Side-by-side as close as close as lovers, Centennial Trail State Park and the Spokane River run together for nearly 40 miles through eastern Washington, offering both a city and country experience.
"The trail runs along the river and is just beautiful," says Steve Worley, who runs on the paved pathway each day before heading to his job as Spokane Valley's public works engineer. "I love it best early in the morning in winter when the moonlight shimmers off the water. It's a 'wow' moment."
Stoically, wildly, beguilingly, the river is there from the trail's beginning in Nine Mile Falls, east through Spokane and Spokane Valley, to the Washington/Idaho border, where it seamlessly connects with the 24-mile North Idaho Centennial Trail.
This steadfast partnership is symbolic of the spirit of collaboration that made the trail a reality. In a time when Democrats and Republicans seem to have retreated to separate corners, with fists up and eyes blazing, it's refreshing to reflect on a project like this whose story is one of unabashed cooperation.
Spearheading the effort in the political sphere was U.S. Congressman Thomas S. Foley, Spokane's hometown hero whose large personality matched his six-foot, four-inch frame. Len Zickler, who played a lead role in executing the trail's master plan, says, "Tom Foley was able to secure nearly $8 million [in federal funding] for the trail. That was unheard of." Foley worked hand-in-hand on the effort with Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who wished to secure federal funding for the connecting trail in Idaho.
Photo by Jon Jonckers
In 1987, in a letter to the newly formed Centennial Trail Steering Committee, Foley wrote, "I am delighted in the way this project is bringing citizens together from both the great states of Washington and Idaho. I am encouraged at the broad-based, bipartisan support that has developed on all levels of the government: federal, state, county and local."
The trail committee, a handful of local citizens from all walks of life, appreciated the support for the daunting task ahead of them. "The Centennial Trail was a community-born idea and the community loves it," says Audra Sims, a park ranger with Washington State Parks, the managing agency for the trail. "It's a recreational opportunity, a commuting corridor and an economic driver for the region."
Zickler points out, "Spokane is not like Seattle. We have a population of close to 500,000. To have more than 2 million people using the trail each year—that's remarkable. Many are using the trail to commute, not just as a recreational amenity. That's an important legacy. We should climb to a mountain and shout this to other communities. Who would have thought a facility like this would have such a tremendous benefit beyond just recreational use?"
The Spokane River provides picturesque views and serene settings for trail users to enjoy.
Photo by Ben Tobin of Visit Spokane
Foley, a Democrat, represented the state's fifth district for 30 years and rose to Speaker of the House in 1989. It was a momentous year for the trail as well; that fall, newly elected President George H.W. Bush paid a visit. To the ripple of small American flags handed out to the crowd of 20,000, and the enthusiastic music of high school and college bands, Foley and Bush unveiled a plaque for the first phase of the Centennial Trail named for this very occasion, the state's 100th birthday.
"Washington State is very lucky to have a great friend like Tom Foley in the nation's capital," said Bush to a great roar of approval from the crowd. "He's a man I'm very proud and honored to work with."
The setting was Spokane's Riverfront Park, which itself is celebrating 40 years this May. The site, once a tangle of railroad tracks and warehouses that blocked public access to the river, was revitalized for the 1974 World's Fair. The event transformed an industrial eyesore of smog and grit into an eyeful of spectacular sights and activities.
"After the World Fair, the fairgrounds were converted into this wonderful downtown park," says Zickler, who recently became board president of the Friends of the Centennial Trail. "And the Centennial Trail winds right through the middle."
Rising 155 feet above the park, a remnant of its rail history remains. The impressive brick clock tower, dating back to 1902, was once part of the Great Northern Railroad Depot, which was torn down during preparations for Expo '74.
"When I was a kid, our downtown was characterized by the railroad," says Zickler. "There were huge switching yards in the middle of downtown Spokane. In the central core, the Centennial Trail follows the railroad corridor from downtown for a couple of miles. In fact, the first trail bridge, as you leave downtown and head into the Gonzaga University campus, is an old railroad bridge."
The unique teal-tipped A-framed structure, once a route for the Burlington Northern line, is now called the Don Kardong Bridge after one of the early advocates for the trail. Kardong, a former Olympian marathon runner and longtime Spokane resident, founded the Lilac Bloomsday Run, one of the largest annual races in the country, attracting more than 50,000 to the city each May.
Thousands attend events on the trail each year, including Spokefest, pictured here.
Photo by Ben Tobin of Visit Spokane
A few paces from the clock tower lie two other sights not typically found trailside. With its hand-carved and beautifully painted wooden horses and Chinese dragons, the turn-of-the-century Looff Carrousel is one of the city's most popular attractions. Next door, another unusual experience can be had on the Spokane Falls SkyRide. Highlighted in a list of world-class gondola rides by Conde Nast Traveler just last year, the cable car offers panoramic views over a series of rushing waterfalls.
Winding from Riverfront Park east to the state line, the trail's first phase of 21 miles opened in 1990. Construction on the second phase—from the park west to Riverside State Park—immediately followed and was completed in 1992. Although 37.5 miles of the trail are now in use, a few short sections still need work.
"After 22 years, there are still some gaps," says Loreen McFaul, executive director of Friends of the Centennial Trail. "But exciting things are happening."
About half a dozen of these short gaps are outlined on the group's website, the longest of which is a nearly two-mile extension from the trail's western end in Nine Mile Falls up to the lakeshore in the Nine Mile Recreation Area. Construction is expected to start this June and take a year to complete.
Bicyclists enjoying Riverside State Park.
Photo by Ben Tobin of Visit Spokane
On this western end, about 10 miles of the trail runs through the wild, wooded beauty of Riverside State Park, Washington's second-largest state park. Almost every type of outdoor recreation imaginable happens here. In ranking Spokane as one of the "Best Towns 2013," Outside magazine cited both Riverside State Park and the Centennial Trail as reasons. For the adventurous, the terrain offers some steeper climbs for a more challenging ride than the rest of the trail. And it's here that equestrians will feel at home. Horseback riders are permitted on the Centennial Trail within the park, and other natural trails for riding are easily accessible from the main trail.
Another gap, through Kendall Yards, was closed just this past September. The site, once a railroad yard, is being re-envisioned as a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use community by Greenstone, a local developer. With spectacular views of the Spokane River Gorge, the new section fits well with the rest of the scenic trail experience.
Most promisingly, the trail's bipartisan support continues after almost two decades. In a press release announcing the opening of the Kendall Yards segment, Spokane Mayor David Condon, who ran for office on a non-partisan platform, stated, "Downtown is just a short, beautiful walk away along the picturesque Spokane River. This is another example of a partnership delivering a great community asset." Earlier in 2013, during a tribute to Foley, Condon also praised the work of the legendary Congressman on establishing the trail, and, in 2012, Condon declared the week of Sept. 9 as "Centennial Trail Week" in honor of the trail's 20th anniversary.
But these positive political partnerships are not the only unexpected collaborations brought together by the Centennial Trail. Innovative partnerships with businesses have also moved the project forward and lowered its development costs. Greenstone, who built the trail piece through Kendall Yards, is a recent example, but perhaps the most significant one was a land swap made between Inland Empire Paper Company (IEP) and Washington State Parks in 1987. In exchange for giving up company-owned riverfront property needed for the trail, IEP received a section of park-owned timberland.
Trail users enjoying a wooded section of the Centennial Trail.
Photo by Jon Jonckers
"Inland Paper was a timber company that also produced paper products for local newspapers," says Zickler. "In the early 1900s, they purchased all the land along the river east of town. They cut the trees in the forest and floated the logs down the river to the paper mill in Millwood. By the 1980s, they were no longer doing that, but they still owned that land. When Inland Paper made the land trade, all of a sudden we had most of the land needed for the trail and it was basically free."
Another opportunity came in 1989. In return for being allowed to lay fiber-optic communications cable under the trail, AT&T paid for the clearing and grading of the first phase of the trail. All this effort from so many diverse sources has resulted in a trail that Washington State Parks estimates adds $30 million to the region's economy each year.
"People seek us out for vacation information from all over the country and Canada," says McFaul. With the trail being such a tourism driver, Friends of the Centennial Trail is planning to add a new trip planning feature on their website this April.
"We're trying to create an easy way for visitors to learn about the trail, and some of the amenities and attractions along its length," says Zickler. "The trail is a wonderful way to access many special places in the community."
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