It’s early on a Friday morning, and we’re waiting at 4th and Lenora, an unassuming corner in downtown Seattle where so many great bus-bike adventures begin. This is the first stop for Sound Transit’s 554 express bus to Issaquah. Within hours, we’d be deep in the Cascade mountains with few other humans in sight except for fleeting glimpses of I-90, which washes the mountainside with white noise.
We live in a place where you don’t need a car to get the hell outta town. And though Seattle is surrounded by car-free getaway options, the Iron Horse Trail is an unparalleled resource so magnificent I can still hardly believe it’s real.
Iron Horse State Park is a very long linear park following a decommissioned stretch of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad (AKA the “Milwaukee Road”). That rail line and its amazing series of tunnels and bridges — not to mention it’s gentle railroad-grade incline — now caries a gravel biking and hiking trail called the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, though many people refer to it as the Iron Horse Trail. The state park has developed a section about 110 miles long from Rattlesnake Lake to the Columbia River, but the rail right-of-way stretches 253 miles to the Idaho border (some sections are more developed and complete than others. Check out this great trip report from 26inchslicks for info about the full route).
Getting there from Seattle without a car
Much of the Iron Horse Trail in western Washington is part of the Mountains to Sound Greenway, a populated natural area that is currently trying again to get national recognition as a National Heritage Area. But the series of trails that make up the MTS Greenway Trail still has some key missing pieces: From Puget Sound to Beacon Hill, a couple stretches in Bellevue, a couple sections in Issaquah. But perhaps the most perplexing missing link is getting from Issaquah or Preston to the Snoqualmie Valley Trail. Options are either very hilly, very busy or both.
Many people drive their bikes to either North Bend or Rattlesnake Lake and start from there. But my fiancée Kelli and I don’t own a car, and getting out of town without using a car is something of a fun added challenge for us.
That’s why we woke up early on a Friday to catch Sound Transit’s 554 express bus to Issaquah. You could start your trip from there, but we were lucky enough to transfer at Issaquah Transit Center to catch one of the sadly rare Metro 208 buses to North Bend. Note that the 208 is limited Monday through Saturday and does not run at all on Sunday.
We got off the 208 near Snoqualmie Falls, which is a great place to start a bike adventure. Check out the falls and hum the theme to Twin Peaks, then set out to the Snoqualmie Valley Trail via the wonderful low-traffic SE Mill Pond Road and through the south end of the City of Snoqualmie. Meet the trail where it passes through Mt Si Golf Course (King County is currently working on a trail bridge that was burned in an arson last year. You may be able to take that bridge defending on work schedules, but the detour isn’t bad, either).
Once on the trail here, you’re pretty much on gravel railbed for the rest of the trip. Oh, were you expecting more busy roads? Sorry, there are basically none of them on this entire trip because we live in a magical, wonderful place.
The Snoqualmie Valley Trail leads through North Bend (stock up on food and provisions, since this is the last grocery store you’ll pass) and then bends and climbs to meet the Iron Horse Trial at Rattlesnake Lake. We ate lunch by the lake before heading to the Cedar River Watershed Education Center to listen to the totally awesome rain drums and fill up all our water bottles from the last tap water fountain for 21 miles.
Take a left out of the Education Center parking lot, and you’re at the start of the Iron Horse Trail. Get comfortable in your saddle, find a sustainable pace and just lose yourself in your surroundings, which get more and more fantastic with every hard-packed gravel and dirt mile.
If you want to experience the trail in a daytrip, you might be interested in this bike shuttle from Rattlesnake Lake to Hyak at the pass. UPDATE: If you’re headed out July 14, you can join the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust for a shuttle-assisted ride down to Rattlesnake Lake from the pass.
Bikepacking the Iron Horse Trail
Any road bike can handle the gravel, but it is bumpy. You don’t need fat tires or a mountain bike, but they certainly aren’t rare on the trail. I took my heavy old steel road bike with not-super-skinny road tires and it was just fine. I saw people on lightweight racing bikes, touring bikes, mountain bikes, fat bikes and even one beach cruiser (I’m guessing that was a one-way trip down from the pass). There were lots of kids, too, either on geared mountain bikes or typical coaster brake bikes (though I doubt many families with kids were planning to ride all the way up to the pass).
By the time we biked the 27.4 gravel, railroad-grade miles from Mt Si Gold Course to the entrance of the Snoqualmie Tunnel, we were getting pretty tired. It might be a gradual grade, but 2,411 feet of elevation is still 2,411 feet of elevation. Luckily, the 2-mile bike/walk tunnel is super chilly, and there’s nothing like two miles of air-conditioned biking at the end of a long climb.
There are hiker-biker campsites spaced out along the route, each well-maintained with surprisingly clean outhouses (thanks WA State Parks!). Tap water is very rare along the route, but there are a good number of fresh mountain streams (bring extra water capacity and a water filter or iodine tablets if you don’t want to risk drinking straight from a stream).
We stayed at the Cold Creek campsite about 2 miles beyond the east end of the tunnel. It was a wonderful campsite just off the trail with access to Keechelus Lake. Post-ride swims are always the best.
Of the four campsites on the map above, all but Alice Creek looked great. Alice Creek is pretty exposed, and I would recommend holding out to at least get to Carter Creek if you’re looking to camp on the west side of the tunnel. All campsites are first come, first served, but I wouldn’t worry too much about them filling up. There is a $5 campsite fee, so bring some cash.
This trip was also a new experiment for us: A bus/bike/backpacking adventure. After a night at Cold Creek, we packed up our bikes and headed about six miles back the way we came. Here, the Annette Lake Trail crosses the Iron Horse Trail part of the way through the hiking route from I-90 for people who drove.
We ditched our bikes in a dry creek and locked our bikes together with our panniers before hiking about 2.5 miles up the steep trail to Annette Lake, popular among day hikers and backpackers.
The next day, we woke up early, hiked to our bikes and biked all the way down, pedaling gently all the way to North Bend. It was a Sunday, so we had to at least get to Issaquah to catch a bus back to Seattle. But we were feeling good when we got to Issaquah and decided to bike all the way to Seattle.
I was crazy tired by the end of this ride, but I also felt really powerful to know that I had woken up at an alpine lake in the heart of the Cascades and had hiked and biked all the way home in just one day.
But I’m also so thankful to be lucky enough to live in a place so wonderful that an adventure like this is possible.