John Wayne Pioneer Trail offers more than 250 miles of scenic trail across Washington, from the eastern outskirts of Seattle to the state’s border with Idaho. It’s named for the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders Association, who were instrumental in the trail’s creation. Chic Hollenbeck, an avid horse rider and founder of the group, was a hardcore fan of the iconic cowboy actor.
The rail-trail follows the corridor of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (also known as the Milwaukee Road), which operated in the region between 1908 and 1980. Railroad tunnels, trestle bridges, depots, and other relics of the past can be experienced as you travel the old railbed.
The Columbia River serves as a natural dividing line with a different trail experience on each side. Unfortunately, there currently is no convenient pedestrian access over the river to get from one side of the trail to the other. Though the trail leads to a trestle over the river, it’s in a poor, unsafe condition. Detour north of the trestle to the community of Vantage to take the I-90 bridge to the river’s eastern shore, noting that you’ll need to make the crossing by car.
On the east side of the Columbia River, you’ll find 143 miles of rougher trail best-suited for experienced adventurers. This half of the trail passes through four counties, from west to east: Grant, Adams, Whitman, and Spokane. From the river east to the small town of Lind, the trail is known as the Milwaukee Road Corridor and is managed by the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). From Lind east to Idaho, the trail is managed by Washington State Parks.
The trail on the west side of the river is also managed by Washington State Parks and traverses the linear Iron Horse State Park. This half of the trail is a well-developed 110-mile gravel pathway. In 2009, the state closed five tunnels on this stretch due to seeping water and falling rock, but, as of June 2013, all five have been reopened to the public.
The west end of the trail begins about 40 miles southeast of Seattle, near Rattlesnake Lake in Cedar Falls. It’s here that you can pick up the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, another beautiful rail-trail along the foothills of the Cascade Mountains and the Snoqualmie River.
From Rattlesnake Lake, you’ll climb steadily through dense forests as you make your way from King County into Kittitas County to reach Hyak, about 20 miles east of the trail terminus. A highlight of this section is passage through the 2.3-mile Snoqualmie Pass Tunnel (tunnel #50), one of the longest rail-trail tunnels in the country.
At Hyak, the trail heads south with a slight elevation drop along the western shores of Keechelus Lake, the Yakima River, and Lake Easton. Between the two lakes is Whitter Tunnel (#49). Another tunnel (#48) is accessible near the small community of Easton.
About a dozen miles southeast of Easton, you’ll arrive at the old railroad town of South Cle Elum, where you can visit a depot (built in 1909) and substation, both National Historic Landmarks. Continuing south through rural landscapes, you’ll reach tunnels 46 and 47 near Thorp. Note that entrance to these two tunnels is at your own risk and visitors are required to fill out a waiver form and place it in the drop box outside the tunnels.
From Thorp, it’s a flat ride of less than 10 miles to Ellensburg, a welcoming place to rest and refuel. The city’s historical downtown has many late 19th-century brick buildings. Outside of Ellensburg, another railroad depot still stands in Kittitas. A few miles from the city, the trail crosses I-90 and Boylston Road, where you’ll enter the U.S. Army’s Yakima Training Center. Here, the trail transverses a wide swath of desert grasslands with little shade. A few miles past the road crossing, you’ll reach the Boylston Tunnel (#45). From the tunnel, it’s a steady decline to the Columbia River.
Detour north to Vantage to take the I-90 bridge; note that there is no pedestrian access over the river, so you’ll need to cross by car. Once on the eastern shore, head south to Beverly to reach the trail.
This is the DNR-managed portion of the trail, which is more remote and has a crushed stone surface. Here, you will occasionally find gates across the trail that were installed to deter illegal motorized vehicular traffic and garbage dumping. In this section, trail-goers are required to obtain a permit, as posted at all road crossings and access points. A permit can be obtained by contacting the DNR’s Southeast Region Office; they can also provide maps, information on trail conditions, and the lock combinations for the gates.
From Beverly, you'll travel 16 miles almost due east through the Crab Creek Wildlife Area, a long scenic valley along the north side of the Saddle Mountains. The area offers a diverse landscape of shrub-steppe desert, wetlands, sand dunes, small lakes, and farmland. This segment ends at the doorstep of the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, where a wide gap in the trail begins.
The trail picks up again further east in Warden and continues to the Washington/Idaho border. Begin this part of your journey at the Warden Depot (202 West Second Street), less than a half-mile from the start of this trail section. The depot, built in 1910, serves as a museum and displays a Milwaukee Railroad train car on its grounds. Stock up with water and supplies in town as there are no trail amenities between Warden and Lind, 20 miles away.
Between Lind and Rock Lake, the trail intersects another major pathway, the Columbia Plateau Trail, which stretches 130 miles between Pasco (near the state’s border with Oregon) and Cheny (on the outskirts of Spokane).
At 7.5 miles long, Rock Lake is a popular recreational spot for boating and fishing and is the largest natural lake in eastern Washington. The rail-trail skirts its eastern shore, then follows the loopy route of Pine Creek through the rolling agricultural lands of the Palouse. Two small towns follow about 10 miles apart: Malden and Rosalia. From Rosalia, it’s another 20 miles to the small farming community of Tekoa, near trail’s end.
The John Wayne Pioneer Trail west of the Columbia River has several trailheads providing parking and bathroom facilities. This section of the trail is managed by Washington State Parks and a state park fee is required. The trailheads are listed below west to east with their I-90 exit numbers:
- Cedar Falls (Exit 32)
- Twin Falls (Exit 38)
- Hyak (Exit 54)
- Easton (Exit 71)
- South Cle Elum (Exit 84)
- Thorp (Exit 101)
- Ellensburg (Exit 106 and 109)
- Kittitas (Exit 115)
- Army West (Exit 115)
- Army East (Exit 136)
Although there are no trailheads for the trail east of the Columbia River, parking can be found in the Crab Creek Wildlife Area in Beverly, especially in the recreational areas around a chain of lakes: Lenice, Mary, and Lenore lakes. Note that to park in these areas, a Discover Pass will be required, or a Department of Fish and Wildlife access permit.