One Foot in Front of the Other
Pioneer Park on Mercer Island is one of those special Seattle-area green spaces where, even when you can hear the whoosh of cars over the birdsong and the wind pushing branches, you feel like you’ve been transported into a verdant new world.
Trails like Woodpecker, Warbler and Chickadee crisscross through the park — composed of three square sections and Engstrom Open Space at the park’s northeast tip — allowing walkers (and joggers, trotters and dogs) to enjoy this slice of dense greenery for as long or as short as they’d please. Our 2.2-mile walk skirts the perimeter of the park’s two northern sections, where dogs and bipeds run the show. The bottom third of the park has designated equestrian trails.
Whether on foot, paw or hoof, Pioneer Park is a treat that might be off the beaten path for the average Seattle park person. Here’s what you can expect to see.
Looping Pioneer Park
Round-trip distance: 2.2 miles
Parking is available at five locations around the park — two spots on 84th Avenue Southeast, one on Island Crest Way, one on Southeast 68th Street and another on East Mercer Way, at the northeast edge of the park. Our walk starts and ends there: Engstrom Open Space, at the bottom of the ravine. Keep dogs on leashes here.
Creek Trail follows said creek upstream about one-quarter of a mile, but our walk takes the first available left over a short bridge onto Bridge Trail. Less than 500 feet into the park, with the creek running below, you’re already enveloped by forest.
Hang a right after the bridge and start working your way uphill, deeper into deciduous territory. It was cool, shady and quiet on a recent afternoon walk; I stopped to check out a batch of wild berries and noted I could only hear the birds.
Bridge Trail runs into Ravine Trail and leads west up the hillside. Wooden steps work their way up the ravine, which has an elevation gain of about 180 feet. Fallen, chain-sawed trees with decades of rings ornament the trailside as it winds to one of the northeast quadrant’s two overlooks and the path of the same name. Be sure to pause for a moment and appreciate the view downhill.
Follow Overlook Trail west and look out for wooden signposts pointing the way toward Island Crest Way. To get from the northeast quadrant of the park to the northwest, take the crosswalk at Southeast 63rd Street over Island Crest.
The northwest quadrant, where dogs under voice control can ditch their leashes, is Pioneer Park’s most popular section. I had the park to myself until I crossed Island Crest and ran into the pup parade. (All participants were marvelously mannered.) Northwest Perimeter Trail, as you might have guessed, traces the edge of the quadrant, with offshoots like Salmonberry and Dogwood running perpendicular into the forest. The trail around this quadrant is just shy of a mile.
The park juts up against Southeast 68th Street to the south, where Perimeter Trail splits into a pedestrian-only and an equestrian trail. Keep your head up — on trails where horses are allowed, they have the right of way. (For what it’s worth, I spent about two hours at the park on my recent walk, including time in the equestrian section, and the closest thing I saw to a horse was a big brown Lab.)
There are a couple of cool art flourishes on this portion of the trail: Look out for the Peace Pole, a thin obelisk marked with a Rotary International insignia, which has “May Peace Prevail on Earth” printed on its sides in English, Spanish and several other languages.
An even greater treat is “Mythical Bird,” a yellow cedar carving by notable Pacific Northwest artist Dudley Carter, who completed the sculpture in 1980. He was 89 then and lived to be nearly 101 years old. The massive carving of Native American icons — women, birds, a coyote and a raven — guards Fire Station Trail, which runs parallel to Perimeter.
There is a crosswalk over Island Crest Way at the intersection of the park’s three main sections, making access to Maple Trail in the northeast quadrant easy. Maple, another quarter-mile leg, marks the quadrant’s southern edge; it meets Overlook Trail and kicks north toward the ravine and the endpoint of our walk.
As Overlook sloped downward toward Ravine Trail, once again I was alone with the woods. As you near the bottom of the ravine, veer right to hop off Ravine Trail for the Engstrom Loop through the open space of the same name. This trail, the park’s newest, leads into wetlands and back toward the creek. Keep on the loop for about five minutes and you’ll be back at the bridge where you started before you know it, babbling water underfoot.
From there, the choice is yours. Take the loop again for another easy 2 miles (I was lapped by a jogger or two), explore new routes through the park, check out the equestrian section, or just take Creek Trail out of the park and back to the real world.
You can never go wrong spending some more time with the trees and the birds.