My girlfriend, Natalie, was finishing graduate studies at a university in the desert southwest while I remained in Seattle, anchored at work. We were reuniting for a weekend, pining for nature and outdoor activities. Our selected destination was an almost unbelievably short jaunt for me: Bellevue, a contemporary oasis a mere six miles from Seattle. “Bellevue has all the amenities of an urban hub, but it’s also a gateway to everything green that I miss about the Pacific Northwest,” Natalie said when she suggested the location.
I see the modern Bellevue skyline glinting across the shores of Lake Washington on my daily commute. “Leave no stone unturned” had become our motto for seeing places anew together, only now it would have local application. Could we, by immersing ourselves in the city’s epic backyard, begin to experience the familiar as somehow exotic?
ZigZag Scenic Rattlesnake Ledge
We decided to spend our first-day hiking and exploring nearby Rattlesnake Mountain. (Natalie joked that she’d had enough close encounters with deadly desert critters, but the only rattlesnakes in Washington live in the eastern part of the state, thankfully.) We grabbed some croissants, as well as a crusty baguette, from La Parisienne bakery to nibble on during the 30-minute drive east, along with some double Americanos to warm us up.
Bellevue sits on the doorstep of a vast swath of green space that extends along the Interstate 90 corridor, gaining in elevation and intensity as you approach the Cascade range at Snoqualmie Pass. Spoiled for choice among the host of awe-inducing trails that crosshatch the dense forest canopy here, we chose the popular Rattlesnake Ledge near North Bend (yes, of Twin Peaks fame) for its unforgettably scenic plateau.
The switchback trail climbs nearly 1,200 feet in two miles—moderate for hikers but quad-burning for trail runners—and affords views of nearby Mount Si and Mount Washington, as well as gleaming blue Rattlesnake Lake below. We continued onward to the middle and upper ledges, taking in the expansive vista, before making our giddy descent. An early start had given us a jump on the busy trail; it’s a well-traveled route for good reason. Energized by the bracing alpine air, we were keen to explore Mount Si, but we knew its rocky peak (known as the “haystack”) was a formidable 3,000-plus feet of pure uphill endurance.
Get Your Fill in Factoria
Our appetites were beckoning, so we headed back, admiring the beauty of the Snoqualmie Valley as we drove toward Factoria.
Once a proposed site for a large namesake industrial center that never took root, this suburban commercial district south of Bellevue now boasts such high-tech corporations as T-Mobile, Samsung, and Boeing. But the reason for Natalie’s and my visit was its well-known concentration of international restaurants—from Korean to Thai to Brazilian and more—tucked within the myriad shopping plazas just off the interstate.
We settled on sharing a panko-crusted pork cutlet at Katsu Burger, then crossed the parking lot for a sizzling bowl of Korean bibimbap at Mama’s Kitchen. We finished our dine-around at Square Lotus, which is an excellent choice for vegan diners. There, we enjoyed a Vietnamese dessert—grilled banana cake with coconut milk—before we returned to Bellevue and our hotel.
Finding Bliss in Bellevue
Day two was intended for relaxation, which for adventure seekers means getting back out on the trails. But we also agreed to take it more slowly and stay closer to “home.” I decided to head to the nature trails on Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park, where preservation followed the abandoned mines of a once-burgeoning coal industry; she, to a European-inspired, halotherapy spa session at the Salt Spa of Bellevue.
Cougar Mountain, less than 20 minutes from downtown Bellevue, attracts local trail runners and encompasses nearly 40 miles of trails in quintessential Northwest second-growth forest. One can walk, hike, or run for days here, meshing with nature on a variety of distinct paths.
At the end of Red Town trailhead, I met up with Natalie as she dipped her boots in the creek. “How was the spa?” I inquired, curious about the effects of reclining in a room tiled with pink Himalayan salt, its micro crystals released into a healing vapor. “Pure tranquility,” she said.
We encountered a similar serenity at Bellevue Botanical Garden, where even the subtle minimalist architecture of the new visitor center blends naturally into the landscape. We wandered a path bordered by carefully articulated plantings to the secluded Yao Garden, a graceful expression of Japanese formalism and native Northwest elements. Our subsequent encounter of a suspension bridge spanning a ravine and a beguiling, natural light-filled wooden sculpture made it clear why the garden is a must-see stop on any tour of the city.
Making Plans Over a Pint
We wanted to explore even further with a visit to the Mercer Slough, the largest of Lake Washington’s remaining wetlands to see—and hear—some of the numerous bird species that dwell here, but we’ll have to save that for another time.
For now, we were content to simply wind down at Bellevue Brewing Company, the city’s first locally-owned brewery, with delicious craft beers—Natalie ordered the grapefruit IPA; I, the tangerine pale ale. Natalie’s brew paired perfectly with beer-braised pulled pork on a Cubano sandwich, while I ordered chili and the second glass of beer, this time creamy oatmeal stout.