About two dozen residents gathered to hear rail trail pioneer and advocate Fred Wert describe the Palouse to Cascades Trail last Thursday evening (Oct. 17) at TwispWorks.
The Palouse to Cascades Trail (PTCT), formerly Iron Horse State Park/John Wayne Pioneer Trail, runs 285 unpaved miles on an old railroad route that spans from the western slopes of the Cascades to the Idaho border. Known as a “rail trail” and used by cyclists, horseback riders and walkers, the PTCT has been named a National Historic Trail and is a feature of the Great American Rail Trail movement. A handful of residents in the Methow Valley have cycled the entire route, while others have completed different sections of it.
Although the rail trail includes several obstacles that prevent it from offering a seamless through-ride option — a couple of trestles in need of replacement, a large bridge requiring substantial renovation, some gaps that force detours, a dearth of services like camping, lodging and restaurant options — it’s a dusty jewel in the crown of Washington state’s ruggedly varied and gorgeous topography, and the Palouse to Cascades Trail Coalition (of which Wert is a board member) is working doggedly to polish it up.
“There is significant collaboration underway,” says Wert, who is working closely with the state Parks and Recreation Commission and other stakeholder groups across the state to improve the rail trail, close gaps, and connect the trail to other trail systems.
“There is also significant investment in rebuilding three trestles,” adds Wert, noting the rail trail’s inclusion in the state’s 2019-2020 capital budget. Wert also mentions State Parks’ commitment to one of the biggest obstacles on the PTCT: the historic Beverly Bridge across the Columbia River, which has been closed since the 1990s and around which PTCT riders must detour nearly 100 road miles, including some stretches dangerous to those not in vehicles.
“The Beverly Bridge is going to be a focal point of the whole rail trail,” says State Parks engineer and project manager Adam Fulton, who is also a part-time Methow Valley resident. “It will be a destination, even for those not riding the PTCT.”
Wert’s enthusiasm for rail trails in general and the PTCT in particular is compelling. The varied terrain is uniquely appealing, says Wert. “You get tired of looking at snow-capped peaks, you just ride down into the scablands,” he says. “You’ve got evergreen forests, you’ve got farmlands, you’ve got tunnels.” Wert describes the 100-foot right of way (ROW) the railroad holds on each side of the tracks. “Farmers plow right up to the ROW, but inside that strip are trees and plants — it’s incredible wildlife habitat.”
If you only have time to do one section of the PTCT, you won’t regret choosing the Thorp-to Cle-Elum section, Coalition board members agree; however, the Snoqualmie Tunnel section — which at 2.3 miles is the longest rail trail tunnel in the country — is quite popular and can be ridden as a one-way downhill with a shuttle.
Wert acknowledges that rail trail surface conditions present rough riding, since much of the trail is rugged railroad ballast — and not even modern-day railroad ballast, but left over from more than 100 years ago, a legacy of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad’s Pacific Extension. “It’s a mixture of loose stuff on top of hard surfaces,” he says. “Stay alert.”
Wert also reminds rail trail users that services are limited, particularly in the eastern portion of the route, from the Columbia River to the Idaho border. The Palouse to Cascades Trail Coalition is working with local communities to offer services and with State Parks to develop campgrounds. But for now, Wert says, “You’ll have long days, and you may need a little vehicle support here and there. Plan ahead.”
If you think of the PTCT as an expedition instead of a plug-and-play experience, however, Wert says the journey will be uniquely satisfying. “The trail is open and people are using it,” he says, gesturing expansively. “Go have an adventure.”
For more information about the Palouse to Cascades Trail and the efforts underway to promote the development and use of this signature rail trail, visit: www.palousetocascadestrail.org.