Spanning an estimated 253 miles, the John Wayne Pioneer Trail is the longest rail-trail conversion in the United States. Much of it is so remote and desolate, however, that weeks will pass in some sections where the only visitors are coyotes, black-tailed jackrabbits, or gopher snakes.
Anyone traveling the entire length of the trail will experience many landscapes: mountains, dense forests, irrigated farmland, arid scrubland, and the rolling hills of the Palouse region. The route crosses the Cascade Mountains in a 2.3-mile-long, unlit tunnel and traverses numerous canyons and rivers via bridges and trestles that offer spectacular views.
The trail follows the corridor of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, also known as the Milwaukee Road. Workers completed the railroad's rugged western mainline that connected Chicago with Seattle and Tacoma in 1909. By 1980, the railroad had ceased operations on the right-of-way. The state acquired most of the corridor and named it for John Wayne after a lobbying campaign by outdoorsman Chic Hollenbeck, a big fan of the cowboy actor. Hollenbeck also founded the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders Association, whose members make an annual trek along the trail by wagon and horseback.
The western segment of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail between Cedar Falls and the Columbia River runs through Iron Horse State Park, a 110-mile-long linear park. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manages the trail between the Columbia River and Lind, and the remainder from Lind to the Idaho border falls once again to the oversight of Washington State Parks.
Through most of Iron Horse State Park, the trail surface comprises well-packed crushed rock, except for the 20 miles of loose sand in the U.S. Army Yakima Training Center. Note: As of 2015, this section of trail between the Army West trailhead near Kittitas and the Army East trailhead near the Columbia River was closed due to damage incurred during a wildlands fire in mid-July 2014.
The trail is mostly track ballast east of the Columbia River. Four trailside primitive campsites are available: two between Cedar Falls and Hyak and two between Hyak and Easton.
State trailheads are located at Cedar Falls, Twin Falls, Hyak, Easton, South Cle Elum, Thorp, Ellensburg West, Ellensburg East, Kittitas, Army West, and Army East. East of the Columbia River, trailheads are planned at Malden, Rosalia, Pandora, and Tekoa.
The westernmost trailhead is nestled in the Cascade foothills, just 35 miles from downtown Seattle. Beginning near the old Cedar Falls train stop, this 22-mile uphill railroad grade gets the most visitors. The trail crosses a half-dozen canyons on trestles with sweeping mountain vistas and bores through the 100-year-old tunnel at Snoqualmie Pass to Hyak. Some bicyclists shuttle between Cedar Falls and Hyak to take advantage of a downhill run.
The eastern slope of the Cascades contains sparser vegetation—a product of the dryer climate on this side of the mountains. The trail skirts two lakes—Keechelus and Easton—that store irrigation water for the region. Later, the trail descends the secluded Upper Yakima Canyon, where pedestrians must sign a waiver to enter two tunnels.
The old railroad yard in South Cle Elum, a National Historic Landmark, preserves the history of the Milwaukee Road corridor through a surviving depot and electric substation, as well as through descriptions of the foundations of other buildings.
The trail breaks briefly at historic Ellensburg, which is the largest town on the corridor and home to Central Washington University. Past Kittitas, you'll find another detour for an impassable bridge over Interstate 90. The trail leaves the irrigated agricultural land and enters the bleak, dry landscape of the Yakima Training Center, where the trail then drops into the basin carved by the Pacific Northwest's largest river, the Columbia. The 2,200-foot-long Beverly Bridge across the river is closed, however, and travelers need to detour upriver to the crossing at Vantage.
Trail users return to irrigated farmland and wildlife refuges east of the Columbia River, beginning in Beverly. Travelers will encounter many interruptions in the corridor between here and the Idaho border, due to private ownership, missing trestles, rockslides, and year-round flooding. The longest detours are between Smyrna and Warden, Ralston and Marengo, and Ewan and Kenova.
The DNR requires travelers east of the Columbia River to obtain a permit, which includes the combination for locked gates and a map showing detours. (Contact the DNR Southeast Region: 509-925-8510.)
Visitors are urged to carry plenty of water and food because the towns are few and far between.
To reach the Cedar Falls trailhead, take I-90 to Exit 32. Head south on 436th Avenue SE/Cedar Falls Road for 4 miles. Pass the Rattlesnake Lake Recreation Area entrance, and turn left into Iron Horse State Park.
To reach the trailhead at Tekoa, head south on US 195 from Spokane for 32 miles. Take the State Route 271 S exit, and go 8.5 miles, and then turn left onto SR 27 N/Tekoa Oaksdale Road. In 11.2 miles, the road becomes Ramsey Street in Tekoa. In 0.3 mile, bear left at a T-intersection, and turn right onto Washington Street. The trail is two blocks past Poplar Street.
A Discover Pass, displayed in your motor vehicle, is required at trailheads.