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Mailbox Peak feeling the pressure

Damp April weather didn't stop a crew of two dozen volunteers from helping to give one of the Puget Sound area's most challenging day hikes, Mailbox Peak near North Bend, a long-overdue facelift on Friday, April 4.

Mailbox Peak is not typically the sort of hike that is chosen for the casual hiker's easy outing. The summit, which has an actual mailbox at the top, is reached by a rugged trail that climbs three miles and gains over 4,000 feet, sometimes at a grade as steep as 40 percent.

The steep, rugged character of the trail makes it one of the most difficult hikes in the I-90 corridor. Mountain climbers, local hikers and even firefighters have lugged heavy packs up and down for conditioning for decades.

But as the trail's popularity has increased, so have the erosion and resource damage along the trail. Trail braiding, exposed tree roots and steep sections have resulted in broken ankles and lost hikers, leading to more search and rescue missions on Mailbox.

From March 29 through April 6, the Washington state Department of Natural Resources worked with volunteer trail crews from the Washington Trails Association to improve safety and resource damage along the trail corridor, starting with the first mile of trail.

Kristen Lloyd volunteered for the day on April 4, along with about two dozen other REI employees. She has worked with the WTA on other trail-improvement projects in the Snoqualmie area, and said the outings have taught her a lot.

"It's fascinating to watch how to go about building a trail, because you take it for granted if you're a hiker. Now you realize, there's actually thought going into it," she said.

The WTA was grateful for the help.

"There's an allure to Mailbox Peak that has brought far more hikers to its summit than ever before, and the trail is in dire need of some emergency fixes," said Jenni Blake, trail programs director for WTA. "Volunteers are pitching in to provide a more safe, enjoyable experience for Mailbox Peak's visitors while also helping to prevent further erosion and natural resource damage."

Exposed tree roots were tripping hikers and breaking ankles. Braided trails confuse hikers, and cut switchbacks have created gullies and destroyed vegetation. One section of trail is so steep and degraded that a toboggan could more easily go down than a person. In some places, hikers lose the trail and get lost, resulting in calls to King County Search and Rescue.

Located on land managed by Washington's DNR, the Mailbox Peak trail's origin dates all the way back to the 1950s. The name "Mailbox Peak" was coined in 1991 by hiker Sally Pfeiffer in a trip report published in WTA's monthly publication, Signpost magazine, because the summit register was located in a heavy green mailbox.

In recent years, DNR has recognized the need to make emergency repairs to the trail that will retain its original rugged, steep character while making it safer for hikers and minimizing the resource damage that has occurred. This need has reached a critical point as hiker interest in this trail has increased.

The long-term vision for Mailbox is to add a new trail to the top of Mailbox Peak that will be easier to hike and serve more casual hikers into the future. DNR is applying for a grant from the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP) to build a new Mailbox Peak trail. The original steep and difficult trail will remain, while a new trail will take some of the pressure off it.

"On a recent visit to Mailbox Peak, I was amazed to see the amount of damage and erosion that has occurred on the trail just in the past year," said Heather Cole, recreation manager with Washington Department of Natural Resources. "With the amount of use Mailbox is now getting, it is all about triaging the places that create a safety problem for hikers and that are causing the greatest amount of resource damage."

DNR is presently focusing its efforts on the user-built Mailbox Peak trail, focusing on trail safety for hikers as well as preventing further resource damage along the trail corridor. Plans include putting a kiosk at the bottom of the trail, a warning sign and white diamond markers to prevent people from getting off trail.

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