20 reasons to ♥ Issaquah
July 2, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
Discover 20 reasons to love Issaquah, from the highest Tiger Mountain peak to the Lake Sammamish shoreline, and much more in between. The community includes icons and traits not found anywhere else, all in a postcard-perfect setting. The unique qualities — Issa-qualities? — start at the city’s name and extend into every nook and neighborhood. (The lineup is not arranged in a particular order, because ranking the city’s pre-eminent qualities seems so unfair.)
The annual salmon-centric celebration is stitched into the city’s fabric. Salmon Days serves as a last hurrah before autumn, a touchstone for old-timers and a magnet for tourists. The street fair consistently ranks among the top destinations in the Evergreen State and, for a time last year, as the best festival on earth — in the $250,000-to-$749,000 budget category, anyway.
The majestic title for the forested peaks surrounding the city, the Issaquah Alps, is a catchall term for Cougar, Squak and Tiger mountains. (Credit the late mountaineer and conservationist Harvey Manning for the sobriquet.) The setting is a playground for outdoors enthusiasts. Trails — some official and others less so — for hikers, bikers and equestrians crisscross the mountains, like haphazard tic-tac-toe patterns.
Encompassing more than 17,000 students on 24 campuses, the Issaquah School District is considered among the top districts in the Evergreen State. Students across grade levels far outperformed the state averages on assessments last year. The district also boasts a near-perfect high school graduation rate. Schools benefit from a community eager to fund construction and curricula tune-ups, either on the ballot or through the nonprofit Issaquah Schools Foundation.
Issaquah Farmers Market
Springtime gloom aside, opening day at the Issaquah Farmers Market signals the unofficial start to summer. Every Saturday from mid-April to early October, shoppers pack Pickering Farm for locavore treats: organic produce, artisan goods and street snacks. Marketgoers can chomp a pulled-pork sandwich from a pig-shaped truck and snag eye-popping dahlias nurtured in the Snoqualmie Valley.
The community pride
In Issaquah, community pride is evident at every Friday night high school football game and every Saturday morning tree-planting party. Citizens feed the hungry, reach out to senior citizens, yank invasive plants, and offer money and time to innumerable causes. The deep bond between residents and the community is not limited to volunteerism. Fans pack the stands at games to cheer for the Issaquah Eagles, Liberty Patriots and Skyline Spartans.
The musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” opened at Village Theatre in 1979 — a prophetic choice. The playhouse attracted national attention in 2009 and last year, after the Village Theatre-nurtured musicals “Next to Normal” and “Million Dollar Quartet” opened on Broadway. Both productions earned Tony Awards, and “Next to Normal” garnered a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for the author-lyricist, Issaquah native Brian Yorkey.
Cougar Mountain Zoo
The animal kingdom at Cougar Mountain Zoo includes subjects both curious and ferocious. Rare Bengal tigers — Almos, Taj, Bagheera and Vitez — reign at the nonprofit zoo. Zoogoers on the path to the marquee exhibits come across less glamorous, but no less fascinating, characters: Madagascar hissing cockroaches, perhaps. Or, a herd of alpaca the zoo maintains to teach guests about the vicuña, a similar species at risk from habitat loss and poaching.
The mountains surrounding Issaquah do not claim the only link to the Alps. Boehm’s Candies is a chocolate factory set in a chalet seemingly cut from gingerbread. The namesake behind the truffles and turtles, Austrian chocolatier Julius Boehm, left behind a legacy more colorful than Willy Wonka. The former Olympic athlete escaped from Nazi-occupied Austria, opened a candy shop in Seattle and then relocated to Issaquah in 1956.
The name on the jumbo-sized, store-brand products is Kirkland Signature. The address on the corporate headquarters is Issaquah. The company employs almost 3,000 people in buttoned-down buildings near the flagship warehouse at Pickering Place. Costco, ranked No. 25 on the Fortune 500 list, is large. Maybe even larger than the city’s other claim to fame, Modest Mouse, the indie rock outfit formed 18 years ago in Issaquah.
Mountains surround Issaquah, Lake Sammamish unfurls like a crystalline carpet and, on clear days, Mount Rainier looms on the southern horizon. Combined, the natural splendor makes for a breathtaking panorama. Issaquah also sits along the Mountains to Sound Greenway, a 101-mile greenbelt from Puget Sound to Central Washington. Leaders inside and outside City Hall continue to toil to protect the scenery.
Colored specks in Crayola hues, set against a forested backdrop, proliferate on sun-splashed days. The specks — actually paraglider pilots beneath vibrant wings — seem suspended in the air, like confetti in a slow-motion descent. Adventurers head aloft from Poo Poo Point on Tiger Mountain and drift to the landing site along Issaquah-Hobart Road Southeast. In the air, pilots manipulate a canopy to control the glider. Only a harness separates pilots from the sky.
The civic engagement
Come Election Day, Issaquah residents mail ballots en masse. The other 364 days of the year, citizens pack City Hall to sound off on hot-button issues and apply in droves for municipal boards. The number of applicants often exceeds the number of open seats. The prize is a chance to decipher mind-numbing land-use decisions or drier-than-the-Sahara budget data in little-noticed and — not to mention — unpaid positions.
The jumbled consonants and difficult pronunciation set Issaquah apart. The name Issaquah, for the record, references birds or snakes, depending on the source. Unlike neighboring burgs — ahem, Bellevue — Issaquah is a name unlike any other on the planet. No Issaquah, Neb., or Issaquah, Ore., or Issaquah, Pa., exists to confound postmasters or Google.
Gilman Village offers restaurants and shops in a storybook setting — historic buildings relocated in the 1970s to a site between bustling Northwest Gilman Boulevard and Issaquah Creek. Tenants continue to set up shop in the quaint buildings. Restaurants offering barbecue, dim sum and more offer a respite for shoppers searching the boutiques for bargains.
The public art
The eclectic public art collection displayed along city streets acts as much as a conversation starter as a visual enhancement. Highlights, such as the exotic Blue Door — a gift from sister city Chefchaouen, Morocco — on the City Hall grounds and the oversized salmon sculptures at the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery reflect a modern city. Colorful murals depicting farming and mining scenes nod to the past.
Issaquah leaders often compare the municipal parks system to a glittering emerald necklace. Families pack Central Park in the Issaquah Highlands, Tibbetts Valley Park and Veterans’ Memorial Field near City Hall, rain or shine. Other residents pitch in to enhance public green spaces. The city marshaled volunteers last year to plant more than 2,000 trees and shrubs along Issaquah Creek at Squak Valley Park North.
Issaquah Salmon Hatchery
The Issaquah Salmon Hatchery appears humble and, perhaps, a little boring. In the early autumn, however, the site draws theme park-sized crowds during salmon runs. The hatchery faced a possible shutdown in the early 1990s, but community members banded together to save the depression-era facility from mothballs. Nowadays, teams spawn chinook and coho salmon by the thousands, and play a crucial role in protecting Lake Sammamish kokanee from extinction.
The old real estate agent’s axiom is spot on: location, location, location. Issaquah, tucked amid mountains and a lake, boasts many charms. If residents decide to trek outside Issaquah, the city’s proximity to other splendors — both manmade and natural, on the Eastside and in Seattle — is another bonus. The ski slopes at Snoqualmie Pass or Seattle’s Pike Place Market, for instance, can be reached in minutes.
The car shows
Issaquah lures people on foot and on bicycles to explore the city and the surrounding forest, but the city is also a popular destination for forms of transportation powered by internal-combustion engines. Downtown Issaquah and the Triple XXX Rootbeer Drive-in host vehicles of all makes and models in waxed-and-polished parades during car shows held throughout the spring and summer.
Downtown Issaquah resembles a scene lifted from a Norman Rockwell canvas. The frontier-era buildings and more modern storefronts hold galleries, restaurants, bicycle shops, music emporia and the bustling Issaquah Library. The annual Down Home 4th of July celebration, Salmon Days and the Christmas tree lighting all occur in the neighborhood. The downtown district unites commerce and community in less than one square mile.