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Little St. Helens Summit

Our Hiking Time: 3h 45m
Total Ascent: 1200ft
Highest Point: 4500ft
Total Distance: 7.5 miles
Location: N 47° 22.2540, W 121° 32.1000
Required Permit: Northwest Forest Pass
Difficulty: Easy

Nathan's PhotoWe’ve spent a lot of time exploring the peaks and valleys that line the I-90 corridor. We’ve managed to hit most of the trails between Seattle and Snoqualmie Pass over the last few years, but there are quite a few destinations still to explore. Recently we trekked up to the top of Little St. Helens, a nondescript ridge tucked between Mount Gardner and Humpback Mountain.

For a variety of reasons, Little St. Helens does not see many hikers, and as a consequence there’s not much written about this overlooked highpoint. As to the name, we assume that like nearby Humpback Mountain, the ridge reminded folks of Mount St. Helens, though we had trouble seeing the resemblance. Few guidebooks mention this route -- the only one we know of is Dallas Kloke’s out of print Winter Climbs: One Day Ascents in the Western Cascades. If you have a little more information or background on this hike, we’d love to hear about it!

The route begins at the Hansen Creek Trailhead and follows a series of logging roads up to the summit. From the gravel pit, head west past the gate through sparse stands of young fir and hemlock. In a little under a mile, after walking up a long switchback you’ll reach a four-way intersection. Head right and uphill onto the flanks of Little St. Helens. As you continue, the trees increasingly give way to talus fields offering views of Humpback Mountain and the Snoqualmie Valley. Before long, the road wraps around the front of the ridge and soon delivers you to the nearly treeless summit. From here you can easily pick out Mt. Defiance, Bandera Mountain and Granite Mountain to the north. Humpback Mountain is directly to the east with Silver Peak rising in the distance. On a good day, Mt. Rainier looms large to the south. Mount Gardner lies to the west along with McClellan Butte’s sharply pointed peak.

Although the hike is not far out of the way, it sees very little traffic. For the most part, folks visiting Little St. Helens are zealous peak baggers, adventuresome mountain bikers and the occasional snowshoer looking for something a little different. The hike does feel a bit like a walk through a tree farm rather than a forest, and that probably makes it a little less appealing than many nearby hikes. Yet it is still able to offer some of the same panoramic views with a relative ease. If you’re looking for a new hike and want to beat the crowds, Little St. Helens is a great alternative. It might also be a good choice for relatively new hikers, as the road grade is fairly gentle and should not pose too much of a challenge.

To get there, take Exit 47 off I-90 and take a right over the bridge. At the intersection, turn right onto Tinkham Road (aka Forest Road 55). Continue for roughly a mile to a fork and veer left onto the Hansen Creek Road (aka Forest Road 5510). Follow the road for roughly four miles under the old railroad trestle and up two switchbacks to a former gravel pit that serves as the trailhead parking lot. -Nathan

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Little St. Helens

Wilderness Peak Loop - Cougar Mountain

Our Hiking Time: 2h
Total Ascent: 1200ft
Highest Point: 1600ft
Total Distance: 3.5 miles
Location: N 47° 31.1880, W 122° 5.6100
Required Permit: None
Difficulty: Moderate

Nathan's PhotoAlthough we’ve explored much of Cougar Mountain, we’d yet to climb its highest peak and tour the somewhat lesser-traveled south-eastern portion of the park. A few weeks ago we finally found some time to head back into the Issaquah Alps and head up Wilderness Peak for a short hike a little closer to home.

wilderness peak cougar mountain hikingwithmybrotherWe’ve covered much of Cougar Mountain’s past on previous hikes. From the early coal mining days to the area’s more recent military history, the nearly 30-year-old park contains and preserves a rich cultural legacy. However, Wilderness Peak is conspicuously absent from this saga. Our only guess is that this section of forest really was something of a wilderness at one time – at least compared to the nearby coal mining operations. Wilderness Peak is made of different rock than other portions of Cougar Mountain, so there was little to lure the miners away from the rich coal seams that ran below the peak. And while some portions of the park were logged in the 1920s and 1940s, other sections were never logged at all, including areas near the top of Wilderness Peak.

The trail begins at the Wilderness Peak Trailhead, and combines the Wilderness Creek, Wilderness Peak, and Wilderness Cliffs trails into a short loop through Cougar’s lush mixed forest. Begin by heading uphill and almost immediately crossing Wilderness Creek, which will be your companion for the next mile or so. Gently switchback through a sea of sword fern and salal for about a half-mile under a canopy of alder and maple to find the first junction. Here, a small bridge crosses the creek and the Wilderness Creek Trail continues to the left while Wilderness Cliffs Trail branches right. Either trail will get you to the top, but because the Cliffs Trail is significantly steeper, most folks head left onto the Wilderness Peak Trail.

wilderness peak cougar mountain hikingwithmybrotherAs you head left, you’ll pass through The Boulders, a collection of moss-covered glacial erratics deposited millennia ago by retreating glaciers. As you climb up the creek valley, more and more surfaces are covered with moss and fern. At the same time the forest increasingly yields to larger numbers of cedar and fir. Soon you’ll find yourself crossing boggy areas on narrow boardwalks before climbing out of the creek valley up to Shy Bear Pass where a number of trails intersect and connect up with the rest of the Cougar Mountain trail system. From here you can follow the Shy Bear Trail into the center of the park, or take a quick jaunt out to Long View Peak. While the area is well-signed, if you're looking to do a little extra roaming, you may want to take along a map.

We veered to the right onto Wilderness Peak Trail, which glides fairly easily to your destination. A short spur leads out to Cougar’s highest pinnacle. There are no views here, just the quiet of heavy forest, a sturdy bench and a summit register. Take a moment to write a little something in the register, then head back to the main trail and take the Wilderness Cliffs Trail down to complete the loop. One word of caution as you near the bottom: there is a very tempting trail junction that continues downhill. Resist the urge to follow it and head back to the Wilderness Creek Trail and the creek crossing.

wilderness peak cougar mountain hikingwithmybrother
This is a great hike for an afternoon or post-work tromp through the forest. While not incredibly steep, it is a little bit of a work out through Cougar’s varied landscapes – everything from bogs to old growth. This loop is also hiker exclusive, so you’re unlikely to encounter any horses, which may be important to some dog owners. What this hike lacks in views it makes up for in landscape and solitude, as you can expect a little less traffic in this section of the park. If you haven’t made it out to this end of Cougar Mountain yet, consider a trek up to Wilderness Peak in the coming weeks.

To get there, take I-90 to Exit 15 and head right onto Highway 900, also known as Renton-Issaquah Road. Continue for a little over three miles to the signed Cougar Mountain Wilderness Creek Trailhead on your right. The driveway is easy to miss – keep an eye out for a paved road heading uphill. Park in the small parking lot and head up. -Nathan

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Wilderness Peak
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