When we heard that our friend Jason from Swift Industries was planning a little weekend bike touring / fly fishing extravaganza for the 4th of July AND that we would be riding a portion of the Iron Horse Trail, we couldn’t say no. We have been eyeing the Iron Horse Trail for quite some time because it looked like an intriguing gravel ride and because it seemed to have good bike tourism bones. Surprisingly, for a trail of its length, proximity to Seattle and general potential for awesomeness, there is very little information about it. There are some odd trip reports here and there, but nothing with photos that really give you a flavor of the trail.

We boarded the BOLT bus in Portland. For those that don’t know, the Bolt is a generally less sketchy Greyhound (though it operates The Hound umbrella). The coaches are newer, have WiFi and MOST importantly aren’t jerks about taking bikes. Interestingly, the buses don’t have racks but instead allow you to place them in the luggage area UNBOXED. For us, this illustrates that accommodating bikes is more about attitude/policy than hardware. We’ve taken the Bolt bus where they have accommodated upto 6 bikes sans bike rack. Also interesting to note was that the bus was full of Gen X/Y riders. Our generation may not be into owning cars, but it doesn’t mean we don’t like to travel. It just means we will travel to places that are easy to get around without driving.

After taking the bus to Seattle, we all gathered the next morning and got a lift from Steve, who actually wrote his graduate thesis on the Iron Horse Trail and is active in mapping and advocating for the trail. It was great to hear his insight about the potential and challenges of the trail.

We started riding at the trailhead at Rattlesnake Lake (about 43 miles from Seattle). The trail is unpaved gravel which is very rideable but is more enjoyable with some fat rubber. I was riding my new Surly Ogre with 2.3 inch tires and Laura was riding her monstercrossed Vaya with 45mm Vee Rubber tires. There was no tire skinnier than 35mm on the ride.

From Rattlesnake Lake we rode East on the trail, which is generally trending uphill. It climbs at a railroad grade, so it was pretty mellow, even with a load. There were short stretches of loose gravel and some pot holes to negotiate, but for the most part the riding was easy and freed us up to talk with each other and enjoy the scenery.

One remarkable thing about the Iron Horse is that it has some beautiful “backcountry” campsites just off the trail, with pit toilets. They were tastefully done and placed in some nice locations (the complete opposite of many hiker/biker sites around the country). One particularly striking site was perched next to a small waterfall and creek, tucked beneath some lush trees. We decided to take a break there for brunch. As luck would have it, another cyclist was also stopped, with a BOB trailer. He was actually providing support for a group of riders and wanted to ditch some of his load, so he gave us a sixer of Pabst, some V8 and muffins : )

As you ride you’ll be flanked by salmonberry bushes, which we of course took a few minutes to sample. You’ll also ride over trestles and pass some cliff faces that are popular with climbers.

The other big highlight is the Snoqualamie Pass Tunnel, a 2.5-mile tunnel that bores right through the mountain. It is the longest tunnel open to non-motorized travel in the US. The sensation of traveling through a tunnel that long was a little unnerving but fun at the same time. The other end appears as a tiny pinprick of light in the distance that seems to grow larger at a glacial pace. Be sure to bring good lights and a windbreaker. On our return trip, the temperature outside the tunnel was a pleasant 75 degrees and inside was a breezy 45.

Just after the tunnel is the Hyak stop, which has a small building with restroom facilities with flush toilets, sinks and running water. There were also showers there, though they seem to have been shut off. At Hyak we had a break for lunch.

Soon after the trail crossed the Yakima river, we left the Iron Horse and headed for Lake Easton to find a convenience store to load up on more snacks. After the minimart, we made our way to our final destination, Lake Kachess. Through some navigational errors, we found ourselves on a pretty rough forest service road. Gone was the relatively relaxed Iron Horse Trail, replaced with fist-sized rocks and ponds that crossed the entire “road.” The going was slow but the climbing and obstacles made for a more exciting ride and was a good test of both my new Ogre and the Vee Rubber tires Laura was using on her Vaya. Both performed admirably.

After an hour or two on the forest service road, we strangely emerged into a housing development, which was rather disconcerting after feeling like we were in the middle of nowhere a few minutes before. From that point, we were back on pavement and made our way to the official campground on Lake Kachess. Although it was mid-week, it was also the 4th of July so the campground was a little fuller than it would have been otherwise but it still wasn’t too bad. We found a rather large site and pitched our tents and made dinner at the day use area by the waterfront.

The next morning, we left base camp, carrying snacks and fishing gear. The plan was to pedal a few miles up a gravel road and fish Box Canyon Creek. We passed some promising spots early on, but they were already filled with cars and other campers. We pushed on and finally found one wilderness campsite by the river that provided both shade and beautiful scenery for the non-fishers and some promising little runs for the fishermen.

I eyed a promising little run and strung up my Tenkara rod and got into the water. Instead of waders, I use neoprene booties and my Keen sandals. They give me just enough insulation to stand in the cold water. After about 10 minutes I hooked up with a fish in some really skinny improbable looking water. It was a beautiful fat 8 inch trout that got off before I could handle it. It was an auspicious start, but the rest of the day was a little slow fishing-wise. I caught two other small ones, but that was it for the rest of the day.

The next morning we got up early and took a more civilized paved path back to the Iron Horse Trail and essentially rode the route in reverse back to Rattlesnake Lake. From there, we parted ways with a few riders. The remaining group rode to Issaquah where we thought we could take our bikes back on the SoundTransit bus back to Seattle (cutting out 18 miles of urban riding), but we were turned away.

The driver pointed to my front rack and said “No bikes with baskets are allowed.” Admittedly, my 29er was having a tough time fitting on the front rack. I completely deflated the tire to try to get the hook to slide over more securely but had no luck. All the while, the driver was no help whatsoever. I asked if we could take the bikes on board since the bus was pretty empty, but he said no.

With that, we were left with no other option but to ride back, rounding off the day at just under 80 miles from Lake Kachess to Seattle. Fortunately we were all feeling pretty good and had it in our legs to do the mileage. But it seemed like such a disappointment that what could have been a convenient multi-modal connection was a non-option due to inadequate front racks and a none-too-helpful bus driver. Oh well.

We rode only a portion of the Iron Horse Trail and really enjoyed it and look forward to exploring it more in the future. The section we rode was pretty tame riding (perfect for families or a S24O) but we hear it gets rougher the further east you go (downed bridges, crossing a military base, signing waivers to ride through tunnels, etc.,). But we’ll save that part for a future adventure.

One thought that really stood out in our mind is how great a resource is the Iron Horse Trail. Our return trip was on a Saturday and we saw lots of day riders and climbers using the trail. Despite that, we felt that it could be even MORE popular. Being just a visitor and not privy to the politics of the trail, I was surprised at the lack of marketing behind the Iron Horse. It really could be an awesome bike destination, if only people knew about it and if the local communities seemed more connected to it. In the end, the riding was great, the fishing could have been better, but it was still a fine way to celebrate the 4th of July.

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