Editor's Note: Today we debut a regular Wednesday feature here on Kirkland Patch, Outside in Town. Kirkland is blessed with an abundance of fine parks, particularly with Finn Hill coming into the annexation fold in June, not to mention a corner of the second-largest natural lake in the state. It is also bicycle and pedestrian friendly. So join editor Greg Johnston here every week for a hike, a paddle, a ride or some other urban adventure.
Mission: Hike one of the last remaining remnants of old-growth forests in the greater Seattle area, following a babbling brook in lush, classic green native conifer habitat through a steep suburban valley that feels amazingly isolated.
Route: Find O.O. Denny Park at 12032 Holmes Point Drive. From downtown Kirkland, follow Market Street north to Juanita Drive. Go left and drive a smidge beyond two miles, taking a left on Holmes Point Drive at the light. In less than two miles, find the paved parking lot on the left. The hike described is about two miles, with a gain of about 250 feet.
Denny Creek is inarguably one of the crown jewel hikes in all the Eastside lowlands, part of a marvelous matrix of parks and green spaces in the Finn Hill area that totals almost 700 contiguous acres and provides for a variety of recreation and habitat.
Somehow largely spared the loggers' saws in the late 1800s, the Douglas fir and Western red cedar here make up one of the last three stands of old-growth forest in the Seattle area – the others at Seward Park near the other end of Lake Washington and Schmitz Park Preserve in West Seattle.
"I guess I would call it urban wilderness," says Richard Smith, chairman of the Finn Hill Parks District commission. "It's wild. There are parts of it that are nigh intractable. It's one of the jewels of the Seattle metropolitan area."
Our route snakes through O.O. Denny Park into a lower leg of King County's 316-acre Big Finn Hill Park, which, with eight miles of trails itself, is another story. From the paved lot on Lake Washington, head across Holmes Point Drive to the dirt lot (usually gated in winter) and adjacent grassy area on the north side of Denny Creek. On the upland side of the grass, find the obvious opening and wide trail.
Heading up the valley, you'll enter a deep-green swale of sword ferns and skunk cabbage and soon find yourself in mighty big forest. Note the double-trunked cedar on the left, not a monster but plenty old, and shortly find a path veering to the left.
It's an old logging spur up into a tributary canyon and worth taking. It's all second-growth forest of fir, hemlock and bigleaf maple, but pretty. After a quarter-mile or so the land here turns private; go as far as you care to and then turn around and go back to the main trail. We always check this valley out after encountering in 2009 a barred owl here in the low branches of a small fir tree (see the accompanying photo). That big-eyed bird was magnificent, mysterious and spooky in appearance as large owls are.
Back on the main trail, continue up the Denny Creek valley and immediately enter ancient forest of huge fir and cedar. On the left is a horizontal beast of a fir that toppled in a storm in 2005. Soon find another even larger fir completely across the trail, the way through chain-sawed open some years ago. This monster had to have been 400 years old, now living a second life as host for beds of moss and ferns.
Then just up the valley find a massive vertical snag that once was the biggest Douglas fir in King County, before losing its top in a storm in 1993. A plaque tells its story – 600 years old!
Soon the trail climbs gently into a damp thicket of alder and maple, their trunks absolutely blanketed on the shady side by delicate licorice ferns. If you're allergic to the color green, this place will give you hives!
Emerge on a bench where once a house stood, noting a concrete bridge across the creek on the right. By now you are out of Denny Park proper and in Big Finn. Continue up the valley, where this hike becomes all about the bubbling creek. The trail plunges across the stream three times -- at high flow the rock-hop can be a challenge -- as both meander through the valley, the sides of which are now quite steep,
At the third crossing, more than a half-mile from the parking lot, the trail climbs steeply up the south side of the valley, ending in about an eighth of a mile and about 175 feet of vertical gain, at a neighborhood off Juanita Drive. Take it if you want the exercise – we always do – before turning around and retracing the route back to the concrete ridge.
Here follow the old gravel access road up the other side of the valley, soon reaching a bench on the valley rim. Straight ahead is another neighborhood. Find the trail in an opening of the forest to the right. Follow it downhill, and here enter perhaps the most pristine part of Denny Park, at least in terms of habitat. It's classic Puget Sound forest of fir, hemlock, cedar and even yew, the understory a mix of Oregon grape and salal shrubbery, accented by big green sword ferns.
Follow this pleasant path about a quarter-mile back to the parking lot. But stop in several open spots at the edge of the valley rim and peer down to the creek below: more huge fir trees, some of them towering and immense, really impressive.
Back at the lot, walk the park's very urban park-like waterfront, in the summer sun always a carpet of sunscreen-slathered brown bodies, beach blankets, coolers and splashing children.
In winter, walk the several hundreds yards of pleasant grassy shore and feel the breeze blowing across Lake Washington. Recently, we saw just offshore a group of about 10 trumpeter swans, part of a flock that winters on Juanita Bay. Often you can see the area's year-round resident bald eagles, which once nested in the park's forest snags and may still.
Then head back to your car, feeling somewhat wistful after having visited classic urban wilds, what the late author and conservationist Harvey Manning called "the wilderness within."