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    Greening access to Seattle's nearby national parks

    We live in a beautiful place surrounded by gorgeous parks, but our wilderness, including national parks, are mostly accessible only by car. Can we fix this?

    Bison in Yellowstone blocking a road: A car window is often how Americans see their parks.

    Bison in Yellowstone blocking a road: A car window is often how Americans see their parks. Ildar Sagdejev/Wikimedia Commons

    Mount Rainier as seen from Seattle. (Chuck Taylor)

    Mount Rainier as seen from Seattle. (Chuck Taylor) None

    Some in Seattle say we need a "central park." That's what the proposed South Lake Union Commons concept was all about, and it motivates the FROGS (Friends of Green at Seattle Center) and others who'd like to see Seattle Center largely converted to open space.

    John Olmsted, who was the mastermind of the city's park system and boulevards — the so-called "emerald necklace", designed many parks and park systems around the country, but he didn't favor a New York-style Central Park here. Rather, he wanted to collect potential park space throughout the city, putting parks within reach of every citizen. He wanted playgrounds (an idea he introduced to Seattle) within walking distance of every home. This kind of democrtization of parks and public amenities is part of the fiber of the city, which has expanded neighborhood libraries, community centers, pea patches, and is now returning to neighborhood schools.

    Part of the reason a central park is unnecessary is that Seattle, despite Puget Sound sprawl, is in the middle of vast parks and protected wilderness areas, from Mount Rainier to the Olympics to the North Cascades. And because Seattle, thanks in part to Olmsted, acted aggressively to preserve urban park land, it is possible to take a Metro bus to see old growth trees within the city limits. While no one is denying that it would be nice if we also had a version of Vancouver's Stanley Park, the fact is we went another direction, and carving that space out of the city now is virtually impossible.

    Still, despite the great amenities neighborhood parks make, they are often battle grounds as neighbors fight over crime, park maintenance, and use. Parks are magnets for controversy, from crime at Victor Steinbrueck to lights at Magnuson to mountain bikers at Lincoln. Urban parks, central or otherwise, are often regarded as local nuisances. Even the concept of park playgrounds was controversial during the Olmsted era as some park advocates saw them as bringing the wrong kind of people into public spaces, or worse, messing with the contemplative aspects of a park where a person could commune with nature inside a bustling city.

    If Seattle's setting in a place of natural beauty is an advantage, if, in essence, our "central park" is comprised of the national, state, and county parks, waterways, and forest lands around us, do we have any responsibility to connect them more with the city?

    I recently returned from a four-wheeled 12-state tour of the West and visited (and revisited) a number of national parks, monuments, forests, and grasslands. I was again struck with how much of our natural heritage is inaccessible to people without a car.

    How many families are going to bike to Hurricane Ridge or Paradise? On your next hike, are you going to take the bus to the North Cascades? Have you had the pleasure of getting around the Olympic Peninsula on Greyhound? In terms of civic planning, Seattle ought to think about making the wilderness more accessible to its citizens so they can access their "central park" with options that are kinder to the carbon footprint.

    Some national parks, such as the Grand Canyon and Glacier, can be reached directly by rail. In fact, rail and national parks once went hand in hand, with the railroads building lodges and promoting an emerging Victorian middle class to get out and see the wilderness. A notable Northwest example is Glacier Park Lodge built by the Great Northern Railroad with old growth Northwest Douglas fir. You still can hop Amtrak's "Empire Builder" and get dropped across the road from the lodge. But this is now the exception.

    In Europe, many natural areas (like the Alps) are served by rail, so hikers don't need to come by car. Some U.S. national parks, like Zion, are banning autos to the periphery and using shuttles to take folks around the park. I recently took the bus from one end of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the other, and the wait time and service was better than my No. 11 bus route in Seattle. But because of time, distance, and bringing families and gear, vast parking lots are still needed to accommodate everyone.

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    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 5:16 a.m. Inappropriate

    Ya know Knute, outside of deep blue Seattle, I rarely hear the words "carbon footprint".

    Maybe I'm just not paying attention?

    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 8:13 a.m. Inappropriate

    memo to Knute: We're broke.


    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 8:26 a.m. Inappropriate

    When I look back on the best ten days of my life, a full half of them involve being someplace you can only get to by hiking. It would seem logical to me to run buses to trailheads in season, as buses formerly, and perhaps today, ran to ski areas. Leaving my car parked at a trailhead for four days for vandals to break into has no charms for me.

    Before buses were de-regulated, it was easier to get to a hiking area by using the now-discontinued local bus extensions or service. This is one more meaning of tens of thousands of small communities losing all common-carrier service as a result of deregulation.

    But in the modern world, we need to watch every penny- at least, every penny other than the $653 billion budgeted for the Pentagon this year, or the estimated $1 trillion of unbudgeted war costs for us to 'win' in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Today, you could take transit and a ferry to cross Puget Sound and access the north Olympics from a bus to Port Angeles. A Mason County route will take you to the south face of the Olympics. This year I've actually seen a number of backpackers simply hiking along the highway to get where they want to go. Every year there are more cyclists on the road.

    My feeling is that providing subsidies so counties can cooperate in providing longer service runs would be way more effective than anything Sound Transit or the federal government would dream up.

    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 9:59 a.m. Inappropriate

    I agree that bus transportation would be a great addition. We had an amazing backpacking trip from Rialto Beach to Lake Ozette a couple of summers ago but the logistics of getting back to our vehicle in Forks was the stuff that family legends are made of. There are a few enterprising individuals who offer rides back and forth but let me tell you they are characters and not terribly reliable in our experience. A bus option would be fabulous but I think that realistically it would have to be something that a private company would have to take on and would have to find worthwhile. Just not sure if it would work out as a business proposition.


    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 10:39 a.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks for this article, Knute.

    One of my favorite, surreal, memories for my year living in Japan was the night we climbed Mt. Fuji. From Tokyo, we took three trains and a bus that dropped us off at the trail head. This trip would have taken much longer by car. This is home almost everyone gets to the trail head. Climbing the mountain was a long line of hikers--almost a traffic jam. Returning home on the train to the sound of snapping beer can tabs and munching sushi was most enjoyable; something you can't do in a car.

    We could have this transportation system here, too. As far as money is concerned, it seems we are going full speed ahead on car tunnels, freeway expansions, and mega-bridges. Money seems no object. Is this car-centric future really what we want, or should we build systems like the rest of the world enjoys?


    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 10:42 a.m. Inappropriate

    One of better bits from Mr. Berger. Of course, the railways were formerly the most popular way to reach parks like Yellowstone. The Canadians do a decent job of such to Banff. It would be a fantastic addition: already, in parks where some roads have been closed (eg Zion) to all but park busses the flow is much better. Not so much of a vacation if you leave the traffic of home to huff on the fumes of traffic elsewhere. Crater Lake used to have better visibility by many miles--sad, sad, sad.

    I'll tell you who rides bikes to Hurricane and Paradise: my family. We consequently don't have the standard American BMI. But sure, it's not for everyone. Maybe there is an alternate universe where most people are hale and hardy?

    @eastkingcoblahblahblah: no kidding, but of no matter. Half the people in WA live on the Sound, and an even bigger percentage of the GDP. It's rapidly getting to the point where I don't give a flatula what the coneheads eating off the farm bill are whinging about. Yawn.

    @BlueLight: memo to you, it's doesn't matter--you still gotta make smart choices on hard issues. This one isn't even that hard. If you have only $100 and your house needs paint, it's still better to buy the paint and put in the work than deal with all the dry rot when you're more flush. Shame we all have to share the house, really.

    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 11:04 a.m. Inappropriate

    Sorry, ExUngeLeonem, public transportation doesn't even pencil out IN SEATTLE. And you want it to the summit (why not?) of Mount Rainier? We cannot afford utopian ideologies, anymore. This ain't SimCity.


    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 11:30 a.m. Inappropriate

    @BlueLight: note Andy's post above, is this what you're calling "utopian"? I mean, the word sounded powerful, but... And the summit of Mt Rainier? Do you hear yourself? Did I mention cloud cars or free beer, 'cause you'll probably claim that shortly.

    Public transit does in fact "pencil out" all over the place--especially when one considers oil subsidies (and other attendant costs, ahem), road costs, lost productivity due to gridlock, and certainly last and least important quality of life (note tongue firmly planted in cheek). I've lived in many places with good transit, and really can't state how much better it can make the average day. But Seattle has long had the attitude of "if you don't build it they won't come", and see where that landed us.

    Yelling "impossible", "preposterous", or whatever is no help and the world will march right on by anyway. You earned your second yawn for today.

    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 12:11 p.m. Inappropriate

    There used to be Grey Line bus service from Tacoma to Mt. Rainier. Was that discontinued? I know that using such a service would require Seattleites to actually go to Tacoma, but thousands of people a day go to Tacoma, and somehow their self esteem survives.

    There are rail lines running through Longmire. I'd imagine that if anyone could make a go financially of running excursion trains to Mount Rainier, they'd be doing it.


    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 12:20 p.m. Inappropriate

    They should just extend this train to run from Tacoma to Mt. Rainier.


    It would draw tourists just to ride the thing.


    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 1:17 p.m. Inappropriate

    The Sound to Mountain train was tried in the early 90’s between Tacoma and Ashford, it needed to be subsidized as any transportation needs to be. Since we only want to subsidize the automobile, the train failed.

    When will people realize that we subsidize roads for truck traffic? We don’t need hiways built the way they are, except for the truck traffic.

    Once we realize that we can and should subsidize all transportation things will look up.

    Until then, try Amtrak to Glacier National Park. Stop at the Belton Chalet in West Glacier, or the Izzak Walton in Essex, both offer excellent access to Glacier. The only drawback is that one needs to slowdown and actually enjoy the event. Most Americans feel a need to rush around and force feed their senses with everything. Thus, an automobile is a necessity. It took me a long time to learn to slow down…..

    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 2:59 p.m. Inappropriate

    I love Tacoma and I am a Seattleite. I took a day off work on a Friday, packed up the family, took the Link to King street, Amtrak to Tacoma, the Tacoma Link downtown, the Sounder back to Seattle, light rail back home. Fantastic trip. Tacoma seems to have preserved much of its old architecture. The Hob Nob rules! Suggestion: the Sounder needs a bar car!


    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 3:01 p.m. Inappropriate

    All this private sector talk seems strange... When was the last private sector freeway around here? If you really want to save money, de-socialize car parking and the freeway system.


    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 3:55 p.m. Inappropriate

    "seattlelifer" writes: "When will people realize that we subsidize roads for truck traffic? We don’t need hiways built the way they are, except for the truck traffic."

    I'm not sure how the construction of our highways is specifically optimized for trucks. Can you give an example? But there are way too many big trucks on American freeways. In some countries (I know specifically of Germany) semi traffic is only allowed on the freeways during certain hours, something like 10:00 PM to 6:00 AM. This encourages long-haul freight to go by train, which the railroads claim is much more economical anyway. It also lessens damage to the roadway.


    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 4:06 p.m. Inappropriate

    Good article. I totally agree.

    Transit would give more people an ability to visit parks (locals who don't have cars or don't want to use them, tourists...), it would parking demands inside the parks, and it would be more ecologically sound.

    We don't need much. Just a few routes to various mountain destinations, each with a few routes, and each making eight or ten trips per day. Routes could be based in reasonably-close way-stations such as Tacoma Dome for Mt. Rainier...let riders use city transit to get to the way-station, which would allow a shorter mountain route.


    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 5:44 p.m. Inappropriate

    dbreneman, I think he is referring to how freeway roadbeds and bridges are built to withstand (hopefully,) loads of 17,000 pounds per axle, which I believe is the still the chunky N. American truck standard. Obviously, it would be much cheaper to build them to withstand lighter loads, as with less roadbed ballast, lighter bridge stringers, etc.

    Regarding coming up with some way to get to the mountains without a car, yes, it would be great, but there are some problems, as in being tied to a schedule. Sometimes the weather closes in and you want to get out of it, sometimes you want to linger on top and watch the sun go down, both of which would likely be more difficult if one has to be back at the bottom at a predetermined time to meet a schedule. Another problem is that most people like to disperse more than might be convenient from some sort of transit with limited stops.

    I was part of a planning effort for the Middle Fork Snoqualmie valley a decade or so, and we looked at a possible shuttle up and down the Middle Fork road as something to aspire to. Perhaps it will happen some day. If the rest of the world loses faith in the value of these things called dollars that we are so good at creating to trade for oil, we may see all kinds of things start to make economic sense once again, from passenger trains to airships....and maybe even a shuttle in the Middle Fork.

    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 6 p.m. Inappropriate

    Cars are really pretty efficient if you have the full passenger load. I'm not talking about Corvettes or Miatas but a passenger car or moderate SUV with all its seats filled is probably quite competitive with a half-full bus not to mention the fact that the car takes you right to the trailhead. The Mountaineers and (I think) the Washington Trails Association schedule visits to major parks and wilderness areas near Seattle and they make an effort to provide rides for members who cannot or prefer not to drive. The early 20th century RR service to mountain and canyon resorts is not really a fair comparison to the relatively proletarian system that the automobile has enabled.


    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 7:24 p.m. Inappropriate

    This is a hugely appreciated article. As a young urban Seattlite, I have made the choice, for environmental as well as economic reasons, not to own a vehicle. For the vast majority of my lifestyle choices, it works out fantastically and I really enjoy the perspective of the city that I get using my feet, my bike, and the bus. But every summer I go through the same agonizing yearn to get into the natural beauty that surrounds us and I have yet to satisfy this need without borrowing a car or getting rides out there on friends' schedules.

    I will say that this summer I discovered the Issaquah Alps, which can be hiked right out of downtown Issaquah, and I have found days and days worth of adventures and trails to explore. Similarly, when I visit my family in Bellingham I can get up into the Chuckanut Range with just a quick bike ride. I'm even proud to say that I have found a route on public transit out to Deception Pass, certainly one of our state's most beautiful resources.But when it comes to getting into the heart of our true wilderness areas and national parks, our transit simply fails.

    Having transit to our vast wilds would really help everyone. A simple loop bus around the peninsula, and a few West to East routes up Snoqualmie and Stevens Pass would do wonders for people like me. Even for people with vehicles, a wilderness transit network would be a wonderful boon for opening up the freedom to do more through-hikes and explore larger areas without being concerned about getting back to the car. And of course, there is a huge market of visitors who come to Seattle by plane or boat, and yet they have so little opportunity to experience our natural beauty without renting a vehicle, an expense that can prohibiting for some (and impossible for those under 25).

    I've traveled to many countries over the years, Brazil, Peru, Spain, Italy, India, and it has astounded me that its harder for me to get to bountiful nature from my home, than anywhere else. I hope something comes to fruition on this in the future. Thanks again for raising the issue!

    Ps. For anyone else is a similar situation, I have to recommend the website, "Hikes By Bus". It is an amazing publication and has helped me keep my sanity over the years:



    Posted Fri, Sep 17, 9:12 p.m. Inappropriate

    "kieth" writes: "Cars are really pretty efficient if you have the full passenger load. I'm not talking about Corvettes or Miatas..."

    Actually, traditional roadsters (like the Miata) are rather efficient. Corvettes, on the other hand...


    Posted Sat, Sep 18, 12:29 a.m. Inappropriate

    Hey thanks dbreneman (I drive a stick Miata.) I remember, back in the late '50's,taking a train with a bunch of friends... it must have been like a charter train, perhaps by way of the Mountaineers...to Leavenworth for a ski-jumping championship event. We left the station in Seattle at 5:30 a.m., stopped in Everett to pick up more passengers and add two more engines to the train for the haul over Stevens Pass. We got off in Leavenworth (don't know if the train went on, or just sat and waited for a few hours)and walked a mile or so to the jump site. In the late afternoon we re-boarded and chugged back to Seattle. Great trip.


    Posted Sun, Sep 19, 2:27 p.m. Inappropriate

    I agree. My car had all it's windows broken when I left it. Yes, Mason County does a great job of providing bus service to the peninsula, but you have to schedule some trips .Also, what happened to the direct bus service from Seattle to the Puyallup Fair?


    Posted Sun, Sep 19, 4:01 p.m. Inappropriate

    Gray Line does still go to Mt. Rainier from Seattle.

    Posted Tue, Sep 21, 7:29 p.m. Inappropriate

    Benjamin, according to that website Gray Lines only does a round-trip sightseeing tour. They do not take people up for an overnight stay and then take them back later. They also don't take large backpacks or camping or hiking gear.

    I wonder if the park would encourage a camper-friendly shuttle service.


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