King County's popular Trailhead Direct service between Seattle and Eastside hiking spots returns in 2024 with two separate routes to choose from. (Ryan Packer)

King County has announced the 2024 schedule for its popular Trailhead Direct service, a shuttle bus operating between Seattle light rail stations and hiking trailheads in East King County on weekends and holidays. This year’s plans include running two separate routes, a return to the service pattern that was in place as recently as 2021, before bus operator shortages prompted Metro to scale back the service to one single route.

Along with the Capitol Hill to Mount Si and Mount Teneriffe route, which includes stops in Downtown Seattle and on First Hill, King County is bringing back the Mount Baker to Issaquah Alps route, serving a wide loop of trailheads in the Squak Mountain area. Both routes also serve park-and-rides on the Eastside, with the Mount Si route stopping at North Bend Park and Ride and the Issaquah Alps route serving the Issaquah Transit Center, for Eastside residents looking to make direct transit connections or simply reduce the amount of cars at trailhead parking lots.

The Capitol Hill route also serves the town of North Bend, offering a direct route that’s not even typically available on weekdays in King County Metro’s transit network.

Service begins next Saturday (May 25) and extends across every weekend through Sunday, September 15 with holiday service on Memorial Day (Monday, May 27), Independence Day (Thursday, July 4), and Labor Day (Monday, September 2). The first buses leave Seattle around 7am, with the last outbound trips departing in early afternoon. Hikers returning to Seattle will need to catch buses by 6pm. The buses, small shuttles similar to the ones operated by Metro for DART routes and on the shuttles to the King County Water Taxi in West Seattle, come every half hour on the Capitol Hill route r and hourly on the Issaquah Alps route, and are equipped with racks that hold at least two bikes. Vehicles also range from 14 to 32 seats and have wheelchair access.

The return of the second route this year is possible thanks to funding from Seattle’s dedicated transit sales tax, planned to provide 50% of the funding needed to run the entire Trailhead Direct program.

With only one route operating in 2022 and 2023, the smaller shuttles have been getting crowded by the time they reach Downtown Seattle. Another route from Mount Baker will be a valuable addition for people trying to enjoy the region’s hiking trails. (Ryan Packer)

Two Trailhead Direct routes is still only half of what King County operated in 2019, when four total routes included direct routes to Cougar Mountain and Mailbox Peak and directly served riders in Tukwila and Renton. That 2019 network included connections between routes at Issaquah Transit Center, allowing riders to experience more destinations from the same point of origin. But the return of the Issaquah Alps route signals a strong return of the service following several years of stagnation.

The 2019 Trailhead Direct route map included four different routes, many of which connected with one another. The returning Issaquah Alps route is one step toward restoring that network following the Covid-19 pandemic. (King County)

County leaders praised the return of Trailhead Direct on Tuesday, following an announcement of the summer schedule by Executive Dow Constantine. In particular, King County Councilmember Sarah Perry, whose District 3 includes both the Issaquah Alps and Mount Si, relished the news.

“Mount Si has over 100K hikers annually, making it easily the most popular hike in the state, and between Mount Si, Little Si, and the Issaquah Alps our district holds some of the best outdoor spaces in King County,” Perry said in a statement. “I love the Trailhead Direct program as it allows more people the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful outdoors that make our region so special in a way that also supports our climate and equity goals as a county. I am thrilled to see this very successful, expanded opportunity start again!”

The program was initially launched as a pilot in 2017 in response to severe overcrowding at the parking lots of King County’s popular trailheads, and in 2019 riders took approximately 17,500 hikes using Trailhead Direct. With hiking trips such an integral park of the identity of many Seattle residents, having an option that allows car-free residents to be able to experience the same trails is invaluable.

Riders looking for a weekday alternative to Trailhead Direct should also keep in mind Sound Transit’s Route 554, which drops riders off near the East Sunset Way trailhead for Tiger Mountain State Forest, and operates until late into the evening.

Article Author

Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the The Urbanist since 2015. They report on multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, preservation, and local politics. They believe in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit. Ryan's writing has appeared in Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, Bike Portland, and Seattle Bike Blog, where they also did a four-month stint as temporary editor.