I had heard about bicycling the John Wayne Pioneer Trail and the Snoqualmie Tunnel ever since moving here in 2000, but I didn’t have the right bike until this spring.
With a day to myself, I threw the knobbies on my Rockhopper mountain bike and drove up to the Cedar Falls (exit 32 on I-90) trailhead to find out about it for myself.
Briefly, it was a great bike ride, and I can’t wait to return with my camping gear. I rode the first leg of about 23 miles to the next trailhead at Hyak on the other side of the 2.3-mile long Snoqualmie Tunnel, looked around, and returned. I was shooting photos with my Canon Elph, and made a spur-of-the-moment decision to try a video. It appears at left.
The John Wayne Pioneer Trail is the old Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul-Pacific Railroad — aka The Milwaukee Road — that rolls two-thirds of the way across Washington state to the Idaho border. About 100 miles of it is a packed gravel rail-to-trail maintained as part of the Iron Horse State Park from Cedar Falls west of the Cascades to the Columbia River to the east.
A popular way to bicycle one section of trail is to take two cars, drop one in Cedar Falls and the other in Hyak, then ride the entire length downhill.
. Maybe I’m a masochist, but I enjoyed the return trip that much more after riding uphill. The slope is only 2.2% on average, which is like 100 feet elevation gain per mile. Are we all that lazy?
Once I turned around, I made the most of the slight downhill run.
The highlight (should I say dimlight) of the trip is the 2.3-mile Snoqualmie Tunnel. Work began in 1911 and the tunnel was opened in 1915. It’s just one of five tunnels on the route.
Several older websites note there’s a parking fee for the Iron Horse State Park. At this point, there is no day-use parking fee. There is a fee for backcountry camping the three small campsites along this section (more below).
There are a couple of websites that tell the human history and natural history of the trail. I didn’t see any bear, cougar or bobcats; I did see a couple of chipmunks. Even though it’s July, it’s spring in the mountains so I did see many wildflowers.
In just the 23-mile section I rode, I noticed a big change from the heavily wooded and wet lower sections in the west to the drier and more open sub-Alpine sections approaching the tunnel. The trail gets downright arid as it approaches the Columbia.
I saw about 20 cyclists the entire day; but being a weekday the volume was probably light.
– The trail leaves the parking lot at Cedar Falls just to the right of the restrooms;
– Work crews are laying a water pipeline along the lower part of the trail. There are trucks running from the worksites to an old siding a few miles up that serves as a construction yard. The truck operators slow down or stop when they see a trail user for safety and to avoid dust.
– Mileage signs along the trail are based on the old railroad mileages to Chicago.
– An obvious stealth campsite at the end of a trail at 4.4 miles; many others too numerous to log.
– The first few miles pass through a quiet forest; about 5 miles in the trail follows a ridge that overlooks noisy I-90.
– The rocks around Chance Creek in this area are a destination for climbers; known as Deception Pass.
– Old concrete foundations from the railroad are jumbled here and there. A pile at the 7-3/4 mark serves as a great overlook to a long stretch of I-90.
– An old, wooden railroad snow shed was rebuilt at about mile 17; ironically a state park sign explaining avalanche problems in the railroad days had been broken by an obvious snow slide over the winter.
– The 2.3-mile Snoqualmie Tunnel is straight and pitch black inside, except for a pinpoint of light at the other end. I strongly suggest a bright light. I used a blinky light on the steady mode and could barely discern the trail or the rock walls. Others I talked to that day had the sensation of not being able to tell how fast they were going or whether they were wobbling.
– It is also cold and damp inside the tunnel, with plenty of water dripping. I’d recommend some kind of jacket or long-sleeve shirt. It closes every year on Nov. 1 and reopens in the spring (that was June 1 in 2008.)
– Hyak has a large parking lot with decent restroom facility. Great views of mountain tops on a clear day.
– I didn’t have time to check for services in the town of Hyak; there’s nothing right on the trail. If traveling through, I wouldn’t depend on this as a food stop. I’ll check later when I ride the next leg from Hyak to Easton.
– Even though the grade is 2.2%, the return trip is noticeably faster.
No potable water at any campsites; pit toilets; picnic tables; $5 backcountry camping fee collected in an honor box. Distance from Cedar Falls Trailhead near Rattlesnake Lake
Alice Creek — 11 miles: Right next to the trail
Carter Creek — 14 miles: Tent sites are in the woods down by the creek
Cold Creek — 24 miles: Tent sites also in the woods away from the trail.
Like I said, I only rode the 23 miles from Cedar Falls to Hyak. I plan to return for other stretches as soon as possible.
The major trailheads are at Cedar Falls, Twin Falls, Hyak, Easton, South Cle Elum and Thorp. See the Iron Horse State Park website for details.
After crossing the the Columbia River, the John Wayne Pioneer Trail goes to Idaho, but I wouldn’t be confident about its condition.
Keith’s Bike Blog took the same trip I did, but a month earlier
The Milwaukee Road — History of the RR from Chicago to Puget Sound told in its own documents
Rolling on the old Milwaukee line — Seattle Post-Intelligencer takes the shuttle from North Bend to Hyak