Rolling in the West
Saddled up and on the trail across the state.
By Eric Lucas
SCIENTISTS SAY the most enduringly evocative sense is smell. I’ll long remember, then, this morning along the Methow Community Trail, which winds along its namesake river near Mazama, on the northeast flanks of the North Cascades: The air is laced with the spicy scent of ponderosa pine and the musty tang of cottonwood resin. In the background are the subtler smells of sage, hay, dust, deer, and shrub rose. Occasionally I round a bend and come upon a stretch of the river itself, whose crisp scent, sparkling sound and topaz waters tickle my other senses.
I’m on my favorite conveyance, a bicycle, in my favorite season, late summer, in one of my favorite places … and I don’t exactly mean the Methow Valley Trail System, wonderful as it is.
I mean an off-street recreation trail on which I can ride for hours (or even days), never needing to look over my shoulder for cars, rarely needing to stop at a traffic light, sharing the path with morning breezes, buzzing insects, clear Northwest air, and chattering birds.
Washington has a delightful baker’s dozen of such trails,
as well as innumerable shorter jaunts that also offer the delights
of off-street riding.
Riders of all experience levels can pedal along the shores of the north Olympic Peninsula, ogling the snowy Olympic Mountains on one side and the azure waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the other. In the Snoqualmie Valley, east of Seattle, a lovely trail climbs a gentle grade from pastoral river-bottom dairy farms into shady maple, alder, and hemlock woods. In the rolling hills of the Palouse, a nicely paved trail passes green or golden wheat fields, depending on the season, to connect two of the country’s prettiest small college towns, Pullman, Washington, and Moscow, Idaho—yes, an interstate off-road bike path.
To be clear, I am not talking here about the hundreds of miles of mountain biking trails that also wend through the Evergreen State’s mountains and forests— those offer exceptional adventures to experienced riders who are properly outfitted and in shape for the serious grades, narrow paths, and rugged circumstances of true single-track riding, as it’s called. Nor do I mean the many famed routes that occupy Washington’s back roads in countryside east and west; there are many of these, too.
My attention here is focused on the low-key, user-friendly, separated-from-the- highway paths that have largely been fashioned from abandoned railroad beds, a practice called “rails to trails” for which Washington was one of the pioneers. The famous Burke-Gilman Trail—which leads from Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood along Lake Washington and connects up with the Sammamish River trail before, nearly 30 miles later, ending at Marymoor Park in Redmond—was one of the first such in the United States, and it was a radical idea at the time. Its westernmost stretches were initially sought by local recreation activists when Burlington Northern Railroad surrendered its easement on the line in 1971; the first 12 miles of trail opened in 1978. Now, literally thousands of users—both recreational riders and commuters— ride the path every day, particularly to the University of Washington, whose campus the trail bisects.
Though it passes through a fair amount of quiet residential area and skirts several waterways, the Burke-Gilman is largely an urban trail, as are several other well-known paths in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties. For a true vacation experience, I prefer the suburban and rural trails that traverse Washington’s highly diverse landscapes—and luckily many of these trails are in desirable vacation destinations with lots of nearby lodging. Some of the best, in fact, are on or are linked to the grounds of wellknown resorts. One of those—the Freestone Inn, at the upper end of the Methow Valley, just off the North Cascades Highway (Washington Route 20)—was my departure point the morning of my ride along the Methow River. Guests staying at Freestone’s cottages, houses, or lodge rooms need only hop on a path that winds through the resort to reach the Methow Community Trail (mvsta.com), with just a short jaunt on side streets through the little village of Mazama. Several other nearby resorts offer the same happy privilege. Once past Mazama, you are following the river through beautiful light in the forest, with shoreline glimpses of mountains and river to catch your eye. A highlight is a suspension bridge that crosses the river to a small picnic area, where riders will find a plaque with a famed poem by William Stafford about the valley, “Where We Are”:
Fog in the morning here
will make some of the world far away
and the near only a hint. But rain
will feel its blind progress along the valley,
tapping to convert one boulder at a time
into a glistening fact. Daylight will
love what came.
Pensive as this is, these words seem a welcoming benediction for the meditative, natural pleasures of a ride along Washington’s superb dedicated trails. And just as I am reading these lines in Stafford’s poem, a tapping in the ponderosa woods nearby seems to echo the verse. It’s a woodpecker a hundred yards away. The rapid-fire knocks fletch the air like a drumroll. I never catch sight of it, but on a morning when all my senses have been heightened, it doesn’t matter.
Other fine trails
throughout the state
Snoqualmie Valley Trail
— Logs once rolled down this more than 30-mile grade from the foothills of the Cascades to mills in the Snoqualmie River Valley. Today, bicyclists and horseback riders both favor the trail for its shady uphill passage through cool forest, and its lower end paralleling the river and bisecting vast cornfields; kingcounty.gov/recreation/parks/trails
PENINSULAS AND COAST
Olympic Discovery Trail
— This trail’s off-road section extends 26 miles from east of Sequim through farmland in what’s known as the Puget Sound banana belt (it’s in the Olympic rain shadow) to downtown Port Angeles, very near the MV Coho ferry dock from which tourists head to Victoria, British Columbia. Eventually the trail will extend 126 miles from Port Townsend, through the Olympic rain forest, on to the Pacific coast at La Push; olympicdiscovery trail.com
Long Beach Discovery
— Winding along Washington’s
famed long strand of
golden sand, where kites
soar over high dunes and pine copses,
this 8.5-mile path begins inland, in Ilwaco,
from whence it wends its way to the shore,
then heads north to the city of Long Beach; funbeach.com
John Wayne/Iron Horse Trail
—This impressive path makes its way more than 100 miles from Cedar Falls, east of Seattle, up Snoqualmie Pass and through the Cascades, then down the other side into the sunny pinewoods of the upper Yakima River Valley, all the way down to the basalt hills of the Columbia River. The grade is sometimes a little greater than most lowland trails, but its past as a rail bed precluded any notable steepness; the summit of the trail is actually a 2.3-mile tunnel through the mountains. The entire pathway is a state park; parks.wa.gov
Spokane Centennial Trail
— Though it begins in downtown Spokane, the 37- mile Centennial Trail follows a paved, off-street route for 30 miles into the woods and farmland of northeast Washington (a few short stretches are on rural, low-traffic roads), ending at Nine Mile Falls west of Spokane, and at the Idaho line east of the city. As it follows the Spokane River almost its entire length, the grade is moderate throughout; spokanecentennialtrail.org
Bill Chipman Palouse Trail
— Eight miles of trail follow an abandoned rail line through the rolling hills of the Palouse wheatgrowing country so often depicted in car commercials on TV. The trail connects the twin college towns of Pullman, Washington, home of Washington State University; and Moscow, Idaho, home of the University of Idaho. The trailhead in Pullman is in the parking lot of a popular local hotel, the Quality Inn; pullmancivictrust.org
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With thousands of square miles of mountain and forest, canyon and desert, Washington state is laced with unpaved, unsmoothed offroad mountain biking trails that range from moderately challenging to expert. The state’s national forests, which blanket the Cascades and Blue Mountains, and skirt Olympic National Park in the Olympics, hold numerous trails open to recreational bikers.
Perhaps best-known of the Seattle-area trail systems is the Black Diamond Coal Mine trail network. Winding through both deciduous and conifer forests, the trail is a nice single-track with many ups and downs but no severe grades. Rattlesnake Mountain, east of Seattle near Issaquah, holds miles of bike trails for those who like to go up—and up. On the east side of the Cascades, the Devils Gulch trail near Cashmere climbs up its namesake little canyon, winding in pinewoods near Mission Ridge ski area.
For more information on hundreds of other trails in the state, as well as sponsored rides and classes, visit the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, evergreenmtb.org. For serious downhill riders, winter slopes turn into summer trail systems at Crystal Mountain and Stevens Pass. Special protective and braking equipment, on both bikes and riders, is required for this exhilarating and challenging sport.
At the far opposite end of the spectrum is road riding—setting out on paved highways for lengthier, higher-speed rides. Though serious enthusiasts use (and even travel with) high-tech, lightweight, high-geared bikes, mainstream travelers can rent road bikes at many locales throughout the state—and obtain advice on good local rides from the same source. Best confined to back roads, Washington’s highway rides offer scenic circumstances, generally easy riding, and, in the right areas, very light traffic. Many roads in Eastern Washington’s Palouse bear these virtues, especially in the Pullman area. The same is true of the Columbia Gorge, from Stevenson to the Tri-Cities area.
The most eagerly sought road rides, though, are those in the San Juan Islands, where quiet lanes loop through farms, fields, and woods, affording vistas of Puget Sound and its surrounding mountains, not to mention the occasional glimpse of passing whales. San Juan and Orcas Islands both offer good riding, but bicyclists’ favorite is probably Lopez Island. This lightly populated isle’s many country lanes hold scenic views at almost every turn, are generally level, and are traveled by residents who treat their wheel-borne guests with courtesy and care.
Many travelers cycle all three islands, using ferries to cross between them and prearranging nightly stops at some of the Islands’ numerous small inns and B&Bs. It’s an experience unlike any other in the United States—sure to linger in the traveler’s sensory memory for years.
Perhaps the ultimate remoteroad ride is that in the Stehekin Valley, at the west end of Lake Chelan, Washington’s beautiful, 55-mile-long freshwater fjord. The valley road is paved and fairly gentle, and makes its way from the lakeshore through pine forests, and past pioneer homesteads and a lovely guest ranch, with virtually no cars on the road. The valley can be reached only by ferry or floatplane, and thus has few residents who drive the road. Part of the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, the valley and its 11-mile road offer both sublime riding and the chance to stop at a famous bakery whose cinnamon rolls are known for hundreds of miles. Wise riders arrange to pass the bakery twice—going up and coming back down. For more information on visiting, and bicycling, Stehekin see nps.gov/noca.