SEATTLE — Whether it takes the form of logging detritus or the ruins of a cabin once belonging to an influential Seattle family, signs of human intervention in the wilderness can be a novel sight — and even an unsettling one. But if you feel like you’ve hiked every hike within a two-hour drive in our year of COVID-19, finding something unexpected along with your elevation gain can be a way to break up the monotony, and Washington state is home to plenty of these mystery hikes, complete with unnatural wonders.
Kindra Ramos, communications and outreach director at the Washington Trails Association, is partial to the moss-covered phone booth near the Hoh River Visitor Center. Thanks to layers of green moss, the wooden contraption looks weirdly (cutely!) anthropomorphized, or like it’s got a thatched roof.
Nathan Barnes, who has co-authored several outdoor guidebooks (most recently “Washington Wildflower Hikes: 50 Destinations”), recommends a chimney from a 1930s-era ski cabin at Snow Lake, mine shafts and B-17 wreckage at the Tubal Cain Mines, and the old railroad tunnels of the Spruce Railroad Trail.
Similar sights abound on the following Northwest hikes. Have fun, don’t take trailside artifacts home with you, check recent trail reports (some of these hikes may still be snowy) and heed these words from Ramos: “[Relics like mailboxes, fairy houses or other creations] can be fun to encounter on a hike, but ultimately, their presence often violates Leave No Trace. One person’s entertaining trailside distraction is someone else’s junk so it’s best practice to remind folks not to leave any enhancements behind when you hike.”
Bullitt Fireplace Trail
The Bullitt Fireplace Trail might not be the first trail you think of when it’s time to hit the Issaquah Alps, but it’s arguably home to the trail network’s strangest landmark: a fireplace. Not a cabin, not a wall, just a huge stone fireplace in a clearing at the crest of the hill.
The fireplace is all that remains of a cabin that once belonged to one of Seattle’s most influential families: the Bullitts, who’ve played a role in everything from King Broadcasting Co. to a wide array of philanthropic efforts, including environmental and educational causes. (Outdoors enthusiasts likely know Harriet Bullitt as the driving force behind Sleeping Lady, the eco-friendly retreat in Leavenworth.)
The hike up to the fireplace starts at a Squak Mountain neighborhood access point at a hairpin turn on Mountainside Drive. (The city of Issaquah offers baroque but useful directions.) The 2.1-mile journey in isn’t terribly exciting: It’s a big uphill walk, but with plenty of tree cover to stay cool and some peekaboo views here and there; you’ll also pass a swampy zone that resembles the Dead Marshes in “The Lord of the Rings.” At the end of 2 miles, you’ll be on the homestretch. Crest a hill and you can’t miss the fireplace. A weirdly isolated piece of the Bullitts’ sweeping local history, it’s a boxy work of stone tucked between trees, a pleasantly bizarre merging of the domestic and the natural world. There’s also a picnic table, so it’s the perfect place to break for lunch before heading back down.
Barnes recommends the Bullitt Fireplace Trail as a “good family hike” with “a bit of history,” but points out that “there’s no longer any view near the chimney,” which is true: You’re high up, but views are occluded. There’s sometimes an upside to going viewless, though: smaller crowds.
- Total mileage: 4 miles round-trip
- Elevation gain: 1,100 feet
Lime Kiln Trail
Off Mountain Loop Highway near Granite Falls, you can find a number of odd trailside relics from long-gone logging communities and the defunct Everett and Monte Cristo Railway, including the ghost town of Monte Cristo. Among the weirder finds here is a kiln once used to transform quarried limestone into quicklime, the common chemical compound better known as calcium oxide.
To get there, take the Lime Kiln Trail, which starts out in Robe Canyon Historic Park, and leads hikers into the canyon and along the Stillaguamish River. Eventually, the now slightly mossy kiln rises up off-trail.
It’s unlikely to be the only reminder of the past you encounter. “The amount of time and effort that was put into the railroad that briefly ran up that valley is impressive,” Barnes said. “It’s still thick with artifacts from that time.”
- Total mileage: 7 miles round-trip
- Elevation gain: 625 feet
Dirty Harry’s Peak
If you’re thinking of Clint Eastwood, this is the other one. Dirty Harry’s Peak is named after Harry Gault, who once ran an aggressive independent logging outfit in this area of mountain near Snoqualmie Pass. Barnes calls it “a great adventure,” in part because the surprise (Dirty Harry’s truck!) requires some digging.
Start by hiking 2.2 miles in to Dirty Harry’s Balcony (and a view of the Snoqualmie Valley), then follow the trail through uphill switchbacks to Dirty Harry’s Museum, where you’ll find the bulky, rusted-out vehicle.
“The machinery can be a bit tricky to find, but it’s exciting when you finally do,” Barnes said. “It cannot be seen from the trail and is a little magical when you push through the brush to find it all resting there, slowly rusting away.”
The route to Dirty Harry’s Museum is rugged, and isn’t on an official trail, so this hike may require some exploration and wayfinding — and may not be a good idea for inexperienced hikers.
- Total mileage: 5.6 miles round-trip
- Elevation gain: 2,800 feet
Though it’s not wise to attempt now (recent visitors report snow), Mailbox Peak is an obvious pick for a summer treasure-hunt hike. The elevation gain will stretch your capacity, and your reward for the challenge is an expansive view from the top, plus another trailside curiosity: The iconic mailbox awaits.
A sticker-covered non sequitur, the mailbox often contains odd treasures left behind by hikers; it’s a bizarre record of Washington trails’ heavy foot traffic, a grab bag mystery prize for reaching the summit.
Barnes calls Mailbox Peak “a classic” that has “everything a good training hike needs — relatively easy to access and a grueling climb.” It’s also undergone improvements in recent years. “A lot of the rougher edges were shaved off when the newer trail opened in 2014,” Barnes said. “The expanded parking area has also helped avoid overcrowding along the Middle Fork Road.”
But even with these upgrades, beware: Mailbox Peak is an especially popular hiking destination, so plan to go early and be prepared to comply with COVID-19-informed best practices for hiking. Bring (and wear!) a face covering, pack in what you pack out, and pass with care and appropriate distancing from other hikers.
- Total mileage: 9.4 miles round-trip
- Elevation gain: 4,000 feet
The Stump House at Guillemot Cove
If you ever made fairy rings as a child, the Guillemot Cove Nature Reserve, located near Seabeck, has a hike you’ll like. The short trip takes hikers to a structure called the Stump House, a cute, squat structure built into a giant cedar complete with a door and windows.
The Stump House was allegedly built by an escaped convict named Dirty Thompson, but while some routes on this list are best for more experienced hikers, the jaunt to this former hideaway is decidedly kid-friendly with low mileage and elevation, and a hobbit-y reward for the effort.
- Total mileage: 2.5 miles round-trip
- Elevation gain: 360 feet