Nearby Coal Creek open space, trails are restored

The Upper Reach Coal Creek Stream Bank Stabilization Project added new fencing to restore habitat near the Lakemont Blvd. S.E. trail entrance after storms essentially closed down the trails and open space. - Claire Gebben/Special to the Reporter
The Upper Reach Coal Creek Stream Bank Stabilization Project added new fencing to restore habitat near the Lakemont Blvd. S.E. trail entrance after storms essentially closed down the trails and open space.
— image credit: Claire Gebben/Special to the Reporter

Sometimes, we discover the loveliest places in our own backyards. Just a hop, skip and a jump off Mercer Island, the Upper Coal Creek Trail has become one of my favorite spots for a hike.

For years, I’d navigated Coal Creek Parkway in my red minivan without really thinking about its name, how Coal Creek refers to an actual stream, its beds rich with coal, the source of a booming, honest-to-goodness mining operation in the late 1800s.  

That is, until the morning I was running errands in south Bellevue and the car in front of me on Coal Creek Parkway suddenly turned left into a nondescript lot.

As I rushed past in my van on the four-lane pavement river, I caught a glimpse of the blue Bellevue trailhead sign, the towering stands of large-leaf maples. It was a sunny, inviting day, and my to-do list was not terribly appealing. On a whim, I went back to check it out.

A metal plaque on a chain-link fence at the trailhead showed a map and a very short trail. Tacked up by the City of Bellevue Utilities District, the sign elucidates the Coal Creek Parkway Sedimentation Basin project, an effort to trap sediment, to stop obstruction of salmon and trout spawning runs from Lake Washington.

It was at that moment that I encountered the real Coal Creek, its understated shower noise as it fed through concrete barriers beneath the parkway, the cars speeding above it, unawares.

Believing I was in for a brief adventure, I ambled up the trail.

The path followed the creek, graveled and wide at first, then turning to soft cedar chips through a damp tunnel of foliage, past a giant upturned tree stump, with access points to the stream along the way.

In a quarter mile, a different kind of sign, made of wood, splintered and worn, stood at a fork in the trail, the uphill branch going to Forest Drive S.E., or a more level path to Primrose Trail JTN in one mile, Red Town Trailhead in 2.7.

Red Town? I’d never noticed a Red Town on any Bellevue map. Lured by the mystery, I picked up the pace.

In a half mile, the trail crossed over Coal Creek on a new, sturdy bridge. Just on the other side, a narrower, steeper trail began, ascending up the ravine, bits of old brick rubble mixed in with the well-trodden dirt of the path.

My red minivan now far behind me in the lot off the busy road, I reveled in this cool, quiet canopy of forest. The stiff uphill warmed my muscles, but then it leveled off, the dark-earthed footpath enticing me forward with fern-edged elegance. Near the top of the rise, an old wooden sign provided a reassuring “You Are Here” and measure of my progress (1.9 miles to go to Red Town; the sign also marks the junction with Primrose Trail, which is currently closed to hikers).

Upper Coal Creek Trail continued ahead, well-maintained, urging me onward with soft, pleasant terrain. Now far above the creek, I could still hear it coursing below me. A new, unmarked fork in the trail offered a branch to the right coated in fresh cedar chips, leading down a ravine. (This new section, just completed in the spring of 2009, is an alternate trail access behind the new Coal Creek YMCA parking lot off Newcastle Golf Club Road.)

I took the trail that branched to the left. Gradually, it opened out of bird-song filled forest into a meadow coated in field grasses, nettles and blackberries, its rolling plain dotted with stately Douglas fir, alder and cottonwoods. Meandering gently for another half mile, the trail merged with a gravel road.

Just when I was beginning to wonder which direction to take, a group of cross-country runners appeared directly ahead from the woods. I proceeded a tenth of a mile up the road to where they had emerged and found a wooden sign on the left indicating the trail’s continuation to Red Town.

Almost there. Down a set of stairs, then another quarter mile on a stretch reminiscent of a railroad bed. At this point, the woods opened onto an area of native plantings strewn with straw, evidence of this summer’s Coal Creek Stream Bank Stabilization Project, just completed on Sept. 30. In addition to stretches of new wood fencing, two log benches graced a viewpoint of North Fork Falls spilling picturesquely down a 15-foot wall of rust-colored rock.

Black, shiny coal shards (tailings) littered the ground. A wooden raft of timbers hung out over a smooth rock precipice of the creek. All at once, like Bingham stumbling on Machu Picchu, I realized I was standing among the ruins of an older civilization: broken brick foundations, cement pads with rusted rebar, black veins of coal striping the creek banks.

A little farther ahead, I came upon the fenced-off, cavernous entrance to a coal mine. The wide, deep hole swallowed all light in its black, gaping maw.

According to the nearby interpretive sign, this area of Coal Creek was once a temple to coal. Starting in 1874, when the first veins were mined, right on through World War I and beyond, coal was shipped by rail to supply “the Northwest and San Francisco from 1878 to 1930.” There were many buildings on this site in those days, including a generator house and a steam plant. The wooden 12-foot-by12-foot timbers I had seen earlier were remnants of wood aqueducts built so that the creek and the railroad tracks could share the same path.

But where was Red Town? Continuing my search, I climbed the stairs and walked through the grassy field to cross Lakemont Boulevard S.E. Here, the Red Town Trail picked up in Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park. Interpretive signs posted there tell the history of Red Town, where miners and their families once lived in red-painted shacks. Like their inhabitants, however, the buildings are ghosts, every visible trace of Red Town re-absorbed by the forest.

On the downhill hike back to the van, I wondered at the primitive simplicity of this place. At no point does Upper Coal Creek Trail cross public roads. There’s no rush of traffic noise; only bird songs and waterfalls. There’s no evidence of property lines or backyards. Instead, during breaks from deep forest cover, the trail opens into sunny meadows with rolling views up to Cougar Mountain.

One hundred years ago, Red Town grew up around coal mines and railroads, a bustle of industry. For thousands, even millions of years before that, it was host to bountiful salmon and trout runs, the natural progression of geologic time. Now, with the Sedimentation Basin and Stream Bank Stabilization projects, the salmon and trout runs are being restored. The hub of human activity has shifted, but the water continues to flow, carving its path through eons.

Islander Claire Gebben can be reached at

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