Great journeys on a bike often begin with humdrum shuttles to the start. Only, this time, the shuttle was interesting. Marilyn and Mike offered to pick me up in Vantage along the Columbia River and whisk me across the Cascade Mountains via Interstate 90, thereby getting me close to Rattlesnake Lake where the John Wayne Trail begins. They went out of their way to do this and I’m extremely grateful.
Marilyn and Mike have toured on bikes for a long while and had done pieces of the John Wayne Trail. Soon, they will be starting their first thru ride of the trail.
Our time in the truck gives me the opportunity to ask about their rides of the western portion of the trail and they learned more about my recent ride of the eastern portion. Even trade on that account. Actually, my gain since they are such interesting people on many fronts. Marilyn is the architect behind the web site for Friends of the John Wayne Trail and both are advocates of the efforts to keep the trail alive and funded.
We pull off the highway short of North Bend and into the parking lot of a golf course for unloading. I remember this area being Weyerhaeuser timberland when growing up in Tacoma as a kid. Now, it is fast becoming suburbia Seattle.
It is mid-afternoon and I ride on paved roads a mile to the south in order to pick up the Snoqualmie Valley Trail. Like the John Wayne Trail, it is an old railroad bed converted to gravel trail.
I glide through a tunnel of large maple and fir trees with the South Fork Snoqualmie River to the left. For the 6 miles to Rattlesnake Lake the trail snakes through 80-year-old forest.
The two trails connect at the Cedar River Watershed Education Center, a facility created by the City of Seattle at Rattlesnake Lake as a gathering place to “connect people with the source of their water”. Tastefully constructed and landscaped overall, my favorite feature is the set of African drums being played by water dropping off the roof of a covered walkway.
I head up the gradual grade of the John Wayne Trail and am surrounded by forests touched by an abundance of rain. Moss grows where humans don’t scuff it away. Today, May 10, the weather is perfect. The smooth gravel is dry and fast. A few day bikers are out but being mid-week I mostly have the trail to myself.
The terrain to the side is steep and the railroad architects in 1910 resorted to deep cuts through rock and elaborate trestles to plaster the railbed to the land.
The high Cascades are soon in view and the snowpack is sparse after an April of record high temperatures. This is good in one sense in that the trail east of Hyak will be without snow and the two-mile-long tunnel underneath the crest of the Cascade Mountains will be open and free of ice.
Water gushes down the many steep draws alongside the trail and helps drown out the persistent hum of Interstate 90 in the valley bottom to the north. The only other distraction is the line of utility poles overhead. Nearly all of the John Wayne Trail west of the Columbia River is used as an utility corridor. I hope that State Parks is receiving revenue from this use of public land and that the money is being spent for improvements to parks.
The high peaks close in and then the route changes abruptly at the base of a steep mountain face. The Snoqualmie tunnel burrows beneath the mountain for 2.3 miles and pops out on the east side of the Cascade Mountains at Hyak. I mount a light on my helmet and head off into the darkness. Water drips from the ceiling and puddles on the ground. The air is surprisingly cold. Imaginary bears walk towards me, unseen in the beam of my puny light.
The east end of the tunnel has a large parking lot and a fancy set of restrooms. The area is mostly deserted. I look around for water but the faucets in the restrooms are too low in the sink to accommodate my water bottles. Surprisingly, one of the restrooms has a shower but the sprinkler head doesn’t spit out enough flow for filling water bottles. Only enough to soak my feet. Instead, I find a nearby spring and fill up.
Keechelus Lake is just east of Hyak and the trail follows its western shoreline. The snow has just melted but trilliums already line the trail.
State Parks has built four backcountry campgrounds along the trail from Rattlesnake Lake to Lake Easton. For $12 per night you get a picnic table, a graveled level spot for a tent, and a tastefully painted outhouse, complete with confusing grammar on what the toilet seats are capable of doing.
I pass on the established campgrounds and ride eastward into the dusk.
I see a bicyclist in the distance. She is on a regular touring bicycle and bumping along the gravel surface in what seems to me considerable discomfort on the skinny tires. She assures me with a smile that she is enjoying her ride. She is the only other cyclist I encounter who is out for anything other than a day ride. I don’t inquire too much about her destination for the night because I know that women have to deal with safety issues that old guys like me can pretty much disregard. It is profoundly unfair to women.
I continue on and find myself a wide spot along the Yakima River to call home for the night.
This puts me a few miles west of Cle Elum and within easy striking distance of a proper coffee shop for the morning.
The old railroad station at South Cle Elum has been lovingly restored by volunteers and supported by various funding sources. The large brick building next to the station was the electrical power facility for the early trains. Yes, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad actually used electric engines along some of the route from Chicago to Tacoma.
I detour to the north a few miles to Cle Elum and find a coffee shop with decor and atmosphere to match my historic-minded mood. The coffee is much better than what the railroad construction laborers probably had as they hacked their way through the mountains with pick axes and dynamite. The 60 miles I had ridden so far was easy effort in comparison to what they endured.
A few miles east of Cle Elum the trail dives under Interstate 90 and leaves it (and its noise) behind. The trail follows a more confined reach of the Yakima River free of much human influence. For next 12 miles the surrounding conifer forests above and the corridor of riparian hardwoods below sing in tune.
This section has a couple of tunnels. I start through the first tunnel confident that the light at the end is sufficient to get me through. But it is false light. Halfway through I can’t see anything that might have fallen from the ceiling or the bears curled up for a morning nap. I fumble for my headlamp.
Exiting from the canyon, the Yakima River spreads out widely and much of its flow is diverted for crops. The crops are relatively low value and the water is wastefully applied through flood irrigation. The Yakima is an important salmon and steelhead river and it pains me to see its water wasted in such a fashion. Nevertheless, the old railroad towns of Thorp, Ellensburg, and Kittitas would barely exist today without the farming.
I cross the Yakima River for the last time and head towards Ellensburg. Now the railroad grade is straight and bordered by wetlands created by the flood irrigation.
I weave through Ellensburg with a goal of finding the Iron Horse Brewery. Iron Horse is the actual name used for the John Wayne Trail west of the Columbia River. It is the Iron Horse State Park and the John Wayne Trail threads through its corridor. Clear?
It is only mid-morning so the brewery and pub is closed. Bad timing.
I ride through the historic section of Ellensburg and it is tastefully restored and dense with businesses. This is a college town so it has a feeling of diversity. I hear that the university has a program in craft beer making. Maybe it is time for me to consider a second career.
Thorp passess by without me noticing and I enter Kittitas. Here, the railroad station is painted the colors of the restrooms along the trail (that is a good thing). But the station is in dire need of repair.
The park around the station has a sprinkler faucet and so I fill up for the arid section to the east.
Leaving the valley behind, the trail climbs up the high ridge that separates the Yakima and Columbia Rivers. Firmly in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains and above the elevation of the highest irrigation canals, the land turns starkly arid.
The railroad grade crosses what is now Interstate 90 on a high steel trestle that has been closed down by State Parks. I decide against the official bypass of the trestle, a paved road on the south side of Interstate 90, and continue to the north approach to the trestle. I walk my bike along the base of the fill of the approach and hit a dirt road at the bottom and follow it to the east. It rises and hits an irrigation ditch and then drops down to a paved public road. Just before the paved road, I pass through a new gate with a No Trespassing sign posted by the irrigation company. Well, maybe not the cleanest detour, legally speaking.
The Yakima Firing Range is just south of the trestle and the trail continues through this federal ownership all the way to the Columbia River. The rolling hills are not grazed anymore and the military doesn’t seem to be disturbing the land much with explosions and such.
The late spring wildflowers and sage are intoxicating. This is an important winter grazing area for the thousands of elk that inhabit the Firing Range and the State wildlife management areas north of Interstate 90.
The surface of the trail between the trestle and Boylston Tunnel turns out to be a dud though. An army of horseback riders had recently rototilled the sandy surface. It is rough and slow.
The tunnel is officially closed and so I take the bypass road which has been graded with rough rock. More slow going. But once I crest the divide the trail is smooth; the horses must have turned around at the tunnel.
Now, all downhill and smooth sailing to the Columbia River.
I enter the section of the Firing Range which burned two years ago and the skin of the hills changes texture. Gone are the sagebrush and brush along the streams. The elk I see seem uneasy with their lack of hiding cover. The only people I see out here are a couple of women in a pickup truck. I guess by the environmental consulting sign on the side of their rig that they have been tasked with monitoring the post-fire changes in vegetation.
My 2000-foot drop in elevation to the Columbia River ends all too soon. The Saddle Mountains rise sharply to the right. Many years ago the Columbia River breached a notch in the mountains and it now flows through Sentinel Gap rather than detouring widely east along the mountain range.
The town of Vantage, and more importantly, my car is still nine miles to the north so I get on the paved road along the Columbia River and am pushed by a tailwind for the last leg of my journey.
My car is parked behind the Texaco station. Ten dollars a night gets you the peace of mind that your parked car won’t be clouted while away. Just as important, the convenience store at the Texaco station has ice cream sandwiches and Coke. Bicycling food at its best.
So, 124 miles in 24 hours. Here is the GPS track for my route:
The western portion of the John Wayne Trail is a much different experience than is the eastern portion.
The surface is smoother and the creature comforts more common on the western portion. Water and food are less of a concern. Also, goatheads are absent and opening and closing gates a non-issue. The route is well-signed except through Ellensburg and there are no bypasses to figure out other than around the Interstate 90 trestle.
The changes in topography and vegetation from the western mountains clad with rain forest to the arid hills along the Columbia River provide plenty of contrast in the western portion. The eastern portion is mostly arid and the spatial changes are more subtle. Shade is scarce.
The John Wayne Trail is perhaps best done as two trips separated by about 4 to 6 weeks. The eastern portion is at its prime in late April and the western portion in late May or early June.