Olympic Discovery Trail, Washington

Posted 05/01/12 by Mark Cheater in America's Trails

Trail of the Month: May 2012

Thanks to the huge popularity of the Twilight saga books and movies, millions of people around the world now associate the northern part of Washington's Olympic Peninsula with vampires and werewolves. 

Although the novels are set in real locations on the peninsula, you won't find any of Twilight's gothic drama if you journey there. What you will find, however, is plenty of natural drama—snow-capped mountains, verdant rainforests, rocky coasts, pristine lakes—and a rail-trail running through it. 

"Our greatest asset is our natural setting—it's just drop-dead gorgeous," says Andrew Stevenson, co-leader of the Peninsula Trails Coalition (PTC), a volunteer group that coordinates efforts on the Olympic Discovery Trail. "Our trail takes full advantage of that and provides some first-class aesthetic experiences."
The route of the Olympic Discovery Trail stretches 126 miles across the northern edge of the peninsula, from Port Townsend in the east to La Push on the Pacific Ocean. The trail itself is a work in progress, with large gaps that must be bridged by on-street riding. But the scenic splendors of this area, together with its compelling stories (both fictional and historical), make this path unusually noteworthy.

Originally inhabited by the Klallam, Makah and Quileute peoples (the latter of whom figure prominently in the Twilight series), the remote Olympic peninsula began attracting large numbers of white settlers in the latter decades of the 19th century. Many of these new residents were drawn by the towering stands of cedar, fir, hemlock and spruce trees blanketing the landscape—and logging quickly became the area's major industry. Rail lines were built to move timber from forest land to mills and ports on the northern coast. The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad took over these lines, and rail service continued for several decades—decades that saw the establishment of Olympic National Park and the growth of tourism to the area, among other changes. 

As the railroad declined and tracks were left idle in the late 1980s, the concept of a rail-trail traversing the peninsula was born, along with PTC. According to Stevenson, the group failed in its initial attempts to secure the entire railroad corridor, and control of the right-of-way was split among various owners, including both individuals and government entities. PTC has spent the past two decades trying to put the pieces back together and create a continuous trail.

"Where we can, we're reusing the old railroad grade, and where we can't, we bypass it," says Stevenson. "About 60 miles are completely done or on a long-term interim route—primarily lightly traveled secondary roads. Our vision is to make the whole length a classic shared-use path, with both a paved section for cyclists and pedestrians and a gravel shoulder for equestrians."

Stevenson says he's confident the trail will be 80 percent complete within the next decade, but he points out that the group faces many challenges. One is that right-of-way acquisition is only on a "willing seller" basis—property condemnation is not part of the process. 

Another difficulty is working with the 10 different government agencies—from federal to local to tribal—that have authority over different parts of the trail. That challenge was brought into stark relief last fall when the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages land on the proposed route of the trail around Discovery Bay, told PTC the route must be changed to accommodate environmental work planned for that property. As a result, with short notice PTC had to raise $45,000 to pay for the design of a 2,000-foot section of trail to circumvent a sensitive wetland area. 

Since failure to meet the fundraising goal would have meant a permanent gap in that part of the trail, the group scrambled to get the word out. Thanks to the generous support of its 500-plus members, volunteers, and others who care about the trail, PTC raised the money ahead of schedule. But Stevenson points out that the design plan is just the first step for this segment of the trail. "It was a major success, but we're not finished—we don't have the funding for construction."

An additional challenge the group faces is drawing larger numbers of users from outside the area. Most people who use the path currently are residents of larger towns on the route, such as Port Angeles and Sequim, who are out for a stroll or riding to work, Stevenson says. "We're still trying to crack the nut of getting recognition as a destination trail," he says. Because out-of-town users spend significant amounts of money on food, lodging and other goods and services, "we know that that's our future and what we need to do."

With all of the drama on display, and tens of thousands of Twilight fans flocking to the area, it seems likely that the Olympic Discovery Trail will soon be a destination to howl over.


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