The Milwaukee Road
In the Early 1900’s, the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad (nicknamed the Milwaukee Road) began the daunting task of expanding their rail line to the Pacific Northwest. Between 1906 and 1910, over 2,300 miles of track was laid over the Rockies, through Idaho, eastern Washington, and across the Cascades. The completed rail line would bring freight as well as passengers from Chicago all the way to Tacoma.
What set this railroad apart from so many others, was the fact that large sections of it were electrified. Steam locomotives had difficulty operating in the northern reaches of the Rockies, and the tunnels through the two major mountain ranges proved problematic for trains belching smoke from their coal-fired boilers.
Electrification provided a modern touch, inspiring futuristic luxury cars which brought passengers to the west in unrivaled style and speed.
Facing major financial hardships in the 1970’s, the railroad eventually filed for bankruptcy, abandoning the line from Montana to Tacoma in 1980. Some of the tracks were sold to competing railroads, while other sections were rail-banked by the states and converted to rail-trails.
Both the Trail of The Coeur d’Alenes and the Route of The Hiawatha follow the Milwaukee Road in Idaho, while the Palouse to Cascades Trail follows the old rail line across most of Washington. Together, these trails make up the western section of the Great American Rail Trail which is a future plan that is really, really exciting. But enough about trains…
The Trail Today.
There are few trails I’ve found that cross through such a diversity of landscape, wildlife, and climate. Riding the trail at bike speed allows one to really appreciate the place that we choose to call home.
If you live west of the Cascades (like I do) the trail will allow you to experience a completely different view of Washington. The best part about the trail is that almost all of it is on the east side of the mountains, and the transition from the green and wet west side, to the arid and golden east side is one that is nothing short of spectacular.
The trail has quite a history and went through a name change in 2018. This is why finding good information online regarding some of the less traveled sections can be difficult.
(Formerly known as the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, it ran through Iron Horse State Park. This caused quite a bit of confusion and you will undoubtedly find references online to both the Ironhorse trail and the John Wayne Trail, but they are the same thing.)
Officially, State Parks lists the Palouse to Cascades Trail as being 285 miles long (a few sections are incomplete and require detours). The western trail head is at Rattlesnake Lake, just outside of North Bend. From there, it rises through the Cascades over Snoqualmie Pass and drops steadily into the golden fields of the Kittitas Valley before crossing the Saddle Mountains to the Columbia River.
From The Eastern Bank of the Columbia, the trail continues through the eastern portion of the Saddle Mountains before crossing the arid Scablands, and finally coming to an end in the rolling hills of the Palouse.
(There is a wonderful amount of geological landscape to explore, and if you’re so inclined, you can delve into the finer points of coulees, columnar basalt, and ancient glacial floods, but I’ll leave that up to you.)
In any case, the trail will take you through a fascinating amount of scenery and geography, and at bike speed, you will actually get to appreciate it.
If you have questions or concerns about packing and prepping for this journey (or at least just to Ellensburg), there is some solid prep info here.
For the sake of my typing, and your reading, I will break the trail up into sections. Each stretch will have information on features, water, amenities, supplies and any other info that is pertinent to the trail.
Table of Contents
- Rattlesnake Lake to Hyak (20 Miles)
- Hyak to Easton (20 Miles)
- Easton to Cle Elum (10 Miles)
- Cle Elum to Ellensburg (30 Miles)
- Ellensburg to the Columbia (35 Miles)
Rattlesnake Lake to Hyak (20 Miles)
This is the most traveled section of the trail and It’s easy to see why. It’s easily accessible, close to Seattle, and let’s be honest- it’s absolutely beautiful. The trail takes you through a dense forest of firs, hemlocks, and cedars as it makes its way through the Western Cascades.
You can park in the Palouse To Cascades Trail State Park parking lot (it’s a State Park so you’ll need a Discover Pass). The parking lot is gated from dusk to 6:30am, and if you’re wondering- yes, you can totally park here overnight. The trail head also has relatively clean vault toilets.
From the parking lot, it’s just about twenty miles to Hyak. The trail surface is hard pack crushed stone and is fast-rolling. It’s uphill for the next eighteen miles, but it’s railroad grade, so it never gets steep. This section averages about a 2% grade as it slowly climbs through the I-90 corridor.
As the trail rises up to the pass, it crosses several trestles, and each one is more impressive than the last. They curve around ridges and span tiny creeks flowing hundreds of feet below. As you pedal across these bridges, the trees give way, opening up to sweeping views of the Cascades.
The first trestle goes over Change Creek and it spans between the Deception Crags rock climbing area. This area can be pretty busy on weekends and the trail around the rocks will often have many people on it. Spotters are often looking out for climbers above instead of oncoming cyclists so it’s a good idea to slow down through this stretch.
Shortly after Change Creek, you will cross the Hall Creek Trestle which sweeps to the left in a large curve. The center span of this bridge was destroyed in 1988 when a winter storm caused a flood of debris to destroy the lower footings, sending the span into the chasm below. State parks replaced the center span in 1998, making the trail complete once more.
There will be two more trestles on your way up, one that sweeps out over Mine Creek, and the final one over Hansen Creek. All of these trestles were originally built as timber structures and converted to steel soon after. The views that they provide are expansive, and the engineering required to build them in the early 1900’s is nothing short of amazing.
The scenery on the trail can vary widely depending upon the time of year that you ride. A fall ride (my favorite season) will treat you to some spectacular colors and that late afternoon sunlight that you only get as the summer fades away. During spring, there will be wildflower blooms and small seasonal creeks that dance down the side of the trail. In early summer, those same creeks can turn into full blown waterfalls, rushing down the rocks beside you. *the weather can also vary widely so be aware and be prepared.
The sign posts for the old railroad stops still line the side of the trail, and as you ascend you’ll pass Cedar Falls, Ragnar (which is one of the few depots with equipment still present), Garcia, and Bandera.
You will pass two primitive campgrounds on your way up- Alice Creek, and Carter Creek. Both of these sites are hike-in or bike-in only and are both trail side. They have no water and fires are not allowed. They each have several nice pads for tents, a picnic table, and a clean vault toilet as well. They are first come, first served.
*As always LEAVE NO TRACE.
*Alice Creek is a decent place to camp, but Carter Creek (which sits down below the trail where the creek rushes over massive boulders and logs) is a truly wonderful spot to spend the night.
As the trail continues to climb into the Cascades, you’ll come to an old snow shed, once used to shield the trains in the winter. From here, it’s a quick ride to the western portal of the Snoqualmie Tunnel.
For many people, the Snoqualmie Tunnel is the destination on a one day ride, and it’s not without good reason. The western portal is an imposing presence. Even on the sunniest of days it can easily lead one’s imagination to fantastic places.
The Snoqualmie Tunnel was blasted through the mountain between 1912 and 1914. It is an absolute marvel of engineering given that it is 2.3 miles long.
It’s difficult to describe the experience of it, regardless of how many times I’ve ridden through it. On the clearest and sunniest of days, you’ll be able to see what appears to be the dimmest, distant star in the blackness; nothing more than a pinpoint… and that is the other side.
Even at a brisk pace, it’ll take just under ten minutes to reach the other end and that’s a long time to be in the dark and cold depths underneath a mountain. While it can be fun to ride through as fast as you can, I always like to stop at the midpoint, turn off my lights, and let the darkness swallow me.
It is all encompassing. You will lose all sense of direction almost immediately as you are left alone with nothing but the sound of your own heartbeat and the steady dripping of water from above.
The tunnel’s surface is hard pack with little potholes all the way through, formed from the water that drips year-round from the ceiling. The climate inside the tunnel varies depending on when you are there. It can be a cool and welcome break from the heat of a late August afternoon, or it can be lined with thawing, sparkling frost as the spring melt takes hold.
Keep in mind that the tunnel can act as a venturi, with the prevailing wind picking up speed as it’s forced through the passage towards the east. So, what may be a quick and pleasant ride to the east side can suddenly be misery as you grind through a freezing headwind on the way back. *plan and prepare accordingly
The tunnel entrance has a few picnic tables and a vault toilet near it. To the left, Rockdale Creek cascades from up above and makes its way down under I-90 into the south fork of the Snoqualmie River.
The tunnel requires several things to ride through it successfully.
- Warm clothing: a light jacket or arm warmers, and full gloves in the colder months. The tunnel is quite cold regardless of the outside temperature. Even in the peak of summer when it’s eighty degrees outside, it will be forty degrees inside the tunnel. If you are riding it in spring when it first opens, the edges of the tunnel can still be lined with ice. It won’t take long for your fingers and face to go numb.
- Lights: The brighter the better. The tunnel is pitch black inside and you will find it impossible to ride a bike through it without ample light. The faster you ride, the more light you need. The tiny little light you use for daytime riding will be useless in the tunnel. Aim your light down and to the right so you don’t blind oncoming cyclists and hikers. pro tip: your lights work way better when you take off your sunglasses. 🙂
- Courtesy: depending on when you are there, you may be be the only person in the tunnel, however, it is a destination for many, and on warmer days it will be well traveled with families, hikers, and other cyclists. Slow down, yield appropriately, and don’t be a jerk.
- Timing: The tunnel is closed from November to (usually) May. During the winter, the trail is covered in snow and ice forms along the ceiling and walls.
*It’s important to appreciate the tunnel as a monument that is accessible to the public. The tunnel was closed for several years due to dangerous conditions inside. It’s only been reopened since 2011. State parks did a lot of work to ensure that the Snoqualmie Tunnel would be an adventure destination for years to come.
As you exit the tunnel, you’ll emerge near Hyak Sno-Park just past the Summit of Snoquamie Pass. There are picnic tables and a large rest facility in the parking lot with clean bathrooms, showers, and a spigot on the outside wall to refill your bottles. There is also a convenient bike repair stand here.
*fun fact- Originally designed and built by the railroad, the first ski area at Hyak opened in 1938 with a massive two-story lodge and was called the Milwaukee Ski Bowl. It was only accessible by train and at the time, had the only ski lift in the northwest. Lights powered by the railroad’s electric lines also made it the only place in the northwest that offered night skiing. A popular winter destination, packed ski trains carried people to the resort until a fire tore through the lodge in 1949. The railroad sold the property and the current Hyak Sno-Park opened in 1959.
Hyak (which is a Chinook word for swift or fast) is a great place to refuel and take a break, especially on a sunny afternoon. For many people, Hyak is the destination for the day. If you turn around and ride back you will get about forty miles and the ride back is all downhill. While it may not have felt that steep on the way up, the difference is clear on the way down; it’s really easy to go really fast.
Those who choose to go on will soon come to Keechelus Lake and beyond….
Hyak to Easton (20 miles)
As you leave Hyak, your experience will depend a lot on the season that you’re riding. In May, you may encounter a lot of mud with snow still lining the trail. In August, you’ll find a dry and dusty trail that disappears on the horizon.
The first thing you’ll notice is the difference in the gravel. The groomed hard pack that was so smooth on the way up is quickly replaced with a looser and dustier surface that requires you to push a little harder to move through. You can give up all hope for the return of that nice surface that got you here, you are leaving it behind forever, and the further East you go, the larger tire you will need.
*This section had fresh gravel laid back in 2015, and if you think it’s rough now, it was virtually unrideable when it was new. Ask me how I know.
Keechelus Lake will appear on the left, at first with a few peeks, and then you’ll be riding alongside of it for several miles. I-90 appears as a tiny ribbon on the opposite bank. Keechelus is a natural lake and the source of the Yakima River, but it’s outflow is now controlled by a dam on the south end.
*fun fact- Keechelus is a native term for “Few Fish”, which is in direct contrast to nearby Kachess Lake, which means “Many Fish”. Snoqualmie pass was used by Natives to cross the Cascades long before any rail lines or roads existed here.
The lake changes drastically during the summer; its water level plummets, exposing the remnants of an old growth forest that once lined its banks. As you make your way to the southern edge of the lake, you will pass the remaining concrete foundations of two large snow sheds and several creeks which feed the lake; Cold Creek, Roaring Creek, and Meadow Creek. Cold Creek and Roaring Creek both have a primitive camp ground with a picnic table and a vault toilet.
As you leave the lake behind, the trail will parallel Lost Lake Road and some cabins before crossing Stampede Pass Road (There is an amazing gravel loop up Stampede Pass but I’ll save that for another post). This section of trail gives you the first clues to the changing landscape as towering long-needled pines begin to mix with the cedars and firs around you.
You’ll pass the old sign for Whittier, a long gone rail road stop and then eventually you’ll come to Tunnel 49, also known as the Whittier Tunnel (that makes the Snoqualmie Tunnel #50 if you’re counting). While not nearly as impressive, this tunnel always feels odd in that it’s just kind of out there in the middle of nowhere on the trail. Other than the power lines that run above it, it’s the only real landmark for miles in both directions.
It also happens to be just long enough to really mess with your sense of direction if you try and ride through it without taking off your sunglasses.
The trail continues east and as you approach Cabin Creek, the trees will become more dense and outcrops of rock will begin to sprout up beside you. At this point, Monahan Road will actually merge with the trail for a short distance. This section is well signed as being shared with traffic, and you’ll immediately know that cars have been on this stretch due to the washboard surface. Personally, I’ve only encountered one car on this section of trail.
You’ll cross a small bridge over Cabin Creek and then the shared road will separate (the road curves to the right, and the trail stays left), leaving you and your bike alone on the trail once more. Just up ahead, the trees will give way as you pedal underneath a slew of massive power lines and cross a bridge over a river. This is the first view you’ll have of the Yakima on your journey, but don’t worry, you will soon be well acquainted with this river.
Even though the view is quite expansive here, it can be slightly unnerving to stop on the bridge. The sound of the river moving lazily below is drowned out by the power lines overhead. A constant dull, relentless buzz intrudes upon the scene. It’s impressive, but I never stay on the bridge for very long.
As the trail gets closer to Easton the terrain becomes more rugged with larger basalt structures lining the edges. These sections were blasted through in the early 1900’s, and now, ferns and towering pines cling to the rocks as they stretch up to the sky above.
This is a beautiful section of the trail, and it doesn’t last long, so if you race through it you’ll miss it. I always slow down through this stretch and take my time because I know that the huge trees lining the trail only last for a few more miles, and once they’re gone, so is the shade.
Making your way through the forest, the trail will break into two. Going to the left will take you to the State Park, and staying to the right will take you beyond to the town of Easton. *If you are camping at Easton, you need to take the left path.
Lake Easton is a natural lake that was dammed in 1929. It is fed by both the Yakima and the Kachess rivers from its western shore and the Yakima continues on from its eastern edge.
The Lake is surrounded by Lake Easton State Park, and is a common camping spot for trail users. The park has two dedicated hike/bike campsites and all of the standard facilities you’d expect from a Washington State Park such as fire rings, bathrooms, showers, and trashcans. You can purchase firewood at the check in station.
*If you camp here, I recommend ear plugs. The campsites are close enough to I-90 that the traffic noise can be a problem for lighter sleepers.
Back on the main trail, as you continue East, the trees will give way as you cross a long bridge. On the right side is the Yakima River, on the left is Lake Easton.
You will pass around several gates as you make your way past the lake, and you will come to the the third tunnel on your journey. Tunnel 48, or the Easton Tunnel, is short enough to ride straight through without lights, but the forest growing above it is always impressive.
Beyond the tunnel, the trees will begin to thin as you pass a small diversion dam on the left which diverts water from the Yakima River to an irrigation canal. From here, the trail emerges onto Cabin Creek Road in the town of Easton. Follow the road a short distance and rejoice in the smoothness of pavement!
The trail picks back up at the Fire Station, and a short distance beyond, a trail head will appear on your right. This is the Easton Trail Head. It has a picnic table, a vault toilet, and a water spigot as well.
This is a great place to stop for lunch and a rest if you have a longer day planned. It’s almost exactly forty miles from Rattlesnake Lake, and the shade of the towering pine trees over that picnic table is about to be extremely difficult to find.
Easton to Cle Elum (10 miles)
I’ll just be honest- the next ten miles are going to be rough. As soon as you depart from the Easton trail head, the trail surface changes pretty drastically. It’s a little more manageable if it has rained recently, but in the summer, this stretch can be brutal, especially if you’ve ridden straight through to this point.
The gravel here is dry, dusty, and deep. The aggregate is larger and looser than most of what you’ve ridden on, and large egg-sized chunks are scattered along the trail. For most of this stretch, it is laid from edge to edge, forcing you to find and ride in a skinny, worn track made from previous passersby.
Even in this track, it’s hard to find a rhythm. It’s littered with the occasional larger rock, forcing you out into the deep stuff where your front tire floats for an instant before catching traction and finding its way forward.
This section is also long and relatively straight, stretching into the distance and giving the impression that there is no end in sight. On a good day, this ten mile stretch will be hard riding. On a bad day, this stretch will suck the life out of you and make you question what you are even doing out here.
The only solace you will find here is that the winds blow from the west, and a good tailwind will make this section a little easier. A good friend to suffer alongside of you also goes a long way.
The trail crosses several roads, some railroad tracks, and a few small creeks. It sweeps in several large curves, but for the most part, it’s just a steady grind. You’ll cross the Yakima twice. The first bridge is near a golf course, the second is where the Cle Elum River feeds into the Yakima.
Here, the rivers converge, forming a massive sandbar that’s littered with fallen trees. The water here is deep, fast moving, and powerful.
The real treat of this area is the slow shift that takes place in the environment around you. The firs and hemlocks are far less prevalent as they are replaced with pines, and the sword ferns give way to tall grasses as you slowly make your way east.
New scents float through the air, which now feels drier. Strange insects call from the grasses, and birds sing songs that were foreign on the western side of the Cascades.
Eventually, you will ride into South Cle Elum. A substation which once powered the railroad will be on your left followed by a restaurant called Smokey’s BBQ that sits right on the trail.
Smokey’s has great food. Whether you can handle a full meal and continue to ride is up to you, but enjoying a cold beer or a Coke at the picnic tables outside is a great afternoon treat. You can also ride across the bridge and into town where you will find plenty of fast-food options, a gas station, and a Safeway as well.
In any case, take a break. Enjoy the scenery. You’ve earned it.
Update July 2020: Most of this section has been pretty worn down and is now pretty fast rolling. If you want to know what it used to be like, just ride in the center section and imagine that being spread edge to edge.
Cle Elum to Ellensburg (30 miles)
This is one of my favorite stretches of the trail, but you’re going to have to work for it. Oh, were you hoping that the gravel would improve? Don’t worry, it will… But not for a few more miles. You’re going to have to settle in and get back into the grind.
As you leave Cle Elum, the trail surface stays the same loose and deep surface that you’ve been on, and depending on recent trail activity and rains, it can also be chewed up with horse prints and sandier sections.
The next five miles is long and straight, and the only section of smoothish trail here is a small, marshy stretch where the rocks have been washed out with water, leaving behind a smooth double track with lush vegetation. The grass in the middle can get quite tall and there is often standing water in this spot. As soon as you’re past it, though, the loose and dry gravel returns.
There is a hill looming in the distance, and you just need to get to it. The trail goes to it and drops to the left into the Upper Yakima Canyon. On the way there, it crosses a few small roads and it’ll go under I-90 as well. You’ll see glimpses of a road to your right, and it may be tempting to get out on it and enjoy that sweet, smooth pavement. Just keep in mind that while the shade may be minimal on the trail, there is virtually none on the road. The trade off is up to you.
Lower Peoh Point Road parallels the trail for quite a while, and you can catch it all the way back in Cle Elum where you left from. Some people enjoy the break and treat themselves to a smooth ride, while others want to ride the trail in it’s entirety, even if it means suffering a little bit more. I’m not going to judge you, nor should anyone else, just make sure that if you take the road, you get back on the trail before the road leaves it.
*There is a gravel driveway on the left, about four and a half miles from the BBQ joint, and it crosses the trail. This is where you need to get back on.
The trail will begin to sweep to the left as it approaches the hill and dips alongside of it. The trees will thicken as the river comes into view, and you will be treated to some much needed shade.
The dry and dusty trail that you’ve been riding on gives way to a riparian corridor lined with Willows, Alders, Maples, and Dogwoods. The change is drastic, and while it may not seem like a real canyon quite yet, the landscape will soon show plenty of evidence of the Yakima’s power as you move further into it.
The next fifteen miles of trail are some of my favorite, mainly due to how much the environment shifts over such a small distance. Take your time and enjoy the scenery.
The trail will slowly meander its way along the river, passing several picnic sites as the river moves in and out of view. Depending on the season, you may see people fishing down below, and as summer peaks, you’ll see rafters and tubers enjoying the water and sunshine.
Spring and early summer will provide lush greenery all around, while in late summer, the pines will be the dominant green against sweeping golden hillsides. A late fall ride will provide displays of spectacular colors from the deciduous trees along the river.
A few miles in, you’ll pass Ponderosa Campground, another primitive campsite with a vault toilet, a picnic table, and several tent pads. You’ll also come across several gates in this stretch. Please make sure that you close and latch all of them behind you.
As the canyon begins to narrow, huge basalt towers will rise to your right, forcing the trail down onto the river and giving you a view of old Highway 10 and the rolling, golden hills across the way.
This is where this section of the trail gets so wonderful- as the canyon walls get higher, the basalt structures become more impressive as they tower above you. It’s completely different than anywhere else you’ve ridden up to this point. The arid landscape is cut cleanly with the river, and even in the driest of months, there is plenty of life here.
If you’re lucky, you’ll catch some movement high up on the cliffs as bighorn sheep make their way along the bluffs, and down below you’ll find evidence of deer, coyote, quail, and predatory birds.
The trail meanders with the river’s twists and turns as it moves deeper into the canyon. Every turn provides more views of cliffs, bluffs, and the windmills high above the golden fields on the opposite bank. Eventually, you’ll come around a small bend to tunnel 47.
There are two tunnels in the canyon, and they aren’t far from each other. Like the Snoqualmie Tunnel, these tunnels were also closed for several years. The first time I rode through them I had to sign a waiver before entering. The interiors were littered with rockfall and it was clear that the walls and ceilings were slowly failing. The following year, I was pleasantly surprised to find both tunnels completely refurbished inside.
Tunnel 47 is the longer of the two and it curves to the right just enough that you can’t see the other side from the entrance. This tunnel will require a light, but the darkness that awaits you inside will be a welcome break from the heat.
Exiting the tunnel, you’ll pass a nice little picnic area, followed by a long abandoned homestead and farm. It’s very tempting to go down and explore the farm, but there are signs asking you not to, as it is private property.
It must have been a wonderful little home at one time, perched right on the Yakima River and surrounded by towering cliffs. It’s technically part of Springwood Ranch, which was once owned by Stuart Anderson, the founder of the Black Angus restaurant chain.
The farm is in a serious state of disrepair. The barn is collapsing and many of the outbuildings are flattened. The house has been slowly sinking into its own cellar over the years and the grass is just tall enough to hide sharp, rusty objects as well as the possible rattlesnake. I highly recommend that you respect the park boundaries.
The trail continues past the farm and before you know it, you’ll come to Tunnel 46. This tunnel curves as well but it’s shorter than the first. As you emerge from this tunnel, it is apparent just how much work has been done to preserve the entrance and keep the trail intact.
From here, you’ll follow the river as the cliffs and bluffs above you begin to subside, giving you sneak peeks of farmland and what’s to come. You’ll approach a grove of trees as the river leaves the trail and cross a small bridge over Taneum Creek. Here, the trail will dip down slightly, and just like that, as you emerge from the grove of trees, the golden fields of the Kittitas Valley, and Eastern Washington open up before you.
The change happens so fast that it’s difficult to believe you were just in a canyon with tunnels and towering cliffs. The valley opens up wide and the flatness ahead is quite a shock in comparison.
Depending on the time of year that you’re here, the valley can be either lush and green, or arid and gold. As the trail rolls on, you’ll pass several road crossings, all with large cattle gates. Make sure you latch them all behind you.
You’ll cross a few small bridges over irrigation canals, before coming to the Thorp Trail Head, which consists of a vault toilet, a few picnic tables, and a large gravel parking lot with hitching posts for horses. *There is no water available here.
Not far from the trail head you’ll hear the traffic from I-90 as it once again parallels the trail, and after crossing Thorp Highway you’ll come to the Shree Travel Plaza, which is home to a large (and air conditioned) convenience store and the Thorp Fruit Stand and Antique Mall (the Fruit Stand has amazing ice cream).
Treat yourself to some cold beverages, you’re almost to Ellensburg.
The trail is long, flat, and straight for the next ten miles. There are a few bridges over highways, creeks, and the Yakima River, and other than a small little paved detour at Faust Road, it’s just you and a gravel path stretching to the horizon.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have a strong tailwind assisting you into town, otherwise, it’s just a long steady grind ahead as the signs of civilization slowly begin to appear around you. The trail runs alongside a small neighborhood on the outskirts of town, and before you know it, you’ll be riding along a fence line, looking into people’s backyards. Trail use here is common, and as you approach town, you’ll see joggers, dog walkers, other cyclists, and maybe even a few horseback riders.
The trail ends on Water Street, just north of downtown. Ellensburg is the largest city on the trail and is a destination for many of its users. It’s a great place to celebrate the end of your journey, or to resupply and rest. Ellensburg has all of the amenities you’d expect for a town of its size, so take a moment to grab a coffee, a beer and a meal, and some rest. They also have a bike shop in town if you need any assistance.
There are many restaurants to choose from; Ellensburg Pasta Company is a great dinner spot to reload your carbs, and Iron Horse Brewing has great food, beer, and a fantastic outdoor patio as well. There are also multiple cafes, taco trucks, pizza places, and a Safeway.
I am a big proponent of spending money in the towns along the trail. Trail users are essentially tourists, and our dollars go a long way in getting locals to see value in the trail. Plus, if you plan ahead and buy most of your food and supplies along the way, you can pack much lighter on your bike.
If you are continuing on the trail, this is your last go at the comforts of a hotel. You’ve ridden eighty miles to get here and a hot tub, shower, and a real bed can really boost your morale. Booking a hotel usually gets you a free breakfast as well, and bagels and bananas happen to fit quite nicely into jersey pockets. You can also wash your clothes in most hotels.
If hotel life isn’t for you, The KOA is just outside of town and offers great camping spots. Much like Easton, I recommend ear plugs here as it is right off I-90.
Ellensburg to the Columbia (35 miles)
The trail picks up on the east side of Ellensburg, just outside of the Rodeo grounds. It’s just under six miles of very straight, very flat gravel to the town of Kittitas, which is your last chance for any supplies for the foreseeable future.
This section of trail gives you only a hint of what’s to come, as the gravel here becomes a mix of larger rock chunks and dry sand. It seems to stretch to the horizon as it disappears into the distance of farmland and ranches.
Shade becomes a luxury in this stretch, and while the farmland around you may be lush and green, the trail quickly becomes dusty, arid, and unwelcoming as the sun rises higher. There are a few trees around Naneum creek that offer some solace, but for the most part, it’s a just a long and straight push through chunky gravel into town.
The Trail will cross Kittitas Highway as it continues along the southern edge of town. If you take a right on Main street , you’ll come to a Shell station with a Mini Mart. This is your last chance to refill on water and food before you enter the Yakima Training Center.
You will need enough water to get to the Columbia, which is about thirty dry and dusty miles away. There is no shade, and the temperatures here can be brutal. My advice is to take more water than you think you’ll need.
The first real detour on the trail is directly after Kittitas. The Renslow trestle that crosses over I-90 is currently impassable, requiring a detour on Boylston Road. This paved detour is a welcome respite from the gravel slog that you’ve been on, and it’s absolutely glorious in comparison to what’s coming. The road winds lazily between farmland and the freeway, with cows and tall grasses disappearing behind large outcrops of basalt as you make your way east. Eventually, you’ll pass directly under the Renslow trestle and enter the parking lot / trail head for the next section of trail. There is a vault toilet in the parking lot, but no other services. (There are two more vault toilets through this section, but I’d bring your own TP and hand sanitizer as they may or may not be stocked).
*The Trestle is currently being repaired and is hopefully scheduled to open sometime in spring of 2021, which will make this entire detour obsolete as well as give an amazing vantage point from above I-90 and the Kittitas Valley.
The Yakima Training Center is a massive expanse of land stretching across the Western Saddle Mountains. It is a training ground for the United States Army, which also happens to be responsible for maintaining this section of the trail. Because it runs through US Government property, it is imperative that you adhere to all guidelines given at the registration kiosk which is located at the top of a steep climb from the parking lot. You will need to fill out a registration card at the kiosk, part of the card goes into the registration bin, and the other part goes with you. Please read all rules and regulations so that you don’t get a visit from a US Army vehicle.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to be prepared for this section of the trail. It is twenty-two miles to the Columbia and there is nowhere to bail if you need to. You cannot leave the trail, and there is no cellular service for a large section of this stretch. There is very little shade to be found, and the heat can be punishing as the day moves on.
On the best of days, the Yakima Training Center can be an absolutely inhospitable place. That said, desolation can also bring solace, and this stretch definitely has its own beauty.
As you begin heading east, the first thing you’ll realize is that the gravel is pretty much gone. The trail surface through this stretch is just sand lined by a lot of sagebrush and wildflowers. However, it’s not super soft like beach sand, it’s a course and loose surface that has been beaten and torn up by horses. If you’re lucky, the surface will be a little more packed down after a recent rain, and if not, it’ll have you wishing for a larger tire.
The Boylston tunnel is almost five miles up the trail, and it’s a steady two percent grade all the way there. It’s best to just settle in and deal with the bumpy ride.
Did I say ‘bumpy ride‘? That term can’t prepare you for the surface of this stretch. It’s kind of like washboard except it stretches from edge to edge of the trail. There is no worn path where the horses haven’t been, so you’re just kind of stuck with it. I definitely recommend a pretty significant tire on this stretch, and I wouldn’t do it on anything smaller than 45 millimeters.
The trail turns south away from the freeway pretty quickly, and before you know it, you find yourself alone in the desert pedaling uphill through sand (this sounds fun, right?). If you time it right, there will be an abundance of wildflowers along the trail, otherwise, it’s just sagebrush and golden hills for as far as you can see.
Boylston was the location of a train depot and is the high point of this route. Once you get past this section, it’s about eighteen miles of glorious downhill to the Columbia. Don’t get too excited, though. First, you must actually get past the tunnel, and this is not as easy as it sounds.
As you approach the Boylston Tunnel (Originally called the Johnson Creek Tunnel, or Tunnel 45), You have a decision to make: Do you attempt to go through the tunnel? Or do you take the detour that the army has provided? A sign is posted, warning that the tunnel is a rock fall hazard, but the provided detour also looks less than promising.
The good news for you, is that I’ve done both, and I’m going to show you both options and let you choose your own adventure.
Option A: The Tunnel.
The Boylston tunnel is in pretty bad shape. Tunnels 46, 47, 48, 49, and 50 have all been completely renovated, making for safe and easy passage through them. This tunnel, however, is exactly what you would expect from a structure that is over one hundred years old and has been largely abandoned since 1980.
The first time I rode through it (2014), the entrance was littered with massive rock fall which required quite a bit of hiking. At some point, the Army cleared out the entrance, smoothing everything out and making the western portal accessible . Currently, The entrance is filled with tumbleweeds that have blown in from the surrounding high ground. These tumbleweeds are about ten feet deep on the left, leaving a somewhat (I stress the term ‘somewhat’) hike-able path on the right for you and your bike.
The ceiling of Tunnel 45 is reinforced with smooth concrete at both ends, but the center consists of the the chunky basalt that the tunnel was cut through. There are massive wooden braces in the center section, but there is still a lot of rockfall littering the trail surface.
This tunnel is 1,975 feet long and has a slight curve to it, so a bright light is definitely required. I’ve always been able to ride straight through by picking a good line, but depending on the brightness of your light and your bike handling skills, you may find yourself walking through the center span.
The eastern end opens up into a green oasis. The walls lining the tunnel exit are abundant with plants and blooming flowers, while bird songs reverberate through the rock cut. The surface here is smooth and fast rolling, but don’t get lulled into a false sense of security, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Before you know it, the greenery closes in around you and the trail surface turns into a soggy marsh. A large, dense willow thicket encloses the end of the eastern tunnel cut and you will have to bushwhack your way out. It is very slow going as there is no real path here. There are some trees that have been laid down horizontally, but for the most part, you will come out with wet, muddy feet, and a whole lot of scratches from branches and twigs. *Also, it’s good advice to check yourself for ticks after you emerge.
Option B: The Bypass.
The bypass has a nice sign pointing to its general direction, however, the first couple hundred yards or so are overgrown, and you’ll be hiking your bike through chest high vegetation which will leave you with some small scratches on your arms and legs. *I’d check for ticks here as well after you get through.
Once you get past the overgrowth, you’ll find that the Army has provided you a bypass that is surfaced with large, sharp chunks of rock. It’s basically just railroad ballast, and since it’s not really ever driven on by larger vehicles, there isn’t much of a smooth path worn into it. Basically, what I’m saying is- it sucks.
The other bummer here is that the bypass has to go up and over the tunnel, resulting in some steeper climbs. My Garmin read 11-12% more than once and if you can imagine climbing or descending a grade that steep, surfaced with large, loose rocks, you can also imagine how quickly you will have to get off of your bike and hike it.
The bypass is fully exposed with no shade to be had. It’s roughly a half mile longer than going through the tunnel with about two hundred feet of elevation gain. The bright side is that it provides some really nice views down into the eastern tunnel cut, giving you a glimpse of all that lush greenery and the willow swamp.
Overall, both of these options leave a lot to be desired, and it’s a shame that the Army doesn’t maintain the area around the tunnel as well as the rest of the trail. With the Renslow Trestle slated for repair, Boylston becomes the final hurdle on the way to the Columbia.
*It’s important to recognize that the Army has done some really amazing work on this trail. A wildfire tore through this area in 2014, burning six of the wooden trestles that spanned the undulating landscape. The army replaced them all with Earth fill and culverts, ensuring that future fires would not leave the trail unrideable.
Okay, so now you’ve chosen how you want to suffer and you made it through. Congratulations! Your reward is a steady descent to the banks of the Columbia River with sweeping views of the surrounding landscape and spectacular basalt formations.
You’re going to go fast. The surface is still sand, but you’re going downhill, and if your tire is big enough to float, you can put it in the big ring and fly. Depending on the wind, it’s not difficult to reach speeds over twenty miles per hour as you make your way down through the rock cuts.
The railroad blasted through the tops of the hills to ensure a steady grade, and in doing so, created some extremely impressive cuts that feel like canyons. Some are deeper and longer than others, but just keep in mind that the floor of these cuts tend to have some rock fall, so slow down through them so you can safely pick a line.
This area is filled with wildlife, and you’ll catch views of deer, hawks, owls, and maybe even a turkey if you’re lucky. There are also a lot of alkali bees and sweat bees, both of which are generally harmless, but it’s good to be aware that they are there.
As you make your way down to the river, the trail will offer up vast views of the surrounding hills and valleys. This area has its own beauty to it, and is unlike any other part of the trail west of the Columbia. The emptiness is all encompassing, and every time you emerge from a rocky canyon to see the land sweep away from you, it becomes very apparent just how isolated you are out here.
Several miles down the way from Boylston, you’ll come to a road crossing with a vault toilet. This is one of the few places that you may venture off trail, but only to use the restroom.
The trail continues down, crossing a few more roads before coming to Doris, another rail depot that no longer exists. There are several military buildings on the left of the trail and a water tower as well. The right side of the trail has the remnants of the foundations from the old railroad buildings, but if you don’t know they are there, you’ll miss them.
At Doris, there is a sign directing you to potable water. There is a building up to the left, and it’s the only structure here that isn’t surrounded by a fence. Here you will find a spigot, however, I would not bank on this as a guaranteed water source. I’ve read other reports that no water was available, which leads me to believe that it may be turned off at times. It is best to bring all of the water you need.
Just past Doris there is another road crossing and the second Vault toilet. From here, the trail begins to drop pretty quickly to the Columbia, offering you small peeks of the river before finally opening up to the expanse of the Gorge. You’ll see Wanapum Dam down below as well as the Beverly Trestle, which spans the river.
The trail levels out as it reaches the river and you’ll cross Huntzinger Road before sweeping down to the bridge, which is unfortunately, the end of the road for now.
Where you go next depends on what your plans are. You could head back the way you came, but pedaling uphill through sand into a headwind for twenty miles isn’t that fun (trust me).
There is camping just up Huntzinger Road at Wanapum State Park. The campground has water and all of the other amenities you’d expect from a state park.
You could also continue up to Vantage for a resupply at the market. A cold beverage and some gas station food would probably hit the spot , but you’ll have to ride all the way there, and it’s about ten miles up a road with no shoulder where people regularly drive fifty miles per hour.
Whatever you do, if you plan to head further east, you’ll need to figure out how to cross the I-90 bridge at Vantage, which I cannot recommend doing on a bike.
For now, the Beverly Trestle is where the trail stops on the west side of the river. The bridge has been funded for repair, and state parks has it scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2021. The opening of the Beverly Bridge will change everything, finally connecting the eastern half of the trail to the west side.
Once the bridge is completed and the connection is made, I am planning on riding the trail in its entirety, all the way to the Idaho border.
If you are interested in updates and progress to the trail, please visit The Palouse to Cascades Trail Coalition (you can find them on Facebook as well), and don’t hesitate to donate to them. They do great work advocating for and improving the trail for all of its users.
Thank you for following along. I hope to see you out there.
ENJOY YOUR STATE PARKS. PACK IT IN, PACK IT OUT. LEAVE NO TRACE.