Mailbox Peak is Seattle’s quirkiest hike
Just outside of North Bend, a steep, unforgiving trail tempts budding hikers and climbers and rewards them with a surprise at the top. The route winds through dense forest before dropping breathless travelers into a field of ankle-testing rocks on Mailbox Peak. The challenging day hike is a Seattle-area favorite, a training ground for peaks like Mount Rainier and a subject of local backcountry legend.
A 45 minute drive east on I-90 from downtown Seattle, there is a parking lot just north of North Bend. The trailhead closest to the parking area goes up and down five miles each way. The other, a second route, greets hikers with an ominous trailhead message: “Please consider if you can do this hike. Search and rescue teams are frequently called to this trail to assist hikers in distress.
The caveats on this famous Old Trail are due to the unusually steep grade. Hikers can easily be fooled. Two and a half miles from the top? Not serious. But those same 2.5 miles with 4,000 feet of elevation gain is no joke. To help the humans back up – and the fragile environment – a longer, more moderate trail was built alongside the original in 2014. Officially, this modern route is known as the the Peak Trail mailbox. For those still captivated by its predecessor, this more subdued, moderate option is dubbed the New Trail.
Most hiking trails sport a 10% grade, which means they climb 10 vertical feet for every 100 horizontal feet traversed. But Mailbox Peak’s Old Trail has sections with a 60% grade, almost twice as steep as the average household staircase. Stairmaster training will not be enough; Anna Roth of the Washington Trails Association describes sections of the Old Trail as full-scale tree roots.
It’s almost unheard of to have such a steep popular trail. That’s partly because it was never meant to be a busy destination. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) records a local legend in cement: the idiosyncratic spot originated on the July 4 weekend, 1960, when Seattle postman Carl Heine dragged a mailbox up the rocky peak. He challenged young people from nearby Lutheran Valley Camp to climb to the top and sign the ledger hidden inside the mailbox as proof of their success. The ancient trail is the product of their footsteps as they chose the most direct path uphill, away from the careful planning around drainage and erosion logistics that goes into trail making today. .
Both routes remain open to hikers, and both weave through forest with distant streams babbling below. Friendly vandalism adorns the blazes of the old trail’s white diamond trail: “Keep coming,” the cheering goes. Six-tenths of a mile from the summit, the roads merge to meander through a jagged rock field with impressive views of the waterfall just below the perched mailbox.
In summer, generous beargrass flowers line the path; fall and winter bring a blanket of snow to the course. The summit offers a panorama of the mountains to the sound – Rainier, Glacier Peak, the Olympics and even the Space Needle on a lucky clear day.
Even for an experienced endurance athlete with Ironman races under his belt, Mailbox Peak loomed large in Brad Hefta-Gaub’s mind. The track sounded intimidating for the vice president of product engineering at a local tech company. He was surprised on his first visit to the infamous Old Trail route; he invented it in due time, and there really was a mailbox up there. Its new tradition is an annual hike to catch the last sunset of the year every New Year’s Eve.
Maybe it’s the incline induced exhaustion, but people get weird at the top. The principles of Leave No Trace seem to vanish into thin air, as the mailbox is filled with items left behind by hikers: beers, energy drinks, notes to past relatives, stickers, stuffed animals. For a time, a copy of Dr. Seuss’s Green eggs and ham lived at the top. Some take it to a new level, carrying tough loads like a fire hydrant, Olympian newspaper box, rowing machine or LimeBike. DNR, the agency responsible for maintaining the trail, simply asks hikers to enjoy the route to and Down with those bulky items. In other words, repack that fool.
Mailbox upkeep is a collective effort, often led by good Samaritan hikers who pack excess trinkets or occasionally replace the entire receptacle. The DNR estimates there have been 15 different mailboxes over the years, including the brief residence of a wacky orca-shaped “Whalebox.”
While MNR oversees trail maintenance with partners like WTA, which has improved the area more than 50 times since 2008, there is no designated mailbox keeper. Even Hefta-Gaub dragged a retired mailbox himself.
Since her first summit ascent, the trail has held a special place in Hefta-Gaub’s routine and her training regimen for other Cascade summits. Like many obsessed with the challenge of trail running, he comes back week after week despite the quad burn. He is rarely alone. Mountaineers ascend the Old Trail with 80-litre packs training for near (Rainer) and far (Everest) goals. Trail runners rush both routes in an attempt to set a new personal best time, while casual hikers explore the New Trail landscape with dogs in tow.
“Every time I go there, I guarantee I’ll meet one or two people that I already see regularly there,” Hefta-Gaub says of the community.
In 2018, a group of regulars even created an evening to suffer together on the slope. The goal: Do as many reps as possible, maybe even “Everest” the trail, or climb the Old Trail repeats until you reach the nearly 29,000 feet of elevation gain found on the world’s highest peak.
Hefta-Gaub’s friends had an idea. “If someone visits Everest, we’ll give them a pineapple,” he recalls, “I think he had maybe a dozen.” Fueled by Twinkies and a rotation of friends who have done tricks with him, the 49-year-old walked away with a pineapple on that autumn day. He celebrated with a nap in the parking lot after completing the 1 a.m. challenge.
“What more party would you like?” he wondered. “I just like to get out and experience nature and pick crazy ideas that seem empowering and then go do them.”
More than seven turns on the Old Trail, it’s crazy and difficult. But it’s just a trick. Hefta-Gaub is also a search and rescue volunteer, and he has responded to distress calls on both tracks covering “all sorts of things.” Twisted ankles, lost hikers after dark, and heat exhaustion are common ailments, and he’s even saved overextended pets who couldn’t make it out. It is easy for hikers to get above their heads; the summit is only halfway through the trip, after all, and the descent is the crux of the trail, where knees and ankles give way.
But despite all the demands of the trail, it remains a Seattle favorite and a rite of passage. With the proper preparation, gear, and outlook, the mailbox is within reach for even the occasional hiker. And the unforgiving route gives Seattle locals a good excuse to complain — or really win some awesome views and earn a little surprise.