Although the John Wayne Pioneer Trail is a rail-trail well-suited for bicycling, the trail head at South Cle Elum is certainly a draw for railroad enthusiasts.
The large rail yard built by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad in the early 1900s is preserved there, and a few buildings remain intact. Pedaling into town on the rail-trail gave me a slow-motion idea of the scene witnessed by locomotive engineers.
Lately I’ve been bicycling different sections of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail east of the Snoqualmie Tunnel. While I don’t have the opportunity for a nice through-trip, I can take some time on weekends to explore segments on the east side.
Exploring the trail
This is the dry side of the Iron Horse State Park, which encompasses the rail-trail from Cedar Falls to the Columbia River. In fact, the 12-mile section between Easton and South Cle Elum opens up with views across grassy pastures to hills flanking this basin.
There’s not a lot remarkable between the two towns. The trail is generally flat, dropping only 660 feet to 1,512-foot elevation between Easton and Cle Elum.
The trail surface is crushed gravel and easily rideable in tire tracks worn into the trail. I’m using 1 1/4-inch slick tires on a mountain bike with relatively few problems unless I hit a patch of deep gravel.
There are a couple of scenic train trestles that cross the Yakima River that meanders through the landscape from its source at Keechelus Lake.
Heading east, there’s traffic noise from Interstate 90 for a few miles but that eventually abates. You’ll also see a huge sawmill operation on the left and lots of pastureland on the right. (Heading west from Cle Elum, you’ll see the soaring peaks of the Cascades.)
Approaching South Cle Elum, I was fixated on a rocky knob that appeared north of the trail. This is Peoh Point, elevation 3,917 feet, or more than 2,000 feet above the surrounding countryside.
The preserved rail yard was a pleasant surprise for me, a diverting trailside attraction.
The old locomotive service yard dates back to 1909 when “The Milwaukee Road” started expanding toward Tacoma. The old depot is still here and painted its original colors. There’s a museum that’s open on weekends in the summer and a small diner that is in search of a proprietor.
Next to the depot, a large brick electric substation built in 1919 is still standing and reflects the time when the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad operated the longest electrified railway in the world.
I also learned that the three old bungalows I passed on the way into the rail yard once housed the families of the substation operators who worked the three shifts.
Most of the other buildings are gone, marked by cement foundations in the dirt and explanatory signs. For instance, I could still see the pivot point on the roundhouse turntable and the location of the pits for mechanics working beneath the locomotives.
The whole site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and maintained by the Cascade Rail Foundation.
There’s not much for services in this stretch. There’s a convenience store about a mile north of Easton on the opposite side of I-90, and there are some services in South Cle Elum in the I-90 area.
There are no proper campsites in this section of the Iron Horse State Park, but you can see a few fire rings and cleared spots along side the trail.
Cle Elum is one of the more interesting town names along the trail. Wikipedia tells us the town takes it’s name for “Clealum” which means swift water in the Kittitas language (a local native American tribe). South Cle Elum (which celebrated its 100 anniversary in August 2011), of course, takes its name from its older neighbor.
Although I continued east toward Ellensburg, I didn’t make it all the way. So I’ll write about that section when I make my next visit.
00.0 — Easton (approx. 42 miles from Cedar Falls)
3.8 — Big Creek
6.8 — Golf Course Road
7.4 — Yakima River trestle
9.9 — Yakima River trestle
12.2 — South Cle Elum Railyard
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