Trail of the Month: November 2007
Washington's Klickitat Trail
A wrong step on the 31-mile Klickitat Trail in southern Washington used to be a prickly affair. Whether you winced on giant "goathead" sandspurs that land-mined the trail or crossed a handful of unwelcoming local landowners, early visitors to this rustic rail-trail along the Klickitat River found the going a little rough. A student once got arrested simply for cycling on the trail, and one resident famously threatened trail-goers with a shotgun several years ago.
But a group of friends and trail advocates who began hiking the stunningly wild Klickitat in 2002 finally holstered the opposition in its neighboring communities of Lyle and Klickitat, and the slow progression toward trail-hood began.
This fall those persevering trail supporters, who eventually formed the all-volunteer Klickitat Trail Conservancy (KTC), celebrated the corridor's five-year anniversary. As a community outreach group, it took them a while to allay local concerns over property rights. Now they're thrilled that their hard-won rail-trail has outgrown its turbulent infancy.
"It's just a great example of these kind of projects being controversial at first, and then the communities start to recognize the benefits," says Kevin Gorman, executive director of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge. His organization has lobbied for the trail with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy since the 1990s. The legal friction could easily have eroded support for the project, yet he credits the KTC with rallying the local communities behind the trail.
Just as importantly, the KTC negotiated a volunteer agreement to help co-develop the rail-trail with Washington State Parks, who owns the corridor, and the Forest Service, who manages the eastern 16 miles. "If [the KTC] had not been created," Gorman says, "those agencies would never have come together. It's been a wonderful success story." This partnership has since expedited improvements to the trail's primitive grass-and-dirt track, including two new sections of fine, packed gravel that the Forest Service recently laid. For what has been an unusually secretive and protected pathway, this progress in structure and community relations promises, quite literally, a gentler road ahead.
Then again, that rough-and-tumble history frankly suits the Klickitat, where it takes only a few steps on the trail—careful ones, of course, to avoid those tire-puncturing goatheads—to appreciate its gritty, unsaddled personality.
Beginning in Warwick, Wash., on the prairie flatlands of the Goldendale Plateau, the Klickitat gently cuts through the crook of Swale Canyon, whose steep, bristly walls and gnarled brush look like something over which Thelma and Louise might have gunned their convertible. This remote stretch leads to the town of Klickitat and is the most popular for mountain bicyclists, says Cheryl Steindorf, KTC president.
From there the trailside ecology and landscape change dramatically. The route moves through a transition zone from high desert to eastern forest; from shrubbery below your waist to great ponderosa pines and oaks along the river hills and into the Cascades, where Mt. Hood owns the southern horizon. These final 16 miles follow the Klickitat River until it feeds into the Columbia River at Lyle. Lewis and Clark passed the mouth of the Klickitat in 1805, and very little development has altered the region since then. Curling unbothered though deep-cut gorges like a shoelace on a map, the Klickitat remains one of the longest undammed rivers in the northwest—and one of only three nationally recognized Wild and Scenic Rivers in Washington.
About the only tame aspect of the trail, in fact, is the weather. In the rain shadow of the Cascades, the Klickitat enjoys a fairly mild climate and 300 days of sunshine a year. Pines offset the dusty-brown grass like badges on a park ranger's uniform nearly year-round—except when sheets of snowfall make Swale Canyon even more beautifully stark and imposing. Trail users and wildlife alike can therefore make ample use of the riverside. And birds, in particular, have found special refuge along the Klickitat.
Gorman loves the winter in January and February when bald eagles congregate near the mouth of the Klickitat River. When the trees have dropped the last of their leaves, these hulking eagles look like giant ornaments clipped to bare branches. Steindorf has a more personal tie to the three-mile Wahkiacus stretch, roughly near the midpoint of the trail. Her great-grandparents homesteaded there, and the river and surrounding hills—prime for fall foliage—haven't lost their mystery or lonesome quiet. Except, that is, for all the beating wings in an abandoned dry ice plant, whose brick chimney has served as a bird sanctuary for the past few decades, she says.
Gorman and Steindorf and all the trail's supporters gush over their favorite views and sections of the route. But what most excites them is that, after years of delicate negotiations, they have the trail at all. The pay-off has so much potential for everyone connected to the rail-trail, which has helped open one of the most untraveled and unchanged river corridors in the country. So pack a good pair of boots and a tire repair kit, and go explore the hard-swooning gorges and brambled brush that make the Klickitat such a uniquely wild experience.
For more information, user reviews and descriptions of the trail, please visit TrailLink.com.