Sometimes we don’t even know what little jewels are right in our neighborhood until we stumble across them. One of these past sunny, icy-cold winter days, my husband and I decided to take a walk on a trail we hadn’t explored before. And it would be an utterly exhilarating experience.
We drove up SR 99 to Federal Way where we followed the signs to the West Hylebos Wetlands. We had been curious about it for a while already, since I-5 crosses the Hylebos Creek – and somehow the name has something to it, don’t you think? I looked into it and found it an homage to a Belgian Catholic priest who founded schools and hospitals in Washington Territory. So much for expecting some more mystical Greek explanation …
We found parking easily and were pretty surprised to find two historical structures next to the parking lot. The taller one is the Denny Cabin. It had been built by Seattle businessman David Denny in 1889 as his real estate office. Only five weeks after the cabin’s completion, the great Seattle fire would destroy the entire Seattle business district – with the exception of this cabin. Quite a miracle. Later, the structure was used as a school, even as a tavern. In the 1960s it was moved to its current place in Federal Way.
A few yards away is another building – the John Barker Cabin. I have to admit that I was smitten with it instantly – it looks like from the set of an old Hollywood movie with its shingled roof, the rickety porch and bench, and the mighty stone chimney. This cabin was built in 1887 – and I was wondering at how basic it looks compared to Steilacoom’s Orr Home (built in 1857) that has pretty much been looking like what it is today ever since 1868 – way more modern and civilized. The Wild West and a sophisticated family home pretty much in each other’s neighborhood.
The trail head leads down a very gentle slope towards a picnic ground from where you can choose two different trails. The one to Marlake Lake turned out to be quite muddy. But the sun glittered on the water that was already freezing over that icy morning. And we could hear a veritable concert of song birds in the bushes, trees, and pond reeds. An additional touch of romance was certainly the arched bridge at the end of the trail. We had to walk back the short stretch because we’d have trespassed onto private grounds otherwise.
The second trail off the picnic ground is a loop that mostly consists of a boardwalk. Signage all along explains what plants you can see – a wonderful botanical class if you are into it. I might actually go back in summer and explore it again to see what is in bloom and what bears fruit.
The board walk was white and glittery with hoar frost. So were the leaves and branches along the way. And the mile-long trail was almost empty except for some wildlife photographers. Imagine the quiet, the sounds of Nature, only disturbed by the rumbling of air planes headed to SeaTac or rising into the sky. The sun was barely melting the ice in patches. And at one point we were startled to death by the sudden shriek and flutter of waterfowl we had obviously disturbed in one of the swampy areas.
At the end of the trail, we were rewarded with a beautiful overlook on Brooklake. The winter colors of the woodlands, the reeds, and the swamp grasses were contrasted by the blues of the water and the sky. The air felt wonderfully fresh. And the waterfowl didn’t seem to mind that the water was taking on a thin icy skin already, as well.
We have been driving past the West Hylebos Wetlands countless times. We never suspected such a peaceful natural retreat in the middle of busy Federal Way nor two fascinating contemporary witnesses of the pioneer times. If you are wondering what to do on one of the next rare sunny, dry winter days – try it out for yourselves. It’s an easy walk, and you will return refreshed and renewed.