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Originally published June 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 26, 2008 at 1:25 PM

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Mailbox Peak: Aptly named, great views, but the climb is no speedy delivery

In a boulder field just below the summit of Mailbox Peak, a chatty pika babbles away, seeking attention from any and all. Its urgent tone reminds...

Special to The Seattle Times

If you go

Hauling the mail

Where

For the Mailbox Peak Trail, take Interstate 90 east to Exit 34 just past North Bend. Turn left onto 468th Avenue Southeast. In about 0.8 of a mile, turn right onto Middle Fork Road. (Also known as Forest Road 56.) Follow it for 2.6 miles to the obvious roadside parking areas on both sides of the road. (Don't worry when Middle Fork Road splits on the way, the branches meet up just before the parking areas.)

The hike

6 miles round-trip. Elevation gain: 3,900 feet. High point: 4,841 feet. Map: Green Trails Mount Si NRCA 206S.

The trail

From the parking area on the right (south) side of Middle Fork Road, follow the gated gravel road, gently climbing for about a half-mile. At the obvious (and new) trailhead kiosk warning you of what you've signed up for, go left and head into the forest. After a short stretch of yet more gentle meandering, now in second-growth forest, the trail takes a turn to the left and begins its relentless slog to the top. Most of it is forested and dark (views do begin to open closer to the summit).

The trail often braids, so, though your tendency might be to watch your shoe tops and wonder what you got yourself into, keep looking up for white, diamond-shaped blazes that mark the way. The last 500 feet is straight-up, open meadow offering spectacular views. At 3 miles, reach the top. Grab a bite to eat and check the mail.

Trekking poles are recommended for the descent, to take some of the pounding off your knees and quads.

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EAST OF NORTH BEND — In a boulder field just below the summit of Mailbox Peak, a chatty pika babbles away, seeking attention from any and all. Its urgent tone reminds me of one of those late-night infomercial hucksters who begs you to buy his dubious cleaning products at what he claims are unbelievable prices.

Perched on a rock against a chowdery backdrop of thick fog with visibility not much more than 100 feet, this hamster-sized critter with the jumbo-sized ears just won't let up.

Seattle's Lace Thornberg, who's joined me on this primitive, gravity-defying trail 35 miles east of Seattle, has a different take on this pika's soliloquy.

"He's telling everyone, 'Gather 'round, there'll soon be snacks,' " says Thornberg, who is development director for Seattle-based Washington Trails Association (WTA).

Snacks, because experience has likely taught this pika that when hikers like us make it to the top of what is the steepest hike around — 3,900 feet of climbing in 2.5 miles (compare that to Mount Si's 3,400 feet in 4 miles) — the first thing they do is bust out the feed bag. And that, more than likely, a bit of our grub will fall from our packs or be left unattended for a moment on a rock. Quick then, like the member of the rabbit family he is, this pika or one of its friends will make away with it.

Then again, maybe this pika is entreating us to check its mail; we are, after all, heading up to Mailbox Peak. And unlike Tiger Mountain, which has no tigers at the top, or Rattlesnake Mountain, which boasts no rattlesnakes at its summit, Mailbox Peak does have a mailbox on top.

Mailbox replaced

No one seems to know the origin or significance of the peak's mailbox, only that for decades now there's been one planted at the summit. (When I was last there, four years ago, there was also a fire hydrant, Olympian newspaper box, a ladder and a flagpole.) The name Mailbox Peak first started showing up in the early 1990s in trip reports in Signpost, WTA's hiking magazine. Originally something to hold the summit register, the box eventually became stuffed with everything from Dr. Seuss books to brewskies to just about every tchotchke and knickknack imaginable.

Last fall, the mailbox went missing for a time, but it wasn't long before someone schlepped a new one up to the top. On the fogged-in day a couple of weeks ago when Thornberg and I were there, we found a shiny new black mailbox; its contents included a summit register, a letterbox, a small container of Juniper conditioning shampoo (always handy on a strenuous hike), as well as a ceramic turtle and rhino.

"Aw, this is sweet," says Thornberg, upon reading a handwritten letter in which the writer hopes to meet that special someone: "Please send me my love. Someone to share life with who is healthy, smart, attractive, wonderful ... "

We're talking steep

Mailbox Peak is famous, or perhaps more accurately, infamous, for more than its mailbox. Along with killer views — on clear days you're treated to a 360-degree mountains-to-Sound panorama, everything from Rainier and Glacier Peak to the Olympics to downtown Seattle — it's known also for killing hikers' quads. And knees. And ankles. And hips. And whatever joint, muscle or tendon comes to mind. Mailbox Peak is tough.

Along with being crazy steep — 40- and 60-percent grades in spots — the Mailbox Peak trail is crazy primitive. Hikers clamber up and over rocks and roots, maneuver through boulder fields and, because the trail has just kind of evolved over the years with no regard for proper drainage, slosh through tons of muck and mud.

"Some sections are so steep and rutted that they are a safety risk to people using the trail," says WTA's Alan Mortimer.

And not just hikers either. As Mailbox Peak has become more popular in recent years, particularly as a training hike for people planning to climb Mount Rainier or hike the Pacific Crest Trail, the increased traffic has led to an increase in search-and-rescue calls when hikers become lost or hurt.

"If people think it's hard getting up and down the trail on their own, imagine trying to transport a litter with an injured hiker down the mountain," Mortimer says.

To that end, a couple of months ago, crews from the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and WTA spent eight days giving Mailbox Peak some TLC. Lower down, they built switchbacks so the trail bypasses a section that had become badly eroded and rutted. Higher up, they rerouted a particularly steep stretch lessening the grade from 60 percent to about 25.

"To give you some perspective, a well laid-out hiking trail should be between 10 and 15 percent," Mortimer says. "The rerouted sections that we worked on still average 20 to 25 percent."

"Respect your own ability"

The new trail work is mostly imperceptible, but that's kind of the idea. On our hike, all Thornberg and I noticed was that for a couple of stretches, the trail suddenly seemed humane again: the trail surface firmer, the drainage better, the mud and muck far less muddy and mucky. Granted, the vast majority of the trail remains unchanged, but it's a start.

"The idea isn't to make the trail easier, but just more equipped to handle the heavy traffic the trail receives," Thornberg told me. "The long-term plan is to eventually build a trail on the back side of the mountain that would be more moderate."

DNR, which owns the land, is in the process of trying to come up with financing for that more moderate trail. It wouldn't replace the original trail, but just take some of the pressure — in the form of countless boot tracks and trekking-pole pokes — off it.

Along with the recent trail work, a new sign at the bottom of the trail where it enters the woods warns hikers about what they're getting into. It put me a little in mind of Dante's "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here."

Says the sign: "Mailbox Peak Trail is a very steep, wet, unmaintained, difficult, challenging trail ... Search and rescue teams are frequently called to this trail to assist distressed hikers. Please respect your own ability."

That just about says it all.

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of "Day Hike! Central Cascades" and "Day Hike! North Cascades" (Sasquatch Books). He can be reached at mikemcquaide@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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