A hike with a natural waterslide: Denny Creek is a family-friendly classic

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One Foot In Front of The Other

Denny Creek

Distance: 2-6 miles round-trip, with a natural waterslide at Mile 1 that works well as a turnaround point or picnic-lunch interlude before adding on mileage.

Good for: Families, trail runners, dogs and beginning-intermediate hikers of all ages.

Parking situation: Complicated, for now. The parking lot at the trailhead is currently closed (so are the restrooms), so you’ll need to walk in after parking on the side of the road outside the entrance; be patient, and expect a long line of cars if you go at a peak time.

Terrain: The jaunt to the waterslide is easy, gentle hiking. The grade gets steeper thereafter, but it’s worth it for more truly forested hiking.

Like any good Seattle kid, I’ve had Denny Creek on my radar since I was first dragged there as a child by my excessively outdoors-focused parents. The trail is a Northwest childhood classic for a reason: On the easiest setting, you take an out-and-back hike to an improbable natural waterslide in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, gain 400 feet of elevation along the way, and go home within a couple of hours — all without sacrificing your entire day. It’s the ultimate gentle, kid-friendly hike, doable for the time-crunched and families alike, and interesting enough to attract more experienced hikers, too.

If you’ve never been, the idea of a natural waterslide might not make any sense, but it’s basically a smooth set of rocks you can slide down into a shallow pool below. If you can go on a hot day, this is a delight. But even if it’s colder, it’s the perfect spot to sit and take in the scenery.

If you’re taking it easy or wrangling children, the waterslide (about 1 mile in) will likely be your turnaround point; stop for a quick dip or a snack, then head back to the trailhead.

Denny Creek is a kid-friendly, easily extendable hike through old-growth forest.  (Megan Burbank / The Seattle Times)
Denny Creek is a kid-friendly, easily extendable hike through old-growth forest. (Megan Burbank / The Seattle Times)

More ambitious hikers would be well advised to keep going along the trail, where their efforts will be rewarded with waterfalls. The next point of interest after the waterslide, 0.7 miles up the trail, is Keekwulee Falls; you can also trek up further to Snowshoe Falls, adding on an additional half-mile.

This is the beauty of Denny Creek: It’s a hike that meets a number of varied needs; on an average weekend, you’ll encounter families, trail runners and even backpackers along the way.

And there’s plenty to enjoy en route regardless of how far you’re willing to wander — waterfall and creek views, massive nurse logs, bridges and boardwalks, and the bizarre thrill of walking under an extremely tall section of I-90. A concrete swoosh jutting into the sky above the tree line, it’s an incongruous site that gives off a “World Without Us” vibe. (According to the Washington Trails Association, the height serves an important purpose: keeping I-90 avalanche-free during the winter months.)

The day I went was no good for swimming — it was sunny out but chilly. Still, it was such a relief to be out in anything approximating wilderness after months spent mostly at home.

I wasn’t sure I’d feel that way. While hiking is one of the few activities to be near-continuously accessible under the state’s social-distancing measures, whenever I do so much as run around Green Lake or the Discovery Park Loop on a busy day, I’m often nervous about the sheer number of people I see out and about without face coverings on. (And yes, I run in a mask and give pedestrians over 6 feet of space when passing. It can be done.)

Instead, it was strangely nice to be able to verbally negotiate passing other hikers on the trail, and to be able to say “Good morning!” to total strangers, even from under a mask. Nature makes social distancing easier; there really is room for all of us. When many of our daily interactions are newly freighted with communal fear, that’s no small thing.

But that fear is real, and based on fact, and you do need to wear a mask to hike Denny Creek. While it’s easy enough to stay dispersed on miles of trail, when it comes to passing other groups, maintaining a distance of 6 feet is challenging (unless you’re into trampling vegetation, which, please don’t).

So a mask (or at least a buff or bandanna to pull over your face when passing other groups) is nonnegotiable. While many hikers at Denny Creek were following rules, I passed a number who just weren’t making any effort at all to comply with social distancing — or, in two egregious cases, doing things like putting their hands over their mouths when passing, or halfheartedly pulling up the collars of their shirts (neither is recommended by public health officials).

Doing this isn’t just annoying — it makes it harder for other people to enjoy being in nature and feeling safe while doing so. And right now, getting outside is something everyone deserves. It’s a privilege, not burden.

As for me, I didn’t need to be dragged to Denny Creek this time. But being in a quarantine pod with my family gave me a good excuse to drag two other hikers with me: my parents.

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Denny Creek is located off I-90 (exit 47) past Denny Creek Campground and Franklin Falls trailhead, about an hour’s drive east from Seattle. The trailhead’s parking lot is currently closed, so park on the road and walk in. Keep in mind that the road in is one-way. A Northwest Forest pass is required; more information at fs.usda.gov.

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