By Merrill Callaway
American railroads declined sharply in the late 20th century. Deregulation, bankruptcies, and competition from trucking caused rail abandonment to increase from 800 miles per year before 1980 to over 4000 miles subsequently. To survive, competing railways merged to reap an economy of scale and abandoned duplicate and uneconomical routes, which raised several questions. What do we do with the unused infrastructure and land? Who has the right to keep or remove infrastructure? What if the line needs to be reactivated? Litigation over these matters continues today.
To slow the railroads’ headlong decline, to avoid legal entanglements after massive abandonment, and to alleviate a railway’s tax and maintenance requirements for a non-productive line, Congress in 1983 amended the 1968 National Trails System Act, creating an agreement called “railbanking.” Railbanking preserves the right-of-way and the infrastructure (e.g. bridges) with the understanding that in the meantime, unless the railroad is reactivated, it can be developed for other uses. In the United States, federal or state governments hold the land transferred to rail banks, many of which have been developed into rail trails for hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, and, in rare cases, off-highway vehicle (OHV) use. The quality of any particular rail trail depends upon who administers it.
Rails to Trails Conservancy (RTC), a Washington, DC, lobby, has grown rail trail availability from a few hundred miles in 1986 to over 20,000 miles today. Maps, GPS files, and specific trail information for 1,600 listed trails is on RTC’s TrailLink site.
You can peacefully view some of the best scenery in the country from railroad corridors. Railroads have gentle grades, even through mountains, where you can find spectacular trestles and tunnels. You see wildlife. You’re not hassled by traffic and noise. Rail trail conditions vary widely. The primitive conditions and remoteness of some rail trails provide epic adventure, whereas others encourage safe family fun. I discovered that linking several Northwest rail trails into a longer road tour resulted in a wonderful adventure, but it required some planning.
Google Maps/Bicycle helped me to connect different rail trails together by road, while TrailLink had information about the trails themselves. The longest rail trail is the 253-mile–long John Wayne Pioneer Trail (JWPT) from east of Seattle to the Idaho border. The JWPT is the corridor of the former Milwaukee Road, completed in 1908 and abandoned in 1980. Other remnants of the Milwaukee Road have also been converted to rail trails in Idaho and Montana. These include the Route of the Hiawatha near Lookout Pass (Idaho/Montana border); the Route of the Olympian from Hiawatha to St. Regis, Montana; and even a riverside trail in Missoula, Montana, which passes by the historic Milwaukee Road depot beside the Clark Fork River.
On traillink.com and Google Maps/Bicycle, I found two more rail trails that I could connect with the Milwaukee Road sections: the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes (an abandoned Union Pacific branch) and the NorPac rail trail (a former Northern Pacific right-of-way over Lookout Pass).
Meanwhile, TrailLink featured the Oregon, California & Eastern (OC&E State Trail) out of Klamath Falls, Oregon, as their Trail of the Month. I began to visualize a clockwise circuit including five rail trails connected by highways. Starting in Boise, Idaho, I would ride in sequence the OC&E, the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, the NorPac, the Route of the Hiawatha, and finally the Route of the Olympian to St. Regis, and I’d return to Boise by way of Missoula, over Lolo Pass, and back into Idaho. Serendipity entered my actual tour on its fourth day at Burns, Oregon. A cyclist I met by chance told me of the Weiser River Trail in Idaho from Tamarack to Weiser, which would be on my way south from Missoula back to Boise. Seven rail trails in one tour. Sweet.
My research turned up a wonderful blog by Pat Sprute of Spokane, Washington, who rode the JWPT from east to west. We became email pals. He suggested two books to read for background, both of which enriched my experience considerably: The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan, and The White Cascade: the Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche by Gary Krist.
From Boise I headed for Silver Lake, Oregon, near the north extension of the OC&E trail. Southern Oregon contains the Great Basin desert, and record heat had settled into the Northwest: it was well over 100 degrees with little or no wind. Riding in the cool pre-dawn and resting in shade from noon ’till six became my strategy while crossing over a hundred miles of hilly, treeless, sun-blasted desert with very little in the way of facilities. The highway went through Vale, Juntura, Burns, Riley, Wagontire, and Christmas Valley.
Five miles south of Silver Lake on E Bay Rd is the regionally famous Cowboy Dinner Tree restaurant, which serves huge steaks or whole chicken dinners grilled over a wood fire. I rented one of their small log cabins and had a wonderful meal.
To find the OC&E State Trail from Silver Lake: south on E Bay Rd/NF-28 (paved, 25 miles); right onto NF-3239 (dirt, 5.6 miles); right onto NF-3207 (dirt, 8 miles to OC&E); left (south) onto OC&E trail. The desert gave way to ponderosa forests.
I planned to ride the trail south to Beatty and then west into Klamath Falls, but a forest fire at Sprague River (on the trail) canceled that. Several miles past Merritt Trestle, to avoid the fire, I exited the trail to Olive Pine road and rode south to OR-140, then westward to Dairy, where I rejoined the OC&E into Klamath Falls.
I planned to pedal from Klamath Falls up the eastern side of the Cascades, but several wildfires north of Bend ruined that plan as well. In Klamath Falls, the only rental vehicle available was a gigantic Belchfire Behemoth, a.k.a. Chevy Tahoe. The huge beast was so over-gadgetized that it took me until Crater Lake to find the odometer and a hundred miles before I could discover how to move the seat forward and back. Of course the driver manual was missing. I ditched the Belchfire at Bellevue and pedaled east. After the desert, taking a rainy rest day at North Bend, Washington, was refreshing.
Rattlesnake Lake is the beginning of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail (JWPT). West of the Columbia River, the JWPT is known as the Iron Horse State Park. East of the Columbia, the JWPT is administered by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The JWPT has two personalities. West of the Columbia, it’s well maintained; east it’s primitive and discontinuous, with missing or closed bridges and trestles, sections where the rails and ties have not been removed, and impassible swampy areas.
A gradual 1.7-percent grade climbs to the Snoqualmie Pass tunnel, which is 2.3 miles long and pitch dark. There are several campgrounds on either side of this tunnel through the Cascades. They have tent sites and pit toilets, but you have to filter your water from creeks. All services are available at Cle Elum and Ellensburg. The scenery changes as you ride east: you’ll see heavily forested and rainy mountains, lakeside woods, nearly treeless basalt canyons, and rolling hills covered in yellow rye grass. A grassfire had forced the closure of the easternmost section of the Iron Horse State Park, after Ellensburg. I had to take the Vantage Highway.
The I-90 bridge at Vantage is the only way to get across the Columbia to the eastern section of the JWPT. At the east end of the I-90 bridge, take Exit 137 to WA-26 E, then right to WA-243 S. At Beverly, turn left to Crab Creek Rd. The JWPT runs parallel just north of Crab Creek Road. Several side roads turn left (north) and cross the rail trail. This stretch is especially scenic.
Crab Creek Road eventually crosses the JWPT at Smyrna. (Beware of goathead thorns here! I filled my tubes with Flat Attack sealant and had no flats or air leakage.) The trail soon ends, and the rails and ties have not yet been removed from the corridor. The pavement turns north, but I continued parallel to the old railroad tracks on Crab Creek Road. After climbing out of the valley you see abandoned tracks to the south along the hills. Crab Creek Road merges into WA-26 before Othello (all facilities).
From Othello take WA-17 N, then WA-170 E to Warden (motel, store, and restaurants). The JWPT bears right, off East 1st Street. This is the start of hard going. The surface was either rocky ballast or soft sand, the cuts were filled with tumbleweeds, and the DNR’s locked gates began to appear when a road crossed the trail. The DNR had failed to mention anything about locked gates to me over the phone or in their literature. I had to unload and reload my bike at several gates to cross.
At Lind (grocery store) take WA-21 into town to avoid several gaps for missing bridges. In town head uphill (south) on S. Neilson Rd to find the trail again. It crosses US-395 in a series of small tunnels, but you must detour steeply downhill to them on a primitive overgrown dirt track and uphill again on the other side of US- 395. Beyond Ralston, according to the DNR, the rail trail is impassible at Cow Creek so you must detour by road to reach Marengo and the trail. (Marengo is not on most maps. It’s just a grain elevator.)
From Ralston (water pump in its memorial park) go south on WA-261 S 1.8 miles. Turn left onto E Ralston-Benge Rd for 7.2 miles. Turn left onto N Marengo Rd for 4.8 miles. (Note: This left turn might appear incorrect as it looks like a faint two-track with an apparently locked gate across it. Don’t be fooled. The farmers out here disguise turnoffs to look locked. I made the mistake of falling for the ruse and wandered around for hours after taking the next road to the left and trying to find the way! Measure 7.2 miles and trust Google on this one!)
From Marengo there are no optional parallel highways until near Pine City. I had to commit to ride the trail no matter how rough or how many locked gates I had to schlepp over. To me, the necessity of committing (no going back) is the core satisfaction of real adventure. Accepting this difficult reality boosted my mood immensely, whereas making only six mph[sm caps] on a miserable surface when there had been a perfectly good highway 50 yards away had just depressed me. At Marengo (my “Rubicon” as it were) I had been anxious and afraid while waiting out the noonday heat in the shade of a grain elevator. But once underway, my anxiety evaporated. I attacked the rocky horror of the trail across Washington’s channeled scablands with remarkable energy and a sort of fierce joy. In the late afternoon, I arrived at a large and busy grain elevator in a place called Revere (August was the peak of the wheat harvest). Was there drinking water? I asked.
Ronnie, the grain warehouseman, treated me to cold water, root beer, and a place to camp, and he even shared his dinner of chicken and peas with me! He also showed me his collection of rattlesnake tails. He has a lonely job with long hours in a remote location — he was as grateful for someone to hang out with as I was. The satisfaction adventure brings also includes the unplanned and unanticipated blessing of meeting good people.
At Ewan a trestle is missing. Rock Lake Rd leads to the trail off the east side of the road. Here I did not follow the Google Maps/Bicycle route, which would have bypassed Rock Lake, by far the most scenic stretch of the entire trail and very rideable. There were locked gates and several hike-a-bike sections where a rockfall has blocked the trail or a landowner had barricaded it against motor vehicles, but a bicycle could make it. Ronnie told me that long ago a train carrying Ford Model As derailed and the cars went into the lake, never to be recovered. Twelve-mile–long Rock Lake is infamous for its danger — it’s 408 feet deep with sheer basalt cliffs plunging into the water, and basalt spires rise to just under its surface ready to rip the bottom out of boats. Many have drowned and not been recovered. The trail has two tunnels and several trestles, one with no improvements for bicycles (scary!), and one with wrecked boxcars alongside it. After Rock Lake, the guys at the Pine City grain elevator let me take a shower there.
The morning I came into Rosalia, Washington, a swarm of yellow jackets living in the hollow rail of one of the gates I was shutting stung me many times. While “the bee stings in life are free,” my body paid a price. I felt so ill that I elected to skip the last JWPT miles and go by highway to Plummer, Idaho, and the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. The Palouse country is pa-lousey with steep hills, but at least I’d get a breeze downhill unlike the unrelenting stifling heat of the almost flat rail trail. I let Google Maps figure a highway route from Rosalia to Plummer, which has a motel, a restaurant, and a store.
At Plummer the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes is not only paved for 73 miles to Mullan, Idaho, but the first five miles are 3-percent downhill through cool woods, a welcome luxury compared to what I had been going through. This is a family-friendly and very scenic trail around Coeur d’Alene Lake and through historic Silver Valley. Wallace, Idaho, is famous for the Big Burn of August 1910. Kellogg, Idaho, is completely tourist oriented. The entire trail is a Super Fund Site, meaning that it is an environmental hazard being remedied. The pavement seals off the toxic silver mine tailings used for railroad ballast and the poisonous smelting chemicals that were spilled on the roadbed.
The 25-mile–long NorPac trail begins a few road miles from the end of the Coeur d’Alenes trail at Mullan, Idaho. Continue straight onto Friday Ave, then bear left onto Larson Rd. At the sign for Shoshone Park, the trail is just uphill to your left. NorPac climbs over Lookout Pass (the Idaho/Montana border) and continues downhill to the historic site of Taft, Montana (nothing left). Two miles up Rainy Creek Road from a sign reading Route of the Hiawatha is the East Portal of the 1.66-mile–long St. Paul Pass Tunnel through the border of Montana and Idaho.
This unpaved 15-mile trail is famous, popular, and family friendly. All but the tunnel is in Idaho. It goes down to Pearson where an optional shuttle returns riders and bikes to the West Portal. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) administers the Hiawatha, the NorPac, and the next trail to the east, the Route of the Olympian (the 1940s luxury train of the Milwaukee Road was called The Olympian Hiawatha). The Lookout Pass Ski Area charges $10 for access to the Hiawatha and runs the shuttles under USFS license, but you can buy a ticket on the trail. The Hiawatha is noteworthy for its numerous trestles and tunnels navigating through the Bitterroot Mountains.
This 31-mile section of the Milwaukee Road corridor starts at the far end of the parking area at the East Portal of the Hiawatha and goes all the way to St. Regis, Montana. The USFS recently reconditioned a trestle near the top and barred vehicles from using it (they allow OHVs on the NorPac). The top section of this trail is therefore very peaceful. Nearer to St. Regis there is light OHV activity.
From St. Regis to Missoula, my preferred northern route down the Clark Fork River was smoky from wildfires, so I cycled in the I-90 corridor using frontage roads when possible and the wide interstate shoulder when not. The Google Maps bicycle route was mostly accurate but led me to a locked gate with a “No Trespassing” sign near Exit 61 at Tarkio, and I had to backtrack and ride the interstate.
I spent three days in Missoula resting and hanging out at the Adventure Cycling headquarters where I received a warm welcome. A friendly local told me of a concert by the Clark Fork River on Sunday evening.
The Milwaukee Road corridor is now a bike path along the south shore of the Clark Fork River through downtown Missoula. The Bitterroot Branch bike trail branches off to the south, merging with US-12 W/US-93 S to Lolo where I turned onto US-12 W to Lolo Pass and back into Idaho. There are beautiful woods and several campgrounds once you enter the Lolo National Forest.
Lolo Pass lies at the Idaho border. It is a 100-mile downhill run to Kooskia, Idaho, on US-12 W, and the Lochsa River runs beside the highway most of the way. However, forest fires changed my plans yet again. At Lowell I ran into a wall of smoke from three large fires in the area. The word was the smoke covered the entire valley around Lewiston, the lowest lying area in Idaho, so I bribed a man in a pickup truck to drive me to White Bird Hill Summit, 50 some odd miles away and out of the smoke area. We drove US-12 W to Kooskia, ID-13 S to Grangeville, and US-95 S to White Bird Hill Summit. I would have liked to bicycle this scenic route, but avoiding the choking smoke was paramount.
From White Bird Hill Summit, I descended eight miles of 7-percent grade. At the bottom of the hill, White Bird, Idaho, has a coffee shop, motel, grocery, and two restaurants. US-95 follows the Salmon River gorge to Riggins, where the Little Salmon River enters. The road then follows that river up to New Meadows, Idaho.
From New Meadows, US-95 S heads west and shortly turns south again, where the Weiser River Trail (WRT) can be seen to the left. However, the rail trail soon detours on a gnarly track, not the rail corridor, around the property of a large lumber mill at Tamarack, just a few miles farther down the road. It’s better to ride the highway past the mill and take the first left where there is a “One Lane Bridge” sign. That turnoff leads immediately to the WRT. You miss nothing but aggravation by doing this.
I had no problems following this delightful 84-mile trail. It makes two U-shaped departures from US-95 S to follow the Weiser River through beautiful woods and canyons, and it passes through three small towns: Council (all facilities), Cambridge (all facilities), and Midvale (store). In many ways this was my favorite rail trail of the seven due to the sublime scenery, rideability, and how utterly peaceful it was: it rarely paralleled roads. I met no other cyclists on the entire trail, and the people in the small towns were friendly. Abandoned cherry and apple trees with ripe fruit lined the trail north of Council.
Finally, Weiser to Boise.
Mountain bike: For surfaces from pavement to railroad ballast and dirt, my Ritchey Speedmax 26 x 2.2in. tires rolled smoothly with hardly any noise on pavement yet hooked up well on dirt and rocks. I had zero flats despite the abundant thorns on the JWPT. I sealed Continental Downhill tubes with Flat Attack (flatattack.com).
Route finding: I used state highway maps as well as Google Maps and Gaia GPS. There were many dead zones, so when the internet was available, I made navigation notes in advance.
Saddle: My Brooks spring-loaded Flyer saddle mitigated the extreme roughness of some sections.
Water: I used Sawyer collapsible squeeze containers. I carried up to three gallons of water.
Staying cool: I soaked a white cotton tee shirt and a bandana in water.
Tent: I used a fly-only option for shade when nothing else was available.
Bonus tip: I used hand sanitizer — it kills BO instantly and prevents saddle sores.
Permit: You’ll need a permit to ride the JWPT east of the Columbia River. Call 509.925.8510, or write to Washington State DNR, Southeast Region, 713 Bowers Rd, Ellensburg, WA 98926-9301. Make sure to ask for the one combination to all their locked gates.