About this Itinerary
Dense forests and rushing streams dramatize the remote Willapa Hills in southwest Washington. It’s no surprise that bigfoot investigators sometimes visit to check out reports of sasquatch sightings in these weathered hills. Bordered by family farms and a coastal waterway, this setting marks the path of the Willapa Hills Trail.
This itinerary calls for riding the 56 miles from Chehalis to South Bend in one day on your fat tire mountain bike. Although there are several surviving logging towns along the route, lodging is a rare commodity. You can spend an extra day in South Bend and Raymond for exploring the coast before returning.
Flying into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, rent a car and drive 80 miles south to Chehalis on Interstate 5. Or you can take Link Light Rail to the King Street Station and take Amtrak Cascades south to Centralia, just 4 miles north of Chehalis. (You can load your bike for free on Link and for a small fee on Amtrak. If you don’t have a mountain bike, Deschutes River Cyclery in Tumwater is the closest place to Chehalis to rent a bike.)
The Holiday Inn Express is the closest lodging to the Willapa Hills Trailhead in Chehalis, a city known as a transportation hub for the past 100 years because of the rivers and railroads that meet here. For more character, the Centralia Square Grand Ballroom and Hotel just four miles north is a renovated Elks Lodge that dates from the 1920s. Berry Fields Café and McMenamin’s Olympic Club are both within a couple of blocks of Centralia Square; Mackinaws Restaurant on north Market Boulevard is close to lodging in Chehalis.
A visit to the Chehalis-Centralia Railroad Museum might be in order if you have reservations for the twice monthly dinner train. Otherwise, you can ride the train pulled by the vintage 1916 steam locomotive along the former tracks of the Milwaukee Road on most Saturdays and Sundays in the summer.
You’ll pass by the railroad museum on the way to the Willapa Hills Trailhead on Southwest Hillburger Road. The trail follows the route of Northern Pacific Railway’s South Bend Branch, launched in 1891, all the way to South Bend.
The trail starts on paved asphalt and makes a beeline across the Newaukum River trestle and heads straight across a broad valley of crop and pastureland with barns and silos reminiscent of Currier and Ives prints. In a couple of miles, you’ll make the first of a half-dozen crossings of the Chehalis River.
After slowing down and crossing busy State Route 6, look for a rectangular lake on the right. It was built in 1992 for the sole purpose of water skiing and is especially popular among those who eschew skis; the World Barefoot Championships were held here in 2006. Passing through the community of Adna just past the lake, Bunker Creek Road takes you to Coffee Outfitters for a morning fix.
If you ever wondered what it’s like to cross a railroad trestle on the cross-ties, you’ll get plenty of opportunity to find out on the Willapa Hills Trail. Just past Adna, you’ll come upon a 1,000-foot trestle across the Chehalis River without handrails or solid decking of any kind, the first of several such trestles. The trail is marked closed, but you can gingerly walk your bike across the ties (only a couple of ties show signs of rotting through; the state parks department is scheduled to install decking and handrails here in 2016). Pause and scan the trees and sky for bald eagles that have been seen here.
The next two Chehalis River crossings are bridges installed in 2015 to replace trestles washed away in the devastating 2007 floods that did $900 million damage in the river basin.
The trail, packed gravel since crossing the undecked trestle, follows the Chehalis River along a wooded riverbank and then straightens out for four miles toward Dryad and Doty. Like many of the small towns that dot the trail, these sprouted in the timber trade that blossomed here with the coming of the railroad. Most towns sported lumber mills, saloons, boarding houses, cafes and other amenities. When the Great Depression hit and the virgin stands of hemlock, Douglas fir, and red cedar disappeared, the boom had ended and the towns withered. Today they’re just a shadow of their former selves, although most have a market or general stores for those seeking snacks.
Just before reaching Dryad and Doty, look for a path across a field on the left to the campground of Rainbow Falls State Park. There are paths down to the misty rapids through a rocky fissure on the Chehalis River. The park also has a small stand of old-growth forest.
As the trail turns south toward Pe Ell, you’ll undoubtedly spot sheep in a pasture as you cross a farm road to Willapa Hills Cheese. This is one several family farms participating in the agri-tourism movement in Lewis County (the Newaukum Valley Farm and Rosecrest Farms on Spooner Road west of Adna are others). You can meet the owners at the farm store and ask them about the cow and sheep milk they churn into different cheeses.
If you didn’t realize it before, you’ll know why fat tires are recommended on this trail. From here to Raymond, the trail surface runs from hard surface with embedded rocks, to loose rocks, to rocks held together by turf. It’s rideable, but jarring in places.
Pe Ell is the largest town between Chehalis and the coast and, at 22 miles, offers a good place to stop and recharge. A trailhead at the site of the old depot displays old photos and tells the history of the region and railroad. Evey’s Café and the Pe Ell Pub serve meals and the market has snacks. Look for the Pe Ell Hotel and Candlelight Inn (311 N. Main St.)if you want to spend the night; the building variously contained a boarding house, a hospital for veterans of World War I, and a Masonic Lodge in its century-old existence.
Leaving Pe Ell, the trail begins a winding route into the Willapa Hills woodlands after crossing the Chehalis River one last time. The trestles spanning the rushing mountain creeks in the next 10 miles have neither decks nor side rails; one is washed out altogether (there’s an obvious short detour onto a highway). The trailside farms disappear and you enter a forest that has been logged repeatedly. Although there is usually a mix of conifers in the trailside growth, you’ll come across sections that are nothing but alders harvested for pulp. One clear cut allows views to other rounded mountain tops.
At the top of the grade, you leave Lewis County for Pacific County and begin descending toward the coast. Leaving the woods, small lots for crops and pastures appear along the trail as the Willapa River valley widens. Sixteen miles past Pe Ell, the next town for a meal or snack is Lebam (the name chosen from the backwards spelling of an early settler’s daughter’s name). The B&W Foods Café and Grocery is right across State Route 6 from the trailhead, which has a kiosk that recounts the town’s history of fires, logging and basketball championships. Take a short detour onto Roberts Road here to avoid a washed out trestle.
Trail conditions remain challenging as you travel within earshot of the highway for 8 miles to Menlo, where you’ll find the blue and white Menlo Store. Remaining close to the highway, another 4 miles brings you to the roadside marker recounting the strange saga of Willie Keil. The 19-year-old died just days before his religious sect set out from Missouri by wagon train to resettle in the Willapa Valley in the 1850s. Placed in a lead-lined coffin filled with 100-proof whiskey, Willie made the trip anyway and was buried here at Willie Keils Grave State Park. Unfortunately, the climate didn’t suit members of the sect, and they pulled up stakes and headed south, leaving Willie behind. The so-called “pickled pioneer” is remembered at the nearby Tombstone Willie’s, a tavern on Camp One Road known for its burgers.
The trail improves to packed gravel and leaves behind its rural surroundings as it enters the outskirts of Raymond, and soon you’re riding on blacktop alongside a briney Willapa River slough. Up ahead you’ll see figures— both animal and human— standing motionless alongside the trail. These are some of the hundreds of portrayals that comprise the Raymond Wildlife-Heritage Sculpture Corridor. The rusty steel sculptures scattered around town depict figures from the area’s history.
Arriving at a busy intersection, cross US Highway 101 and take the left fork of the trail across the highway bridge (the right fork passes the Northwest Carriage and Willapa Seaport museums on the way to the old railroad swing span across the Willapa River). Follow the trail markers through a small residential and industrial area.
The last leg of the trail runs between Highway 101 and the tidal Willapa River and ends at a mountain of oyster shells piled on the shoreline at Highway 101 and Montana Avenue. Continue on the highway shoulder for a mile to the turn to Seaquest Motel. Along the way, you’ll pass oyster packing houses, marinas, and seafood restaurants.
Although it’s not much to look at from the outside, the Chester Tavern just down the highway from the Seaquest Motel is known for its deep-fried oysters. The tavern overlooking Willapa Bay dates back to 1897.
Unless you’re meeting someone with a car here, the only way back is the way you came, by mountain bike.
If you have access to a kayak or canoe (Willapa Paddle Adventures in Raymond rents kayaks by the hour), spend an extra day exploring the Willapa Bay Water Trail in South Bend and Raymond, or just watch works boats passing by and cavorting sea lions from the shore. Museums worth visiting include the Northwest Carriage and Willapa Seaport museums in Raymond and the Pacific County Historical Society Museum down the block from the motel.