About this Itinerary
At nearly 224 miles, the John Wayne Pioneer Trail in Washington state is one of the longest rail-trails in the US. It starts in the western foothills of the snow-capped Cascades and ends at the Idaho border, following the corridor of the former Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, also known as the Milwaukee Road. Along the way, it penetrates conifer forests, crosses a mountain pass in a 2.3-mile tunnel, follows arid canyons carved by rivers teeming with seasonal migrations of salmon and passes through miles and miles of farmland.
This itinerary tackles the western 77 miles of the trail from Ellensburg to the Cedar Falls Trailhead near North Bend. The two-day bicycle trek hits many trail highlights, such as five old railroad tunnels, scenic mountain lakes, a preserved railroad station site, trestles that afford panoramic views, and an 18-mile downhill run to end the journey. The trip avoids the trail east of Ellensburg, which is more challenging. Logistics to get to and from the John Wayne Pioneer Trail in Ellensburg can prove a little tricky. It starts with a flight into Seattle Tacoma International Airport. There are three options:
- Greyhound buses. Buses leave four times a day for the two-hour bus ride to Ellensburg. Boxed bicycles are stowed in the luggage compartment under the bus. At the end of the bike trip, continue downhill from Cedar Falls Trailhead on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail. In North Bend, find the Metro bus stop at Bendigo Avenue and 2nd Street and take Metro 208 to Issaquah, Metro 554 to Seattle’s International District station, and then the Link light rail to Sea-Tac Airport.
- Compass Adventures in North Bend. They run a regular bike rental/shuttle service to the Hyak Trailhead on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, but can go farther if the group size warrants it. You’ll need to get to North Bend on your own.
Our point of departure is the agricultural center of historical Ellensburg, which hosts the state’s largest rodeo over Labor Day weekend. The town is home to the aptly named Central Washington University, and features the cultural amenities of a college town. The downtown has many brick buildings dating from the late 19th century, as a fire razed much of commercial district in 1889. For lodging, Guesthouse Ellensburg provides two restored rooms in the second floor of a Victorian mansion downtown; wine tastings are offered on the ground floor. Keeping that historical vibe, the 100-year-old Palace Café serves meals in the old Pearson building that dates to 1908.
Day 1 (25.5 miles)
The John Wayne Pioneer Trail leaves northwestern Ellensburg from the Kiwanis Park at North A Street and West 14th Avenue. The trail takes its name from the cowboy film actor after a fan, and president of the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Horses Association, influenced the legislature to acquire the abandoned right-of-way. That association still makes an annual horse-and-wagon pilgrimage on the trail.
The crushed limestone trail might seem flat as you leave town, but you’re actually beginning an imperceptible uphill climb to the Snoqualmie Tunnel, an elevation gain of more than 900 feet over the next 55 miles. (The second day ends with a 1,600-foot downhill run over the final 18 miles.)
Don’t be surprised if you scare up numerous fat quail along the trail that try to out run you rather than duck into the trailside undergrowth. Although the area doesn’t get much rain, irrigation water from the Yakima River Project turns this into a fertile garden spot. You’ll cross the river about 6 miles outside of Ellensburg and soon come to the roadside Thorp Fruit and Antique Mall, where local produce is on sale. Wheat and corn also has been a big crop here, where the historical Thorp Mill has been grinding since the 1880s. This national landmark—tours offered daily in season—is a short detour off the trail at the Goodwin Road crossing about 8 miles from Ellensburg.
Riding across open prairie past Thorp for a few miles, you’ll push into the narrow Upper Yakima River canyon. The railroad builders stuck to a narrow ledge on the south side of the river here, and punched two tunnels through hills that end in cliffs at the river’s edge. The first tunnel, No. 46, is short and you can see the other end. The quarter-mile-long second tunnel, No. 47, curves so you’ll want to switch on your headlamp. There are picnic tables at Turkey Gulch where you can relax and watch fly fishermen in the river or watch the swallows that nest in the steep basalt bluffs that protrude from the canyon walls.
The trail veers away from the Yakima River as you approach South Cle Elum, the site of a 20-acre railroad railyard preservation project and your destination for the night. Cascade Rail Foundation volunteers restored the depot (1909), which houses Smokey’s Bar-B-Que, and the electrical substation completed in 1920 for the electrified railway. A half-mile trail winds through the site and identifies the building foundations and highlights on the railroad era on 18 interpretive signs, many with vintage photographs.
Next door is the Iron Horse Inn, a bed-and-breakfast inn that served as temporary housing for railroad crews from 1909 until 1974. The owners refurbished seven rooms upstairs, naming them for actual crew members who stayed there. Outside there are four cabooses renovated into rooms with private baths.
If you arrived early, you might consider taking the 5-mile Coal Mines Trail from Cle Elum (located just north of Interstate 90) to Roslyn, a former coal mining company town that suffered labor strife in the late 19th century. The small town also served as backdrop for the Northern Exposure TV series.
Day 2 (50 miles)
Make sure you stock up with water, snacks, and sandwiches, as there are very few supply stops on this final trail section. On the way out of South Cle Elum you can see the mountainous wall formed by the Cascade Range; to your left is the rocky summit of Peoh Point which rises nearly 2,000 feet above the surrounding terrain.
As you continue pedaling up the shallow slope toward the Cascades, the trail remains within the Iron Horse State Park, a 110-mile-long linear park that extends 50 feet on either side of the trail between Cedar Falls and the Columbia River. Soon you’ll pass a giant lumber yard on your right, a reminder that logging is still a big industry here. In the segment between South Cle Elum and Easton, you may be surprised to hear a train roaring past. The BNSF Railway runs behind an overgrown buffer here before it diverts west toward the tunnel at Stampede Pass.
The small town of Easton sits next to Lake Easton State Park, a 516-acre facility that offers camping and boating. Swerve over to Railroad Street to pick up supplies at CB’s General Store or a burger and beer at the Easton Saloon (stay on Railroad Street to enter the park). Back on the trail, you’ll roll through the short Easton tunnel (No. 48) and cross a bridge over the Yakima River as it enters the lake.
After Easton, you’ll traverse the Whittier Tunnel (No. 49) and pedal another 9 or 10 miles of easy slope until you reach the shores of Lake Keechelus, the source of the Yakima River and a natural lake whose levels are controlled by a dam. Often filled by mountain snowmelt in the spring, the lake draws down in the fall revealing thousands of bleached tree stumps to the bicyclists who ride along the western shoreline for 6 miles. Bicycle campers can pitch their tents at Roaring Creek and Cold Creek campsites next to the lake. Midway along the lake, an avalanche warning sign explains some of the dangers the railroads faced.
See the ski runs on the mountain side as you leave the lake behind. The Milwaukee Road launched the first skiing venture in the vicinity of the Hyak train station in 1938 and was the sole ski operator here until it closed in 1950 (with time out for World War II). It was two hours from Seattle thanks to the 2.3-mile-long tunnel bored through Snoqualmie Mountain between 1912 and 1914. The entire area is a popular winter sports destination known as Summit at Snoqualmie.
Fill up your water bottles in the restrooms at the Hyak trailhead and begin your ride through Snoqualmie Tunnel. The tunnel is cold and damp; when conditions are right, fog rolls out of the eastern portal. A jacket or sweater is advisable, even on the hottest days, and it’s prudent to carry a bright light as the tunnel is pitch black, except for the pinpoint of light marking the western opening.
Exiting the tunnel, you’re in a different world. This is the wetter side of the Cascades where gushing streams cut deeper ravines and towering conifers grow in thicker forests. Granite and Bandera mountains stand across the deep valley and Interstate 90 snakes along the bottom toward Seattle. You’ll enjoy 18 miles of downhill riding here, passing a parade of trailside summer wildflowers along the way.
In spite of your good speed, consider stopping to explore a replica snow shed that protected trains from avalanches and to pause at the views from a half dozen railroad trestles that soar above the trees growing from streambeds below. Slow down at the Hull Creek and Change Creek trestles as you’ll likely encounter climbers scrambling on the Deception Crags.
There are restrooms at two primitive campsites at Carter Creek and Alice Creek, and the old station sites are marked at Rockdale, Bandera, Garcia, Ragnar, and Cedar Falls (semaphores and other railroad equipment is left to rust in a field at the Ragnar station site). Occasional mileage markers post the distance to Chicago, just as they did in the railroad days.
Leaving the John Wayne Pioneer Trail at Cedar Falls Trailhead, you can cross the parking lot and enjoy a dip in picturesque Rattlesnake Lake, which reflects Rattlesnake Ledge towering 2,500 feet behind it. Follow the signs for the Cedar River Watershed Education Center to replenish your water bottles and see displays of the local flora and fauna as well as the country you’ve just crossed.
If you need to return to North Bend to complete your connection, go back to the Cedar Falls Trailhead and find the signs for the Snoqualmie Valley Trail. This rail-trail, an extension of the Chicago, St. Paul, Milwaukee and Pacific Railroad, descends 7 miles to the old railroad crossroads of North Bend. Shakes and burgers are on the menu at Scott’s Dairy Freeze, or you can find pie and a “damn fine cup of coffee” at Twede’s Café.