The Old Trail up Mailbox Peak went from obscurity to celebrity within the past five or so years, likely a result of social media--hashtag mailboxpeak--and more folks training for the Big Mountains that need something local yet burly. If you're looking for an easier hike to the same (yes, there's an actual) mailbox on the summit, the New Trail provides a flatter, groomed option for the small price of a couple more miles. If you're looking to push your limits and find the outer edge of your cardio or quad comfort zone, the Old Trail is your jam. If you have heart, lung, knee, ankle, or attitude problems, this is not your trail.
Gaining close to 4000 feet in less than 2.5 miles is no joke; throw in a little route-finding and some boulders, rocks, and roots, and you have yourself a recipe for either disaster or triumph--or both. To find Mailbox Peak's Old Trail trailhead, park on Middle Fork Road or in the parking lot (Discover Pass required and the lot is closed and locked at dusk so factor that into your parking decision) and walk down the well-marked road/path, past the New Trail trailhead on your left. There are warnings posted; heed them. This trail is steep, rugged, and not always easy to follow. Some folks go with a Mailbox veteran for their first time to avoid getting off-track, while others use a navigation app or good old-fashioned compass and map. Summer weekends draw a crowd, while winter weekdays can be almost completely deserted.
Mailbox Peak is open year-round and can provide good slopes to practice snow/axe skills in the winter while often not posing much avalanche risk at times when the rest of the area is on high-alert (but as always, check NWAC, be knowledgeable, be prepared, and be safe). Pack plenty of water and an extra layer or two year round. Bring an open mind and some good cheer; I have seen many folks sitting on boulders in varying states of emotional distress over how hard the Old Trail is taxing them, and I've overheard many arguments between the one who said it was easy and the one sweating it out in Levi's and Vans. Mailbox Peak crosses the line from easy-peasy I-90 hike with the kids (though the more adventurous and energetic ones will love it) into something a little more alpine, a little more scrambly, and almost more climb than hike.
Be generous with your time frame the first few trips; while there are local legends who have been clocked at close to one-hour ascents, others use five hours or more for the round trip. The views? 360 from Seattle to Snoqualmie Pass, with beeline shots of Rainier, Mt. Si, and the Olympics. The next day, rest a little and know that your legs will forgive you, and your soul thanks you. Mailbox Old Trail carries with it every ounce of "no pain, no gain" and "anything worth having is worth fighting for." Don't be surprised if you hear the Rocky theme in your head as you top out at the summit. If you're standing next to that box, you're a fighter and you've won this round.
They say Mailbox's Old Trail isn't for the faint of heart or weak of knee, and they are right. It's a brutal, rough-and-tumble, rugged, muddy, rocky, rooty, hard-to-follow climber's trail that sets its sights on the summit from way down low and doesn't relent until its crescendo: an actual mailbox, filled with an eclectic collection of ever-changing items (Rubber ducks? Plastic bust of Elvis? Whiskey? Letters, postcards, snacks, and once even a discarded wedding band have all been spotted as offerings to the Mailbox gods). Take something, leave something, or pass on the ritual; it's up to you. Also found at the top: sweeping vistas of the North Bend and Snoqualmie area peaks, an in-your-face view of Mt. Rainier, the backside of the Teanaway, and on a clear day, Mt. Baker and Glacier Peak.
Walking up the gated forest road, pass the turnoff for the New Trail and keep going another quarter mile until you see the second trailhead. Take note of the warnings posted: numerous search & rescue operations have taken place here, so pay attention to route-finding and foot placement. Some use poles while others prefer to have their hands free to grip trees and rocks as needed; only you know your comfort level.
The first stretch is deceptively polite: a meandering trail running alongside a babbling brook surrounded by ferns and firs and foxglove, twisting and winding its way through the lower forest like any other trail in the area. After a hairpin switchback about a third of a mile in, you'll immediately feel the pitch increase. From this point, the trail gains about 3000 feet in the next 1.5 miles, and save for a couple of slightly-less-steep sections, you're in for a quad-burning, sweat-generating, lung-bursting, adrenaline-pumping treat. It's not unusual to see a look of disbelief on first-timers' faces as they ask how much further -- but it's not the distance, it's the effort and the unrelenting nature of the Old Trail that is the true test here.
That middle section will feel like forever, but there are enough landmarks of interest to divert your mind from your body a bit: look for the one big flat rock on the right side of the trail (that's one mile) or try to spot the blue sign posted high on a tree ("1000 vertical feet to stream"). When you see the huge old tree that has cracked in half and lays horizontal high above the forest floor, you're almost in the homestretch to the real treat, the boulder field. But more on that later. For now, you're barely switchbacking directly up a crude, mulchy, root-braided footpath frequently blocked by fallen trees. This is less of a trail and more of a free-for-all in an upward direction marked by white diamond-shaped reflectors (keep a close eye on these and be sure to use them to find your way). In the winter you'll see glissade tracks weaving between the trees here (use caution if you attempt this as it is a bit of an obstacle course). When you notice that the ground cover has become greener and lusher and fluffier, you know you've made it through the least pretty part and are past the halfway point.
Two miles in, the Old Trail intersects with the New Trail and you can either give your legs a break and turn right, relaxing up a few well-maintained switchbacks to the boulder field, or barrel straight ahead, crossing through the intersection and straight into the woods for some more unrefined high-incline shortcut stuff, now that you've become accustomed to it. Either way, you'll pop out of the trees as if from a doorway and come face to face with an enormous talus field; this is the start of your last half mile and 960 vertical feet. After having come up via all the slippy-slidey dirt/mud/roots, having these stable, easy-to-navigate (follow the tan rocks in the sea of gray rocks) pillow-sized boulders is a relief, and for many, finally having a view other than tree trunks and dirt is inspiring and motivating. Trotting east on these rocks, you'll switchback a couple times before the talus field peters out and transforms into a more alpine meadow terrain decorated with beargrass and wildflowers in front of you, with the vast I-90 corridor behind you. It is here that the summit comes into view and the path returns to its former primitive and precipitous self as it covers the last 500 vertical feet in less than a quarter mile, giving you the first glimpse of the box just a few minutes before you reach it.
On a summer weekend day, there can easily be a couple dozen folks up there, cheering on your last steps, taking photos of and with the mailbox, picnicking, stretching, resting, or pointing out neighboring peaks. On a winter weekday, if you've braved the snow and ice (spikes, poles, gloves, and extra layers recommended) you could very well have the summit to yourself. Either way, pause here for a bit. Take in the 360-degree views, looking northwest toward Mt. Si and Mt. Teneriffe, south to McClellan Butte, east to Snoqualmie Pass, and northeast toward the Stuart Range. Admire the big volcanoes, and the jagged horizon of the Olympic range to the west. Snap the slightly-cliched but well-deserved picture with the mailbox. Thank your feet and legs for getting you up to 4841 feet--and then apologize to them, as they are about to carry you back down. Take your time, watch your step, and bask in your accomplishment and the confidence boost you might be feeling. Mailbox Old Trail is a great example of Type 2 fun: the kind that's not fun at the time, but is fun in retrospect. You've earned the bragging rights and crossed the line from "enjoyable day hike" to "punishing physical and mental test" . . . and don't be surprised if you want to go back as soon as the soreness fades away.
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