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.
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.
Liz "Snorkel" Thomas
Liz Thomas is a well-traveled adventure athlete most known for breaking the women’s unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. She has completed the Triple Crown of Hiking–the Appalachian Trail, the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail, and 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail–and has backpacked over 15,000 miles across the United States. While not on trail, Liz lives in Denver, Colorado.