Don’t be surprised if you see rush-hour conditions on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail between Rattlesnake Lake and Hyak on Saturday.
The Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust is hosting a Snoqualmie Tunnel Bike Ride and BBQ that day. Registration is still open if you’re interested in joining.
The nonprofit is arranging for transportation from the Cedar Falls Trailhead at Rattlesnake Lake to Hyak, meaning that participants will essentially get a 22-mile downhill ride through the tunnel and all the way to the parking lot.
I was just up on the trail the other day. Several people remarked at the excellent condition of the trail; it’s suitable for all but the narrowest of road tires.
Here’s an old blog post and video I posted about that section of trail back in 2008. Since then the tunnel has been closed for repairs and reopened.
July 21, 2008 — 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.
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. 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.
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;
— Mileage signs along the trail are based on the old railroad mileages to Chicago.
— 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 Crags.
— 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.
— 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