Walking the John Wayne Pioneer Trail
Day 1: Rattlesnake Lake to Alice Creek (10.5 Miles)
I struggled to lift my pack out of my friend’s car in the Cedar Falls Parking Lot near Rattlesnake Lake. I don’t remember my little 50 liter Vaude pack ever being quite as heavy as this. I guessed that carrying everything required for 5 nights of camping plus enough water to get you through a day of hiking adds weight pretty quickly. It doesn’t help that it’s been nearly a year since the last time I did something like this. Then again, the last time I did something like this, I was walking around a lake and was less concerned about water sources. I said goodbye to my friend and re-confirmed the pick-up time and place at Easton. Then I hooked my dog (Bonnie)’s leash to my hip-strap and started up the gravely trail.
The John Wayne Pioneer Trail is 100 miles of trail built on the railway bed of the “Milwaukee Road” railway line. It is part of the Rails to Trails initiative that transforms unused rail beds into multi-use recreational trails. This trail is one of the longest in the United States and stretches from Twin Falls – near Rattlesnake lake – eastward across the Cascade mountains to the Columbia River in Central Washington. The forests along the trail are protected by the Iron Horse State Park, a green belt that follows the trail.
The information I found on the state’s official website (parks.wa.gov) was just enough to get me started, but nowhere near enough for planning or comfort. Camping areas were loosely positioned on the map and distances were only given between trail-heads, not camping areas. Only some of the streams and water sources were marked and there was no information at all about nearby amenities. This lack of information was why my pack was so heavy – when you don’t know what you will find, you plan for the worst.
As I started up the trail, I soon discovered that it was really more of a road than a trail. The wide, lightly gravelled path climbed almost imperceptibly into the mountains high above the roar of traffic on I-90.
I crossed several trestles. Some were majestic steel structures that curved across deep gorges cut into the mountains by gushing creeks – invisible but audible beneath the forest canopy far below. Others were barely noticeable as they spanned tiny brooks that tumbled down the mountainside. The dense, evergreen forests of the Western Cascades shaded most of the trail.
For the most part, I had the trail to myself. At the Twin Falls trail-head, I met a young woman and her mother out for a short day hike to the falls. Further up the trail, I met a trio of cyclists – a grand-daughter and her grand parents. They were on a month-long ride from Vashon Island (near Tacoma) to Boulder, Colorado. They moved at the leisurely pace of the traveler who has a long way yet to go. I passed groups of rock-climbing day-campers and paused to watch the little tykes with their climbing guides scaling the cliff faces of the popular “Deception Crags” the Exit 38 climbing spots (more information about that here).
A place beyond desperation…
The day wore on and I began to grow weary. My pack was much heavier than I wanted and I had no idea how far the first campground was. The map made it look like it it was somewhere near the 7 mile mark, but as I passed 7.5 miles and then 8, I began to pray that it wouldn’t be too much further than 10 miles. I checked the GPS tracker on my phone at 10 miles and began to feel desperate. My back, shoulders, and legs ached and I wasn’t sure how much further I could go. Still, I walked. After all, I didn’t have much choice. About a quarter of a mile further down the trail I came to a trestle that crossed Alice Creek and I knew I must be close.
“Please let it be close, please let it be close,” I prayed to the gods of the mountain as I coaxed each additional step from my aching feet. Then I saw it. Just beyond the trestle at Alice Creek the roof of the pit toilet gleamed above the treetops that dipped sharply into the Alice Creek ravine. I willed myself onward with the hope that little gleaming roof provided. When I reached the little collection of tent pads that line the trail at the Alice Creek Camp sight I dropped my pack on a picnic table and sat down, exhausted.
A Quest for Water
Even through my exhaustion, I knew that my first concern was water. The Alice Creek Ravine was pretty deep and I didn’t see an obvious trail when I crossed the trestle. Some cyclists passed me and I asked if they’d passed any water sources on their way down the trail. They replied that they hadn’t. So I figured Alice Creek was my best bet.
After setting up camp, I walked back to Alice Creek. Hidden well away from the trestle, I spotted the start to a trail that cut down into the steep ravine. It led all the way to the creek-side where I could filter some water.
Water: Carry 2 liters and a purification device. Several tiny brooks cascade down the mountains and cross under the trail. These all allow good access to water for filtration, so carry only enough to last a few hours.
Cooking: The campsites along the trail are “back-country” sites – meaning pit toilets. There is no running water, and no fire-pits (camp stoves only). If you hope to enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning or a hot meal, make sure you pack your camp stove.
Fees: You need a Discover Pass for parking (you can get a day pass at the parking lots) and camping in the back-country sites is $5.00 per night payable by cash or check. The payment method is honor system/drop-box, so be sure to carry exact change.
John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders Association plans annual rides (horseback and by wagon) across the state of Washington.
The National Recreation Trails website gives details about trail access and the permitted activities and fees along the way.
Washingtonclimbers.org has information about rock climbing along the trail