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Seattle Urban Hike: To Ballard, North Seattle, and Maple Leaf

I woke up at my friend Abigail’s beautiful house near the zoo looking from a well windowed 4th floor apartment out into a rainy, windy, stormy morning. I’ve learned over the years that weather often looks worse when observed from the comfort of the indoors (or a shelter), so headed on my way with my umbrella and rain coat. Miraculously, when I stepped outside, it was barely raining at all and certainly not very windy.

I quickly moved through the stairs that I was “supposed” to complete last night. The clocks changed overnight, so I was surprised to find myself out at 6:30 am, one of few out and about. I was a little worried about hitting up some stairs under an overpass so early in the morning, but no one was out.

A highlight of the neighborhood was talking to a neighbor about the flying penguin attached to a jetpack that landed on the top of the hill, 100 yards from his home. True story. This is what I love about urban hiking. The things you find along the way cannot possibly get more random.

I circled back to Abigail’s to use (and subsequently flood) her fancy coffee machine, before heading on the day’s long walk to the Ballard neighborhood. Allgood headed home to Portland after kindly slackpacking our stuff to my friend Matt’s house. He came to Seattle as an Urban Thru-hiking Skeptic. I worried the rainy weather would make him even more curmudgeonly towards it. He left with a respect and understanding of how it can be fun. While we both prefer the wilderness, walking in the city can open our eyes (and mouths) to new experiences.

It rained hard on the way to Ballard. I was so thankful that I opted to make my Goretex Torin Flyer rain jacket instead of a slightly more ultralight option. This was the kind of cold, intense rain I was expecting Seattle would throw at me everyday.

I was sure to route us by the famed Café Besalu in Ballard. Allgood drove past it in the morning and there was a line into the street, even in the pouring rain. When Virgo and I passed it several hours later, things hadn’t changed except that it was raining harder. Normally, I like grab and go foods on urban hikes, at least in situations where I need to make miles. I usually would never actively wait in a huge line to get baked goods. But this croissant was worth it.

I ate it in the rain outside of a pit toilet waiting for Virgo to do his Café Besalu coffee-induced business. And it was the best croissant I’ve ever had in my life.

We crossed the railroad tracks down some stairs to Seaview Ave and up to Golden Gardens Park. The long stairway here was fabulous. A true favorite. Just beautifully constructed, in the woods, with views out to the Sound, and with bathroom facilities at the top. What more could you ask for a thigh buster than that?

It was a long relatively stairless stretch through Crownhill, Northern Greenwood, and Northwest Seattle. It rained and poured and we were getting hungry and my phone’s battery was dying. With the last bit of juice in my phone, I found how to get to the next stairway and a Pho place. We traveled for many miles along a nice bike path that had awesome art along the way designed to look like animation as you bike past it!

When we got into the Pho shop, it was a warm, wonderful place to reset. I ordered the extra, extra large bowl while trying to charge my phone. It wouldn’t charge. I decided to run across the street to a Walgreens and buy a new charger. After downing a giant bowl of Pho in stress, I looked at my phone. The new charger seemed to work, but I didn’t have much battery. It’d have to milk when I had.

We walked the northernmost stairway in Seattle near I-5. Technically, it didn’t fit under my definition because it connected a street to a bike path. I was a little upset that I had not been detailed enough in my recon planning to sort it out of the trip, but it was cool to see what the northernmost stairway looked like.

We followed the Jackson Creek path away from that insanity as it outlined a golf course. Despite the nature-esque feel of the path and the soft tread, the intense fence to keep the riff raff out of the course (or golf balls from hitting the riff raff) made it feel cagey and prison like.

Then we were released to the Olympic Hills neighborhood—perhaps my favorite of the whole Seattle hike. It had big trees and wide lots and felt like the place where stereotypical grandparents invite the family to stay at for the hypothetical perfect summer.

We walked through Lake City to the shore through dark and twisty roads without sidewalks, hoping our headlamps would be enough to alert cars to our presence. Then we went through Chelsea to Meadowbrook with hunger and a desperate need for a bathroom. We found a café that was open, but it was only open for a baby shower, and we turned away, despite being two feet away from a cake that was never going to get eaten.

A few miles of leg squirming and near peeing myself later, we found a gas station which had a taco stand. The trail provides.

The Maple Leaf/Morning Side neighborhood was a beautiful lattice of parks with stairs down wooden bridges into ravines. There was something creepy and magical about hitting them in the dark when no one else is there. Some of the stairs near Lake City Blvd had trash along the sides that indicated they may have been home to the homeless at some point.

Just like in Los Angeles, during the whole Seattle trip, I only found one sign that said “Stairway Ahead.” In both cases, I felt like I had found the golden stairway.
Just like in Los Angeles, during the whole Seattle trip, I only found one sign that said “Stairway Ahead.” In both cases, I felt like I had found the golden stairway.

We arrived in Green Lake at my friend’s Matt house around 8. I felt bad that we had come in so late, but felt proud that for the first time in 5 days, I was on schedule and caught up on my stairs. We had great conversations with Matt over fried rice and my phone even successfully charged in his kitchen.

Urban hiking, like real hiking, is full of reminders that bad times pass. Cold, wet weather is followed by hot showers. Hunger and thirst is followed by feast. Dark is followed by light. And dead phone batteries are, at least sometimes, followed with a full charge.

Seattle Urban Hike: Day 4 Halloween

I woke up at my friend Meredith’s studio apartment looking out at rain. She had come back late from a Halloween party and I quietly put my things together in the dark, trying to not wake her. There were some miles that needed to be made up today, and an early start—even if the weather was horrendous—were going to have to happen.

Virgo and I hoped to grab some coffee, grab some stairs, and loop back to Meredith’s to pick up our packs. We headed over the Magnolia Bridge wearing Halloween costumes, in gusts that reversed my Montbell umbrella, which has impressed me in the conditions it’s been able to hold up in (check out Sticks video of wind on Moose Mountain in Olympic National Park at 31:47)

Walking that bridge in 30 mph winds wearing a turkey costume as it is pouring rain reminded me of something you’d see in one of Squatch’s thru-hiking movies. I can only imagine what the passing by cars thought we were doing—especially since Virgo was filming the whole thing!

The wet morning hike continued through an industrial district. Unprotected from trees or even buildings and right up against the water, I was cold and wet and still dreaming of coffee. There was no way we’d find something in the industrial district, but then, from the top of Amgen Bridge, like a mirage, we discovered Fuji Bakery, a fancy and very affordable Japanese style bakery right next to a lumber yard.

The only Montblanc you can summit on the Seattle urban thru-hike.
The only Montblanc you can summit on the Seattle urban thru-hike.

My good friend Whitney Allgood LaRuffa came and joined us at the Fuji Bakery, where we continued a loop of the lower Queen Anne stairs. Right off the bat, Allgood learned that on an urban hike (much like on a backcountry hike), what looks like it will connect on a map often does not connect in real life. We ended up exploring a steep, wooded area, that a couple hundred feet up, would have led to where we needed to be. Instead, we backed off and decided to take another approach to connect our footsteps to Olympic Blvd, where we called it a night yesterday.

That morning took us to among my favorite stairs of the whole trip—the Castle stairs. Allgood—wearing a Knight Halloween costume-fit right in with the surroundings. I could only imagine how cool it would be to be a kid growing up in that neighborhood. Spending a childhood sword fighting and playing make-believe on those stairs would be better than any backyard treehouse.

We looped back to Fuji and then Allgood brought us to where we started the morning at Meredith’s, now that we had connected our footsteps from there. Lindsay “Marmot” joined us, wearing Space Cat tights and a neon shirt and bringing her usual enthusiasm.

We headed off to Magnolia and the Perkins Lane stairs. Marmot, who lives in Seattle and loves to run and explore the neighborhoods on foot, was especially excited for the way far out there Perkins Lane stairs. These were big, steep stairs that looked out on the Sound and traveled through the park.

We looked a little ridiculous going through the neighborhood in costumes with Virgo filming us. People on foot, bike, and car gave us thumbs up and honks. Halloween is one of the only times a troop of grown adults can walk through town dressed strangely and we were having the time of our lives. Marmot and Allgood stopped to play tetherball that was attached to a post on an island in the middle of a road. The city has so many random things to discover if you only slow down to find them.

Today, as urban hikers, we got to relive a little bit of what it was like to be a kid again.

After a long and satisfying lunch at a Mexican place, we continued north to Discovery Park. I had been told by multiple stair climbers that it was an easy to place to get lost. When we finally climbed the big stairway in the middle of the park, I felt a sense of success and pride that I had found it and managed to not get lost.

We past Seven Hills Running store, where I would be speaking the next day, and some of the best Halloween decorations anywhere in the City. I was starting to get hungry and we speculated as to whether three adults dressed in Halloween costumes could trick-or-treat our way to some candy.

 

I’m not going to lie. Someone left out that bowl of candy on the porch with the sign “Please take ONE.” I promise you, I may not have been the intended audience, but I only took one.

In the dark, we graveled through the Marine Center and Fishermen’s Terminal. We found one of many spots where people who live in their RVs and vans in Seattle park their vehicles. It was a neighborhood I would not have traveled to ever had it not been for this hike. It was a neighborhood I felt a little uneasy hiking through at night, and felt much better about walking through with Allgood and Virgo with me. But it was the type of experience I cherish because it gave me the full, rich sense of the city, not just the touristy areas or the pretty areas, but the whole of what Seattle is.

We returned to the Ballard Bridge and crossed—my one big mapping error of the trip. We had crossed it yesterday and I realized as we approached the pedestrian on-ramp, that I had mapped crossing the bridge twice, thus failing Urban Hiking Rule #2: No backtracking. If I were to do it again, we would have crossed at the Locks, but I was already committed and not about to go 4 miles out of my way to cross at the next closest bridge, so we continued on.

From this view of the bridge, we discovered Peddler’s Brewery, where we enjoyed a Halloween pint in costume. Our hike took us down Leary and we approached Halle’s Ales again from the backside, stopping for another pint. Virgo told us of a Halloween party, but I wanted to get some more stairs. Allgood and I found a few more stairs and walked to the party in the Phinney Ridge/Green Lake neighborhood, while Virgo ran the most direct route. It was hard staying up with all the walking, but we got to see many people in costume.

All in all, even as an adult, walking all day in costume made me feel like I had a full Halloween.

 

Seattle Urban Thru Hike: Day 3

 

I woke up in Luna Sandal’s headquarters in Queen Anne. Despite being a retail space, it feels like a home. My friend Lindsay “Marmot,” who also lives in Queen Anne, came by and we enjoyed some coffee and pastries at the local coffee shop. I must say, I knew Seattle would have a great café options but it is blowing my mind how good every shop is!

The day started with the Queen Anne loop I was supposed to do last night. I learned very quickly that once again, the route did not go as easily as it looks on a map. A busy highway named Aurora intersected my loop route. I had designed the route thinking I could cross Aurora whenever I needed to, but it turned out there were limited arteries—overpass bridges—where this was possible. I had to adjust the route on the fly. To make matters worse, some construction closed the eastern sidewalk along Aurora making some stairs inaccessible (and no way to walk around the sidewalk that didn’t involve walking in 60 mph traffic).

A highlight of the loop was walking under Aurora next to a beautiful mural only to climb a very steep, hidden hill right after. We were able to slack pack this loop and I felt so lucky to not have to carry a pack up the steep hills of Queen Anne.

When we returned to Luna, Barefoot Ted gave us a tour of the factory and how Luna’s are made. He offered to let us continue to slack pack Queen Anne, which was a blessing. We continued to the top of the hill, where I saw kids dressed in Halloween costumes. I was hungry and one child in particular caught my eye: she was dressed like a taco. Luckily, we headed down to the street Queen Anne that not only had a drinking fountain at the end of the stairway, but had bakeries and shops. I got a croissant at Le Revel, which appeared to be a good choice. (Vivian, a veritable Seattle pastry connoisseur, gave her thumbs up).

All the time we went through Queen Anne, I feared going over the Fremont Bridge. It was so huge and intimidating and cars moved so far. Luckily, the Fremont bridge that we went over was a shorty bridge that looked almost made for pedestrians. Painted a festive blue and orange, this old timey bridge was such a welcome gateway to the Fremont community. If I could do the trip again, I would’ve hung out in Fremont for hours. We were hungry and scored at a “grab and go” pie place that blew our minds.

 

Of course, a highlight of Fremont was the Fremont Troll. I saw a reference to it in one my data sources but assumed the word “troll” was some bridge building term or maybe a shipping term. I figured it meant some way to bend steel or reinforce concrete. But sure enough, I went towards the Fremont Troll and that’s exactly what it was—a 80 feet large statue of a troll holding a car in its hand. The car looks miniscule, but it’s a life size VW beetle. There were tourists under the bridge, but they loved watching Virgo and I film the troll with his camera.

We returned to Fremont and walked Leahy Blvd for a long time. I had to pee and was getting hungry. Virgo said “Snorkel, you mentioned earlier that if we pass a brewery, we have to stop. Do you still agree with that?” I told him I did, despite being worried for time. “Good,” he said. ‘There’s one right there.” We stopped at Halle’s and the entire time we were enjoying a beer, it poured. As soon as we left, the rain had stopped!

We continued to the Ballard Bridge and went up some stairs that were like the Bridge of the God—a steel that you could see through. It was very freaky. Despite the stories I had heard about how pedestrian friendly the Ballard Bridge is, it actually was a pretty narrow walking area that was shared between bikes and walkers. We stopped every time a bike came—many bike commuters showing up in costume.

The stairs around the Ballard Bridge south entrance were numerous and confusing—but we got them all. We continued up through the Inner Bay neighborhood—a food desert of stairs going up and down. I got so delirious I was having trouble navigating in the dark. As we came close to the end, Vivian gave me a cookie, which helped.

A highlight was passing a Halloween house that was decked out in grand decorations. It turned out it was the old Masonic Temple. We stopped and chatted with the decorators, who said it was a party/fundraiser for a woman with MS to get a therapy dog. I briefly thought about stopping, but decided to press on.

We made it back to Luna just in time. I was so thankful that Ted let us back in and felt bad making him come back to work on a Friday night. The Queen Anne stairs just took so much longer that I expected. It started raining, but Vivian’s husband picked her up and was able to take us to food and my friend Meredith’s house. We were so exhausted that I could barely speak, and felt bad I couldn’t articulate much to Ted about all the things we’d seen that day.

I passed out quickly at Meredith’s, though was happy to talk with her briefly. The rain continued and I was worried about the next day’s forecast and how I’d make up the miles from the last Innerbay stairs. Nonetheless, I left soundly knowing that Lindsay and my friend Allgood would join us soon.

 

Photos by Virgo, who is joining me on the hike and collecting footage for a film on urban thru-hiking.

Seattle Urban Thru Day 2

Day 2 was crazy! The highs and lows of the cities all captured in one spectacular day.

The day started by catching up with a few stairs I missed on Day 1. We also swung by the Goodwill where I picked up a Halloween costume…you have to just wait until tomorrow to see how that will turn out.

 

Then we met Vivian, a local ultra runner who befriended my friend Andrew (who introduced me to the Inman 300 back in 2013). Andrew came up to run Michael Yadrick’s 100k of the biggest stairs (100+ stairways) in Seattle and that’s where he met Vivian. Vivian is so knowledgeable about the city, specifically where one can find pastries. It was a joy having her join.

We had a little hiccup when we reached the Jackson stairs—a big 100+ stairway right along I-5 that joined with a greenway to connect to a road. As we walked up, the stairway was filled with trash and hypodermic needles…Our route was fenced off, but it looked like they left a path for pedestrians to get around construction when soon, we found ourselves in a construction site. We were confused where we were and just wanted to get to the street and then a guy came by in a big bulldozer and asked what we were doing there. Virgo, of course, has his camera with him, and this made the guy even angrier. We told him we just wanted out to the street, but he told us the way out was the way we came. This is, of course, while we’re like 100 yards from the street and can clearly see it. We turned around and then construction employees came after us, trying to get photos of us, presumably to show the cops.

We tried another way to the street, but the fence blocked our exit off 10 feet from the street. A construction guy, who was much friendlier, said there was nothing he could do but suggested we let the police know that they had blocked out a major pedestrian route. I was so angry that this quickly gentrifying city that takes so much pride in being bike and pedestrian friendly clearly doesn’t care enough to about pedestrians to create viable alternative routes (or open a fence 10 feet to create a pathway for pedestrians). They think just because the route is used by a lot of junkies that a pedestrian route isn’t worth keeping open. No, actually, it’s used by out-of-state tourists and documentarians trying to capture the life of the city! We certainly captured it as we returned from where we came, adding an extra mile to our route.

For many years, I had been looking forward to going to Seattle to see the Public Library. My best friend, who was trained as an architect, often says it is her favorite building. It didn’t disappoint. It was an atrium of light, space, and community. Actually, my first thought when I saw it was how much it looked like the mock-up buildings she designed in architecture school!

Michael Yadrick told me to stop by Top Pot, a famous donut chain in Seattle. The guys working the counter were super excited about the film. I was so hungry, I scarfed down my donut before Virgo could film he eating it, so I had to order (and eat) another donut to get it on film.

A true highlight of the trip was the beautiful Capitol Hill neighborhood and climbing to the top of the water tower in Capitol Park. Afterwards, we swung by the waterfront and through Amazon’s campus, where I met my friend Abigail, who works there.

It was back to downtown and into the tourist-famous part of Seattle—Pike Place Market, the Gum Wall, Post Alley. We grabbed humbow from a famous place in Pike Place market—excellent timing as we were starving by then.

It was amazing to see the city lit up and bustling. With no rain, everyone was out. I was reminded how urban hiking really shines when it comes to night hiking. Not only is it often easier, but the city gets a beauty of its own when the skyline is glowing. The Space Needle in particular looked cool in glow-mode.

We finished the day at Luna Sandals headquarters in Lower Queen Anne. Barefoot Ted, who was a major character in the book Born to Run, rolled up on his Solowheel, energetic, enthusiastic, and bigger than life. By that time, we were pretty exhausted, but he suggested going to Banya 5, a Russian-style bathhouse. We weren’t sure what Bayna 5 was, but figured we would roll with it. Showing up to Barefoot Ted’s is a little like hopping into Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. You don’t know what to expect, but you know it will be crazy and awesome.

His wife and super accomplished runner herself, Irem, joined us—also showing up on her Solowheel. We all hopped into Ted’s ’66 Volkswagen Beetle (a car I’ve never ridden in before), and rolled down the hill back to the neighborhood Amazon is in.

At first, the inside was super nice, upscale, and a little intimidating for hikertrash like myself. Ted was a pro and helped us navigate the front desk and got us loaner swimsuits.

We started by going in the sauna, where Ted introduced us to the regulars—people who come to the Banya everyday. Ted described it like Cheers minus the alcohol—and indeed, everyone seemed to get along. I knew that some of the people here were probably high up in tech companies: important people. But the Banya was not a place of ego. It was a place of going to cleanse yourself.

Which is where the cold part comes in. Ted led us to the ice pool, where he jumped in and dunked his head underwater for longer than I could hold my breath above water. Virgo and I slipped in more cautiously, and we both nearly started hyperventilating. Breathing was really hard and all I could think was “I don’t know htf Trauma swam around Lake Tahoe.”

As soon as we got out and back into the sauna, though, I felt rejuvenated. A challenge had presented itself and I was ready to try again and make the next time in the cold better. Barefoot Ted led us through a therapeutic cycle between the sauna, the cold pool, cold shower, a salt pool, Jacuzzi, and steam room. Then we took a break for the Banya’s awesome tea blend.

We left the Banya feeling tingly, energized, and excited like we’d just woken up. It was late and we had a long day, but I was ready for whatever the next adventure Ted was going to take us on. We went to late night happy hour at Long’s Vietnamese restaurant, which was incredible and fresh and was the first healthy food we’d had all day.