Hiking the PNW: Mailbox Peak

Photo by Sean Munson from Flickr.

On the outskirts of North Bend, just past the “no service” warning sign which guards the entrance to Middle Fork Road, lies the parking lot designated for those determined to summit Mailbox Peak. 

About a 30-minute drive from the Bellevue College campus, the trail offers stunning views of Snoqualmie Valley and the surrounding Cascades. Mailbox is either a 9.4 or 5.4-mile round-trip hike depending on which trail you take, with the highest elevation peaking at 4,822 feet. The trail begins after a short drive down Middle Fork Road, located just north of the I-90 freeway. A Discover Pass is required to park in both the lower and upper lots, so be sure to bring along a day or yearly pass.

The trailhead will be hard to miss, especially on weekends, as the lower lot is likely to be full of hikers gearing up to begin the climb. According to both the Washington Trails Association (WTA) and my own experiences, the hike is incredibly popular and can have up to 50 cars in the lot at any given hour. If you’re planning to hike Mailbox on a weekend, especially during warmer weather, be sure to come early to get a parking spot, as it’s common for the parking lot to fill up before 9 a.m. Once you’ve secured a space in the lot, you’ll have to decide between two routes: the old trail, which incorporates a 4,000-foot elevation gain in less than three miles, or the new trail, which is more mellow, yet still a serious thigh burner. Holding a legendary reputation among adventurous hikers and training mountaineers alike, the original Mailbox Peak trail consists of an old climbers route, marked solely by white reflectors nailed to trees and a steep, weathered path without a switchback in sight. Eventually, the accidents and rescues that resulted from those who dared to attempt the old trail finally prompted the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to build a new trail. While twice as long as the original, the new and improved Mailbox Peak trail snakes a wide path around the mountain, all the way from the eastern side to the west and then back, eventually meeting up with the old trail about a mile and a half from the summit. The new trail features several lookout points, offering views of the town of North Bend and Snoqualmie Valley. But the real prize lies among the talus slopes. Rough boulders, some as big as cars, mark the final stretch toward the famed and sticker-covered mailbox at the summit. The trail steepens as hikers must climb rocky, open-faced terrain. If, at this point, you’re thinking: “This can’t possibly get any steeper,” don’t be surprised when suddenly you’re crawling up the dusty path that’s seemingly fit only for mountain goats. Yet if you’re like me, and you impulsively decide that Chaco Sandals are the optimal hiking attire, you’ll be dreading the trek back down, successfully distracting you from the climb at hand. Finally, upon reaching the top, you’ll find the glorious white mailbox adorned with various stickers, and at that moment, understand why the trail is deemed “Mailbox” Peak.

As of recently, both the new and old trails are mostly snow-free. If you’re looking for a hike with that high-alpine sort of feel, Mailbox Peak is a great option. The talus rock fields and open-faced summit are comparable to the Bandera and Granite Mountain trails, minus the early-season snow. With the upcoming good weather, be sure to give Mailbox Peak a try. Before heading out, check out the WTA website to read recent trail reports to plan your trip accordingly. For more hiking adventures, check out the rest of the Watchdog’s “Hiking the PNW” series.