Hiking in Washington # Six Rattlesnake Ledge

View from the top of Rattlesnake Ledge

(View from the top of Rattlesnake Ledge)

It’s springtime in the Northwest which means snow still covers the high country hiking trails we love. So what’s a hiker to do? Strap on your boots and hit the lowland trails, of course! Rattlesnake Ledge fits neatly into the category of lowland hike not very far from large metropolitan area with easy access from major freeway = traffic jam on the trail. If that’s a category. And no, I’m not exaggerating about the hordes of people. And dogs. Lots of both, so if you’re averse to sharing the trail and the eventual view at the top with a whole passel of other folks, two-legged and four, avoid this one.

Our destination, Rattlesnake Ledge, as seen from Rattlesnake Lake

(Our destination, Rattlesnake Ledge, as seen from Rattlesnake Lake)

Although this is a popular and well known trail in the area, I’d somehow managed to miss trekking it all these years. Maybe I’d heard or read too many tales of its overcrowded popularity and deliberately avoided it. Whatever the reason, my wife and I decided it was time to check it out for ourselves on a recent sunny spring day.

Irina removing trail obstacle on the way up

(Irina removing trail obstacle on the way up)

As I said, it’s easy enough to get there. Just head east on I-90 from the Greater Seattle area and exit the freeway at exit 32, 436th St. near the town of North Bend. Fans of quirky, offbeat 90’s television shows may remember North Bend as the stand-in and exterior filming location of Twin Peaks. Turn right after exiting and go four miles to the parking lot where the jam-up starts right away. If you get there midday like we did, good luck finding a parking space. We got one of the last available. By the time we returned a few hours later, cars were parked along the side of the road for some distance leading away from the lot.

Mount Si on the right, with town of North Bend below it

(Mount Si on the right, with town of North Bend below it)

The signs are easy to follow to the trailhead. You can meander around the shore of Rattlesnake Lake first (we opted to do this after the hike instead) which will afford you a great view of your ultimate destination. Rattlesnake Ledge juts out from the mountainside looming above you and plants the thought in your head that it looks to be almost a straight-up vertical climb. Rest easy, though, it’s not that bad. From the trailhead it’s 1.9 miles to the top, so figure four miles roundtrip adding in the walk from the parking lot to trailhead.

Crowded trail

(Crowded trail)

For most of its distance, the trail is pitched at a moderate climb and takes you through standard lower elevation Northwest forest land. An occasional glimpse of Rattlesnake Lake can be snatched through the pine boughs on the way up, but for the most part there isn’t a whole lot to see as you ascend. It is nicely shaded for most of its length which is a bonus on hot, sunny days. And for those of you averse to snakes in general and rattlers in particular, don’t worry. The lake and ledge got their name not from actual rattlesnakes (there are no rattlers in western Washington) but from seed pods which grow along the trail and produce a rattling effect when blown by the wind.

Blue skies, sunshine and trees - a great combination

(Blue skies, sunshine and trees – a great combination)

Almost to the top

(Almost to the top)

As is so often the case, the steepness of the switchbacks increases as you near the top and start to get a little winded. Just about the time we began wondering if that 1.9 mile marker was a mistake or perhaps even a blatant lie, the top came into view. We had passed many people already heading down as we climbed up, and a good thing, too. As we came out of the trees onto the open expanses of limestone rock which constitute the ledge, we could scarcely believe how many people were scattered across the area. Way too many for my taste, but then I’m a guy who partially judges any hike’s enjoyment in an inverse ratio to the number of people encountered along the way. No, I’m not anti-social, but if I want to be around crowds of people, I’ll go to a mall. When I’m on a hike, I’m looking for silence broken only by the wind and birdsong, and a large measure of solitude.

Made it!

(Made it!)

View to the south

(View to the south)

Having said all that, the view is spectacular, especially after having been pretty much enclosed by trees all the way up. You’re about 1,300 feet above the surrounding countryside, with wide open, expansive views to the north, east, and south. Rattlesnake Lake spreads out below and a sliver of Chester Morse Lake can be glimpsed in the eastern distance. Looking to the north there’s Mount Si and North Bend. Yes, there are clearcuts damaging the scenery in some directions, but it’s hard to complain when confronted by such a viewpoint. We found an unclaimed patch of rock and sat down to enjoy, rest, and eat our lunch.

Relax a while, you've earned it

(Relax a while, you’ve earned it)

Okay, I’ll admit it was kind of fun people and dog watching while we rested, but definitely a case of making lemonade out of lemons. I still would have preferred no lemons at all.

The human and dog circus atop Rattlesnake Ledge

(The human and dog circus atop Rattlesnake Ledge)

Once we’d had our fill of scenery and food and photo taking, we started back the way we’d come. We hadn’t gone very far at all when a young woman ahead of us on the way uphill started freaking out. And I do mean literally freaking out, yelling, crying, and sobbing hysterically, and generally going bonkers. We were maybe fifty feet away and quickened our pace wondering what could possibly be wrong.

Turned out she apparently had a deadly phobia of snakes, and there on the trail between us was a medium sized, common everyday garter snake, maybe a foot and a half long and about as harmless as any snake could be. But, I guess if you have an uncontrollable snake phobia it doesn’t matter the variety or size, you will flip out anyway.

Watch your step - dangerous snakes underfoot!

(Watch your step – dangerous snakes underfoot!)

The woman ran off and cowered, shaking and sobbing behind a tree about a hundred feet down the trail while her male companion did his best to soothe and calm her. Quite unsuccessfully. We stopped and took a photo of the offending reptile and watched it scoot off trail into the trees. When we passed the young woman we tried to reassure her that the snake was gone, and her friend thanked us but I don’t think she even heard what we said, still shaking and incoherent with fear. I felt kind of bad for the guy, personally. Here they were only a hundred meters or so from the top and, most likely, they were going to have to turn around and go back down.

My question is this: if she’s frightened to death of snakes, what in the world possessed this woman to venture onto a trail called Rattlesnake Ledge in the first place?

Lighter moments ensued as we made our way down the mountain. My favorite encounter of the day was when we passed a man coming up with his dog, each of them with their own backpacks. When I said to him I liked the idea of putting the dog to work, he smiled and said, “He has to carry his own poop out of here at least.” Hard to argue with that.

Rattlesnake Lake

(Rattlesnake Lake)

We soon hit bottom and spent some time splashing around the lakeshore before heading home. In summary, I have to say the view from Rattlesnake Ledge is incredible and well worth the trek if you can stand the crowds. If it’s solitude you’re wanting, though, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

One last look at the ledge from the lakeshore

(One last look at the ledge from the lakeshore)

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