Seattle’s recent growth has brought about a big change to the popular hiking trails a short drive from the city: more hikers. One recent study says that Seattle-area hikers have doubled in just 10 years. This growth has created at least two challenges for local trails: parking congestion and access for locals, especially those who choose not to have a car. The new Trailhead Direct public transit service sponsored by King County Parks and Metro’s Community Connections Program, is a great start at solving both.
With funding partners like the Seattle Department of Transportation and REI Co-op, Metro and KC Parks have delivered a weekend and holiday bus service that gets hikers from downtown to trailheads along the I-90 corridor. There are three routes, each one offering bus transportation from a different city location to a trailhead destination. So far, it’s a roaring success. And the price for a ride? The regular Metro rates—$2.75 for adults/$1.50 for youth—and you can use your Orca card.
Planning for alternative transportation options began years ago when Ryan Dotson, King County Parks program manager, began putting feelers out to stakeholders. His main concern was overcrowding at trailhead parking lots, which led to hikers parking further and further away, sometimes illegally and then walking along busy highway stretches, often with children—an obvious safety hazard. He found an eager partner in REI. Joe Impecoven, the Puget Sound outdoor programs and outreach market coordinator for REI, was happy to offer support. “We jumped on board right away. REI’s mission and philosophy is to increase access to and stewardship of the outdoors for all our customers."
A pilot program ran last year from August through mid-October. It drew enough riders (just over 900 boardings) to prove the project met a need. This year, the program launched one route in April, and the number of boardings the first three weekend surpassed that.
On the first day of the Capitol Hill to Mount Si route, Cathy Snow, program manager for Metro Community Connections, arrived early at the Capitol Hill stop to make sure all was in order—and the line of riders waiting for the first bus was already long. The route has been especially popular with people who are carless, she says.
With this service comes responsibility—making sure that urban weekend warriors are up to the challenges of the outdoors. Metro is working with emergency services to provide information to Trailhead Direct riders about what they need to be safe while hiking. “We’re engaging with folks, like King County Search and Rescue. We’re working with them to do our part to spread key tips to these riders to be prepared. Just this week, we posted Rider Alert signs to remind them to take certain safety steps,” says Snow.
Some of the tips they shared: Bring plenty of water. Tell someone where you’re going. Know that cell phone service may be limited. Trailhead Direct drivers have also distributed a brochure created by Eastside Fire and Rescue that includes the “10 Essentials” you need for hiking.
The early numbers from this new service are impressive. On the weekend that the third route was launched, Trailhead Direct had more than 1,000 boardings. So far, it seems the most popular destinations are Poo Poo Point, Mount Si, and Mailbox Peak.
A big benefit for hikers is not having to leave home at the crack of dawn to be sure they’ll find a parking spot at a popular trailhead like Mount Si. “Now people can take a little more time, leave later in the morning and have guaranteed access to a great day outdoors,” says Dotson.
The early success of Trailhead Direct could serve as a model to other municipalities. It’s drawing attention from across the state and country. A recent editorial in the Tacoma News Tribune suggested that Pierce County follow this lead. Whether or not that happens—in Pierce County or elsewhere—is still an open question, but there is no doubt that with this program, King County is opening the outdoors to more people. Now, there’s no excuse not to get outside.