THE TUNNEL & WHAT LIES BEYOND
“I mean, how long can a tunnel really be?”— Me. 2014
“c’mon, it’s only eighty miles. How hard can that really be?”– Also me. 2015
In 2014, I was bike commuting back and forth to work and riding local road routes around the Tacoma area when a friend named Matt had told me about a ride he had done. It was on a re-purposed rail line up near Snoqualmie pass, it wasn’t paved, and there were no cars allowed. That all sounded pretty amazing, but what piqued my interest was his description of the Tunnel on this trail- it was apparently over two miles long and pitch black inside.
I was amazed by the fact that when I asked other people about it, they seemed to have no idea what I was talking about, so I decided that I needed to see it for myself.
The only bike I had at the time was a road bike with 23mm tires which wasn’t going to work for this ride. I bought a Surly Crosscheck frameset in the fall of 2014 and built it up into a functional ‘Gravel Bike’ with a mixture of road and mountain bike components.
(I say ‘Gravel Bike’ because gravel bikes were not a thing yet according to the bike industry. If you wanted a drop bar bike that could transition from pavement to forest roads, you had to get a CX bike and figure out which MTB components would work with road shifters to get the gearing required for off-road grades. It was a fun game of mix-and-match that resulted in me hoarding old 9sp XT rear derailleurs for several years.)
I spent the winter finding all of the unpaved paths and shortcuts in Tacoma, fine-tuning my bike, and waiting for the tunnel to open.
In late April, as soon as the tunnel was accessible, I promptly drove my bike up to the trail head, and began the journey I had been planning for almost a year.
The John Wayne Pioneer Trail (as it was known back then) is a rail trail that begins at Rattlesnake Lake, just outside of North Bend, Washington. It is a hard-packed surface, and slowly meanders up to the pass along the I-90 corridor. The trail is old railroad grade, so while it’s uphill all the way to the tunnel, the grade never exceeds 3%.
From the parking lot, it’s eighteen miles to the Snoqualmie Tunnel, so I settled into an easy pace, taking my time so I could enjoy the sights of the trail…
I was not let down.
The western portion of the trail is stunning, with massive trestles spanning creeks and valleys. Trail users are treated to sweeping views of the Cascades, while the tunnel is a monument in its own right.
It is awe-inspiring. You can’t really comprehend how long a 2.3 mile long tunnel is until you’re actually inside of it. There is always a moment when your eyes adjust to your light, and you realize that the tiny pinpoint of light ahead is not the light of a hiker, it is the other end, and it seems impossibly far away.
I rode through the tunnel, smiling the entire time and emerged at Hyak, thrilled that such a route existed. I was even more thrilled that it was open to the public and maintained by Washington State Parks.
I made note of the sign at Hyak giving distance markers for further destinations; Easton, Cle Ellum, Ellensburg.
I filled my water bottle and crossed back through the tunnel, making the twenty mile descent back to my car, and already planning when I could return.
Over the next month, something kept gnawing at me- The sign at Hyak said Ellensburg. Should I ride to Ellensburg? Could I ride to Ellensburg?
I delved into the internet, researching as much as I could about the trail, but here was not a lot of information available back then. The west side was well traveled but there just wasn’t much information about anything east of Hyak.
I came across a blog from a Spokane-based cyclist named Pat. He had ridden the entire trail, east to west in 2010. Pat’s blog was a wealth of information, and he was offering all of his research, route planning, and ride reports to anyone who was interested.
*If you ever see this, Pat, thank you. Your work is still appreciated.
Working backwards from Pat’s ride, and using Google Maps as a reference, I decided that not only could I do it, I had to do it.
The following week at a friend’s house, I was describing my trip to the tunnel over beers and unveiled my plan to go to Ellensburg.
My wife looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language, and said, “Who’s going with you?”
I looked across the table- Jason had a bike.
“When are we going?” he asked.
My wife laughed, “How are you guys going to get home?”
*Now keep in mind that while I was regularly riding at the time, I had never ridden eighty miles on gravel, let alone two days in a row.
“We’ll ride.” I blurted out.
And that’s how the ride was born.
Year one was myself and one friend, and we were totally unprepared. We didn’t know what to bring, we didn’t know where to get water, and had no real idea of what to expect on the trail. It was an adventure full of unknowns. It was glorious.
The beauty of the trail reeled me in on that trip, and it has never let me go.
The second year, there were three of us, and having ridden it once, we made none of the mistakes from the previous year. We knew where the water was, and we packed far less.
Year three saw a great mixture of seventeen people from all skill levels.
There were twenty-two people in year four, and more than thirty in year five.
But the route to Ellensburg is only a small section of the Palouse to Cascades Trail. It’s a great introduction that lets people see the possibilities that lie in such a trail, especially one that’s so long. But it goes much further, and up until now, there have been several large barriers blocking access to the further eastern reaches.
As work continues, bridges are being re-decked and rough surfaces are being regraded. Trail improvements make everything more accessible, and most of the missing bridges are scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2021, opening up the entirety of the trail from North Bend to Tekoa. That’s the western foothills of the Cascades, all the way to the Idaho border, with a handful of out-of-the-way small towns in between.
Many people have been working for years to finally realize this vision, and I am currently planning my own trip in 2021 to ride the entire thing.
You can do this ride as well! In fact, I’ll even help you get prepared here.