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Bridle Trails Nature Hike a Refreshing Green Respite From Frantic Civilization

The Bridle Trails Foundation is hosting a "Party in the Park" Saturday to raise funds for its mandate to help pay for maintenance of the 482-acre suburban jewel.

is an old, remarkably intact native Western Washington forest that harbors large green trees, colorful rare species and a surprising variety of wildlife.

It’s also going to be the scene of a big party Saturday, thrown by the non-profit foundation that helps maintain it as a 482-acre island of sylvan serenity surrounded by busy suburbia.

“Some trees probably 250 years old are still here,” says Jim Erckman, a retired ecologist who leads nature hikes in the park for the Bridle Trails Park Foundation. “Some of it was logged starting in 1919, and the last logging was in 1936. So many of the trees are 100 years old. It’s an old forest, and pretty natural, intact.”

This we learned in a hands-on way one recent Saturday during one of Erckman’s hikes, assisted by a UW doctoral candidate in biology and fungi specialist Luke Bayler. Informed and entertained by the pair’s encyclopedic knowledge, we discovered that these hikes offer a superb opportunity for local nature lovers to get to know this fascinating and wild corner of Kirkland.

Except the park is not really in Kirkland, but rather surrounded by it on two sides. According to park ranger Mary Wellborn, Bridle Trails State Park is officially in unincorporated King County. However it’s entrance and mailing address are listed as Kirkland.

Not that it matters at all. What does matter is that it is a pretty special place, and it is maintained that way through a unique arrangement between the foundation and the State Parks and Recreation Commission.

In 2002 during a budget pinch, Washington State Parks put Bridle Trails on a list of parks for potential closure. That’s when local park users, mostly equestrian-oriented, formed the foundation in an effort to save it.

Ultimately, a 40-year agreement was signed that stipulates the foundation pay 50 percent of the park’s operating costs. This is done through various annual events and fundraising appeals.

These include Saturday’s hoe down, or “Party in the Park,” from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. It’s based a the park’s main entrance and riding facilities, NE 53rd and 116th Ave NE, Kirkland.

The event includes 5k and 10k run/walks, on sections of the park’s 28 miles of trails ($20/$30) ; a pancake breakfast ($5); and pony rides, miniature horses, the world-famous Valentine’s Performing Pigs (OK, maybe not world famous, but indeed, performing pigs!); face-painting; guided nature walks; equestrian drill teams; a canine agility demonstration; cake walk and live music. A shuttle bus will run every 10 minutes from the nearby Houghton Park and Ride.

“It’s a blast, particularly for kids,” says Erckman, former vice president of the foundation who lives near the park.

A group of about 10 followed Erckman and Baylor along the 1.6-mile Trillium Trail, one of three signed major routes among the park’s 28 miles of path, stopping regularly to examine and learn about the park’s natural curiosities.

“This park, if you’re into plants, it’s got some interesting things,” Erckman explains. “There are several rare plants here.”

These include (see the photos) the pretty native orchid known as coral root and the very rare Vancouver Island ground cone. The latter in known in King County only in the park.

We stopped to scrap a tiny piece of bark from the stem of an Oregon grape plant, which bled a yellow substance used by Native Americans as a dye. We pondered impressive specimens of the three primary conifers in the park, the Northwest classics Douglas fir, Western Hemlock and Western red cedar.

We reveled in huge swaths of giant green sword ferns and waxy-leafed salal. The sword fern, says Erckman, might be the most common native plant in North America, based on shear numbers. “You see how much they cover the forest floor here.”

Bayler, of course, foraged among the underbrush, pointing out fungi such as oyster mushrooms (edible) and the amanita (definitely not edible).

Regularly, friendly riders atop their steeds exchanged pleasantries with the group, which as park rules require stood off to one side of the trail as the horses passed.

At one point we heard the noisy caws of ravens, which nest in the park despite the fact they are not typical suburban species.

“We have cooper’s hawk and redtail hawks nesting in the park,” Erckman adds. “We have bobcats in the park now. There is some habitat for them. We’ve seen a great gray owl and snowy owls. We have barred owls. We have the occasional bear and deer.”

All in all, the hike proved a refreshing, green respite from the frantic pace civilization, even though were were surrounded by same -- a vivid reminder of why parks are so precious.

Erckman will be leading short nature walk for kids during Saturday’s Party. He and others lead regular foundation hikes almost monthly, with upcoming dates of July 16, July 24 (nature photography), Aug. 13 (botany walk) and Sept. 11. Bayler helps lead mushroom walks in September and October, but dates are not yet set. See the foundation’s calendar here for details.

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