How is it that I’ve been hiking the I-90 corridor between Seattle and Snoqualmie Pass for years and never been up Cedar Butte until today? This is a great little hike!
Maybe it’s because this hike is shorter (about 3 or 4 miles round trip) and not as flashy as nearby Mt. Si and Rattlesnake Ledge with dramatic views or Twin Falls with gorgeous waterfalls. But while this relatively easy hike is one of the least visited in the Mountains to Sound Greenway, it’s not for lack of beauty. And if you’re hiking with small kids or still working your way into decent shape, this is the hike for you.
We were initially heading to Rattlesnake Ledge, but the rain gives us pause. (Yes, while the rest of the U.S. is sweltering with heat, we’re still waiting for our real summer to arrive here in western Washington.) Andy and I are a bit concerned about the slick rocks atop Rattlesnake Ledge with an 8-year-old along today. People have accidentally slipped off the cliffs to their demise up there.
“How about Cedar Butte today?” I suggest when we all meet at the Mercer Island Park-n-Ride. Everyone is game for this switch, especially since the trailhead for Cedar Butte is just 50 yards or so away from the Rattlesnake Ledge parking area.
In a steady summer rain, we set off eastward on the flat, wide Iron Horse Trail for about a half mile until we see the unobtrusive cutoff for Cedar Butte. (Keep your eyes on the right side of the trail for the junction.) Stepping off the Iron Horse Trail and onto Cedar Butte trail is like entering a lush, enchanted forest. Profuse greenery (thimbleberries, ferns, salmonberries, and more) lines the narrow trail as it winds gently upward through the second-growth forest.
For the first half mile or so we pass through mostly deciduous alder forest, but as we climb higher it transitions to more open, mixed conifers. Wisps of Spanish moss (or is it net lichen?) hang from tree branches over a carpet of light green moss that blankets the forest floor.
“Isn’t that a native orchid?” Andy points out a small, off-white, multi- blossomed flower shooting up off a decomposing downed tree trunk. It has that waxy orchid look. What a treat to see! Unfortunately all my shots of this delicate treasure are slightly out of focus. (Since I originally posted this, several naturalists have identified it as a pinesap, monotropa hypopithys, which is not an orchid.)
While most of the hike up to the summit is in forest, at the end of a switchback about a mile up the trail we stop for a peak-a-boo view of Rattlesnake Lake and the ridge beyond. On a misty day like today, the turquoise blue lake looks like a remote mountain lake instead of a heavily used park. I’ve also never seen the lake so full.
Before we know it, we’ve reached the top, where a group of scouts are just starting down (the only other hikers we’ve seen so far). Really it’s just a small clearing in the forest with a panoramic view north up the Middle Fork valley of the Snoqualmie River. I try to ignore I-90 in the foreground, and at least we’re far enough away that traffic noise doesn’t reach here.
“Hey, it’s a hummingbird!” cries Lena. I catch a blur of reddish-brown feathers, a Rufous hummingbird. We watch it darting quickly up towards the treetops and wonder what it’s looking for up here. In retrospect, I realize it's probably dining on the unpleasantly abundant mosquitoes, which are feasting on my exposed hands until I douse them with repellent.
By the time we get back to the Iron Horse Trail junction, the rain has subsided and the slugs have decided it’s a good time to cross the trail. We help a few on their way so they won’t get crushed by bicyclists, including a native banana slug sliming its way across the gravel trail. (If I were a slug, I think the gravel would be unpleasant on my belly.) Lena is scouring the salmonberry shrubs along the trail for ripe berries, which are plentiful and tasty right now.
Just before we load back into the SUV for the ride home, Lena instructs everyone on the proper method for discouraging ‘skeeters from following us into the car. Enjoy the Eebee Geebee!
When You Go
Cedar Butte is about 35 miles east of Seattle in the Cascade foothills. Drive east on I-90 from Seattle, take the 436th exit (Exit 32), and drive south to the end of the road and the Rattlesnake Lake/Cedar River Watershed Visitor Center parking lot. The Iron Horse Trail starts on the far eastern edge of this parking complex. Elevation gain to the top of Cedar Butte is about 900 feet, and the trail has been regraded in the last few years to be much less steep than it used to be. You need a Washington State Discover Pass or Northwest Forest Pass (good for both Oregon and Washington national forests) to park here or you could be fined.