With Western Washington baking under historically warm weather, King County Metro’s Trailhead Direct transit service returned on Saturday. Through Sept. 4, the seasonal bus service will shuttle hikers from Capitol Hill to the popular Mount Si, Little Si and Mount Teneriffe trailheads near North Bend, providing access to popular Cascade trails without the need for a car.
Founded six years ago, the program aimed to help alleviate intense parking strain at trailheads on the Interstate 90 corridor. But as the program returns for the 2023 summer, Trailhead Direct leaders say their mission has developed into one driven by boosting equity and accessibility in the outdoors.
Here’s what you need to know.
Catching the bus
The Trailhead Direct service runs on weekends and select holidays (Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day), and riders can catch buses every 30 minutes from the Capitol Hill Link light-rail station. Before dropping hikers at the trailheads, the buses stop on First Hill, in downtown Seattle near the University Street Link station, at Bellevue’s Eastgate Freeway Station and at the North Bend Park & Ride.
The standard one-way $2.75 fare can be covered with cash (bring exact change), an ORCA card or a Transit GO Mobile ticket; the ride costs $1 for registered seniors, those on Medicare and those who are disabled, while riders 18 and younger can use Trailhead Direct free of charge.
For schedules and more info on the route, see trailheaddirect.org, or use Metro’s online trip planner at tripplanner.kingcounty.gov.
Hikers should research trail conditions and difficulty level before making plans, and bring water and the 10 Essentials. Washington Trails Association, a Trailhead Direct partner, publishes trail reports at wta.org. Popular and challenging Mount Si is an 8-mile round-trip hike covering 3,150 feet of elevation gain, while Little Si covers 3.7 miles and 1,300 feet; Mount Teneriffe demands 13 miles round-trip and 3,800 feet of elevation gain. Bring lots of water.
Changing the mission
Ryan Miller, Trailhead Direct program manager, has helped spearhead the initiative since its 2017 inception. Led by King County Metro, the venture is also supported by King County Parks, Seattle Department of Transportation and Amazon.
Launched in response to overcrowding at popular I-90 trailhead parking lots, Trailhead Direct has shuttled tens of thousands of hikers over the past six years, per King County Metro. But the program and its priorities have evolved into a larger mission for the county.
“In 2018, we learned from our customers that about 70% of them did not have access to a personal vehicle at home,” Miller said. “We reframed the program from just diverting public parking, and it got us thinking about equitable access to the outdoors. Transportation is a major barrier for outdoor access.”
The primary goal of Trailhead Direct is now to provide communities underrepresented in the outdoors space with opportunities to hit trails outside Seattle, recognizing that many do not have the means, equipment or expertise required to do so. That’s why the route starts in the heart of Seattle.
“The Capitol Hill route serves equity-priority populations, and most transit runs through the downtown population,” Miller said.
The program has faced roadblocks in recent years. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, it was shut down. Trailhead Direct returned in 2021 with two routes, then reduced service to a single route last year due to a lack of transit operators in King County.
The hope is to add trailhead destinations, but for now, riders can hop off the bus at three trailheads, which offer moderate-to-challenging hikes.
Through relationships with organizations like Washington Trails Association, The Wilderness Society and the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle (ECOSS), a partner since 2018, Trailhead Direct aims to reach new populations and spread awareness about hiking and outdoors opportunities closer to Seattle.
“Parks works with ECOSS to provide guided, in-language outings using the Trailhead Direct service where ECOSS staff conduct outreach and sign folks up for guided outings where they get to experience the service in a group setting,” said Helen Potter, project manager at King County Parks.
“For some of these folks, they are brand-new or minimally experienced when it comes to the outdoors,” Potter said. The goal is to “remove barriers to the outdoors for them by assisting with getting translated brochures and multilingual staff support to them,” and to provide the hiking experience with the support of a guide “and other folks who speak the same language as them.”
While equity is paramount for the program, Trailhead Direct retains an environmentally focused compass as Western Washington grapples with increasingly crowded recreational access points. The program intends to expand the service so hikers see fewer cars lined up at the trailhead.
“The main thing we hear about Trailhead Direct is that people don’t know about this service,” Miller said.
Many of the communities typically boxed out of the outdoors industry want to recreate outside, but they might not know where to start. Trailhead Direct meets people where they are — literally, at the bus stop, and by disseminating info in multiple languages, coordinating outreach in underserved communities and, above all, by providing cheap, public access to trails outside Seattle.
“I like to emphasis that Trailhead Direct is the same as any Metro fare,” Miller said. You don’t need a car to get to the mountains — you just need $2.75.
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