The Trailhead Direct shuttle service that ran as a brief trial last year is now transporting passengers from the Mount Baker Transit Center to trailheads in the Issaquah Alps. Journeys from Capitol Hill to Teneriffe and Mount Si will begin in May.
Angel Ng waves and smiles enthusiastically through the doors of the Trailhead Direct shuttle, where he sits in the driver’s seat. This is his first day as a driver for the service, which buses hikers to nearby trailheads from urban and suburban King County, and Ng’s thrilled about it. It’s also the first day of the program’s newly expanded service.
King County Metro, King County Parks, and Seattle Department of Transportation launched Trailhead Direct during a brief trial period last year. The program began with a shuttle from Issaquah Transit Center to several trailheads in the Issaquah Alps. The trial featured service from Issaquah Transit Center to several trailheads in the Issaquah Alps. This year, the service has been expanded to include departures from the Mount Baker Transit Center and Eastgate Freeway Station. Journeys from the Capitol Hill Link light-rail station to Mount Si and Mount Teneriffe (with stops at Broadway and John Street and Pine Street and Ninth Avenue) are slated to begin this summer.
Cathy Snow, Community Connections program manager for Metro, said the decision to launch the bus service from Mount Baker and Capitol Hill was based on surveys conducted online and onboard that reflected “strong interest in connecting to urban centers for this kind of service.”
Today, five participants — my husband, two other hikers, one very small, very fluffy dog, and I — enter Ng’s bus for his inaugural drive from the new Seattle stop to the Chirico trailhead at Poo Poo Point for a midday hike. The first ride of the day was at 7:30 a.m., with departures every 30 minutes, and a Trailhead Direct representative tells us there have so far been about 21 passengers and three “fur babies” (his term for canine passengers).
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Before we board, he hands out safety-vest-orange swag bags complete with granola bars and a $10 preloaded Orca card, which, Seattle newbie that I am, I don’t think to use until well after I’ve dropped my five bucks into the fare box. Today it’s $2.50 per adult to ride the shuttle, but the fare will go up to $2.75 in July.
Still wary of Seattle’s public transportation situation, my partner and I drove to the Mount Baker Transit Center and paid eight bucks to park in a lot behind the Mount Baker Metro Station. Still, it feels worth the cost just to be able to enjoy the views as we cross Lake Washington over the floating bridge.
At Issaquah Transit Center, a supervisor with a clipboard salutes Ng as he opens the doors and greets him with a deep-chested pronouncement of “Professional driver!” like some kind of transit service soldier. At ease, the supervisor comes aboard to praise Ng for running exactly on time. A woman and a young girl in an enviable Superman dress get on board and are offered a free ride when they realize they can’t pay with a credit card.
The first trailhead stop is Margaret’s Way, where we pick up a passenger who’s just finished her hike. Ng, who has been making conversation throughout the whole ride, stops talking but can’t seem to bear the silence. He begins humming a high-pitched song. When we reach the Chirico trailhead, he sings out: “Chiiiriiicoooo! Chiiiriiicooo!” Before pulling away, he waves and shouts, “See you next Saturday!”
The trailhead parking lot is full, and cars are parked along the side of the street. Others circle the lot slowly, drawing occasional angry honks from other drivers.
That’s exactly why the Trailhead Direct service was started, said to Ryan Dotson, business development manager for King County parks.
“Our two main objectives of the pilot project are to reduce the number of people driving to the trailheads, which would reduce the number of people parked illegally … and with this expansion we’re providing access for all — folks who don’t own or can’t afford to own a vehicle,” says Dotson.
The trailhead service runs only on weekends and select holidays, which, Snow says, was also a decision based on the surveys from last year’s trial run. It’s a choice that combats parking-lot congestion on the busiest hiking days of the week, but leaves out hikers who work on weekends.
It’s a sunny Saturday, and the trail, like the parking lot, is crowded with slow-moving traffic, as hikers try awkwardly to navigate around one another. When we reach the summit, it looks like Pike Place Market on a slowish day, complete with selfie sticks, a big group conducting several handoffs of camera phones to take a group photo, and at least one yoga pose for Instagram.
Dotson sees the Trailhead Direct program as a way to help mitigate the negative effects of trail overuse. “The more people you get out hiking and enjoying the trails, especially the younger folk, you’re basically cultivating future stewards [of the trails].” he explains.
Chirico Trail is definitely the busiest I’ve ever been on. The parade of weekend hikers has certainly stomped the trail into submission over time — and necessitates a couple of “Please Stay on the Trail” signs. But there is something to be said for the sense of camaraderie you feel as you make the climb among strangers, struggling together, encouraging each other, silently taking in the awe-inspiring views, and offering anyone still climbing overly optimistic estimates of time to the summit. During our descent, we run into some fellow bus passengers who are still on the way up and tell them they’re “almost there!”
Back at the trailhead, there are several cars still circling the lot or parked on the side of the road. We make our way to the designated pickup point, where we meet the woman and the girl in the Superman dress.
I ask if the painted-off section that serves as the bus stop has always been here. “I don’t think so,” she says. “They got rid of several parking spots for it. I imagine to get people to pay for their bus. Very clever.”
A later interview with Dotson reveals two parking spots were eliminated to make the shuttle-stop area safer for passengers.
It’s a short wait for the next bus back to Mount Baker, and it arrives just as the afternoon rain begins to fall in earnest. This time, we’re among 10 post-hike riders, but the bus smells surprisingly fresh to me. Even so, the driver rolls down his window, despite the temperature and the rain. I’m sure next time we’ll see a couple of pine-scented air fresheners dangling from the rearview mirror.
Our driver on the way back is quiet, saying next to nothing beyond showing me how to use my very first Orca card. My husband and I ride in smelly silence while the group of friends at the back of the bus discuss heading to Dick’s Drive-In.
No one gets on at the High School Trail or East Sunset Trail. But according to Snow, we were among more than 300 riders to use the newly expanded service this weekend. Last year’s trial saw 900 riders total in its three months of service.
When we pull into the Issaquah Transit Center, the supervisor who checked in with Ng is still there (our driver is one minute behind schedule). This time he uses his “Professional driver!” salute as a sendoff rather than a greeting.
We all disembark at Mount Baker. The other group heads to the light-rail station, presumably on their way to enjoy some burgers. My partner and I head to the car, pulling up Google Maps and wincing at the 45-minute estimated drive time and the big red lines indicating traffic along our route. Next time, we’ll take the bus.
Trailhead Direct provides weekend shuttle service to the Issaquah Alps from designated transit centers. Departure schedules, fares, pickup locations and more information available at trailheaddirect.wordpress.com.