Walking the John Wayne Pioneer Trail
Day 2: Alice Creek to Cold Creek (~14 miles)
I got an early start on my second day of walking the John Wayne Pioneer Trail. My original plan was to overnight at Carter Creek – a pleasantly secluded camping area that sits deep in the thick woods down from the trail and right next to a gushing, rocky cascade. When I arrived at Carter Creek, I discovered that it was less than four miles from Alice Creek, and that I was still ready for a full day of walking. So I decided to press on and walk the additional 10 miles to the next camping area – Cold Creek – a spot just past Hyak.
The trail from Alice Creek to Cold Creek was shaded by the dense old forests that pushed ever closer to the grey edges of the former rail bed. As we pressed higher into the mountains, ever so slowly reaching towards the tree line, the peaks of the cascades emerged into view. Jagged, rocky peaks atop tree-gowned hillsides struck into the blue sky and plunged into the dark valley below. It was shortly before noon that we reached the tunnel.
“The Tunnel” – everyone talks about “The Tunnel” the cyclists riding westward talked about it, those not continuing to the top even talked about it. The Tunnel is a destination and a landmark and an experience all to itself. Even with all of the talk I wasn’t prepared. I knew it was long, but I didn’t know how long. Bonnie and I started through the tunnel. I was impressed at how brave my sometimes timid pup was. She walked onward without hesitation, deeper and deeper into the thick blackness, being careful to remain within the beam of my head lamp. My pace quickened as we plunged deeper into the darkness. The wings of a thousand moths glinted silver as they danced in the light of my head lamp, and the temperature of the tunnel dropped, making me shiver in the darkness.
Do you know that expression “light at the end of the tunnel?” It’s an expression that implies seeing the faint glimmer of light at the end is enough to provide motivating hope. The two longest tunnels I’ve ever been in had the opposite effect on me. When at last I could see the light at the other end – still impossibly distant, I no longer cared. ‘let it be dark,’ my soul seemed to tell me – ‘let it be dark, and I’ll walk on forever.’
When I dared to lift my head and gaze at my surroundings, the arched concrete roof seemed to stretch upward into the heart of the mountain and for a moment, time stood still even though my feet kept moving: step, step, step, step…in a darkness that seemed to go on forever. Even at a brisk pace it took me over 45 minutes to travel through the two and a half mile tunnel.
Hyak, Lake Keechelus, and Cold Creek
The first thing I noticed when I reached the other side of the tunnel was the smell. That distinct odor of baked dirt and pine needles mingled with the aroma of the trees themselves is the odor of countless childhood summers spent in the woods in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains.
There really isn’t much at Hyak – just a huge parking lot, a set of unisex restrooms, and some very exposed picnic tables. When I finally reached the parking I was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. I scrounged two quarters for a warm shower (there are pay showers at Hyak!) , took advantage of the electricity to charge my phone, and took an hour to rest in the shade of the restrooms.
It was mid afternoon before I continued down the trail to Cold Creek. The trees offered little protection from the sun and I could feel my skin baking under the intense glare. I wished I’d packed sunscreen. Lake Keechelus appeared to my left like something out of a fantasy film. Edged by a sea of enormous tree stumps – magnificent trees cut off at the base leaving their legacy exposed on the muddy shores of the lake. This feature is usually submerged, Lake Keechelus is not a natural lake, but a reservoir and the Pacific Northwest is in the midst of an extreme drought. So the water levels in all reservoirs are low right now. Nevertheless, the sight of the-forest-that-once-was is simultaneously beautiful and ghastly.
The Cold Creek Campground was a clean and spacious site with six tent pads arranged in clusters of three. The most attractive feature of this site was the good trail leading down to the nearby creek where water can be had without scramble, climb, or perch.
A long day’s walk over I set up camp, collected water and settled in for a perfect evening in the woods.