The high and mighty mountain looming over North Bend attracts throngs and daunts many, but the view from atop is sweet.
NORTH BEND — I’ve been tackling Western Washington’s trails since I moved here eight years ago — everything from afternoon jaunts near Seattle to backpacking on the Olympic Peninsula. But one of the area’s most talked-about hikes remained elusive: Mount Si.
Maybe it was because I’d heard so much about this particular peak, some of it not positive. The hike apparently involved a veritable rush-hour highway of hikers moving up a steep trail, some carrying giant backpacks to train for Mount Rainier climbs, others completely unprepared for 3,100 feet of elevation gain in 4 miles.
I also heard that, on a sunny day, the views from the top were unbeatable, which only brings more crowds.
If you go
As with any hike, check the weather and read trail descriptions and reports before you go. The Washington Trails Association website is a great resource for these as well as for general hiking tips: wta.org
Take Interstate 90 to Exit 32, just east of North Bend. Turn north onto 436th Avenue Southeast and continue to its end at Southeast North Bend Way. Turn left. In .3 mile, turn right onto Southeast Mount Si Road. Follow it 2.4 miles to trailhead parking, on the left.
Parking at the trailhead requires a Discover Pass, and the lot is patrolled regularly: discoverpass.wa.gov.
I’m not a fan of hikes so steep I feel as if my shoelaces are about to touch my shins, or of streams of humanity in places I go to get away from it all. I like to run down trails, and a combination of steepness and people made that sound impossible. So I drove past Mount Si’s imposing near-vertical slopes many times, headed for some other hike.
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But I always figured I should do it sometime. When friends training for a Machu Picchu trek planned a training hike there, I tagged along.
I almost immediately wondered why I hadn’t done it sooner. Here’s my primer for “Mount Si Without Tears.”
Time it right
When we turned up at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, the sprawling trailhead parking lot was only about 10 percent full. Saturday seems to be the busiest day for hiking, in general, and folks seem to start later on Sunday. Maybe they stay out late on Saturday nights? For us, foregoing the partying and getting up early was worth it.
By early afternoon, hiker numbers had increased noticeably — but not to the point that I couldn’t run. To my great satisfaction, Mount Si turned out to be great for trail running. I found myself mentally thanking those who built and maintain its well-constructed switchbacks.
Arriving early is also good because, let’s face it, you’ll be sweating soon, despite tree cover almost the entire way. No need to add more heat to what you’ll be cranking out.
As with other hikes, if you can go during the week, all the better. I’ve also been surprised at how much trail traffic dies down once fall arrives. Mount Si is the kind of hike that makes for a great outing on a cool autumn day. And those doing training hikes are most plentiful in the spring, so you shouldn’t have to dodge as many backpacks once snow flies at high elevation.
If the lot is packed when you arrive, consider another of the Interstate 90 corridor’s challenging hikes, such as Mount Washington or McClellan Butte (which, like Mount Si, has great views from a point below the true summit as well as atop the rocky summit itself).
Mount Si is not so steep that you start to worry, on the way up, what part of your body you’ll land on when you try to head down. And unlike some other popular hikes (I’m looking at you, Pilchuck!), it’s not rocky until the very top.
But the slope is unrelenting. Aside from one flat-ish area near the bottom, it’s up, up, up. Like the even-more-vertical challenge nearby, Mailbox Peak, this is not a hike to do on a whim. “Lots of folks read about Mount Si or Mailbox on the internet, and think they can just show up at the trail and walk up,” said Kindra Ramos, communication director for the Washington Trails Association. To hike it without misery, she said, you’ll need the proper supplies and conditioning.
Although we saw hikers of many fitness levels, it’s a good idea to do a few training hikes before attempting Si. Some of the friends I hiked with had been swimming regularly to boost their cardiovascular fitness, but as one said, “There’s just no substitute for putting miles on your feet.”
Start with low-mileage hikes and work your way up to longer day hikes. Urban stair climbs count! Consider doing practice hikes with a slightly heavier pack than usual, and make sure you break in your footwear, too.
On the trail, Ramos says, hike your own hike.
“Go at your own speed and ability and don’t let someone else’s expectations push you further than you should.”
There’s no shame in taking a breather. Areas to stop and rest are numerous and well placed. Speaking of breaks: At 8 miles round-trip, Mount Si requires time and energy, so bring plenty of water and snacks.
Our group ended up splitting into two for most of the hike, with the fastest going ahead. It took most of us about five hours, total.
I celebrated with some nuts and a candy bar as I sat on a rock and looked across a series of green ridges toward shimmering Mount Rainier, which was looking especially fetching that day.
One woman got to the top, threw her arms in the air and shouted, “Woo-hoo! I could do this every day!” Then she paused. “Well, not really every day.”
You may not be like the guy who summited twice before we made one round trip. You may not be training for Rainier. And you might stop at the broad viewpoint below the summit rather than making the final, rocky push to the tiptop. No matter what, finishing a hike like this is something to be proud of.