When I went overnight bike-camping on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail last week, I paid particular attention to the inscription above the west portal of the 2.3-mile long Snoqualmie Tunnel.
“Snoqualmie Tunnel — 1912 – 1914″
Looks like there’s a centennial anniversary coming up.
The unlit tunnel is at the high point of the rail-trail that runs for 110 miles through Iron Horse State Park from Cedar Falls (near North Bend) to the Columbia River. It served as a shortcut for trains passing over Snoqualmie Pass in Washington’s Cascade Mountains.
For many bicyclists, the straight-as-an-arrow tunnel is a highlight of a ride on the rail-trail that once carried trains on the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad between Seattle-Tacoma and Chicago.
But the railroad didn’t build the tunnel for bicyclists. The original railroad corridor finished in 1909 went over the pass at a higher elevation, stopping at Laconia station. But even then, the railroad was surveying a route for a tunnel that would provide a passageway protected from snow that was also shorter.
Joined on Aug. 4
Work actually began on Tunnel No. 50 in 1911, and 700 men were employed in the task. A crew working from the eastern end met the crew boring in from the west on Aug. 4, 1914. All the finish work took until Jan. 1, and the first train passed through the tunnel on Jan. 15, 1915.
The railroad spent $2 million to build the tunnel. It cost almost half that (in current dollars) for the state to rehabilitate the structure in 2011. It had been closed for two years when inspectors determined the crumbling roof and walls were dangerous to those walking or pedaling through the tunnel.
Personally, I find riding in the tunnel kind of creepy, but that hasn’t stopped me from riding through at least a dozen times. I enjoy the gently uphill (1.7% grade) ride from Cedar Falls and the mostly sunny weather along the crest of the Cascades in the summer. Riding into the tunnel reminds me too much of the cold, wet weather we seem to get nine months a year. And the tunnel is very dark. Lights are a necessity.
But the tunnel is a big draw for the trail. There aren’t many places where you can pedal for 2.3 miles underground. Former state transportation secretary Douglas MacDonald wrote at Crosscut.com that 250,000 people visited the rail-trail in the 2009 tourist season, and 80 percent of them passed through the tunnel.
From the west, bicycle riders climb about 1,500 feet on a hard-packed gravel trail for 20-some miles from the Cedar Falls Trailhead to the west portal of the tunnel. Others simply drive to the Hyak Trailhead and enter directly through the east portal.
The temperature inside can feel cold in the summertime, and there’s often a stiff west-to-east breeze blowing through the tunnel. More than once I’ve emerged from the dampness to witness fog pouring out of the east entrance.
If you haven’t visited the tunnel, the old lady’s 100th birthday would be a good time. Remember, you’ll need a state park Discover Pass to park at the trail heads at Hyak or Cedar Falls.
Crosscuts.com: Hiking the long tunnel at Snoqualmie Pass
National Trails Training Partnership: Tunnels on Trails – a study of 78 tunnels on 36 trails
A bike ride on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail between Cedar Falls and Hyak is one of the chapters in the book I wrote for Falcon Guides: Best Bikes Rides Seattle. In all, there are 40 road, trail and mountain bike rides featured in the book that’s now available.