On an overnight bike trip to the John Wayne Pioneer Trail last weekend, my biking buddy and I discovered that the newly reopened Snoqualmie Tunnel is drawing a lot of visitors.
Mostly they’re day-trippers on bicycles, but some come by foot and at least a couple packed in with their llamas carrying their burdens.
The cyclists we talked with were taking advantage of the 18-mile downhill slope that greets them after they pass through the tunnel heading west.
They either came in groups and dropped off cars in Hyak and the Iron Horse Trail State
Park lot in Cedar Falls, or contacted the shuttle service that carries
passengers and bicycles to the Hyak trailhead.
It’s great news that the 2.3-mile tunnel that links the western and eastern
stretches of the 300-mile rail-trail is getting so much use. The nearly 100-year-old tunnel at the Milwaukee Road’s passage through the Cascades was closed for
more than two years because crumbling walls and gushing water inside
made it a safety hazard.
Contractors went in to seal cracks and install a wire mesh screen this spring. Now it’s back to normal — cold, dank, and very, very dark.
My biking buddy Russell and I decided to explore the area last weekend. But instead of driving, we rode our bikes from my house in Bellevue to fully appreciate the elevation gain and accrue mileage for our respective BikeJournal logs.
Also, Russell was testing an old mountain bike that he’d converted into a hybrid touring bike with 26-by-1.25-inch tires. I explained that much of route would be on packed gravel, but he wanted to test the “narrow” tires anyway. I was relieved to hear that he packed lots of repair gear.
[His bike came through unscathed, and he appeared to have a very comfortable ride on the 1.25-inchers. You can read Russell's version of events at "BikingBis and BikeBirder go for a ride" at his Flying Abalone Bike Club blog.]
I was riding a my old Specialized Rockhopper mountain bike outfitted with a rack on front to carry my tent and bedroll and panniers in back to carry a stove, food, water purification pump, and change of clothes. Those Eclipse panniers date back to 1984 and are still going strong.
Here’s a Google maps link for our route from my neighborhood to Hyak. We stopped to camp about 6 miles short of the Tunnel at Carter Creek Campground, which corresponds to the old Bandera railroad stop noted on the map.
We utilized five rail-trails to make the trip. The Issaquah-High Point Trail is an old railroad grade, and the new High Point-Preston Trail is the old right of way of the Pacific Northern Railroad.
At the soccer fields in Preston we picked up the paved Preston-Snoqualmie Trail, another old railroad route, but then we took the highway through Falls City and up to Snoqualmie Falls.
After stopping for lunch across the street from the historic Snoqualmie railroad outdoor museum and station, we found our way to the Mount Si Golf Course and a trailhead to the Snoqualmie Valley Trail. That took us up to Cedar Falls, where we picked up the John Wayne Pioneer Trail — the roadbed of the old Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad — in Iron Horse State Park.
[Although the state park doesn't have water, except in creeks, you can fill you water bottles at the Seattle Public Utilities District education center just up the road (follow the signs). You can also learn about the flora and fauna and listen to water beating a rhythm on drum heads.]
I’ve made pilgrimages up here the past two years to camp, but I’d never seen this many cyclists using the John Wayne Pioneer Trail. When it got dark, however, the traffic came to a stop and no one else camped with us.
There are four primitive state campgrounds along the trail, two on each side of the tunnel. We bypassed Alice Creek campground, which is right on the trail, and opted for the Carter Creek site, which is back in the woods along the creek. Each camp has about a half dozen sites and a pit toilet; cost is $5 a night. The water in the creek should be filtered.
After stowing our gear, and watching a busy mountain beaver collecting grub for the winter, we pedaled another 5 or 6 miles to the western entrance to the tunnel. We turned on our lights, and donned our rainjackets and headed into the dark.
The tunnel gets dark and cold real fast. When we went through after 5 p.m., the eastern side of the tunnel was misty; from outside you could see the fog belching out the tunnel’s mouth.
Heading back, we noticed that the western entrance is larger and caught the sunlight easier. We could see it all the way through the tunnel as a pinpoint of light that got bigger and brighter.
We returned the second day and passed through again (Russell pointed out he had ridden 8 miles underground that weekend), heading east toward Easton.
Here the route passes the south side of Keechelus Lake — I-90 traffic runs silently in the distance to the north — before entering the decidedly warmer and drier eastern Washington climate zones.
There are more tunnels here, but they are still closed. We turned back at the next tunnel, although the state provides “alternate routes” and detours around the closed tunnels on the ground and directions at the website.
We were starving on the way back and decided to check out the rumored pizza place in Hyak. We didn’t make it that far, but stumbled across Aardvark’s Food and Juice Bar in a parking lot near the ski resort.
Housed in a trailer, it might have looked a little low rent from the outside, but I assumed the food would be good as the proprietor was listening to Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” album. He took one look at us and recommended the ginger chicken – rice burrito.
“It weighs one-and-a-half pounds,” he offered. We each ordered one. It fueled us just about the rest of the day.
It was good that we turned around when we did, because we had a long trip back to Bellevue. We retraced our route home and arrived three full minutes before sunset.
It’s probably a good thing for us that those tunnels were closed; we might still be exploring the eastern parts of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail.
Here’s a video I shot of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail on my first visit there three summers ago.
Adventure Cycling also discusses all aspects of overnight bicycle touring at Bike Overnights website.
Green River overnight bike tour in western Washington
Bicycling to Mount Rainier and the road to Isput