February 28, 2017
Washington’s Gem in the Rough
By Marilyn Hedges
The peaceful silence we heard as we lay in our tent the first night was replaced by a distant rumble to the west.
It was the first night of our bike-packing adventure along the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, the longest rail-trail conversion in the United States, spanning 285 miles between Cedar Falls in the western foothills of the Washington Cascades to the Idaho border.
Since the Milwaukee Railroad no longer runs along this route, we were startled as the thundering roar barreled down upon us like a freight train through a canyon. I sat up just as a powerful wind shook the tent.
We grabbed the tent fly and held on. As fast as it had blown over us, it faded off to the east, leaving us in quiet stillness again. Wide-eyed, I looked at Mike.
“It’s the ghost of the Milwaukee train!” I exclaimed.
Residing in Wenatchee, Mike and I enjoyed taking short day trips through Iron Horse State Park, a section of the rail-trail west of the Columbia River. Over theyears we had talked about riding the whole trail. The scattered rail ties and spikes, trestles, tunnels, cuts and fills were intriguing and served as reminders of the Milwaukee’s role in shaping the state’s landscape and history.
East of the river the route is rough and rocky, sections are overgrown, services are scarce, and there are gates and missing trestles, sections of private land and active rail that necessitate detours. Despite the expected obstacles, we were interested in exploring this section, too.
In 2015, without notifying the public, state legislators attempted to give away 130 miles of the eastern section to adjacent landowners. (See sidebar on page 15.)
Fortunately, an error in the wording of the proviso nullified it. The news media picked up the story, and the public was outraged. A statewide effort to preserve and improve the whole trail was launched.
According to the Friends of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, the Trail is now one of Washington State Park’s top priorities in the 2017–2019 budget.
A Parade for Our Arrival
When we learned that our friends, trail advocates and adventure cyclists Willie Weir and Kat Marriner, planned to bike the trail starting at Cedar Falls, 35 miles east of Seattle, and end in Tekoa near the Idaho border, we jumped at the chance to arrange an ideal shuttle.
We would ride in the opposite direction, cross paths in the middle, and leave our vehicle in Tekoa for Kat and Willie to use to return home to Seattle. They would then pick us up with the truck when we finished at Cedar Falls.
Last year, on a sunny May morning in Tekoa, Washington — located 2 miles west of the Idaho border and less than 50 miles south of Spokane — we loaded panniers and gear onto our mountain bikes and headed west through the Palouse.
The trail cut through rolling wheat fields, wound past farms and ranches, and passed through small towns that had prospered with the railroad. We had the trail all to ourselves.
On the second morning we stopped and lingered at Rock Lake, appreciating the area’s beauty. Here the Palouse transitions to scablands, a dramatic landscape scoured by ancient ice age floods.
Later that day we tried to pick up our pace to reach Ritzville that evening, a detour off the trail. A gusting headwind reduced us to a crawl for the last 20 miles.
When we finally rolled into town exhausted, it seemed that Ritzville celebrated our arrival with a parade down Main Street, complete with float and high school marching band. Although some would say it was only parade practice, we enjoyed the coincidental enthusiasm of our arrival.
To top this, our paths crossed with Willie and Kat, and we enjoyed their company over a steak dinner at a local pub.
Spring is the best time to cross eastern Washington. In the heat of the summer, temperatures can soar and there are miles between the shade columns of grain elevators. But in May, the Russian olive trees are blooming, Great Horned Owls fledging, and the landscape a lush green.
We followed the wetlands of Lower Crab Creek to its confluence with the Columbia River near the unincorporated community of Beverly. Here we inquired at the mini-mart if someone could shuttle us west across the river.
The Beverly trestle is permanently closed, and the nearest bridge on Interstate 90 at Vantage, is dangerous by bike, with heavy traffic and no shoulder.
Eventually a volunteer arrived in a beat-up pickup. We threw our bikes in the back and off we rattled north before crossing the Vantage Bridge to Wanapum State Park on the west side of the river.
This is the ancestral home of the Wanapum tribe, our driver explained, until they were displaced when construction of a downstream dam flooded their village.
Can’t See a Thing
As we traveled farther west, we began to see other trail users. At a tunnel past Ellensburg, Mike stepped into the darkness to see if we would need headlamps.
“I can’t see a thing in here!” he shouted.
We were startled when a voice from deeper in the tunnel shouted back, “Neither can I!,” as another cyclist walked out with his bike.
On our last night, we stayed in a caboose at South Cle Elum’s Iron Horse Inn bed-and-breakfast, an old railroad bunkhouse. The next morning we climbed the eastern Cascades, pedaled through the 2.3-mile Snoqualmie Tunnel, and emerged on the west side.
An easy downhill grade through evergreen forests brought us to our finish at Cedar Falls, where Willie was waiting with our truck. It was the perfect conclusion to our adventure on Washington’s gem in the rough — the John Wayne Pioneer Trail.
Marilyn Hedges is a retired nurse practitioner, a bicycle tourist and a trail advocate. She lives in Wenatchee, Washington, with her husband Mike Sorensen, and is on the board of the Friends of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, a nonprofit organization devoted to saving and improving the John Wayne Pioneer Trail.
Illustration above by Jamie Robertson. Courtesy of Adventure Cycling Association