Exhaust Yourself

Love Letters: Seattle's Gnarliest Hiking Trail Is Punishing and Beautiful

The Cable Line Trail in Issaquah is basically a Stairmaster that smells like the forest.

By Allison Williams May 2, 2023

How can you tell a trail is truly beloved? Maybe because the folks that hike it can't talk about it without profanity. To keep it PG, we'll say its unofficial name is "Effing Cable Line."

That's because it's just 1.5 miles one way, but 2,000 feet of elevation gain on Issaquah's Tiger Mountain. Notoriously muddy. A thick metal power cable digs into the vertical route, breaching in and out of the dirt on its way to the communication towers on Tiger's summit. On a mountain with miles of more mellow hiking and biking trails, why is Cable Line strangely beloved? It turns out the suffering is the point.

Though busy year-round, Cable Line blossoms with activity in the spring. Suddenly every hiker and climber in the Seattle area remembers that they need to get in shape for big summer goals, and this trail's punishing ascent is basically a Stairmaster that smells like the forest. Trail runners in sleek sneakers and aerodynamic hydration packs lap it twice or more in a row, while Rainier-bound mountaineers trudge up with big packs and heavy boots, trying to break in gear before an upcoming trip. Only the dogs ever seem to be having pure fun, leaping from either side of the cable trough dug into the mud.

Cable Line is the only trail I might do twice in one week, the only one where I time myself from the start at the High Point Trailhead. I aim for just under an hour, but the fastest known time is 22 minutes and 22 seconds, less than the length of a Friends episode, and as a treat for my knees I often switch to the West Tiger 3 trail on the way down for a gentle, lengthy descent. When it rains, hiking the Effing Cable Line resembles scampering up a muddy Splash Mountain ride backwards, and my quadriceps usually ache the next day. I almost always run into someone I know.

Logging cleared the views atop Tiger Mountain, near where the Cable Line trail tops out.

When Harvey Manning dubbed this area the Issaquah Alps in the 1960s, the name was tongue-in-cheek for sure—these are mere foothills—but not mocking. The trio of Cougar, Squak, and Tiger Mountains offer a surprising array of forested escape considering they sit within spitting distance of I-5, and are home to cougars, bobcat, and elk. Bears are not an uncommon sight, hikers alerting each other of sightings as they pass among the spiderweb of trails. Back in Manning's day, trails advocate Ruth Ittner negotiated that route network with timber company Weyerhaeuser. Sure, it doesn't have the alpine meadows, stunning glaciers, or jagged peaks of the mid-Cascades—but on the other hand the High Point Trailhead is close enough for a post-work hike.

Now managed by the Department of Natural Resources, Tiger Mountain was the site of coal mining in the nineteenth century and still has active logging. On the opposite side of Tiger, Poo Poo Point trail, a launch spot for paragliders, is named for the sound steam trains made while carrying timber. Tiger, for all its wildness, does not exist outside of Washington's urban settlement and industry, but rather reflects every facet.

Which leads to Cable Line's recent reinvention. For years the trail ended in a circle of trees on the West Tiger 3 summit, elevation gained but with no reward. But the spot got a major haircut in 2021 when Weyerhaeuser cut 90 acres of second-growth timber on the top, revealing a panorama that reaches from the Seattle skyline in the west to the Cascade peaks in the east. Now after huffing up Cable Line, hikers emerge into a wide-open vista.

The West Tiger 3 trail, pictured, offers a more leisurely route down the mountain.

In truth? At first it was a true bummer. The shorn landscape, which reaches toward Tiger's other summits and communication towers, jars any outdoors person who prefers trees to stumps. With the so-called "working forests" so separated from Washington's recreational acreage, hikers around Seattle aren't used to seeing logging where they play.

But in the two years since Tiger got its new look, I've come to appreciate the window into Washington's forests as a whole, and into the industry that largely inspired white settlement and growth here. In harvesting the timber, Weyerhaeuser couldn't simply scrape and run; in the manner of today's land management, representatives from groups like Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust and the Issaquah Alps Trails Club were consulted in how to preserve recreational access after the harvest. 

Oh, and after sweating up 2,000 steep, slippery, rocky feet, the view is spectacular.

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