Labor Day Fun on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, Part 1
For years, I’ve had the idea in my head that it would be fun to cycle the length of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, 110 miles from North Bend to the mighty Columbia River. Any plans I might have had got temporarily quashed in 2009 when state parks closed the five tunnels on the trail because of falling debris hazards. Our legislature was slashing the budget that year and there was no way it would find $9 million to fix them. (Although the state created detours for each one, the routes often went miles out of the way and in one case involved the unpleasant task of bicycling on Intestate 90. Dumb.)
Flash forward to July 2013 … and all the tunnels are open again! Some have been repaired; others are enter at your own risk (more on this later).
After negotiating with Nick on a “relaxed” three-day schedule for our adventure, we set off. First stop: Vantage. We needed to drop a car there so we’d have some way of getting home. Then it was back over the pass to Rattlesnake Lake in North Bend.
The drive wasn't all bad. Mount Rainier peeped at us from behind the hills.
All good adventures have some element of adversity. Little did we know that ours would start before we even left the parking lot in North Bend.
Once Nick’s flat tire was taken care of, we imposed on an unsuspecting day-tripper to photograph the beginning of the journey – that moment when adventurers like us are full of the joy of anticipation.
The beginning of the trail was not easy. Even though the gravel is relatively packed, the first 20 miles go up at a steady 2 percent grade. Just enough so that it doesn’t look like you’re going uphill, but steep enough that you feel like you’re having a bad day on the bike. Our equipment seemed to be working well and we stopped only a few times to make adjustments to seat height.
Before long, we found ourselves near Exit 38 and the local rock-climbing crags.
The fact that we were riding on an old railway bed was not lost on us. We crossed a number of dizzyingly high railroad trestles. Fortunately, they all have railings now.
After a few hours, we arrived at the famous, 2.3-mile-long Snoqualmie Pass Tunnel. It’s so long that, once you get far enough into it, you actually can't see either end as you’re riding through. Powerful lights are a must. Despite the rising temperatures outside the tunnel, Nick and I dug out our warm jackets. I wish I had some great mid-tunnel shots, but sadly no. You’ll just have to imagine the blackness.
Safely on the other side, we were all smiles.
East of this tunnel is a section of the trail we know really well from cross country skiing. In winter it’s covered in snow and groomed for fun. In summer, it’s not nearly as exciting – piles of rubble and chewed up trail from the groomer. Even though it seemed like we were going downhill a bit, our shoulders and bums took a beating.
Once past Easton, we reached tunnel number-two. This one is much shorter!
Somewhere after this, Nick finally admitted that breaking the trip up into three days was a good idea. Thirty-eight miles of riding on rough dirt had taken its toll, and our muscles were jello. We entered Lake Easton State Park, our destination for the night, with some trepidation. We had no reservations for a campsite on Labor Day weekend and were worried that the hiker-biker sites would all be full.
No worries necessary; we had the place to ourselves.
After a quick trip to the gas station, we were set up with electrolyte replacements “crafted for explorers.” We definitely felt like explorers, and the brews went down just fine.
The next morning, Sunday, Nick and I woke up feeling slightly less shattered than the day before, ready to tackle the next section of the trail. Our day’s destination was Ellensburg, where we hoped to catch a bit of the famous rodeo.
Instead of backtracking through the forest to the trail, we rode a few miles down the road through the old town of Easton to the next trail access point. The 2010 census counted 478 people living here, which probably explains why the main street is largely boarded up.
Back on the trail again, it was clear that we were out of the forested foothills and starting to head towards the grasslands of eastern Washington. We pedaled along in the warm sunshine, making predictions about how many people we would see on the trail that day and how many of them would be on horseback (the trail is open to all non-motorized travel).
The quality of the trail grew worse the farther east we traveled. The bumpy hard-pack of yesterday was replaced by loose gravel. Still, we each managed to find a narrow strip of hard dirt on our respective sides of the trail to ride along. Fresh legs made it almost bearable and we enjoyed the scenery as it unfolded.
One of the highlights of the journey was riding next to the Yakima River. For some reason I imagined it would be much bigger than it actually is. Perhaps it only seemed small because we were still relatively close to the summit of Snoqualmie Pass, and it hadn’t had enough time to pick up tributary water.
About a third of our way into the day, we arrived in Cle Elum and found an old electric train depot. Turns out the Pacific portion of the “Milwaukee Road” railway was the longest electric rail line in the country. It spanned some 600-plus miles. The rail line was decommissioned in 1980, and today you can walk the rail yard, which is being restored by the Cascade Rail Foundation. There is also a B&B at the Cle Elum Depot. (Imagine sleeping in a refurbished railway car!)
After a quick snack of apples and nuts, we continued on. The gravel got deeper, but the views remained incredible.
Toward the middle of our day, we arrived at the Thorp Tunnels. Unlike the Hyak and Whittier tunnels of yesterday, the state did not dedicate any funds to repairing these tunnels. It shows. The concrete at the entrances is crumbling and sections of wall inside have caved. It’s not exactly dangerous, but I wouldn’t call it safe, either. Don’t put me in one of those during an earthquake! In a surprising act of reasonableness, the state actually allows you to travel through these tunnels. There is an unsettling waiver of liability they ask you to sign before you do so, however.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our John Wayne Pioneer Trail adventure!