“You can’t go there. The tunnels are totally caved in and all the bridges have collapsed. Take the detour.”-An owner of land along Rock Lake, telling me about the trail in 2019
Rock Lake is an enigma of the Palouse To Cascades Trail. It is by far one of the most scenic sections, and yet information about it remains elusive. You will find just as many folks who say they’ve ridden along the entire lake, as folks who will say it’s impassable.
Officially, there is a detour that passes the lake entirely due to a landowner who doesn’t want trail users crossing his property (The land in question is a one mile section along the lake. It’s a long story, but essentially, when the railroad went bankrupt, it gave landowners along the tracks the chance to purchase land back, and this is one of those cases). This is a shame, because as stated above, Rock Lake is a spectacular place to see, and because of the detour, it makes getting to the lake a difficult task.
First thing’s first; Rock Lake is remote. There are no major towns or highways near it. The community of Ewan (not like Ewan McGregor, It’s pronounced E-Won) sits at the south western side of the lake, and it consists of a handful of homes, a church, and a grain elevator. Out near the north eastern end is Pine City, which seems to be only slightly larger than Ewan.
Rock Lake is an unbelievably deep and difficult to access body of water. Like many other landmarks in Eastern Washington, it was carved out in the Ice Age Floods, leaving behind a massive chasm that is now filled with water (at nine miles long, and a mile wide in most places, it’s the largest natural lake in Eastern Washington). The lake is filled on its northern shore by the Pine Creek and Rock Creek confluence, and it flows out the south western side with Rock Creek. Those also happen to be two of the few places where the lake is accessible. There is a primitive boat launch near Ewan, but it can be dangerous for those less experienced with getting a boat into the water.
The vast majority of Rock Lake is lined with sheer basalt cliffs, many of which are undercut making it nearly impossible to get out of the water once you go in. It’s waters can be near four hundred feet deep, and prevailing winds can whip up three foot white caps in a matter of minutes. Due to it’s depth, the water is cold and dark, hiding basalt spires just below the surface.
There are a lot of legends and folklore associated with Rock Lake, ranging from monsters that lurk in the deep, to ancient curses, ghost trains, and hauntings from the hotel that once stood on the southern bank. Some of these legends have been told more recently, and others date back to the Native Peoples who lived nearby.
All of this adds up to a place that is seldom visited in contrast to the beauty that this lake provides, and so for now, due to the detour, Rock Lake is only accessible as an eight mile out and back from the north eastern bank.
Just south of Pine City, off Pine City-Malden Road, is Stephen Road, which is a well maintained narrow gravel road. It will lead you to Hole-In-The-Ground Road which takes you across Pine Creek where you will find a small gravel lot to park. Roughly 800 feet from the parking area you will find the Palouse To Cascades Trail.
To the right, the trail will take you through Pine City, Malden, and on into Rosalia. To the left, the trail will take you to Rock Lake.
The trail surface is loose and dry but the gravel is in decent shape, making this stretch completely manageable on a 40mm tire, anything larger is just for extra comfort.
The trail follows Pine Creek through an oasis of pine trees and rock cuts, which is interesting given that just a mile south, the rolling wheat fields of the Palouse stretch as far as you can see. In fact, this stretch of trail is the only real shade you’ll find for miles in any direction.
About a half mile in, you’ll come to the first trestle. It provides a really nice view down into Pine Creek, and if you’re lucky, you may catch a beaver or two doing beaver things down below. There are two derailed boxcars at the other end of the trestle. The cars came from an east bound train that derailed in February of 1980, and it was one of the last trains to ever run on these tracks before they were abandoned by the railroad.
Beyond the trestle, the trail will move through a few rock cuts as Pine Creek moves in and out of view. There are a few spots where water seeps down from the basalt walls on the left, creating lush areas of ferns, wildflowers, and fir trees.
Several gates alongside the trail will remind you that all of the land surrounding the trail is private. I can’t stress enough how important it is to respect the boundaries of the trail and to leave no trace. The tensions surrounding the trail and the landowners are plenty, and the last thing needed is for people to further upset the folks who own land in this stretch.
There are two tunnels on Rock Lake, and they happen to be the only tunnels on the trail east of the Columbia River. The railroad numbered the tunnels starting in the east with the Snoqualmie Tunnel at Hyak being Tunnel number 50.
Just over two miles in, you will approach the eastern portal of tunnel 43. This tunnel is 756 feet long and has a very slight curve to the right. Overall, the interior is in pretty good condition with some small chunks of rock here and there.
Much like the other tunnels along the line, the western portal of the tunnel is finished with concrete, with the number 43 engraved into the cement to the right of the upper arch.
Shortly beyond the tunnel you will have glimpses of Hole In The Ground, which is an area of lush green farmland at the bottom of the coulee that feeds into Rock Lake. It looks so out of place out here; a lush and green paradise surrounded by such otherwise harsh landscapes.
Before you know it, the trail moves right out to the edge of the cliff, exposing the immensity of the lake as it opens up before you. It’s a pretty spectacular sight to see, and just ahead, a trestle spans over two rocky basalt gaps in the cliffside.
This bridge is best described as unimproved, and while the spans beneath are steel, the decking will make your stomach drop if you are afraid of heights. The walkways consist of wooden planks laid lengthwise on the right side of the span with two cables that run the length as a makeshift railing. Some of the wood is split, and some smaller sections are just altogether missing. The left is just the original ties, complete with gaps that show you glimpses of the rocks below.
Directly after the bridges, you will come to tunnel 44, which is in a much worse state than its predecessor. The eastern portal is overgrown and some large rock fall litters the entrance, while the western portal is a full-on slide across the trail.
For now, this is the end of the line and you have to turn around and head back the way you came. The trail is closed not far from the western end of the tunnel, and the last thing you want is a visit from an irate landowner.
A small section is rideable at the other end of the Lake from Ewan, however, you will quickly come to a trestle which is closed due to overgrowth and deterioration of the structure.
Important: If you plan on riding or hiking this stretch of the trail (or any section of the trail east of the Columbia, you’ll need a permit, which can be found here. It’s free, and it’s really more of a registration. You’ll get an email back with a list of rules and regulations regarding trail use and detours.
The good news regarding the future of Rock Lake is that it’s one of the top priorities of the trail for WA State Parks. The Palouse To Cascades Trail is part of the Great American Rail Trail and State Parks is doing everything they can ensure that the trail is eventually completed and safe to ride.
If you’re interested in reading about the trail on the westside of the Columbia, I have a full write up here.