Washington’s Iron Horse: Under and Over the Cascades

Posted 02/21/14 by Amy Brockhaus in America's Trails

Photos © Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust

This tribute-to-Washington blog takes us to the Cascade Mountains and the Iron Horse State Park rail-trail.  A special thank you to Amy Brockhaus, coalition director for theMountains to Sound Greenway Trust, for sharing how they're fighting to preserve this Evergreen treasure.

The John Wayne Pioneer Trail in Iron Horse State Park winds its way through theMountains to Sound Greenway as it travels more than 100 miles, from Rattlesnake Lake near North Bend, and heads east across Washington State. 

This rail-trail follows the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific rail line. Known as the Milwaukee Road, and completed in 1909, the railway through the Cascade Range was once billed as the longest electrified railroad in the country. 

Today, visitors can walk, bicycle, cross-country ski or ride a horse in this linear state park, enjoying the broad farmlands and ranches, rugged mountain views, unique tunnel passages and aerial views from historic railway trestles.

Historic Route Through the Cascades

During the construction of the railroad, builders had to contend with steep slopes, rock outcroppings and severe winter weather when designing a route over Snoqualmie Pass—the largest of the east-west mountain routes across the state—leaving a legacy of tunnels, trestles and snow sheds. While these historic structures create a wonderfully unique trail experience, their maintenance presents a challenge.

Tunnels in Disrepair, Leaving Critical Missing Link

cyclists-john-wayne-pioneer-trail-washington2.pngIn 2009, Washington State Parks conducted a safety review of falling-debris hazards in five tunnels along the Iron Horse. As a result, all five tunnels between Snoqualmie Pass and the city of Ellensburg were closed to the public. In 2011, after significant repair work, the popular 2.3-mile Snoqualmie Tunnel—one of the longest rail-trail tunnels in the nation—reopened at Snoqualmie Pass to public celebration. This created a resurgence of bicyclists in the area, who again can use the trail for recreation and travel through the Cascades. And then in 2013, State Parks repaired tunnels #48 and #49 near Easton.

However, tunnels #46 and #47 just west of Thorp still require significant repair, with the threat of long-term closure of a 15-mile stretch of trail between Thorp and South Cle Elum. This section of trail runs through the spectacular Yakima River Canyon and sweeping desert grasslands of Central Washington. 

A gap in the trail is a significant loss for people seeking recreation in Upper Kittitas County, and has a negative impact on the nearby communities and businesses that rely on tourism. State Parks has planned additional campsites east of Cle Elum to accommodate heavy recreation use, signifying the importance of improving the trail and solidifying its role as a major recreation asset in the area.

To preserve the cross-state trail in Iron Horse State Park, Mountains to Sound Greenway is advocating for a Washington State investment to repair and reopen the two historic tunnels—thereby preserving a magnificent recreation legacy for the future. 

Learn more about the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust.

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