Sunday, August 7, 2016

Summer Adventure: Mountain Biking the Desert

Have you ever wondered what the Iron Horse trail looks like once you get past Easton?  I sure have, so I was happy to get a report from Elizabeth about her and Jim's mountain biking adventure on the other side of the pass.  All the details are below; thanks for sharing, Elizabeth!

Mountain bikes on the John Wayne Trail: Renslow to Beverly

On Sunday, July 24, Jim and I explored the John Wayne Trail from east of Kittitas to near the Columbia River. This section of the John Wayne Trail runs through the Yakima Training Center. People are permitted to use the trail, but they must stay on it and not wander into the military reservation. For those concerned about the proximity of the Training Center, the artillery impact area is well south of the John Wayne Trail, so there’s no need to worry.

This railroad grade was built in the early 1900s. Thousands of cubic yards of rock and sand were moved to dig out the cuts and tunnel and to fill in the ravines for a level surface. The remains of electric power stanchions used to power the trains are still evident along the route.

We started the ride at 8:00 a.m. from a trailhead about 10 miles east of Ellensburg, near the intersection of Boylston Road and Stevens Road. There’s a parking lot equipped with a vault toilet but no source of water. West of this point is the Renslow trestle—currently closed—that passes over Interstate 90. There are ways around the trestle, but the Stevens Road trailhead is a practical starting point for this leg of the John Wayne Trail.

From the parking lot, we rode up a gravel road past a “no vehicles permitted” sign to reach the trail. From this point to the entrance of the Boylston tunnel, a distance of approximately four miles, the trail was soft, which would make excellent going for horses, but more difficult for our mountain bikes. It was also a gentle uphill—easy if the trail were firm, but challenging in the deep sand. As we neared the west portal of the tunnel, we saw that the approach was marred by many rocks and boulders fallen from the surrounding basalt formation. These caused me some anxiety as I looked up at the rocks still beetling above, wondering when the next one would fall. I was glad to enter the tunnel, which seemed safer than the trail just outside.

The tunnel was cool but not cold, and water trickled down on us from only one place. It’s 2000 feet long, so a good light is necessary, especially near the middle of the tunnel, where we encountered rocks again. Not wanting to be there when another rock fell, we scooted through the rocky area as quickly as possible and found the trail clear again near the tunnel’s east portal. After exiting the tunnel, however, basalt rocks again littered the trail. Next we encountered a wet area—the only water we saw on or near the trail that day—that fostered growth of a stand of willows. We dismounted and pushed our bikes through the thicket, and walked through wet sand and mud.

From the tunnel, the trail meanders through hilly, dry country. It alternately crosses ravines on elevated fills and cuts through hills containing bones of basalt. Otherwise, the trail is smooth and bare, trending gradually downhill, with vistas that go for miles. The trail is firmer than west of the tunnel, but there are places where soft, coarse sand made the going difficult again. Riders should watch for these places—the sand is grayer than the surrounding landscape, so it’s easy to spot. We had the trail entirely to ourselves: not another soul was riding it that day. West of the Boylston tunnel we saw tracks of horses and two sets of bicycle tire tracks. East of the tunnel, the hoof prints disappeared but the tire tracks continued all the way to where we left the trail.

The basalt cuts were both a gift and a menace. They offered a chance for a close look at columnar basalt, and among the solid, dense basalt formations were deposits of browner, crumbly rock that hosted nodules of what we think is chert in hues of white, caramel, green, and yellow. Bits of the chert rock—some the size of my thumb, some the size of my head—lay on the trail, and we could see nodules still embedded in the deposits. 

But everywhere through these areas, rocks and boulders littered the trail, and near the Cheviot waypoint I had a run-in with one of them. I failed to adequately dodge one and went down hard on the sharp rocks, cutting my right knee and shin in multiple places and raising a big contusion.

Though my enjoyment of the ride was compromised, we continued on because we couldn’t leave the trail; we were about halfway along the route, and we had arranged for Jim’s dad to pick us up at the end. We walked the bikes through the basalt cuts to avoid any further falls. I enjoyed the long views and the stark barrenness of the place. We saw little wildlife: a few birds that flew past too quickly for us to identify and a single mammal, a squirrel of some kind, inside the east end of the Boylston tunnel and making haste for its burrow. Perhaps the heat and the sun had driven the wildlife to shelter.

Just past the Doris waypoint, we had a view of the Wanapum Dam. Even the sight of water offered relief after hours of scorched landscape. 

Past the Huntzinger Road, the trail continues a short distance to the river in even poorer shape than the 25 miles we had just ridden.The Beverly trestle across the river is closed. So at that point, Jim called his dad to come collect us, and we pedaled on the Huntzinger Road toward Vantage. We met him just as Vantage came into view, and pulled off to load the bikes onto the car.

I would like to recommend this ride to others because of the harsh beauty of the hills and ravines, but I hesitate to do so because of the condition of the trail. If the rocks could be cleared and the soft areas made firmer, I would recommend it, but not in 90-degree heat. Save it for spring or fall. Washington State Parks Department has devoted a web page to plans for the John Wayne Trail here: It may be valuable for us to add our voices in support of the trail completion and offer some volunteer hours for maintenance. There’s also a citizen group trying to raise awareness and money to help protect the trail. Here’s their website: 

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