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Originally published December 25, 2009 at 9:30 PM | Page modified December 26, 2009 at 11:47 PM

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Squak Mountain trail is a winter delight

Squak Mountain offers a winter-hiking and equestrian-trail prescription for cabin fever.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Information

Mountains to Sound Greenway: www.mtsgreenway.org/recreation/familytrails/squak-mountain

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Between Cougar and Tiger, Seattle's cabin-fever Rx is just waiting to be uncorked: Squak.

Squak Mountain that is, the lesser known, and delectably less-used option between the headliner mountains in the Issaquah Alps. Squak, just a half-hour from downtown off I-90, rewards the winter hiker or equestrian dying to get out.

Forget the summer crowds and sweat. It's the winter trails that soothe the soul, too long cooped up in the car, the office, the mall. On a recent frosty morning, the equestrian trails on the south side of the mountain beckoned with their solitude, and bracing refreshment.

Sword ferns and cedar boughs glowed green in the low slanting light of the winter sun. Horses' breath steamed in great white plumes as the animals ascended the trail, and the only sounds were of saddles creaking in the cold, and laughing conversation among the riders. For there is virtually no road noise here.

Easy even for rank beginners, the trail starting out from the Squak Mountain State Park trailhead winds up the mountain through cedars, firs and maples, and an understory lush with ferns.

Even serious, long-distance riders come here for quick refreshers when their schedule doesn't permit a longer trip, said Sue McClain, an endurance trail rider out on her horse for a deep breath of cold, frosty air.

A board member of the Mountains to Sound Greenway, she has worked with the Greenway and other partners to help build and maintain parts of the trail, and she feels a close kinship with the landscape.

Both logged and mined, the mountain was brutally skinned by the end of the 1930s. But the mountain has mostly grown back naturally, instead of being industrially replanted, and today has more mature trees than at any time since the 1920s, Doug Simpson writes in his book "Squak Mountain: An Island in the Sky."

The mountain's mixed forest gives a winter trail user the added delight of a forest canopy open to the sky, laced with the bare branches of deciduous trees.

For some hikers, winter is prime time on Squak, when the visibility is better through the forest, revealing the contours of the land, and it's easy to be blissfully alone on trails.

"There are views in winter you don't have in summer, and there is the solitude. You can be up here all day and not see another person, and here we are, right in the heart of suburbia," said Simpson, vice president of the Issaquah Alps Trails Club. He took a recent winter amble to the Bullitt fireplace, a relic of the family cabin that used to stand atop Squak.

The cabin is long since destroyed by vandals. But a picnic bench by the chimney that's still standing is a favorite lunch spot for hikers.

Preservation of large swaths of Squak was jump-started by a gift by the Bullitt Family in 1972 of some 600 acres of the mountain to the public as a permanent wilderness preserve. State and county acquisitions since have helped assemble some 2,500 acres of public open space.

Rising only 2,024 feet high, Squak gets just enough snow to be pretty. Its trails were dusted with snow on a recent morning, flakes filling the cupped surfaces of drying leaves and rimming the moss on downed logs.

There was a quiet winter beauty here, painted in grays and browns and greens. Drops of moisture clung to the tips of branches, and a fragrant carpet of leaves, just down from the maples, was deep and soft underfoot.

Joe Toynbee of Renton, 81, has hiked this mountain for about 50 years. He helped blaze many of the first trails here, and some of his handmade trail signs can still be glimpsed on the trees.

He started keeping a hiking log in 1966, and he has recorded 25,300 miles of hikes since, many of them taken right here in Squak. Getting to know one place well has been part of the pleasure, Toynbee said.

"It's like greeting an old friend. To a lot of us, Squak is an old friend that hasn't changed," Toynbee said. "That's unusual in our world."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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