As the John Wayne Pioneer Trail leaves the high Cascades and heads southeast from Cle Elum, it enters the Upper Yakima River Canyon.
It was an unexpected scenic treasure on my explorations by bicycle between trail heads in the Iron Horse State Park this fall.
I expected a dusty, exposed route across flat prairie on this segment between Cle Elum and Thorp. Instead, the rail-trail follows the meandering Yakima River as it cuts through ancient volcanic rock on its way to the Columbia River.
My 41-mile bicycling loop started at South Cle Elum, where the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad rail yard is preserved. The rail trail heads east past some back yards through a low area with cattails and such.
About 3 miles out, there’s a sign marking a 14.5-mile highway detour to Thorp. There are two railroad tunnels on this section that were closed by the state as a safety precaution two years ago, along with three others. The 2.3-mile Snoqualmie Tunnel has been reopened, and another tunnel between Hyak and Easton is officially closed, but passable. It seemed likely that these might be open too.
Crossing under I-90, the trail hooks up with the river again and enters the canyon.
Notice I don’t say the trail descends into the canyon. The trail is nearly level as it follows the chasm cut through the surrounding uplifted hills by the Yakima River.
The trail stays in the woods for a distance with occasional river overlooks in the Turkey Gulch area. The state put in a couple of picnic sites here, where passersby can watch the river and the fly fishermen below.
As the canyon narrows, there are views to the buff-colored hills across the river. Steep cliffs of columnal basalt deposited by ancient volcanoes rise above the trail.
Bicyclists need to stop and open a couple of unlocked cattle gates deep in the canyon, and there are views across the river to power-generating wind turbines.
I encountered the first tunnel, No. 47, about 13 miles from Cle Elum. That’s where railroad builders ran out of room between the cliffs and the river on the south side of the trail, so they bored through the hillside.
It’s marked with No Trespassing signs, but it appeared passable. Although only a 1/4-mile long, I couldn’t see the other side because it curves. Fortunately I had a bike light that was adequate to see follow the trail without crashing into the tunnel walls.
Tunnel 46, about a mile beyond, is shorter and also open for passage, though marked prohibited. In between the two tunnels is an abandoned farm, complete with derelict house, barn and outbuildings.
I emerged from the second tunnel into the wide open Thorp prairie, with grassy landscapes nearly to the horizon. The trail heads straight for about 4 miles to the Thorp trail head.
You’ll cross Goodwin Road about a half-mile from the trail head. That road heads northwest to the town of Thorp if you need any services. The trail head doesn’t even have water.
I picked up the detour on the way back to Cle Elum. It follows low traffic roads, mostly along I-90, that climb over the hills that the trail bypassed in the canyon.
The Cle Elum elevation is marked at 1,512 feet, climbing slightly to 1,632 feet in Thorp. The off-trail detour rises to 2,359 feet at Elk Heights after three climbs.
I’ve been riding my mountain bike with 1-1/4 inch commuter-style tires on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail and haven’t had any problems. On this section, someone went a little gravel-happy on the 4 miles east of Cle Elum, and I had to plow through some deep pockets. In the canyon, and trail is hard-packed and fast.
There’s nothing between South Cle Elum and Thorp in way of services; in fact you’ll probably need to cross under I-90 for food in Cle Elum. The Thorp trail head is isolated as well, and you’ll need to ride into nearby Thorp for anything except a pit toilet (which is located at the trail head).
This section of the trail is quite a gem, and I’m surprised to only come across one family out for a hike that weekend I visited. I’d expect a vibrant display of color in the woods at the upper part of the canyon this fall.
00.0 – South Cle Elum Railyard
3.12 – Start of 14.5-mile off-trail detour
5.7 - Yakima River overlook picnic area
8.1 - Gate
8.8 – Gate; irrigation sluice
11.0 – Wind turbine views
13.5 – Tunnel No. 47, 1/4-mile
14.0 – Abandoned farm on river
14.7 – Tunnel No. 46, short
17.0 – Taneum Creek crossing
18.2 – Detour rejoins trail
19.4 – Goodwin Road (route into Thorp)
19.9 – Thorp Trailhead