Create Adventure: Bikepacking the John Wayne Trail

John Wayne Trail

Sara Callan is the mother of three young ones and a jewelry designer. She loves bicycling and is sharing that passion with her kids. She and her family live in Spokane.

During the summer of 2013, my two best friends and I decided we were going to take four days off from our everyday lives and escape on bikes. We made plans, gathered gear, and started out for the east end of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail. There were headwinds, deep gravel, very little access to water, scorching heat, and very sore rear ends. There were definitely some difficulties and bad moments, but there was also triumph and empowerment. And so we decided to do it again this summer, this time being better prepared.

Lake Easton JWT

Ready to hit the trail at Lake Easton.

The John Wayne Pioneer Trail follows the path of the old Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul-Pacific Railroad through the 1,613 acre Iron Horse State Park. The east end of the trail by the Columbia River is arid, featuring sagebrush covered scrublands.  Conversely, the west end of the trail is green, forested, and also has a much friendlier trail surface. So as we sat around a table, cocktails in hand, this was decided to be the location of our second annual four-day ride.

We packed up all of our gear for a multi-day, backcountry bikepacking trip, hopped in the car, and headed out for Lake Easton. We ditched the car there, loaded up our panniers and packs, and spent the next four days with some of the most beautiful scenery from Lake Easton to North Bend and back again.

Our first day was cool and overcast. We were full of energy and invigoration and so was the sky. We happily chatted along as we rode through mountain showers with rolling thunder above us. We passed many cyclists headed east as part of a three-day race. So many unzipped cycling jerseys and muscular arms… but I digress. We could see already why this end of the trail was used much more. The trail surface was mostly hard packed earth with some gravel over it- a much easier ride than the deep, large gravel of the trail bed on the East end. We stopped under tree cover to munch on energy bars, and later explored a graveyard of beautifully smoothed driftwood along the Yakima River.

Campsite at Cold Creek

Campsite at Cold Creek.

We ended our first day at Cold Creek, across the trail from Keechelus Lake. We settled into a small backcountry camping site, which included a vault toilet and smoothed out pads for tents. We unloaded our tent, sleeping pads, and dinner and made quick work of set-up and relaxing. There are a handful of these little backcountry camp sites along the trail, but no running water aside from creeks. Luckily, after water shortage trouble last year, we brought a Grayl purifier with us. It works easily, like a french press, and gave us unlimited access to water through the mountain creeks. It was a real life-saver!

After packing, breakfast and a cup of instant morning coffee, we dove into day two on the trail. Hyak is the next trailhead on the route, and we made a visit to the chairlifts at Snoqalmie summit, then took a few mile uphill detour to a lovely little business called Red Mountain Coffee. Their delicious pizza makes the extra uphill travel worth it! We continued on to Snoqualmie Tunnel, which is a big highlight of traveling this trail. The tunnel was built in 1912-1914 and is the nation’s longest tunnel open to nonmotorized traffic. It’s always a thrill to ride 2.3 miles through a mountain! After emerging on the other side, it was an easy 21 miles downhill to Rattlesnake Lake in North Bend. A quick dip on it’s rocky shores, a little food, and it was time to head back uphill to find a camp for the night. By this time in the trip we were sporting some sore backsides, although nothing like the previous year. The 10 miles back uphill were slow going and we were happy to reach Alice Creek as evening was setting in.

Dev, Jenny and Sara at the Snoqualmie Tunnel.

Dev, Jenny and Sara at the Snoqualmie Tunnel.

Day three started off with about another 10 miles uphill to be covered. Even though our legs were getting tired, we ended up making better time than we were expecting. Sometimes you are stronger than you think! We took a break to play around at the West entrance of Snoqualmie Tunnel before heading back through the mountain again. The scenery all around us was breathtaking. Rugged mountains, glistening waterfalls, and fields full of fireweed. On the other side of the tunnel, we stopped at the Hyak trailhead to recharge phones, as this is the one place with running water and electricity in the area we covered. We wrapped up the day of riding and ended back at Cold Creek, which turned out to be our favorite gem of the trail. We sprawled our gear out, bathed in the creek, and dubbed our plot ‘Camp Condo’. It was a little slice of heaven.

We were all a bit sad to leave Cold Creek on our final day. Taking a shower and eating real food sounded great, but our trip had been an escape. An adventure of fantasy and discovery of self and strength. We weren’t quite ready for that to end just yet. We set out for the last 16 miles of our route. It was a beautiful day as we crossed trestles and looked out over spectacular valley vistas. It was a quiet ride as we all pedaled along, immersed in our own thoughts. We reached our car, did a little celebration dance, and packed everything away in the trunk. We made a stop in Cle Elum and stuffed our faces with food, then headed back to responsibilities, families, and society.

Even though it was only four days away from civilized, day-to-day life, it was a little hard to readjust. For a moment in time, we had nothing to worry about but our bikes, camp gear, and water. It was glorious. We have since decided to make this a twice yearly tradition, with as many day rides in between as we can. Everyone needs an adventure in life. Everyone needs an escape to the REAL world around us. We are lucky here in Washington State to be surrounded with access to so much beauty. Break out your bike and go explore it!

Ride, relax, repeat.

Check out the following links to some gear we couldn’t do without:

Water filtration-
Montague Folding bike-
Water boiling for food-
Trail map-

In our Washington state bike tour book: Escape from Seattle: Riding the John Wayne Trail: Bring your gravel bike for this one. Towns: Seattle, Issaquah, Fall City, North Bend, Easton, Cle Elum, Ellensburg.


This article was posted in Adventure, Guest Blogger, Trails, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow comments with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are closed.

One Comment

  1. john peck
    Posted September 11, 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    This adventure sounds far more enjoyable
    than my tour of the Olympic Discovery Trail
    under similar hot dry conditions.
    Wish I had chosen your route. The scenery
    wasn’t all that interesting along a lot
    of long, semi-rural hills.