Mailbox Peak. The name alone has hikers all over Washington either shudder or cower in fear. But for MSH training, it had to be done!
Originally, Mailbox Peak was barely above a cattrail, climbing over 4,000 feet in less than three miles. The end of the trail has a mailbox erected there, for reasons unknown. It was a trail pretty much done either to say you’ve done it, or for intense training purposes. Injuries, rescues, and erosion due to increasing popularity led for a new trail to be created with seemingly never-ending switchbacks, spreading the elevation over many miles (WTA says 4.7, my GPS said 5.3 miles). There is tons of debate amongst hikers of what route is best, but consensus for mountain training seemed to be old trail up, and new trail down was best to save your knees. When we set out, we decided on old trail up for sure, with a game-time decision on the route down. We also decided to remove the headache for parking and take Trailhead Direct there. Unlike my experience with the overcrowded shuttle for Dog Mountain, this service appears to be very lightly used, with only two other hikers boarding at the Issaquah Park and Ride. We arrived at the trailhead to tons of ‘lot full’ signs, solidifying we made the right choice (children under 5 ride free, adults with cash or an ORCA card pay $2.75).
For either trail, you go past a gate near the parking lot. The new trail is on your left shortly, marked with signs, but for the old trail continue straight on a flat jaunt for about a third of a mile before you reach more signs on your left. The ominous signs warn you to respect your own abilities and that SAR is frequently called for those unprepared–gulp! The trail quickly begins climbing, winding through trees and switchbacks. We took our first break at 0.75 miles in from the start, and our second at 0.9 miles in, to show you how draining it was. We both had to force ourselves to go slowly when we started after breaks, instead of jumping back in. The first mile was a challenge to say the least.
For the old trail, follow the white reflectors on the trees. For the first mile or so, the trail was straightforward enough, but it still gave some peace of mind to see them every few hundred feet. We’d have brought our poles for the steepness regardless (I HIGHLY recommend poles for this hike, regardless of old or new route), but with rain sprinkling and dew dripping from the trees, I was extra-grateful for the improved traction. We saw one insane trail runner going up, and a few people coming down, but for the most part, the trail was very empty for such a well-known hike near Seattle. While the trail had plenty of loose rocks on it, I didn’t quite have that ‘skating on marbles’ feel some steep hikes can give you.
The steepness continued, but the difficulty rapidly increased, as the trail became less objective and more a trail in theory. We started having to hunt for the white reflectors to guide us, and we went the wrong way a few times. Look at the picture to the left and tell me you think that’s a legitimate trail! We also saw more downward hikers gingerly stepping and sliding even with poles on the wet roots, which solidified in my mind we were doing the new trail down. According to WTA the ‘root ladder’ portion of the trail is about a third of a mile to traverse. However, when you pass that, you will shortly rejoin new trail people in some switchbacks full of stickerbushes.
You soon break out into a gorgeous talus slope. The ‘trail’ here is the lighter-colored rocks. This might be harder to discern if it’s been raining. The boyfriendo had the genius idea here to put our caps back on our poles for increased traction (and longevity of our tips). I was thrilled at the two-mile mark to not have my hip killing me yet, which I proudly announced. This naturally jinxed it, and my hip promptly started screaming. I blame the clouds on this, but I assumed once we wound around the talus slope we’d be there. Not the case. WTA painfully informed me there was a quarter-mile AND 500 more feet to climb before the end.
At this point, my tank was pretty low. My hip hurt, and I was SO frustrated to not be done yet. I came near-tears with frustration over just not being done yet. Also, this quarter-mile is steep, narrow, and full of difficult footing. It was so steep I found it easier to yield to downward hikers and take breaks (note–going down it’s so steep it’s harder to stop than continue, and most people on this part were yielding to the downward hikers).
Finally, FINALLY, we made it to the top and could check the mail. Years of following hiking pages on social media I was so excited for the treasures inside. People had shared the treasures they had found or left for other hikers (including beer and candy). However, I found the thing 85% crammed with mail. Letters, postcards, and notes. I get it’s a mailbox, but I admit I was baffled by that. Who is going to read them? Plus, I wanted some chocolate for my effort! A nut butter-filled Clif bar would have to suffice. I took off my shoes (ahhh) and we gulped down food and mulled over my bad luck to have a third epic mountain view socked in. I rationalized if the view from MSH ended up being clear, it’d be a fair tradeoff.
After gaining over 4,000 feet in 2.6 miles, it was time to stumble back to the shuttlestop. As mentioned, the very steep part at the end went well with ginger barreling down (after ensuring the upward hikers were waving me forward), but the talus field and remainder of familiar trail went well enough, bum hip be damned. Once we left the junction with the old trail though, all was new. The problem with doing different routes was on the way down, several people asked us ‘how longer?’ with us uncertain of an answer. The first time was close enough to the junction, but the poor soul who asked us what felt like hours later just got an “Umm, a lot?” to guide him forward.
As echoed by many, the new trail NEVER ENDS. We just kept going and going, rounding switchbacks. Note I took zero pictures here as it was not worth the effort of snapping a shutter. To pass the time, I kept doing serious mental math, thinking of what WTA said was round-trip for each route, guessing what that amounted to for each leg, and checking my Runkeeper app to see what we had done and guessing what we had left. Also like Dog Mountain, I was fearful of just missing our shuttle by inches. As we rounded what felt like the fortieth switchback, I debated throwing my pack in the woods, sitting down, and refusing to budge, toddler-style.
Mercifully, it came to an end. We rejoined the first trail, and like a horse headed to stable, picked up the pace for the trot to the gate. We limped down the hill to the shuttle stop, and I ripped my shoes off again. The schedule implied we had missed a shuttle by ~5 minutes, but it turns out the shuttle was running just late enough that we caught it after waiting only a couple minutes! We heaved ourselves into the shuttle and I began dreaming of the ice, epsom salts, and pizza delivery I’d already planned for at home. I swore NEVER AGAIN, but it was such an accomplishment and a killer workout, so never say never!
Distance: Really varies depending on route–WTA says 5.4 miles RT for old both ways (my GPS said 2.6 for one leg of this), and 9.4 RT for the new trail both ways (my GPS said 5.3 miles for one leg of this). This should be 7.4 RT if doing old up, new down; but my GPS said 8.0. Many people agree the new trail is longer than WTA has posted.
Elevation: 4000 feet
Parking: Discover Pass if parking in the lot, no pass required if using Trailhead Direct
Bathrooms: Pit toilets at parking lot
Best Beer Bet: No Boat or Snoqualmie Brewing in North Bend