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Discover a rare trail adventure in the hills above the Columbia River as you traverse a remote canyon and a National Scenic Area, as well as 11 miles of nationally designated Wild and Scenic River, along the Klickitat Trail.
The 1903 Columbia River & Northern Railroad line paralleled the Klickitat River for much of its 42 miles from Goldendale to Lyle, transporting food goods, livestock, and lumber to steamships on the Columbia. In 1908, the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway lined the Washington shore and absorbed the short line. Lyle became a vital shipping point for sheep and wheat, while passengers rode the line to Portland. The BNSF Railway operated the line from 1970 to the early 1990s, when the Klickitat lumber mill closed.
Now, almost 30 miles of scenic trail climb from the Columbia River to the Goldendale Plateau. A missing trestle divides the trail into two parts at the northern tip; therefore, you must experience each part separately. Here, the trail also experiences a transition zone, creating two distinct landscapes with separate climates.
Crushed gravel lines the western 13.2 miles of trail from Lyle to Klickitat. (Note: This is the only portion of the trail open to equestrians.) After traveling 1.7 miles, you'll reach the boundary of the Columbia River National Scenic Area and cross the Fisher Hill Trestle to the west bank, away from the highway. Oaks and ponderosa pines abound along the Klickitat riverside, where eagles congregate in winter and wildflowers bloom in spring. This trail section ends at a 3-mile detour through the town of Klickitat, around a missing trestle. From here, you can hike to a beach and a dry ice plant created in the 1930s (and supported by the area's once-prevalent mineral springs).
The contrasting beauty of the remote Swale Canyon begins east of Klickitat and continues southeast for 16.4 miles, passing below basalt cliffs (on a somewhat rocky, irregular surface) to the open prairie flatlands of the Golden Plateau. Due to its dryness and potential fire dangers, this section of trail is only open from October through June.
Note: Brief gaps and technical areas require dismounts for bikers. The only way in or out of the canyon is at the trailheads, and solo travel is discouraged. To enjoy this extraordinary backcountry safely, go to the Klickitat Trail Conservancy's website to access precautions, guidelines, and essential tips for hikers and mountain bikers.
To reach the Lyle trailhead from the Portland area, take Interstate 84 to Exit 64, and cross the Hood River Bridge to Washington. Turn right (east) onto State Route 14, and travel 13 miles. Cross the Klickitat River Bridge at the entrance to Lyle, and turn left (north) onto SR 142. Turn left at the trailhead entrance in 100 yards.
To reach the Harms Road trailhead from Lyle, head northeast for 15 miles on the paved Lyle-Centerville Highway. Turn left (north) onto Harms Road. Go 0.5 mile, and park just north of the bridge.
A few words of warning: We hiked the eastern half of the trail from north to the southern trail head on Harms Road on a hot August day. Not the best idea. This trail seems better for mountain bikers than hikers, and is probably a lot more fun in Spring or Fall. We didn't understand the whole 'rails to trails' thing, and were disappointed to be on gravel the entire way. The stream was almost entirely dry. There are a few eyesore homesteads about too. I even thought Harms Rd. was paved, and planned to (road)bike back to the car, but my buddy volunteered to double back halfway through. So not the best day, but much of that is our own fault. ONE GREAT THING - saw a bobcat halfway through.
Forgot to mention a couple small things. I rode a 29-er mountain bike and had fairly new tires. I got lucky and had no flats, so maybe the fresher tires helped. But I had a couple extra tubes and patch stuff just in case, and recommend the same for others. The other thing is to bring a printout of the Klicktat Trail Conservancy map PDF, because it is a topo map which was helpful to me on my ride. I forgot my printout in the car, but thankfully the KTC had one posted at the Harms Road access point. However it is getting quite faded, so bring your own printout with you. And a suggestion to the KTC to replace the faded map there, and check other access points too. And last, big thanks to the KTC, for doing such a good and comprehensive job on offering this trail to the public.
My main interest was the upper half of the trail, riding through Swayle Canyon. I didn't have anyone to go with, so I parked at the Wahkiacus access (keep your eyes peeled for the Horseshoe Bend right turn, off 142, easy to miss) and figured I'd ride up Swayle Canyon and back down, and if I got tired along the way, I could just double-back at any point. But I ended up doing a loop, which was an unexpectedly fun return on Schilling Road. It was a great early fall day: clear sky, sunny and warm 75-85F, the last weekend in September. The grade is so slight that the whole way felt flat, but the chunky loose gravel bed will make you work a bit. I didn't rush it, pausing regularly to hydrate and take in the view, and ended up taking just under 2 hours to ride the 12 miles up. I expected to finish in less time, but whatever. There were lots of grey squirrels and small birds, like blackbirds and unidentified sparrow-ish types, and a couple of them barn owls and red-tailed hawks. Of course, riding on loose gravel is noisy enough in a quiet valley to alert any critters to stay hidden, and I didn't want to spend time waiting around. I did have the trail to myself the whole way, and it was in good shape (if you don't mind loose gravel). It's a nice, winding route through the dry canyon, filled with maples, oaks and beautiful ponderosa pines, craggy basalt outcrops, and smooth hills topping the ridges. Some of the maples were starting to show fall colors. The occasional bridges were fun to ride over, some were open ties, some were flat planked tops. The trail rises and the canyon walls flatten out, telling you you're getting near the upper end. As you approach the Harms Road access you'll pass through a couple gates (close and re-chain them after you) and finish with the creek on your left, which was a lovely long pond edged with green grasses against the dry hills. I don't know if this oasis is always wet or if this upper creek sometimes dries up like the rest of the canyon, but it was a pretty sight at the end of my ride up. So I was a bit tired of riding on gravel by this time, as you may have gathered, and fortunately the Harms Road access point had a trail map posted (I forgot my printout in the car), so I realized I could ride out to Centerville Highway, turn west/right, ride over to Schilling Road, turn north/right, and ride that back to the trailhead where I parked. The topo lines (so glad it's a topo map) indicated Schilling was a flat grade too, even if it would be gravel/unimproved. And I remembered seeing Schilling Road right at the trailhead. So off I went, glad to be on smooth pavement for a change. I enjoyed this part of the ride as much as Swayle Canyon, for the quiet rural beauty and the fun downhill bits, especially towards the end back at the trailhead. In fact the winding downhill end of Schilling back to the parking area was LOTS of fun, and a great way to finish a scenic, remote loop ride (25 miles total). I'll be back to ride the lower Lyle-Klickitat section (and the short trail section to the bridge washout point). I did notice parts of these sections looked pretty overgrown with grasses, but honestly, that should make for a smoother ride over the gravel bed. Of course, it may also make it easier for ticks to befriend you as well.
This is a detailed but incomplete trip report about a mountain bike outing on the Klickitat Trail through the lower part of the Swale Canyon and from Klickitat to Lyle along the scenic Klickitat River. Numbers in [brackets] refer to the 20 photos submitted with this report. This trail had not received a trip report since 2004, yet many positive changes have taken place since. Due to logistic limitations, I could not ride the entire 31-mile length of the trail one-way from Warwick or Harms Road to Lyle (or do the 45-mile loop), so this report covers only two segments, adding up to only little more than half of the total length. The trail is described here in the easier direction, going downhill, although the grade is modest and the elevation difference is only 770 ft. The upper segment is in Swale Canyon, starting the description at an arbitrary point where I turned around at a trestle across Swale Creek  about 4 mi. upcreek from the trail head at Wahkiacus/Horseshoe Bend. The remaining 8 miles along Swale Creek from here will have to be explored on a later trip. For this time, for this description, let's assume that this trestle is mile zero, N45.78428, W121.07109 on my GPS. On the USGS map this place is marked as 768T but the GPS gave the elevation as 874 ft. The trestle 21 where I turned around does not have any decking, but the ties are spaced close enough together that it is easy to walk across. At 0.5 mi., N45.78890, W121.06304, a short section of trestle has been inundated by a washout with rocks but it is easy to walk around. There are several back country residences with lots of trash strewn around on either side of the trail and residents use the old RR grade as access road. That vehicle traffic actually helps a bit in compacting the trail surface for the first 3.5 mi. east of the Wahkiacus trail head, which otherwise (upcreek of the residences) is very rough with occasional rockslides requiring one to dismount and walk. At 1.5 mi. (N45.80073, W121.05900) is a trestle crossing a tributary . At 3.4 mi. is a wooden bridge over a tributary that has been placed a few years ago. At 4.1 mi. (N45.82327, W121.09856, 338 ft. elev.) is the Horseshoe Bend/Wahkiacus trail head  with parking, a bulletin board  and a portable toilet . The trail between here and the missing bridge at the community of Klickitat is rarely used and was not explored on this trip. It seems to be quite overgrown. A sign reads "DEAD END Suburbia Bridge out. Bypass this section if continuing through to Klickitat". Actually, it would have been interesting to explore the remains of the mineral springs and a former dry ice factory. (For more information about Klickitat Mineral Springs history, see http://www.walkaboutmag.com/19footpaths.html.)
Instead, we drove on SR 142 the three miles to the town of Klickitat and resumed the bike ride downstream from here. We looked at the pillars of the lost bridge  where hopefully in the not too distant future a new trail bridge will connect the segments of the trail. At the former "downtown" train station is now a bulletin board (N45.81766, W121.15180, elev. 459 ft.) and plenty of parking and that is where we continued riding the trail by mountain bike all the way to Lyle, 13.3 scenic but very rocky and humpe-di-bump miles that shake you up (in particular if you don't have a shock absorber on your fork). This is slow riding. Occasional rock slides or wet sections had to be walked through, pushing the bike. The first section of trail through "town" has nice crushed rock (but also some broken glass), but that quickly changes back to ballast and grass as soon as the trail crosses SR 142 at the entrance of town  (0.2 mi., N45.81375, W121.16189). At 1.2 mi, shortly before Skookum Flat Rd., for ~0.1 mi., the trail is next to road and nonexistent. It is better to use the road until Skookum Flat (1.4 mi., N45.80700, W121.17560) and then continue on the trail. At 2.2 mi. (N45.80107, W121.18861) is a nice waterfall and from here on the trail runs next to the river for most of the stretch to Lyle. Before reaching a trail access point and parking at Pitt, the trail passes through a brushy area where it is best to walk instead of ride. At 3 mi. (N45.79488, W121.19892, 438 ft. elev. is a parking area and a portable toilet opposite a few houses at a place marked Pitt on the map where you can make a "Pit stop" at the Pitt Portapotty. The trail crosses SR 142 (next to a highway bridge over the river) and continues on the other side as Fishon Rd. for a few yards past two gates . Once the rider or hiker has committed to this section of trail, there is no exit until one reaches Fisher Hill bridge, 10 miles downstream. A small creek is crossed on a new board bridge with a hand rail  (N45.79517, W121.20352). A little bit further a farmer is starting an orchard and gates and fences are supposed to keep the deer out. Just beyond the orchard at 4.2 mi. (N45.78274, W121.21012) a new concrete bridge  crosses the creek pouring out of Logging Camp Canyon that otherwise would be difficult to cross. At 5 mi. (N45.77293, W121.21478, 264 ft. elev.) the river has taken a bite out of the RR bed . A sign SAFETY BYPASS  points to a detour around the missing section of trail. At 6 mi. the USGS topo map shows a former foot bridge across the river, but only a steel cable remains of it. The next five miles are the most scenic part of the trail , where the valley narrows and in a few places there is just enough space for the road, the river and the railroad. In the fall, indian fishermen spear or net salmon out of the river . At 10 mi. we encounter the only 3-mile marker. Shortly beyond is a construction project (Lyle Falls Fish Passage). At 12 mi. is the newly decked Fisher Hill trestle  above a road bridge  with spectacular views into the canyon where Klickitat River is churning its way through the basalt cliffs (N45.70341, W121.27833). The next 1.6 mi. is pure luxury. The Forest Service/Washington State Parks has widened the RR grade to a freeway  with smooth crushed rock surface where it goes through Klickitat County Park. The trail width is three times wider than it has to be and all that extra beautiful crushed rock would have been much better used to improve the trail upstream of Fisher Hill Bridge! At 13.3 mi. (N45.70341, W121.27833, 140 ft. elev.) the trail ends at the new and improved trail head next to Highway 14/142 junction, with a permanent toilet (or seasonal portable toilet) , parking lot and view point  looking out over the Klickitat River. A new bulletin board is there but nothing was posted on it yet as of April 2011. The sign at the entrance is waiting to be installed, the mounting bracket is already there.
I have looked for mountain bike rentals but there don't seem to be any along the trail (yet). The nearest bicycle dealer is in White Salmon and another one on the Oregon side of the Columbia.
We owe this trail to the dedicated effort of a group of volunteers in the Klickitat Trail Conservancy. Thank you! For further information (seasonal closures, photos and maps), see: www.klickitat-trail.org. The lower 16 miles of trail are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, and the upper 15 miles are managed by Washington State Parks.
"This 29.5 mile trail begins either at Lyle or get a shuttle east to Warwick and ride downgrade the entire way. Be advised this is a rough trail with large rocks, some rock fall portages and swampy spots. You'll want a bike with shocks or soft tires.
In my opinion, the ride through Swale Canyon is the most interesting, ending a couple miles east of the missing trestle at Wahkiacus. A short detour west via the highway brings you through Klickitat to regain the trail. Be advised that ticks are out and there are woody thorns growing in places on the trail that will give you flats! We all had a bunch. Bring extra patches or get liners and slime for your tires and tubes.
The last 10 miles of trail after (west of) Klickitat follows the river into Lyle. If you've had enough flats by now, Pitt is your last chance to cross the bridge and ride the pavement back to town. Bring plenty of water! "
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