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Idea for a 2014 goal: Bike the nation’s longest rail-trail (it’s right here in Washington)

From the Rails to Trails website
From the Rails to Trails website

If you’re the kind of person who likes to plan goals for the new year, I’ve got an idea for you: Bike the longest rail trail in the nation.

Lucky for you, that’s right here in Washington. At 253 miles, the John Wayne Pioneer Trail narrowly defeated Missouri’s 238-mile Katy Trail to claim the top spot.

And now that all the tunnels are open through the Cascades, there is no better time to plan your adventure on the trail.

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For more on the John Wayne Pioneer Trial, Biking Bis has been all over news related to the trail. Russ and Laura from the Path Less Pedaled also gave the trail some coverage last year, saying the trail is well-positioned to become a bike touring destination.

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30 responses to “Idea for a 2014 goal: Bike the nation’s longest rail-trail (it’s right here in Washington)”

  1. Charles B

    I wonder how much it would cost to give the two long trails in our state Burke Gilman pavement treatment… maybe its not really feasible, but its nice to think about it.

    1. Jane

      Gravel trails are a good thing, we don’t have to pave the entire planet. If anything it cuts down on the silent speed racer factor that exists on the burke. The John Wayne trail is an absolute treasure.

      1. Charles B

        Understood, it is just a little less accessible to some riders.

        I do hope they keep up the maintenance on all of the bridges and tunnels along the route.

    2. martin barr

      I agree with Jayne– screw the pavement! Maybe you’d like to pave all the hiking trails too. There’s enough asphalt, blood money, big oil, the new paved paths are always widened to accommodate the humvee. You should take off your shoes, kneel down, and pray gratitude the next time you encounter an unpaved trail.

      1. Eric

        The issue isn’t gravel vs pavement, it’s packed gravel vs loose gravel. I biked Iron Horse last summer near Thorp with proper tires and it was misery- you had to pedal super hard to slowly plow through gravel. We saw nobody else out there on a bike all day long, and it was a sunny weekend. It was pretty farmland, but we turned around mid day and gave up on that stretch. Reviews say everything to the East of there is a problem as well, so about half the trail is really unusable for bikes.

        On the flip side, up near the summit the trail is great. The gravel there is packed hard into the dirt. Biking is a little bumpy but it’s not like plowing aside loose gravel. We spent a couple blissful days biking around up near the summit. Lots of other people were enjoying the trail as well- we saw probably about 30 people each day. There’s a lot less gravel there but it’s a heck of a lot better to be there.

        Tom- Could you interview somebody with parks about the state of the trail and plans for it? Could they run one of those pounders over the trail to pack down the gravel?

  2. Chris G

    It doesn’t seem to be advertised too widely, but the Snoqualmie Tunnel (and possibly others) is closed seasonally from Nov 1 – May 1. So best to make plans for riding after May.

  3. Sounds like a great ride. Is it going to be open all year round? I next year my goal is to get more into mountain biking. Great site!!

  4. Double D

    Here’s my take on the trail when the tunnels were still closed:



    I highly recommend checking it out. Be warned, fatter touring tires are efficient until about Ellensburg, then it becomes a lot more “gravelly” and they will dig in. MTB tires are recommended. Slower, yes, but it beats pinballing and fishtailing at 3 mph on a loaded bike.

    I hope to make it to Idaho on the next outing. I just need more time!

    1. Karl

      Thanks for those!

  5. Lisa

    Does anyone know if the Bus Up 90, from Rattlesnake to Hyak, will ever return. Those of us who have kids and out-of-towners and can only do one way, would love to see this come back.

  6. This is a spectacular ride that many do not even know exists. Bring a tent or sleeping bag and camp along the trail at many points. I lead a ride through the tunnel every year with the Mountaineers, Meany Lodge, kids and families. We always spend Saturday night at the Lodge (at Stampede Pass above the trail) and have a great time riding the JWT and all around the area. If anyone is interested: http://www.meanylodge.org/summer/bicycle_weekend.html.

  7. Eli

    This looks awesome!

    Does anyone know if you can take a bus to the trail? Or does one need to find a friend with a car who wants to go?

    1. Gary

      “Bus!?!”… ride the Burke Gilman and connections to Issaquah, ride East! There are trails nearly the whole distance. http://goo.gl/maps/6nfBl for all the possible routes.

  8. Lamar

    using the King County Bicycle Map it’s possible to ride from Seattle to Rattlesnake Lake. when the Mountains to Sound Greenway is completed, this will become a signed route and easier to navigate.

    for now, it should be possible to get to and from Seattle to North Bend via King County Metro busses.

    also, I don’t believe those Nov 1 – May 1 closing and opening dates for the Snoqualmie tunnel are rigid/fixed but are subject to snowfall (as are three of our mountain passes). check with the North Bend National Forest Service Ranger Station if planning a trip in October or May to be sure the tunnel is open.

    1. Eli

      Thank you (and Gary!)

      It looks like the 214 bus only runs on weekdays, so one would need to take a day off work?

      1. Eli

        Oh, never mind. I see one can take the 554 to the 208. Thanks again.

        I’d happily bike there, but I’m more of a grandma bicyclist and I’m definitely not riding on narrow shoulders with traffic going by 40 mph. And I just can’t tell what portion of the route to get there comprises that!

      2. Gary

        ” I’m definitely not riding on narrow shoulders with traffic going by 40 mph”

        AFAIK, the only portion of the trip which would have these conditions is the hill climb from Factoria to Eastgate and some short sections in Issaquah and near Snoqualimie which aren’t connected via bike trail. On a Saturday it would be totally do-able even for a “grandma.”

        I commute that Factoria hill nearly every day and you could ride the sidewalk. Being a long hill slog it wouldn’t be any slower than riding the bike lane shoulder.

        But with limited time, I could see doing the bus as far as I could go. It’s just that when you bike from “home” to somewhere it’s a feeling of accomplishment that “I did that 100% on my own power.” Still there is no getting around that riding to North Bend is going to involve some hill climbing.

      3. Lisa

        Eli, I biked to North Bend and I am a grandma-style biker on a seven-speed city bike! I had a really good guide though, we were going through early afternoon on a Friday and I felt ok about it.

  9. Max

    Maybe this is splitting hairs, but if you included ‘tow paths’ which aren’t really any different from rail trails, I think that the NYS Erie Canal is longer ~380 miles. It has something like 70-80 miles that aren’t done and you have to do some road riding, but I think it is substantially complete.


    1. Kimberly Kinchen

      Yes, and if you note that you can ride the C&O and the GAP trails from DC to Pittsburgh in a combined trip, with only a very short on-road section just before McKeesport, PA, that’s about 350 miles that’s all towpath (C&O) and rail trail. For all intents and purposes, it’s basically one long off-road trail.

      But I am excited to know about this trail in WA. Didn’t realize you could get past Ellensburg, and that is enticing. Just not sure if I’m ready to deal with the mtb tires and not having as many non-camping options in the farther reaches. Having the option to get a motel on the longer, harder days really extends my range, and it’s part of what makes trails like the Erie and the C&O/GAP so appealing and accessible.

      1. Gary

        I rode the C&O trail from Harper’s Ferry to DC back in ’74. It was pretty rough and toasted my road rims. If I was to ride a trail like that again, I would highly recommend the shock absorber route at least for the front forks, and Mt Bike width tires. “Camping” is less complicated than one would think, if you are creative. The key is having access to water and a toilet. chruches, firestations, “the back forty” are all alternatives but often without a shower. So it’s a bit rougher than one would like.

      2. Kimberly Kinchen

        Gary, while the C&O is definitely still rough and rutty, I think it’s improved much since your run. We were on an LHT with its city road / commuting tires, which were a tad skinny for that path during the muddy parts (there was a tornado a few hours ahead of us and we were riding in some crappy downpour for a while, then muddy trails until at least Hancock, MD), but my 43s on an old GT hybrid commuter were fine sans shocks once I got used to the mud. And we were only using back rollers — no front load, which would have made the muddy parts less challenging. We have since invested in front racks and panniers.

        I agree camping is not a big deal but these days I’m personally not quite hardy enough to try a full-on camping only trip, at least not for a trip longer than a couple of nights, and having the other lodging options makes the longer trips more likely for us.

  10. Allan

    I really want to do this ride, this year, maybe the whole trail, and maybe even return. I am also tired of playing Russian Roulette on the roads of Seattle. I want to get more into mountain biking and camping. I would like to go with an organized group of moderate or slower riders. I am planning to build a new 29’r in the spring for trips like this. I have a semi-29’r now,(suspension fork and 700x35c cross tires). It would probably also be fine for the trip. I think a suspension fork would make the trip more comfortable, I am not sure if I should use a suspension seat post though.
    I have ridden from North Bend up through the tunnel and beyond past the big lake. It has been a while and all that is only one fourth of the trip. I didn’t do it loaded with camping gear, that will be something new for me. I actually never camped off a bicycle and would love to find a group that caters to beginners. The other possibility is if there are hotels along the way, it might be nice to do it that way too.

    1. Lamar

      as noted above, about 5-10 miles east of the Snoqualmie/Hyak tunnel the very rideable small gravel becomes large railroad-bed chucks from there eastward; front and seat suspension definitely would be a plus.

      1. Nik

        I frequently ride the JWT in that area and the surface is fine until you get to Cle Elum, 30 miles east of Hyak. It’s a mixture of gravel and dirt, similar to what you find between Cedar Falls and the Snoqualmie Tunnel.

        The trail surface east of Cle Elum also used to be OK, but in 2012 or 2013 it seems that a new layer of gravel was dumped on top of the trail and now it’s fairly difficult even with 40-50mm tires.

        I wonder if that new layer of gravel was put there in preparation for construction machinery to fix the 2 tunnels between Cle Elum and Thorp. Those 2 tunnels used to be “closed” by a sign, but you could still go through (no fence/gate). Now there is a sign at the tunnel entrance where you are supposed to sign a release form where you accept the risk that rocks may fall off the ceiling while you’re in the tunnel. Those tunnels are very short so it’s not a big deal.

  11. Bill

    Can you really claim this is the longest trail if it can’t be ridden? The Beverly bridge is closed. The nearest Columbia crossing is the lovely I-90 Vantage bridge. There is still track on part of the trail, significant stretches where the vehicle of choice is a horse, and an access dispute with a private landowner.

    Improving and fully opening this trail would be tremendous. In its current state traversing it is a major adventure so I hope anyone who gives ita shot is very well prepared. See this guy’s trip report: http://26inchslicks.blogspot.com/2012/06/crossing-washington-state-on-john-wayne.html?m=1.

    1. a different Eric

      Yes, now that the tunnels are fixed, the next item should be the Columbia crossing. I don’t know the structural state of the bridge, but it seems that something designed to carry trains should be easy to get into biking shape. It seems like this is just a longer version of the trestles you cross along the west side climb to the Snoqualmie tunnel.

  12. Shawn

    Crossing the Columbia River is still a major barrier. Crossing on I-90 at Vantage is your only option as far as I know; uphill, no shoulder, interstate freeway traffic. Makes the Astoria Bridge sound like a tweed ride! I will be overjoyed to learn of a heretofore unknown to me alternative…

  13. […] John Wayne Pioneer Trail is the longest rail-trail in the nation, and it has huge potential to be a destination route for bike tourism in our state. But if sections […]

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