Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Seattle Underground Tour

A few months ago, I went on a Seattle Underground Tour.  I was told by many it would be fun and hilarious, and by many others it would be dumb and tourist-y.  It was, in fact, somewhere in the middle.  I can’t really make a firm recommendation either way, unfortunately, because like many things, it depends on the people you’re with – particularly the tour guide.  The tour explains much about Seattle history, which is very interesting, and involves a lot of Western ruggedness, pioneer spirit, tidal and forest knowledge, sewage, fires, prostitution, money, hauntings, logging, death, narrow escapes and miracles, and the guides seem to know this inside and out.  The trouble is that there are also a lot of jokes – some are baked into the monolog, others added by the guide.  The jokes win or lose based on the comedic strength of the guide.  Our guide was decent with the jokes (quantity and quality) so our tour was fun, but if I were to advise going on the excursion it would be for the history.

Seattle was built too low, burned to the ground in an accident, then intentionally rebuilt over the previous city – this time above tide-level.    For a while the lower city persisted with walkways above, then buildings were built above and the city eventually encouraged businesses to just move to the surface city, leaving a den of iniquities below the surface in the once-streets-now-tunnels.  They cleaned those up and now there is just a series of empty tunnels (and a few remaining lower-level shops and restaurants) that are filled with nostalgia and a few cool remains (signs, storefronts, a bathtub, etc.).  I expected the underground to be slightly more interesting architecturally and in terms of creep-factor than it is (if you’ve been in an basement, the underground will probably not be that exciting) – so again, go most for the history lesson and let the ambiance be a bonus.  Also, maybe don’t go when it’s super cold or wet out, if those things bother you, because you’re basically outside almost the whole time.  It is cheesy and tourist-y at the beginning (when you are forced to wait in an extremely overpriced coffee shop) and at the end (where you exit through the gift shop).  Again, just stroll on by and you’ll be fine.  And tip the tour guide.  Funny or not, they’re doing an excellent job and are most definitely educated enough in the region and tales to answer nearly any questions you might ask. 
And since it seems to find its way into most of my posts – I don’t really think this tour is dog-friendly.  J

Northwest Hike #4: Poo Poo Point

The hike to Poo Poo Point (let’s just get this out of the way now – hahahahahaha.  Hahah.  Ha.  Oooh haha.  There.)  via the Chirico Trail is part of the Tiger Mountain trail system.  Unlike my previous hike up Tiger Mountain, this one comes with a well-marked trailhead complete with unmistakable parking lot.  You’re driving up the road and then on the left (as you’re headed away from I 90, it’s your left) there is a big field with a big parking lot.  The field is a landing strip for para-gliders so there is some signage for the para-gliding company marking the spot (and warning you to watch your head lest you get landed upon).  The lot is big but on the weekends often full (hiker beware).  There's also Honey Bucket in case you need one per- or post-hike (further warning: when we hiked this trail, no one had emptied the ‘honey’ out of the ‘bucket’ in quite a while, so maybe try to use the loo elsewhere before you arrive).

There’s an archway on the parking lot side of the field that points you directly across to where the path disappears into the forest, which is hard to miss.  The first part of the hike is partially-paved with rugged stones in the path and forming some stairs, giving the mossy, dappled forest trail a very Lothlorien feel.  

As you go up (and up and up – this trail is quite steep and at a near-constant incline) the rocks taper off into a more standard path.  There are lots of switchbacks and small viewpoints over the valley, and one of a small picturesque waterfall.  

Very near the top the path splits off into lots of little paths that appear to all lead to the first overlook.  This offers a wonderful view of the valley below and Mount Rainer in the distance (if you’re lucky and its not covered by clouds like it is in the picture below).  

But if you keep going, across the field and back into the woods and further up the mountain, you can get to the real top, which not only offers an even more spectacular view of the valley below (including the city of Issaquah), but also serves as weather tower station and the jumping off point for the para-gliders, which is an additional fun thing to watch.  If you were wondering why some hikers were carrying enormous packs up the trail, it's because they contain the glider and seat which the person can use to fly off the mountain top. It’s exciting to see them take off into the wind and begin their decent into the valley below. 

There are not always gliders waiting at the tip top, but a few minutes after this photo was taken there were about 15 queued up to jump off this very spot, so hang out and rest and wait a little bit and you might see one or two.  Talk to some gliders hiking up the path near you along the way if you want – most were amenable to answering questions I had of them, which also offered both of us a chance to rest and catch our breath (how long do you glide? Where do you land?  Why do you hike up here instead of taking the bus that magically appeared at the top? Do you own your own equipment?  etc.). 

The hike down is much quicker and easier.  At the bottom you might have to make a dash across the field to get to your car and not get landed upon by the gliders who are still slowly descending.  Turn back and look to the top and you might see a sky dotted with a rainbow of gliders.  

This is a popular path for hikers with dogs, most of whom were off-leash (the dogs and the hikers).  I think mine and one other was on leash out of 40 or so that were on the trail – all of whom were well behaved, leashed or not.    Also the trail is doubly popular for humans due to its dual hiking and paragliding potentials, so prepare to get to meet a lot of people along the way, with and without dogs and packs.  With the beauty and excitement, and being only 30 minutes from Seattle, it’s easy to see why.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Northwest Hike #3: Twin Falls

Twin Falls Trail is about 30 minutes from Seattle.  It's easy to find and has a big parking lot at the trail head with a kind of outhouse thingie - a 'toilet' over a hole in the ground with a shack around it, I forget what they're called.  You need a Discover Pass to park here, which you can buy at Fred Meyer or elsewhere in town to avoid having to find the ranger station when you arrive, or pay the day rate (which is reasonable if you rarely hike, but if you hike a few times a year the Discover Pass is nice to have).  The big parking lot is because it's popular, so if you want a close hike with a well-worn path and dogs (who are allowed here on a leash - please be courteous and keep yours on its leash, which seems obvious, but not everyone does) and toddlers (leashes not required) to pat as they pass, this is it.  Not so much with the silence of nature and the stillness of solitude. 

This hike was considered 'easy' in my Moon hiking guide, but I would say it's definitely medium difficulty.  For example, I would not bring my mom and dad, even though they are in reasonable shape.  My dog had a great time.  There are lots of places to pull over and have a snack and a sit if you want to refuel, picnic, nap or catch your breath.

The trail leads up some sometimes-steep inclines through old-growth forests to two views of a large waterfall, with a smaller waterfall above it.  Near the end of the trail you can walk down a wooden bridge/path to two small overlook decks, which should be a mandatory part of the hike because they gave the best, closest views of the bigger of the waterfalls

Note: when you get to the second waterfall, you are pretty much done with this trail so you can head back.  If you want to keep going, the trail goes on and connects with another trail.  We went on a bit thinking we might see something more spectacular, but then just turned back after some time.  If you are interested in a much longer hike, this would be recommended (see the map above), if you can get close enough of a peek at it.

Pacific Northwest Float Tour: Where Eagles Fly!

Christmas gifts can be so boring and confusing.  Socks.  Meh.  Or yay? But this color is not right.  Is this watch too expensive of a gift?  Or too cheap?  Gift cards are the ultimate zzzzz, even though it lessens the risk they’ll hate your gift (because it’s overly safe).

I like to give experiences - usually ones that involve me spending time with the recipient, so it’s also a fancied up way of giving the gift of time.  Hopefully no one I’d actually get a gift for hates the gift of hanging out with me, so the risk seems low.  For Christmas 2012, I got Joel the gift of taking a raft down the Skagit River to see a bunch of majestic eagles hanging out in their natural habitat.  As we are not from the Northwest, neither of us have overcome the excitement of watching an enormous avian symbol of our country swoop down to catch a wild salmon, so it promised to be at least a marginally good time.

And, it was!  The raft trip was a simple float down a mostly calm river, albeit in the cold rain.  Eagles like the cold rain, what can I say?  We had to go to them.  We saw about 20-25 birds on our two-hour tour.  Most were pretty high up in trees, and another couple in the boat let us share their binoculars so we could get a good look.  Some flew around, alone or in pairs, but sadly none swooped for a fish (apparently they eat early in the day, so if you’re going to do this go early).  Still, it’s hard to complain.

 It was totally freezing, though, so when we were done we went to the gift shop/interpretation center for some 50 cent hot chocolate.  There you can see a ‘small’ nest close up.  Here’s Joel with the nest, so you can see the scale.  The ‘little’ nest is huge.  Imagine the normal sized nest!  It’d be like a king sized bed, but made of sticks and full of eggs.

 If you are into this kind of mild adventure, the company we used was Pacific NW Float Tours.  They are very funny, knowledgeable guides who have been floating the Skagit, and other rivers, for years.  Our guide had 20+ years experience (he remembers when the Skagit followed a different path!).  The company does more exciting adventures too, including white water raft and canoe and kayak tours when the weather is not totally freezing.  Until then, I’ll enjoy the scenery as dryly as possible.