Popular vs Wild Trails | Comparing Mailbox Peak to South Wedge Mountain

Last week was an ass-kicker, to say the least. Hiking over 20 miles on top of a 40-hour work week made my feet sore but provided the inspiration I need during this time in our world. I started the week in the Wenatchee National Forest and finished a 12-mile trek in North Bend. The two hikes differ in terrain and public renown, but this contrast inspired a discussion of the pros and cons of popular, well-packed trails and wilder trails that are off the grid a bit. Let’s start with a Washington cult classic, featuring a mailbox at the summit.

Mailbox Peak- Popular Trail

Mailbox is a beloved, trendy trail in Washington state. There are two ways up to the 5,500 ft peak-the “old trail” which is steep 4.5 miles and the new, more frequented 12 mile trail. My thighs are still throbbing, but the latter is the one I decided to take. 

I have found that iconic trails like Mailbox are popular for a reason. This trek offers an immersion into nature although located right off of I-90 near North Bend, but it isn’t just a local favorite. Trekkers travel internationally to take on this beast, all for the feeling of conquest that can only be received by reaching the famous mailbox at the summit. The central location makes it feasibly accessible and a go-to option for Washingtonians living on the west side that are looking for a day trip, but this proximity to the city doesn’t take away from the instinctive elements of diverse wildflowers, mushrooms, and streams fueled by snowmelt. Because of the high traffic, and its the closeness to civilization and others on the trail, Mailbox Peak is also a safer trail. As a woman, hiking this trail alone felt very secure because there was almost always another group of hikers in sight, from runners and families, to groups of hopeful college kids wearing converse.

Although this element of safety made me comfortable leaving in my headphones, it did become frustrating throughout the hike. I was on the trail for almost 5 hours, the peak blistering cold with harsh wind and hail making the wet trek down seem longer. With a slightly grumpy descent, it became frustrating when I would try to pass people, especially considering that we are advised to stay 6 feet apart from one another. Because the new trail is multiple switchbacks stacked on top of one another, there isn’t much privacy. There was a point on my way down where I really needed to pee and in rural central Washington, I would have simply wandered into the forest a little bit and found a place to squat and do my business. It became very irritating to me that there was almost nowhere to “pull over.” Plus, I felt even more responsible in staying on the trail in such a populated area. Holding it until I got back to the restrooms at the trailhead made it a bit uncomfortable on the way down. In totality, the number of people on the trail almost hindered the experience, even from the moment I had gotten there. I even woke up at 5 am to get to this trailhead right when it opened at 7 am sharp and still found the parking lot to be busy. Arrive early if you plan on doing this one on a weekend.

South Wedge Mountain- Wild Trail 

I have a strong endearment for a wild trail, one that requires an escapade to even get to the trailhead. South Wedge Mountain in Leavenworth is a sincerely unparalleled experience, the summit exposing the south side of the Enchantments. My husband and I didn’t see one other soul once we started driving on the country road up to the trailhead, and it felt like we had the entire mountain and its unknown trail to ourselves- our own secret.

The drive to the trailhead alone was about an hour, and from the top of the trail, we could look down and not see civilization for miles on end. “We are really out here” we would say to each other once in a while. This being said, there is a lot of value in safe exploration for the road we drove up to reach the trailhead was completely broken. We tried to balance the car in between cracks of the hillside and almost turned around on multiple occasions. There was absolutely no signage, making the wayfinding process quite stressful. Once we were at the trail, we were emotionally exhausted from just getting there. There were multiple trees blown down in the pathway and the trail was unmaintained in multiple spots. With no phone service, I could picture someone getting lost on this trail easily, and with the lack of wayfinding material, I do not recommend doing this alone. All this being said, there was a primal component to the whole search that brought back nostalgia of making our own adventures as children. While also appreciating the hard work and  infrastructure that goes into more visited trail systems, it was hard not to think about how this uncharted element of hiking might not be a reality years down the road and we wanted to soak up all we could.

There are so many components to consider when choosing a trail to explore, making both examples worth doing. Preparation, circumstance, weather, and overall what you want to take away from your hike. I adored the “known” elements of completing Mailbox, and the victorious feeling of touching that renowned mailbox I have always dreamed of reaching. I also felt the same sense of triumph while navigating South Wedge Mountain, a trail that many don’t dare to approach. Washington is especially diverse and this topographical variety allows us to choose the outdoor experience that we are yearning for. So I leave you with the question to catapult your next discovery- popular or wild?

Off to another,
Madison

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