Bonding by Bike: A family ride on the Iron Horse Trail

Family riding bikes on a trail
A long, healthy ride on the Iron Horse Trail makes a great family vacation. Photo by Gene Bisbee

May 19, 2017

Finish this sentence: “The family that rides together

If you said: “has a great time,” “forms bonds,” or “gets excellent exercise and creates lifetime memories,” you’re pedaling up the right trail—especially if it’s the 
John Wayne Pioneer Trail within Iron Horse State Park!

As biking recreation goes, Iron Horse is a standout! Stretching 110 miles along the old Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul-Pacific Railroad line, it flows through a diverse landscape teeming with natural beauty and history. Imagine a long afternoon with the kids, cruising down hills, pressing up grades. Bring your headlamps and explore the earthy dark of railroad tunnels. Take your camera and get some envy-worthy vacation photos from the breath-taking heights of old train trestles.

Kids a little older? Plan an epic family vacation by bike! Whether you roll on training wheels or nobby mountain bike tires, you can likely tackle the 2 percent (average) or less grade. The trail runs parallel with Interstate 90 for most of its route. There are services, picnic sites, bathrooms, state parks, historic sites and campgrounds aplenty. Multiple trailheads mean you can drop in—or out— and plan a ride that suits your time schedule and abilities. Into geocaching? Iron Horse is a popular spot to search for caches! Come along as we break down the highlights of Iron Horse from trailhead to trailhead! All exits are on Interstate 90.
The Adventure...

Cedar Falls to Twin Falls—4.5 miles (Exits 32-38)

Take a break from the bike and go for a hike.
Take a break from the bike and go for a hike! The western-most stretch of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail includes Olallie State Park and Twin Falls. Photo by Gene Bisbee.
At its western end, the trail reflects the verdant North Cascades forest land it runs through. This is a great short ride for the family. Stop at Ollalie State Park and hike to Twin Falls! Bring the camera! This section of the trail offers some of the most scenic vistas from trestles traversing high canyons!

Twin Falls to Hyak—16 miles (Exits 38-54)

While all those drivers have to go over Snoqualmie Pass, you can bike right through it. Dont forget
Hellooooo in there! While all those drivers have to go over Snoqualmie Pass, you can bike right through it! Don’t forget your head lamps! Photo by Neil Hodges
With more beautiful green forest to ride through and a 2.3 mile railroad tunnel at its eastern end, this is one of the most populated sections of the trail. You will be sharing it with other riders. Heads up: hikers, equestrians and sometimes even horse-drawn wagons use the trail, too. The grade is more noticeable here but by no means severe. Meander alongside the rushing waters of the Snoqualmie River’s south fork. Don’t forget to pack headlamps or other light gear and warm clothing. The Snoqualmie (AKA #50) Tunnel is pitch black inside and 15 to 20 degrees colder than the temperatures.

Travel tips: Stay on the trail! Remember, it’s only 100 feet wide! Obey safety rules, and know how to yield, especially in the tunnels — hikers yield to horses; bikes yield to everyone!

Outside the tunnel, take moment to readjust to the sunlight. Then head on down the trail to…

Hyak to Easton— 18 miles (Exit 54-71)

Take a a break from your ride and soak up the sun  or even swim  at Lake Easton State Park.
      Take a a break from your ride and soak up the sun — or even swim — at Lake Easton State Park. Photo by Joe Osowski
On this leg, the trail swings out to hug the southern bank of Keecheelus Lake. Here, you’ll enjoy spectacular views of the surrounding Cascades and a nice easy ride on the flat grade. You can choose from several campsites if you are getting tired or need to refill those canteens. You will pass through tunnels #49 and #48, also known as Whittier and Easton, respectively. Both are far shorter than the tunnel at the pass. Ready for a break? Shed your cycling shoes at Lake Easton State Park, and go for a swim! If you are on a longer quest, this might be just the spot to spend the night and have a family cookout. For a side trip through history, visit the restored Milwaukee Railroad depot and power substation (hours by appointment only).

Easton to South Cle Elum— (Exits 71-84)

Drop in to Cle Elum for a break from the trail and a bite to eat.
    Drop in to Cle Elum for a break from the trail and a bite to eat! Photo by Curtis Cronn
The trail stays close to the highway on this stretch. Drop off the trail in Cle Elum for a bite to eat! If you are are weary of the trail and camping, this is also a good spot to get a room for the night. Explore the funky old-west feel of this former coal mining town in the heart of the Cascades. Then it’s back on your bike to …

South Cle Elum to Thorp—18.5 miles (Exits 84-101) and Thorp to Ellensburg West—(Exits 101-106)

                                                  Mmmmmm—peaches!  Photo by Ram Viswanathan
Pulling out of the mountains, the climate changes drastically. Here begins the long, hot trek through the grassland, beginning with a bit of a grade before you reach Thorp. Stop into the local merchants here. Thorp is a great place to get fresh fruit as well as water and extra sunscreen, which is necessary for the long, hot trip ahead. Travelers riding through the Thorp tunnel (#47) will need to sign a waiver form before entering.

Travel tip: Iron Horse park staff recommend the rest of trail from here is best for spring or fall, due to summer heat and cold winter winds. If you plan to make the trek, be sure all your riders are well prepared. Consider riding in the early morning hours when visibility is good and temperatures are lower.

Ellensburg West to Ellensburg East—1.6 miles (Exits 106-109) and Ellensburg East to Kittitas—4.9 miles (Exits 109-115)

Ride headlong into history at Olmstead Place State Park.
                      Ride headlong into history at Olmstead Place State Park! Photo by Washington State Library
Navigating the part of the trail running through Ellensburg means following the signs to the campus of Central Washington University and the Kittitas County Fairgrounds. So know how to ride safely in the city! Once you are past Exit 109, it’s back on the open range! Roll through the croplands and right into history! A stop at Olmstead Place State Park is a must! This pioneer farm settlement dates to 1875 and features interactive displays of early farming days. Tour the museum from noon to 4 p.m. on weekends (or by appointment). 

Kittitas to Army West—6 miles and Army West to Army East—20.6 miles (Exit 115)

Beyond Exit 115 is wide open country—and no water. This part of the ride is hot, dry desert and grassland. To ride the stretch between Army East and West, which butts up against the Joint Base Lewis McChord Yakima Training Center, you will need to sign a waiver. Instructions and forms are posted at the trailheads. The Boylston Tunnel (#46) offers a small respite from the prairie sun. Once you hit Army East, the state park land ends. The trail continues over the Columbia River to the Idaho border and beyond. Your best bet for accessing it, however, is by going up through the Wanapum Recreational Area to the north and crossing the bridge at Vantage before continuing on. Before you do, why not drop in at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park? There you’ll find even more history displays, such as petroglyphs and a petrified wood forest! Not to mention— water! NOTE: The JBLM Yakima Training Center will be closing this section of the trail from June 1 to July 2 and Aug. 1 to 15.

Have you taken an epic biking journey—or even just a fun afternoon jaunt —at your Washington State Parks?
Tell us about it and share your pictures here!