How to prevent a hike from resulting in a heist

A new proposal aims to make trailheads near Seattle safe from car break-ins — but some worry it could compromise their own safety.

Washington’s Issaquah Alps are less than 20 miles from downtown Seattle, but dense forests of hemlock and fir make visitors feel as if they’re far from the city. Trailheads dot the area, and among the most popular is the beginning of Margaret’s Way, a three-mile path meandering through lush ferns. On a drizzly April morning, a local hiker pulled into the parking lot. That’s when he noticed broken glass strewn across the gravel: Someone had smashed the windows of all seven cars at the trailhead.

The hiker dialed 911, but, he recalls, the dispatcher wouldn’t send a patrol car. He decided to abandon the hike, even though it’s one of his favorites, and return home. Over the course of the day, his anger simmered: How dare vandals disturb such a peaceful refuge! Soon, his indignation morphed into a desire for action: He wanted to find a way to stop the break-ins.

 

First, he took to social media, posting in a forum where Washington hikers and climbers discuss trailhead safety issues, including recent car break-ins. Online, he uses his trail name, Breadcrumb Watcher. (He asked that High Country News refer to him by this trail name, citing fears of retaliation from criminals targeting trailheads.) “I just joined because there have been 5 separate trailheads hit in the last week or so, totaling over 30 cars,” Breadcrumb wrote. “This is out of control and I would like to be part of the solution.”  

By following tips and scouring crime databases, Breadcrumb began to gather data on thousands of trailhead thefts. In May, he drafted a proposal suggesting four solutions: signage warning hikers against leaving valuables in their cars, improved data-keeping for trailhead crimes, video surveillance cameras and volunteer trailhead lookouts stationed at select trailheads.

The East Ridge Trail, nearby Margaret’s Way, in Washington’s Issaquah Alps.

It wasn’t just Breadcrumb who noticed the problem. In June, police arrested three people they believe to be part of a crime ring targeting cars at local trailheads. According to the Bellevue Police Department, two of them allegedly shot at a bystander who interrupted their prowling. As they fled the scene, the men crashed their car, then approached a Subaru Forester, hit the driver in the head with a flashlight, pulled her from the vehicle, and stole it.

A few weeks after the arrests, Reagan Dunn, a councilmember for King County, where Seattle is located, introduced a motion before the King County Council that, if passed, would require the county executive to develop a plan for a trailhead safety program. The motion’s suggestions are nearly identical to the ones Breadcrumb proposed. (Dunn’s office declined two requests for interviews.)

Rising crime has been a hot-button issue in the Puget Sound region over the last year, and frequent reports of trailhead break-ins on hiking forums have spooked some hikers, leading them to abandon trails altogether. But without the kind of cold, hard data Breadcrumb is seeking, it’s impossible to understand the scope of the problem or identify the trailheads most affected by it. 

A sign at the North Chuckanut Mountain Trailhead in Bellingham, Washington, parking lot reminds people to take their valuables when leaving their vehicles.
Ting-Li Wang

IT’S NOT EASY TO FIND reliable statistics about trailhead break-ins. Trails fall within a constellation of jurisdictions, so there is no central source for information. The King County Sheriff’s Office has an online incident database, for example, but agencies like the U.S. Forest Service lack easily accessible crime reports. Breadcrumb has obtained data from several county sheriff’s offices and a handful of city police departments, as well as from the Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He’s also sent requests for public records to the Washington State Patrol, the Washington Department of Natural Resources, and the Makah, Quileute, Swinomish and Yakama Nations. His trail name represents the work he’s doing: following breadcrumbs of data and watching for information he can use to piece together the scope of the region’s break-in problem.

Moreover, there appears to be confusion among agencies over who’s responsible for certain trailheads. “There were cases where I had people at the Forest Service saying, ‘Well, that’s the county,’ and the county says, ‘No, that’s the Forest Service,’” Breadcrumb said. “And I’m thinking: ‘What you’re telling me is, basically, no one thinks they have responsibility for dealing with petty property crime.’”  

Such confusion could easily lead to lax enforcement; if it’s unclear which agency is supposed to keep crime data, it’s unlikely that those trailheads are being patrolled regularly. And the more remote the trail, the harder it is for local officials to monitor. Sgt. Corbett Ford of the King County Sheriff’s Office said deputies try to visit trailhead parking lots when they can, but he wasn’t aware of any sheriff’s officers regularly patrolling them. “If you’ve got (trailheads) that are miles and miles away, the likelihood of being able to go there, even if there’s been a problem — it’s hard,” he said.

To further complicate statistics-gathering, victims don’t necessarily report crimes to authorities. In an attempt to gather more information, Breadcrumb combed trip reports posted to the Washington Trails Association’s website and All Trails, two sources popular with local hikers, and created a Google form for victims to fill out.

Currently, Breadcrumb has data dating back to 2015 from over three dozen departments, agencies and other sources. It shows that trailhead break-ins appear to have increased recently; between 2020 and 2021, the number of cars broken into doubled from 389 to 780.

There are several theories as to why, the most obvious being that COVID-19 led to a rise in outdoor recreation and created more opportunities for trailhead break-ins. Another is that certain vandals and thieves, like those arrested in July, deliberately target trailheads. Car break-ins spike any time people leave cars unattended with potentially valuable items inside. “It’s no different than when you get into the Christmas shopping season,” said Ford. “You see an increase in break-ins, and everybody’s surprised.” 

UNFORTUNATELY, THERE IS LITTLE DATA to help determine how effective Breadcrumb’s or Dunn’s proposals might be. Research suggests that, contrary to many people’s intuitions, neither surveillance cameras nor volunteer watch groups actually deter crime in urban areas. Trailheads, however, are a different environment. 

The closest comparison might be a volunteer trailhead watch program in Bellingham, roughly 90 miles north of Seattle. Since April, gym owner Steve Avila has organized around 250 volunteers, who take turns sitting in parking lots at a dozen popular hiking and mountain biking areas. They strike up conversations with other trail users and offer coffee and snacks, building rapport. “I’ve had people report the vandals because they recognize, ‘Oh, that doesn’t look right,’ ” Avila said. “Our whole premise is to go up and engage with them: ‘Hey, how are you doing? Where are you hiking today? That’s a nice black Audi you’re driving.’ You start giving them a description of themselves, and then they leave because it’s attention.”

 

This brings up the question of what — or who — might not “look right.” “This is another instance of inserting policing in transportation issues, and this approach will likely have lots of negative consequences with racial profiling,” said Kelli Refer, executive director of Move Redmond, a nonprofit group advocating for more accessible and inclusive streets, trails, and transit. When I asked Avila about possible racial profiling, he laughed. “I always laugh at this because we’re trying to do something good, and someone’s trying to turn it into some political thing,” he said.

“If racial bias isn’t being considered in how volunteers would interact with folks, that’s really scary.” 

Sol Dressa, a transportation advocate and avid cyclist who is Black, queer and non-binary, has seen their share of racial bias in Washington’s outdoors community, and is concerned that watch programs could make trailheads more dangerous for trail users from marginalized groups. “If racial bias isn’t being considered in how volunteers would interact with folks, that’s really scary,” said Dressa. “People have their biases and stereotypes, and we don’t know where these volunteers are coming from. I’m scared that not only Black and brown folks, but also our unhoused population, will be subjected to potential violence.”

Breadcrumb agreed that it’s a real concern. “I don’t want to downplay this, because it could be really bad,” he said. There’s no foolproof way to weed out biases, but he hopes volunteers would be required to pass a background check and undergo training. Even with those precautions, he concedes, some trail users may not support the creation of a volunteer watch program.

Squak Mountain, nearby Margaret’s Way, in Washington’s Issaquah Alps.

But all that is still far in the future; Dunn’s proposal is still awaiting a hearing date in the King County Council’s transportation, economy and environment committee. If it is passed, Dow Constantine, the King County executive, must present an implementation plan by Jan. 9, 2023. The proposal suggests that volunteers “report out to the department of natural resources and parks and King County Sheriff’s Office.” Sgt. Ford of the sheriff’s office said he wasn’t familiar with the proposal, though his office has some experience managing volunteer groups like search and rescue and neighborhood watches. The Washington Department of Natural Resources did not respond to a request for comment. 

Breadcrumb has already organized some informal trailhead watches like Avila’s. But he’s not sure he has the time to start a larger program if Dunn’s proposal doesn’t pass. “We really need the county to vet, train and coordinate volunteers,” he said. In the meantime, he wants to finish collecting and analyzing break-in data, which he has already begun making publicly available through Google spreadsheets. And, of course, he wants to go hiking. Already, he’s been back to Margaret’s Way once — this time, with no broken windows in the parking lot.

Jane C. Hu is a contributing editor at High Country News and independent journalist who writes about science, identity and the outdoors. She lives in Seattle.

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