[Updated Feburary, 2007. Check news for more recent information or temporary conditions.]
The Cedar Butte trail has been greatly improved in recent years. In particular, the infamous "roller-bearing hill" at the top (with grades exceeding 40% in some places) is now entirely by-passed (and now largely a fading bad memory). While it is not as well-built as the upgraded (2004) Rattlesnake Ledge trail, it is no where as bad as the worse parts of the Little Si trail.
However, changes are coming. The local trail-building cabal has decided to build a bike trail up Cedar Butte on the way to Mount Washington, and, for reasons discussed elsewhere, it is going to follow a totally different route. Also, the Watershed has pushed out the boundary of the watershed, and the existing Blowout trail will eventually be cut. Stay tuned.
This hike is classified by the Issaquah Alps Trails Club as "2B": approximately four miles (round-trip) and about 900 feet of elevation gain. However, the first eight-tenths of a mile is on the nearly level John Wayne Pioneer Trail (the old Milwaukee Railroad roadbed) to Boxley Creek, and the elevation gain is entirely in the last mile, on the Cedar Butte trail proper. Taking the "Blowout" trail (see map) adds one-half mile, but it is much gentler, more interesting, and recommended.
Bikers and equestrians please note: much of this trail--and the upper portion most definitely--is too steep or too fragile for use by bikes or horses. It is very simple: if you ride on this trail you damage it. Please don't do that.
The best way to "discover" any new trail is to go with someone that has already been there. I would especially recommend the guided hikes offered by the Issaquah Alps Trails Club. These are open to the public and free; check their website to see if Cedar Butte is scheduled any time soon. But if not, no problem, the following information should be sufficient to get you there--and back!
By the way, do be prudent: Kids should have whistles, with instructions on how to not get lost. This insignificant blob is big enough to get lost on. And make sure everyone has at least a quart of water--that last half mile gets pretty dry.
If you start from the official State Parks Cedar Falls Trailhead, you'll walk about three-quarters of a mile down the John Wayne Pioneer Trail (the former Milwaukee Railroad roadbed) to the bridge over Boxley Creek. On the way you may be able to see Christmas Lake to the north, foliage permitting.
If you start from the traditional trailhead: Follow the road up to where it turns, then follow the prominent trail along the fence through the salmon berry bushes. (The big, scary "Keep Out" signs on the fence are because this used to be the edge of the City of Seattle's watershed. The boundary has been pulled back from here to the other side of the John Wayne trail, so it can access the new trailhead. And on that side it is wise to heed them.) At the top of the rise you can see Christmas Lake on the left. (Named because it was discovered at Christmas--see Boxley Blowout.) In about ten minutes you'll arrive at the old Milwaukee Railroad route, now the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, and you can see the Boxley Creek Bridge about a quarter of a mile away.
Either way, approaching the bridge over Boxley Creek you will pass through a cut. Along this cut there is a lot of thimbleberry, with the large leaves, and (during the summer) raspberry-like berries so delicate it is difficult to pick one without squishing it.
Boxley Creek is fed from a leak in the City of Seattle's reservoir. When it blew out in 1918 (see Boxley Blowout) it not only washed out the railroad tracks here, but wiped out the little hamlet of Edgewick, two miles down stream. In this area the water was reported as being 15 feet deep/
The Cedar Butte trail starts five hundred feet beyond the Boxley Creek bridge, just where the roadbed starts turning. It's a well used trail, and hard to miss if you are even halfway watching for it. There's even a sign now! See the trail map. Careful: there is a false trail near there that doesn't go anywhere. Watch for the sign.
Creek Trail: There is also an alternate route, undeveloped but passable, that starts right at the end of the bridge and goes up Boxley Creek. This is a very nice route (although one small stream needs to be forded), but the Watershed plans to close it when they acquire the property along the Creek. Try it out sometime if you want something more adventuresome, but first-timers should stick with the main trail.
While much of the Cedar Butte trail has been re-routed and rebuilt to be more durable, the very first section is still the original route. But it is a little too steep, and steps have been installed and other measures taken [see "Why are there all these little ditches across the trail?"] to keep it from washing out.
The first approximately one-third of the trail goes through an area that was selectively logged back in 1993-1994. Instead of clear-cutting everything, the previous owner, Champion International, left about a dozen trees per acre to help re-seed the forest. Eventually this will also result in a "multi-story" forest, instead of the sight so distressingly common throughout western Washington of the typical second-growth forest of thin, tall trees of nearly the same age and height, with a high crown and little intermediate foliage. They also used a helicopter to pull the timber out, instead of building a road. And provided a crew to clear the trail afterward. (Champion did good here. They were subsequently bought by another company.)
Letting the light in has generated much new growth, with huckleberry, bracken fern (up to seven feet high!), alder, hemlock and douglas fir trees in plenitude. (For more information about the local flora see Washington Native Plant Society.)
(Part way up this section there used to be an attractive looking shortcut, especially if you were coming back a little late and it was nearly dark. Not a good idea! In recent years it had washed out severely, became quite hazardous, and was the scene of several injuries. It has since been closed and is being revegetated; please stay out of there and let nature have a chance to heal. If you need a challenge, try the Creek trail.)
The trail goes on for a while, then doubles back on an old logging railroad grade that comes up from Boxley Creek. (The junction here is the upper end of the Creek trail.) Eventually the trail makes an unfortunate attack on a steep bank (original route again). Scramble up as best you can. About two hundred feet later we meet the old railroad grade again.
And there is a fork, now with a sign pointing towards the Blowout. On the left is the original route. It gets steep and is not much interesting. And you'll miss the Boxley Blowout overlook. So go right, towards the Blowout.
To the right is the alternate route (recommended!) via the Blowout. This adds only a half mile to your hike, is much gentler, and I think more interesting. It proceeds up the old logging railroad grade. After a gentle ten to fifteen minute walk the trail leaves the old grade. If you're feeling adventurous: follow the old grade out to the end. (It's just two hundred feet or so.) It's eiree: it just ends. And no, there was not a trestle here. The track used to continue on, on the hillside that used to be there. All that was washed away when the Blowout blew.
The trail leaves the old railroad grade, and just where it enters the unlogged forest you will come to the Boxley Blowout Overlook. Here you can peer down into the Blowout. It's hard to see the bottom on account of the trees, but you can tell it is a pretty big hole. Look carefully and you might see some of the trees on the opposite rim. (Note: Going around the Blowout is not advised. That would take you into the watershed, and they really don't like that.)
After the Overlook the trail turns north. In about 150 feet you might notice that the trail crosses a line of plastic wands. This is the new watershed boundary, and where the Watershed may eventually put a fence, cutting off access to the Overlook. As the trail rises you will notice clumps of salal. When this trail was built the salal was, in places, sufficiently dense to be a challenging barrier. Its diminishment is probably due to the tree canopy cutting off the light.
The trail surmounts a small knoll, then drops to a junction in the Saddle. If you skipped the Blowout Trail you still end up here, via the original route.
At the Saddle there is a trail junction, with a sign pointing out the various trails. Note that if you go straight through the saddle you end up on the Southside trail. This is an interesting trail, but it diverges into some unmarked trails. Unless you are prepared to explore, or are with an experienced guide, it is recommended to stay out. You can get lost in there!
The trail to the summit goes off to the left; in about a hundred feet, where it starts heading up hill, you'll see another sign. (And please, no bikes or horses! This trail is just too fragile. If you see any such in there give them a thorough chewing out for being so irresponsible.)
The new trail does a few switchbacks, then does a long run to the north edge of Cedar Butte. As you climb note how the trees are getting smaller. It is not just the elevation, but apparently also due to less water and exposure to colder temperatures. These trees may eventually reach full-size--notice some of the old snags--but they are growing much slower. Many of them are around sixty years old.
A pair of switchbacks, and shortly you are at a view point looking down at the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, where you hiked in. Beyond is Rattlesnake Lake. The bare rock above the north end of the lake, and partly obscured by the trees, are the Rattlesnake Ledges. Peering through the branches to the north you can see Little Si.
Continue on to the top, then sit down and relax for a while. There is an exposed drop-off (more scary than dangerous), so watch your kids. See view for details of what you can see.
Please STAY OFF THE OLD TRAIL, which takes off from the south-east side. It was closed because it really is too steep, to the point of being hazardous. It is enticing--at first--but it gets so bad that (before we built the new trail) I've had groups asking to go back any other way even if it is through the brush. Unfortunately, even a few people exploring that way keeps the revegetation effort at bay and keeps it enticing. Please don't be part of the problem.
On the way back: When you reach Saddle Jct. you can take either the Blowout trail (half a mile longer, but easier) or, to the right, the original trail (shorter, but harder on the knees).
When you get back to the trailhead do consider visiting the nearby Cedar River Watershed Education Center.