The Western Issaquah Alps Piece
In this lengthy post, I plan to briefly overview the trails in the western Issaquah Alps, which I consider to be the Newcastle Open Space, Cougar Mountain, Squak Mountain, and Tiger Mountain. I would love to include Si, Teneriffe, Mailbox and the other mountains further east but the quality of my beta decreases the further east my words travel. In part one, I will describe the trails, provide some maps and a history of the area. In part two I will provide some anecdotes in regards to some of my favorite loops as well as some of my favorite adventures in the western Issaquah Alps.
Part One: The Trails
Newcastle Open Space Runs
Living at Walkers Run is a perfect central location to several trail running options. The complex is situated in a triangle that is bordered with Newcastle Golf Club Road, Coal Creek Parkway, and Newport Way.
1.) Newcastle Golf Club Road
- Northeast toward the YMCA provides access to both the Coal Creek trail and the Golf Course trail.
- Coal Creek Trail is a connector trail that is roughly 3 miles long. The trail meanders along Coal Creek, and features a few offshoots to various waterfalls and old mining remnants. Although the trail is mostly at the base of a steep narrow ravine, it does have some undulation, particularly with trails leading out of the ravine. There are several wooden bridges and even an under road tunnel that make this trail quite an engineering feat. Although the trail is bookended with houses and the bustling Coal Creek Parkway, I have managed to find an illusion peace in the narrow swath due to its heavy tree cover. Apryle and I have even spotted a Bobcat in this important wildlife corridor. The trail connects Redtown trailhead at Cougar Mountain to 119th. From 119th there is a paved trail which leads either south to Newcastle Beach or north to Mercer Slough.
- Golf Course trail is a connector trail that skirts along the northern border of Newcastle Golf Club. This is a wide trail that starts on the opposing side of the YMCA and terminates at the entrance to Newcastle Golf Club. Unfortunately after the terminus, there is a dangerous stretch of road running to get to Redtown Trailhead.
2.) Coal Creek Parkway
- South toward Beit Tikvah, making an eastward turn up the hill toward the synagogue provides two options to reach the De Leo section of Cougar Mountain.
- Crosstown Trail is a broken connection trail that traverses Newcastle. This particular stretch of trail was newly blazed and switchbacks up a steep incline toward De Leo Wall. The trail is heavily wooded and well constructed with a smooth grade into Cougar Mountain Park.I actually had a chance to do some trail work on this section this summer!
- Terrace Trail is accessed from a secluded rural road (144th SE) that cuts through large parcels of private land in route to the inconspicuous trail entrance. This trail is only .6 miles but gains about 600ft and starts with a wooden staircase before mellowing into a runnable switchbacking grade. This stretch of trail offers some of the thickest forest that Newcastle open spaces have to offer.
iii. The Crosstown and Terrace trail combine and funnel into Cougar Mountain where there is a fork, a left turn leads to De Leo Wall (Marshall Hill) summit and the right fork cuts along a narrow ridge offering views of Lake Washington and Mount Rainier, eventually leading to a narrow steep trail to the De Leo Wall summit.
- South toward Lake Boren, there is a paved trail that leads into the Lake Boren Park. Once in Lake Boren park there are some Boring paved loops but to the west, there is an opening to the Pipeline Trail.
- Pipeline Trail is a flat trail that is bookended by houses and it crosses several roads in a north/south direction.
In a northbound direction from Lake Boren there are two options:
- Westward past the cemetery which splits with two options; the Olympus Trail which simply follows the power lines and reconnects with the Pipeline and the Crosstown Trail which weaves through neighborhoods to Hazelwood.
- Continuing northward to the heavily wooded 60th Street Trail which sharply descends down to the Coal Creek Trail.
In the southbound direction there are two more options:
- May Creek Trail to Windtree Neighborhood; which requires a right turn that follows an old railroad path. This trail is heavily wooded with a steep ravine to the south where May Creek flows silently below. There is a short offshoot down to the creek and the trail finishes in a cul-de-sac after a long flight of wooden stairs.
- May Creek Left Fork; which requires a left turn and a jog past the old mail truck. Then this half mile stretch switches back down to May Creek and back up to a retention pond off of Coal Creek Parkway. This short path features some stonework on the trail as well as a wooden bridge. From here a cross of Coal Creek Parkway opens up into a suburb loop called the Highlands Trail.
iii. Highlands Trail is accessible from Coal Creek Parkway off of the Left Fork of the May Creek trail. This trail loops around neighborhoods and around retention ponds. However, the best option is following this trail to the start of the Terrace Trail. After tracing a path past several backyards there is a steep ravine to run down and back up before turning left at retention pond and then popping out on the paved road where Terrace Trail begins.
Although this is not a exhaustive list of trails in Newcastle open spaces, these are my favorites and the ones that I frequently use as a means to enter Cougar Mountain Park or just enjoy the small corridors that pack a big punch of nature and trail running enjoyment.
Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park is a 3,115 acre park that was established in June 1983. There are four major trailheads and several smaller entrances: Jim Whittaker Wilderness Peak Trailhead on SR 900, which is located in the southeastern side of park. Sky Country Trailhead located in the north central portion of the park. Redtown Trailhead, which is located on the northwestern corner of the park. Harvey Manning Trailhead which is located at the Northeast corner of the park. In addition to these trailheads, there is also an entrance to the Marshall Hill section (southwestern) via the East Crosstown Trail. A northeastern entrance from the Big Tree Ridge Trailhead. An eastern entrance from the Bear Ridge Trail through the Talus Open Space from SR 900. Another southeastern entrance via the Squak Mountain Connector Trail which joins the Whittaker Wilderness trail. Finally a southern entrance from 169th Avenue SE via the Licorice Fern Trail.
I recognize four major prominences that can be legally accessed in the park, Wilderness Peak (1,595ft), Longview Peak (1,445ft), Antiaircraft (Cougar Proper) Peak (1,480ft), and Marshall Hill (De Leo Wall) (1,120ft).
In my mind the park is divided into six different regions based on my observations of the landscape.
1.) The first region is the De Leo Corridor in the southwest. This is one of my favorite landscapes in the Issy Alps due to the steep terrain and dense second growth conifer forest. I typically enter this area from the East Crosstown Trail or the Wildside Trail and consider the eastern border to be the Long Marsh Creek which the Indian Trail flanks. De Leo Corridor contains a viewpoint, narrow cliffside trails, wider densely forested trails and a few small creek crossings.
2.) Far Country Corridor is the second region which encompasses the south central park. This area is highlighted by Far Country Falls, Doughty Falls, and Far Country Lookout. The trail is well groomed and the tree growth transitions from thick conifer to deciduous maples and alders. The west border is Long Marsh Creek, the north border is Coal Creek and the east border is Cabbage Creek.
3.) Wilderness Corridor is the third region, which includes both Wilderness and Longview Peak. This area includes some of the steepest trail in the park and the highest peaks. The forest is dense and there is little diffuse light along the narrow switchbacks leading to Wilderness Peak.
4.) The fourth region is the Redtown/Sky Country Corridor, which makes up the northwestern corner of the park. This is the most popular section of the park due to the two large parking lots and its proximity to suburbia. This area is highlighted by Coal Creek Falls and remnants of dams as well as sink holes created from the years of coal mining. Some trails in this region are car width and gravel, while others are narrow dirt paths. Much of this region is made up of Deciduous tree growth with thick understory. Coal Creek East Fork defines the southern border and Klondike Marsh and the North Fork of Coal Creek make up the eastern border.
5.) Cougar Proper Corridor is the fifth region that makes up the norheastern corner. This section contains Anti-Aircraft Peak, Klondike Marsh, Tibbets Marsh and the Clay Pit. I most associate this area with the large open field near the Anti Aircraft Peak that has a pavilion and the main park office. I am least familiar with this corridor because it interest me the least. It is accessible by road and there are many man-made structures. This area is accessed via Big Tree Ridge Trailhead or via SE Cougar Mountain Drive. The southern border is Tibet’s Creek and the west border is the North Fork of Coal Creek.
6.) The sixth and final region is the Bear Ridge/Talus Corridor. This once again is a favorite of mine though a less utilized region than De Leo due to its location. The region is flanked to the north by Tibbetts Creek and to the south by Clay Pit Creek. This area appears more secluded to me and contains dense over and understory consisting of cottonwood, maple, alder and young firs. Additionally, I find the Bear Ridge Trail to be one of the more aesthetic trails in the park because it skirts the top of a ravine with a creek cascading below.
Cougar Mountain also connects with Squak Mountain via the Cougar Squak Connection Corridor. This corridor is split by a busy road called SR 900, which leads from 405 into Issaquah. There two exits from Cougar; The Whittaker Trailhead which is closest to the Margaret Trailhead in Squak Mountain Park and the Squak Mountain Connector Trail trail which leads to a small parking lot. From that lot, about 200 meters down the road there is a small inconspicuous entrance to the West Connector Trail of Squak Mountain. These two entrance/exit points for the parks allow for an excellent loop of both locations.
Squak Mountain State Park is a 1545 acre park which was developed in 1972 and has a more rugged feel. Additionally it has steeper trails to its peaks than its western neighbor Cougar Mountain. I am not as familiar with the trailheads to Squak Mountain but there are several: The Margaret Trailhead; complete with a large parking lot, interpretive facility and camping off of SR 900. The Western Access, which is nondescript with large concrete blocks obscuring the entrance off SR 900. Mountainside Drive trailhead to the north. There is also an official State Park entrance with a parking lot on May Valley Road. I recognize two main peaks in Squak – West (1995ft) and Central (2024ft) Squak Peaks. I have not managed to find a route to Southeast Peak (1673ft). In addition to the peaks there are a few viewpoints and the Bullitt Fireplace, a remnant of the Bullitt family’s home. The Bullitt family initially granted 590 acres to form the park and since that point the park has expanded over the years.
I am not as familiar with Squak Mountain State Park as I am Cougar Mountain Park therefore my descriptions of the corridors might be less complete. In my limited time in the park I recognize four regions.
1.) Western Connector Corridor: this region contains both western trailheads, Margaret (gradual switchbacks) and West Access (steep straight path). Both trails ascend through deciduous forest with dense understory and top out at a central plateau with conifer forest and minimal understory.
2.) West and Central Peak Corridor: this section consists of steep trail over thick roots and narrow single track. Additionally this region includes Bullitt Fireplace and the microwave tower on top of Central Squak Peak. The tree cover is more coniferous than deciduous and the understory is minimal around West Peak but grows taller near Central Peak.
3.) South Corridor: this region contains the switchbacking forest service gravel road with single track zigzagging across it. The entrance to this region is off of May Valley Road. The area contains overgrown trails with thick stands of stinging nettle at lower elevations and dense mixed deciduous/coniferous forest at higher elevations.
4.) Eastern Corridor: this section contains narrow switchbacking trail that carves its way through dense forest on its way to Issaquah-Hobart Road. There are a few small trail entrances in the neighborhoods flanking the mountain to the east.
Tiger Mountain State Forest is a 13745 acre park that offers the greatest wilderness experience of the three parks in the area. The Mountain forms a triangle between interstate 90 (north), Issaquah-Hobart Road (southwest) and SR 18 (southeast). The state forest was established in 1981 and is managed by Department of Natural Resources. There are six prominences in the park: West Tiger 1 (2948ft), West Tiger 2 (2757ft), West Tiger 3 (2522ft), East Tiger (3004ft), Middle Tiger (2607ft), and South Tiger (2028ft) Peaks.
There are numerous trailhead options for Tiger Mountain, the largest of the three parks. However, in my time visiting the park I typically accessed it from the Sunset Boulevard Trailhead located just of I-90 Exit 18. Though I have also started from the High Point Trailhead at the I-90 Exit 20 and the SR 18 Entrance.
Being 9000 acres larger than Squak and Cougar combined I am not certain that I have been on every trail in Tiger yet, but I will attempt to subdivide the State Forest into regions based on my observations to this point.
1.) Northeast Corridor: this section encompasses the Sunset Boulevard Trailhead, Highschool Trailhead and Highpoint Trailhead which all converge on an area below the northern flanks of the West Tiger series of peaks. The trails are a webbing of single track and gravel roads that circle lakes, wetlands, and various man made structures.
2.) West Tiger Corridor: this region encompasses the three West Tiger Peaks and all the approach options, both the gradual ascents as well as the steep gnarly section line ascents. From the three peaks there are views of the surrounding valleys and Mount Rainier, however there are gullies between each peak that cut through dense forest.
3.) Central Tiger Corridor: this section contains Poo Poo Point, the hangliding destination with sweeping views of the valleys and neighboring Squak and Cougar Mountains. As well as narrow winding trails carving through an endless sea of towering trees.
4.) East Tiger Corridor: I think of this section as the mountain bikers side of the park. During our 6 summit quest we cruised through this section on high alert for bikers. I recall the understory being stark due to the thick conifer cover above.
5.) South Central Corridor: For me this region is synonymous with the start/finish of the Tiger Mountain 50K. Densely forested narrow switchbacking trails that intersect with gravel forest service roads.
6.) Southwest Tiger Corridor: this is another section that I have minimal exposure to with the exception of the 6 summit quest. If I recall the trail in this area is overgrown, and much of it has been logged in the past leading to thick brush blanketing the ground.
A Brief History of the Newcastle Area
Newcastle is a 4.46 square mile (eastside) town in King County that was not incorporated until 1994. However, the town has been instrumental in the development of the greater Seattle region since the 1870s. Newcastle was one of the earliest coal mine areas in the region and over 13 million tons of coal was extracted and shipped to the Port of Seattle via the railroad link. Newcastle’s rail road link was the first of its kind in King County and its exports allowed the Port of Seattle to grow. Fortunately in 1963 that all stopped and in the early 1980s much of the land was set aside and protected for wildlife and conservation.
Part Two: The Adventures
Each season in the Issaquah Alps has a distinct aura. In the winter most of the higher reaches are blanketed with snow forming a juxtaposition with the regions many evergreen plants. These plants consist of Sword Fern, Licorice Fern, Wood fern, Salal, and Oregon Grape. The deciduous trees; Bigleaf Maples, Vine Maples, Black Cottonwoods, Red Alders are all bare in anticipation of spring. The interspersed conifers; Douglas Fir, Noble Fir, Sitka Spruce, Western Red Cedar, and Western Hemlock provide the canopy. While my favorite tree in the Pacific Northwest; the Pacific Madrone and its tan/red bark stands out among the sea of green ferns and white snow.
On December 31st 2016 Apryle and I loaded the moving truck and the Versa with our belongings and migrated from the small town of Tonasket to the bustling community of Newcastle. We loved the little town in Okanogan county but Apryle needed to be closer to the university and I needed more diverse trail access, therefore we chose an apartment on the doorstep of Cougar Mountain Regional Park.
The year 2017 started off with a snow storm, which we were informed was rare in Newcastle. The snow lingered in the higher reaches of Cougar Mountain for several weeks and intermitted snow showers blanketed the lower ground for the first two months in our new home. The trails were both slippery from ice and soggy from melted snow. This, in addition to the vast network of superficial roots, made for labored running and therefore excellent training.
In the first month of running I was fixed on an out and back route to Wilderness Peak, in fact in the first two months I accumulated 25 trips to the summit. This was a simple 10 mile run from the apartment, down the Coal Creek trail, to the Redtown Trailhead and then up to the peak and back. However, I knew that I needed to branch out and explore the other options to take full advantage of the beautiful place.
Therefore, in late January I met up with Dave Huss and we ran across Cougar Mountain and into the neighboring Squak Mountain State Park. With no disrespect to Cougar Mountain, Squak felt like a true wilderness. Despite the fact that Squak too lies in close proximity to surrounding communities it had a vast and secluded feeling. The amount of snow doubled on the peaks which were still tree covered but nearly 500 feet higher than Cougar.
As time went on I became more and more familiar with Cougar Mountain, in fact I started to feel that Cougar Mountain was not so much my backyard but actually my living room. I could navigate around De Leo Wall trails in the dark better than I could our apartment. The Banana Slugs and Dark Eyed Juncos became my pets, and the Firs and Spruces became my house plants. I ran the trails so frequently that I felt like I was becoming a fixture in the landscape.
With such an ambitious racing schedule planned for the year I began running double long runs on the weekends starting in February. These runs allowed me to further explore Squak Mountain. I discovered routes to loop both Cougar and Squak while also tagging Central and West Squak Peaks. The temperature remained in the 40s and there was a perpetual drizzle that gave the runs a dismal quality despite the surrounding beauty.
Much to my surprise my first run in the biggest of the three parks – Tiger Mountain; did not take place until February 26th. I took the trail up to Poo Poo Point, a popular hangliding destination; and for the same reason an excellent wide open view point of the interlake region. Although I had seen snow all winter, Tiger Mountain had the greatest volume. The trail wound up the hillside switching back on itself frequently while white flakes continued dropping from the sky. The towering firs were weighted down with clumps of snow which occasionally plummeted to Earth. The air had a fresh clean scent and the visibility was reduced to the next switchback ahead of me. I was told that Tiger Mountain trails were steep and there was a lot of vertical feet to be gained and this was certainly true after my first experience there.
After exploring each of the three parks within running distance of the house, I began to develop loops and searched for more aesthetic ways to link up routes. I combined the May Creek trail with Highline and Crosstown trails in order to eliminate road running to get to Cougar Mountain. Apryle and I discovered routes to both Mercer Slough and Newcastle Beach from the Coal Creek Trail and we began making more frequent trips over to Tiger Mountain.
My surroundings began changing in mid April, the perpetual drizzle was letting up and the temperature was warming slightly. The eternal cloud of the winter/spring resulted in a record setting wet season. Between the October 2016 and April 2017, the Seattle area soaked up 44.7 inches of rain. This broke a record dating back to 1895. Due to the wet season and the increasing temperatures many new deciduous plants were breaking through the bare spots in the soil. Some of those were the infamous stinging nettle which reminded me it was there on each run with an itchy stinging rash. In addition to the ground cover engulfing the floor, the ceiling was also turning a lime green hue with the leafing Maples, Alders and Cottonwoods. Maple seeds and Alder catkins began forming and adding some debris to the forest floor and the cottonwood seeds accumulated on ground giving an illusion of wispy snow.
Around this same time I finished fourth at Lake Sonoma and earned a Golden Ticket to Western States. Therefore instead of taking a break from the trails, I further increased my mileage on them. I began running with Michael Havrda in both Cougar and Tiger Mountain. Our spring training block culminated in a first place tie at the Tiger Mountain 50K. This race served as an excellent tune up for WS and as a means to explore Tiger Mountain both on well developed gravel trails and overgrown single track.
It seemed that the last weekend in May, the Tiger Mountain 50K weekend, marked the start of summer weather. After a long, cool, rainy, and dismal winter/spring, the sun was out and the temperature was warming. The final weeks of May and early weeks of June also marked the peak mileage weeks of my training. I utilized Cougar, Squak, and Tiger as much as ever during this time. I began running a 16 mile loop at Cougar Mountain mid week with Christophe Fessengner and Ghislain Devouthon. The loop showcased nearly the entire park and provided a healthy amount of elevation change.
Additionally, Christophe and I completed the Tiger Mountain six summit quest which happened to traverse nearly every quadrant of the park. This 23.5 mile run accumulated 7756 feet of elevation and took us a shade under 5 hours. We started from the High Point Trailhead and summited West Tiger 3, 2, and 1, then we made our way over to East Tiger Mountain, cutting through some rough single track with a little bushwhacking to a more clear trail near the top. We had to dodge some mountain bikers on the descent from East Peak heading over to the anticlimactic Middle Tiger Mountain. From Middle Tiger Mountain we headed southward through some thick brush to South Tiger Mountain, which was a trudge over trail reclaimed by nature. After tagging the sixth and final peak (South Peak), we ran the TMT to get back to the trail head creating a double circle lollipop route.
Most of the other major adventures in the summer months were in the higher mountains and in separate states. Apryle and I spent several weeks in Alaska, Idaho, Montana and California. However, when we were home, we were on the Cougar/Squak/Tiger trails. The summer weather was dry, hot, and smoky. The Seattle area even broke a dry streak record dating back to 1951, with a 56 day stretch without rain. The temperatures soared in July and August reaching into the mid 90s. In addition to the hot and dry temperatures the air quality also suffered as a result of fires burning in British Columbia to the north, in the Columbia valley to the south and the eastern part of the state.
It was a strange time in the year that did not feel very Pacific Northwest. The trails were dusty and dry, and would kick up a cloud of dust when descending a steep hillside. The plants were either wilting or their leaves crisping in the sun and heat. The spiny Cow Parsnip seemed to thrive and grow tall with its large diameter leaves and like the Stinging Nettle, it too liked to remind me that it was there with some stings. I was surprised with how resilient the plants were and even more impressed that the Banana Slugs and amphibians found a solace in this pervasive time. Despite its shortcomings, the heat did well to prepare me for the 100 degree WS 100 and unseasonably warm White River 50 and Rut 50K.
After a record setting wet and dry season, things finally started to mellow out in autumn. The weather became more temperate, some days were rainy and some were sunny, but it seemed more balanced than the rest of the year. The land seemed to soak up the rain and everything once again had that Pacific Northwest glisten to it. The evergreens appeared more vibrant while the Maples, Alders and Cottonwoods began changing colors. The canopy was full of oranges, yellows and reds, not quite as impressive as my home state of Ohio, but still spectacular. On each run the leaves would rain down from the sky and provide a colorful carpeted path.
In addition to the more mild weather, my mileage also became more mellow. With a whirlwind of a racing season I finally cut back the miles and was able to enjoy some easy running in the Issy Alps. This down time has allowed me to reflect on my time in Newcastle.
I am grateful that my wife had the foresight to set up shop in perhaps the best trail running destination in the country. I have no doubt that it was the terrain of Cougar, Squak and Tiger Mountains that allowed me to qualify for Western States 100 and have the best trail running season of my life. But more importantly the beauty and majesty of the area inspired me to hit the trail each and everyday with the same amount of enthusiasm and excitement that I had the first time I started down trail.