s leading trail advocacy organization, grew up as a Minnesota flatlander. But once she visited Seattle, saw the mountains and hiked the woods, she knew it was home.
Now she walks to work every day between her circa-1893 Central District house and her Washington Trails Association (WTA) office at Second and Cherry. On her way home, that represents a 400-foot elevation gain in 1.6 miles. (Call the hike “moderate.”)
Under her stewardship as executive director, expect the WTA — whose website recently marked a milestone of 100,000 trip reports on trail conditions around the state — to continue to strive to bring more Washingtonians of every color and every walk of life into the ranks of hikers who care about trails, share information about trails and volunteer to build and maintain them.
“We want to expand the ranks of people stewarding trails and championing trails,” said Simmons, reflecting WTA’s core philosophy that wraps around the tenet “if you don’t know about it, you can’t care about it.”
Enthusiastic civil servant
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Simmons, now 43 and a divorced mother with an 8-year-old son, moved to Seattle in 2000 for graduate studies — a twin major of public administration and law — at the University of Washington.
She became a confirmed civil servant in 10 years with the City of Seattle, rising to the post of director of the Office of Sustainability and Environment, where her proud accomplishments included tripling the office’s operating budget, growing the staff from 8 to 21 people, and exceeding all goals of a $20 million federal grant to develop new approaches to energy efficiency in Seattle buildings.
It would be unkind to call her a wonk, though when I asked her to pick a hike we could go on to get acquainted — from the hundreds of hikes WTA indexes on its website — she admits “a white board may have been involved.”
So maybe she has overdeveloped organizational skills the way a Seven Summits climber has overdeveloped quads. What else does she bring to the job?
“First and foremost, hiking is my happiness, it’s what I love to do most — I actually found out about the WTA job by looking for a hike on the website, and within an hour I had applied,” says Simmons, who has hiked on five continents and traveled extensively, including a four-month world tour after her UW studies when she won the Bonderman Travel Fellowship, a grant that requires the recipient to explore the planet.
Now she heads a nonprofit with 35 year-round employees, more than 15,000 member households and an annual budget of about $4 million.
Getting to know I-90
For our outing Simmons chose the Margaret’s Way trail on Squak Mountain, in the so-called Issaquah Alps. This year’s heavy, lingering snowpack steered her away from higher hikes.
WTA volunteers built the foxglove-lined trail through pretty second-growth forest two summers ago in cooperation with the Issaquah Alps Trails Club and King County Parks crews, part of an initiative to create more near-city hiking options to ease the pressure on popular Interstate 90 corridor trails.
It’s an area with which Simmons is getting reacquainted.
“In my previous existence, I didn’t hike I-90 very much. I didn’t hike Stevens Pass very much,” she says. She’s a little embarrassed to admit she’s never been up iconic Mailbox Peak. Why? Pretty much the same reason a lot of longtime Seattleites have avoided many I-90 and Highway 2 trails in recent years: big crowds and/or horrible traffic.
Now, she’s embracing those corridors (taking at least one hike a week between Memorial Day and Labor Day) and taking on the challenge of how to help manage crowding. Maybe it’s as simple as convincing hikers to hike on a weekday, or to appreciate the beauty of drizzle in the woods. WTA used to feature a “hike of the week” on its website but discontinued it because the power of suggestion could spawn a flash flood of hikers.
“I really like finding the strategic way — or the trail — forward,” Simmons says, grinning at the sudden rethinking of her wording.
In addition to providing one of the most-used online guides to Washington’s trails, at wta.org, WTA encourages urban youths and their mentors to get outdoors through its Outdoor Leadership Training and gear-lending program. It also coordinates a trail-building and -maintenance effort that last year involved 4,700 volunteers working 150,000 hours on 240 trails on public lands across the state.
That “boots on the ground” factor led to Simmons, in her first month as director, being called to Washington, D.C., in March to testify before a Senate committee looking at the need for infrastructure investment on public lands.
“WTA was the only organization with the ability to speak with the voice of hikers with the credibility of sweat equity,” she said.
On the trail
Hiking the Margaret’s Way trail while wearing a WTA T-shirt, Simmons enjoys greeting other hikers and frequently takes the opportunity to casually ask about their hiking habits and what they know about WTA.
She gets candid responses — usually positive. It’s not uncommon for hikers’ eyes to pop then when they ask her connection with the organization.
She’s a skilled outdoorswoman and loves light and fast hiking, which she honed a few years ago on a whirlwind, 4½ day trek of Mount Rainier’s 93-mile Wonderland Trail (“It was glorious, and so beautiful”).
But she’s a tiny bit caught out on our day hike when I ask if she has brought along the Ten Essentials — an assortment of gear and supplies considered a must for even the most casual mountain hike.
Hmmm. She has extra food. Extra clothing. She picked up a map at the trailhead. But, oops, no compass.
“And I did not bring an emergency shelter,” she admits frankly, looking around at the warm, cloudless summer day on Squak Mountain.
She gets a pass this time. Everyone needs time to grow into a new job, and Simmons has the air of someone who won’t be caught out twice. (I didn’t have them all, either.)
Say hello when you meet Jill Simmons on her next hike. She’ll be the friendly lady with the compass around her neck and the survival tent bulging from her day pack.