A beloved Seattle hiking destination is about to get even better as the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie gets a makeover.

Share story

The Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie is a beloved hiking destination, for its proximity to Seattle and its beauty, pretty as anything that takes hours in a car to reach.

It boasts soaring views of Russian Butte and the green slide of the Pratt and Snoqualmie rivers twining through miles of forest.

And now this treat is about to get even better.

More than 10 years in the planning, the Middle Fork is about to get a major makeover, including a nearly $25 million paving project to smooth the access road. Today the Southeast Middle Fork Road is a horror show of potholes and blowing dust in the summer, and a mud wallow in the winter. The nearly 10-mile paving project is expected to begin in the summer of 2013 and will make getting to miles of trails easier than ever, perhaps as soon as the fall of 2015.

During the paving project, the road will be closed during the week while the work goes on, but open for recreation access on the weekends.

Also in the works is a completely new trail to Mailbox Peak. This iconic, growling beast of a trail climbs more than 4,000 feet in about two miles, yet is popular with hikers getting in early-season training workouts and others wanting to push their limits.

The nearly vertical billy-goat trail is so precipitous and gnarly it’s been a routine dispatch for King County Search and Rescue teams going to the aide of lost or injured hikers — with nine rescues between August 2007 and February 2010 alone.

“It’s been a problem for years; we didn’t want to close it, but people get into trouble, they don’t know how hard it is,” said Kelly Heintz, natural-areas manager for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Puget Sound Region.

You name it, they’ve done it: gotten lost in the infamous “Sucker Gulch,” a talus patch so-named for its lure to hikers watching their feet on the rolling rocks and roots, then losing the trail. Or hiking without adequate flashlights and getting lost in the dark, brushy trail with its many cliffs. One rescue involved a party of four with one penlight among them.

The DNR has posted the entrance to the trail with multiple warning signs, including this plea to the unwary: “KNOW YOUR LIMITS,” and has marked the trail with a system of reflective diamonds. But people being people, it seemed the best course of action was to provide hikers with a safer alternative.

The solution got under way last week, as trail crews broke ground on a five-mile alternative trail to the same sweeping views at the top, but with a safer and gentler grade. The old trail will still be open for those who insist, but for those seeking a more reasonable hike, the new trail will open by the fall of 2013.

The popular destination also will finally get the basics it needs, including a new trailhead, parking in two areas, vault toilets and signage. The improvements will put an end to the haphazard parking on private land, with 70 and more drivers on a weekend trying to find a spot to leave their vehicle by the side of the road.

An old logging road in the Granite Creek Basin also is being decommissioned and converted to a hiking trail, adding more than six miles of improved hiking opportunity by this fall.

Mark Boyar, of Seattle, said he has been coming to the Middle Fork since the Mailbox Peak trail was marked with just a toothbrush. He’s known to some as the Man of the Middle Fork for his years of devotion to rehabilitating a place once best known for illegal target shooting, trash dumping and meth labs.

The renaissance of the Middle Fork is one of the most dramatic turnarounds for a landscape in the Puget Sound region.

Today fly fishermen, families, kayakers and hikers flock here for three-season recreation that is only going to get better with the new amenities, right in the heart of the Mountains to Sound Greenway, just minutes off Interstate 90 but seemingly a world away.

The alternative trail to Mailbox Peak will help serve a need that only continues to grow for day hikes in the Seattle region. “This will provide access for not just the fit or the crazy,” Boyar said.

Paving the road also will attract people who don’t want to beat their car up just to get in some hiking — as well as help improve fish habitat and water quality in the basin. Today sediment and gravel sluices into the river every winter, and the road boils with dust all summer. Culverts in the road will be replaced, restoring passage for native cutthroat trout to upper reaches of the watershed.

It took years of work to scrape together the money for the projects, including $550,000 for the trail construction, from a variety of state and federal sources as well as the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust.

Greenway staff, board members, including Boyar, and volunteers helped lead the planning effort for the improvements beginning back in 1995.

The recreation renaissance under way in the Middle Fork is the product of the sustained work of many hands at county, state and federal agencies, partnering with conservation and recreation groups.

As he hiked to a beloved Mid-Fork lookout spot Wednesday, Boyar was following a map inscribed deep in his DNA after years of hiking here. He looked over the sweeping landscape, a sense of satisfaction plain on his face.

“It’s the work of so many people over so long,” Boyar said, scanning the vista toward Mailbox Peak, soon to be in reach for so many more hikers. “It just feels great.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.