Trail Tales

Mailbox Peak Is Seattle's Quirkiest Hike

You’ve got mail: One of the hardest trails on the I-90 corridor also holds the weirdest summit treat.

By Taylor McKenzie Gerlach September 16, 2022

Hikers leave and take treats from the mailbox on top of Mailbox Peak.

Just outside North Bend, a steep, unforgiving trail tempts hikers and aspiring mountaineers—and rewards them with a surprise at the top. The route winds through a dense forest before depositing huffing-and-puffing travelers in an ankle-testing boulder field on Mailbox Peak. The challenging day hike is a Seattle-area favorite, a training ground for peaks like Mount Rainier, and subject of local backcountry legend.

A 45-minute drive east on I-90 from downtown Seattle leads to a parking lot just north of North Bend. The trailhead closest to the parking area switchbacks five miles up and down each way. The other, a second route, greets hikers with a foreboding trailhead post: “Please consider if you can do this hike. Search and rescue teams are frequently called to this trail to assist distressed hikers.”

The warnings on this famed Old Trail come courtesy of the uncharacteristically steep grade. Hikers can easily be fooled. Two-and-a-half miles to the top? No big deal. But those same 2.5 miles with 4,000 feet of elevation gain is no joke. To aid humans trekking up—and the fragile environment—a longer, more moderate trail was constructed next door to the original in 2014. Officially, this modern route is known as the Mailbox Peak Trail. To those still enthralled by its predecessor, this more moderate, switchbacking option is dubbed the New Trail.

The infamous boulder field does have a trail to follow.

Most hiking trails sport a 10 percent grade, meaning they climb 10 vertical feet for every 100 horizontal feet traversed. But Mailbox Peak’s Old Trail has sections with a 60 percent grade, almost twice as steep as the average household staircase. Stairmaster training won’t cut it; Washington Trails Association’s Anna Roth describes sections of the Old Trail as full-on scaling tree roots.

It’s almost unheard of to have a popular trail this steep. That’s partly because it was never meant to be a well-trafficked destination. Department of Natural Resource (DNR) records cement local legend: The idiosyncratic locale was birthed on Fourth of July weekend in 1960 when Seattle postman Carl Heine lugged a mailbox to the rocky peak. He challenged youth at the nearby Lutheran Valley Camp to summit and sign the register tucked inside the mailbox as proof of their success. The Old Trail is a product of their footsteps as they picked the most direct path upward—far from the careful planning around drainage and erosion logistics that go into trail creation today.

Both routes remain open to hikers, and both weave through the forest with far-off streams babbling below. Friendly vandalism graces the white diamond trail blazes of the Old Trail: “Keep on coming” one encourages. Six-tenths of a mile from the summit, the routes merge to wind through a jagged boulder field with impressive Cascade views just below the perched mailbox.

In summer, hearty bear grass flowers line the path; fall and winter bring a blanket of snow to the route. The summit boasts a mountains-to-Sound panorama—Rainier, Glacier Peak, the Olympics, even the Space Needle on a lucky clear day.

Even for an experienced endurance athlete with Ironman races under their belt, Mailbox Peak loomed large in Brad Hefta-Gaub’s mind. The trail held an air of intimidation 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 made it up in decent time, and there really was a mailbox up there. His newest tradition is an annual trek up to catch the last sunset of the year each New Year’s Eve.

Maybe it’s the incline-induced exhaustion, but people get weird at the top. Leave No Trace principles seemingly disappear into thin air, as the mailbox is stuffed with items left by hikers: beers, energy drinks, notes to passed loved ones, stickers, stuffed animals. For a while, a copy of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham lived at the summit. Some take it to a new level, hauling up challenging loads like a fire hydrant, Olympian newspaper box, rowing machine, or LimeBike. DNR, the agency charged with maintaining the trail, merely asks hikers to enjoy the route up and down with those unwieldy items. In other words, pack that crazy back out.

Maintenance of the mailbox is a collective effort, often led by good samaritan hikers who pack out excessive trinkets or replace the whole receptacle from time to time. DNR estimates there have been 15 different mailboxes throughout the years, including the brief residency of a wacky orca-shaped “Whalebox.”

The Mailbox Peak "Whalebox" only lasted a few days.

While DNR oversees trail maintenance with partners like WTA, which has been out to improve the area over 50 times since 2008, there is no designated keeper of the mailbox. Even Hefta-Gaub has lugged a retired mailbox down himself. 

Since his first ascent of the peak, the trail has held a special space in Hefta-Gaub’s routine—and his training regime for other Cascade peaks. Like many obsessed with the trail’s challenge, he returns week after week despite the quad burn. He’s rarely alone. Mountaineers trudge up the Old Trail with 80-liter packs training for objectives near (Rainer) and far (Everest). Trail runners scurry up both routes attempting to set a new personal fastest time, while casual day hikers explore the landscape of the New Trail with dogs in tow.

“Whenever I go out there, I guarantee I will run into one or two people that I already see regularly out there,” Hefta-Gaub says of the community.

In 2018, a group of regulars even created a party to suffer on the incline together. The goal: do as many repeats as possible, maybe even “Everest” the trail, or climb Old Trail repeats until reaching the nearly 29,000 feet of vertical gain found on the world’s tallest peak.

Ero Moldovan supersized his workout in 2021 when he hauled his rowing machine to the top, did a few reps, and then carried it all the way back down.

Image: Ero Moldovan

Hefta-Gaub's friends came up with an idea. “If someone Everests, we will give them a pineapple,” he remembers, “I think they maybe had a dozen.” Fueled by Twinkies and a rotation of friends who ran laps with him, the 49-year-old walked away with a pineapple that fall day. He celebrated with a parking lot nap after finishing the challenge at 1am.

“What more celebration would you want?” he marveled. “I just like to get out and experience nature and pick crazy ideas that sound challenging and then go do them.”

Seven-plus laps on the Old Trail is crazy—and challenging. But so is just one lap. Hefta-Gaub is also a search and rescue volunteer, and he’s responded to distress calls on both trails covering “all kinds of things.” Twisted ankles, hikers lost upon nightfall, and heat exhaustion are common woes, and he has even rescued overextended pets that couldn’t make it down. It’s easy for hikers to get in over their heads; the top is only halfway through the journey, after all, and coming down is the crux of the trail, where knees and ankles give way.

But for all the trail demands, it remains a Seattle favorite and rite of passage. With the proper preparation, gear, and outlook, the mailbox is within reach for even casual hikers. And the unforgiving route gives Seattleites a proper excuse to grumble—or truly earn impressive views and earn a little surprise.

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