Labor Day Fun on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, Part 2

On their first day out, Carry and Nick rode along the John Wayne Pioneer Trail from North Bend to Easton State Park, a distance of 38 miles. It was no walk in the park, considering the trail's varying, often challening surfaces. From there, on day two, they continued toward Ellensburg by way of the towns of Easton and Cle Elum.

Toward the middle of our second day, we arrived at the Thorp Tunnels. Unlike the Hyak and Whittier tunnels of the day before, the state has not dedicated any funds to repairing these tunnels. It shows. The concrete at the entrances is crumbling and sections of wall inside have caved. It’s not exactly dangerous, but I wouldn’t call it safe, either. Don’t put me in one of those during an earthquake! In a surprising act of reasonableness, the state actually allows you to travel through these tunnels. There is an unsettling waiver of liability they ask you to sign before you do so, however.

Safely on the other side, Nick snapped a pretty good picture of me taking a short rest.

One of the things that failed to occur to me before we set out is how straight a rail-trail might be. When it’s traveling long distances on even terrain, there simply is no reason for it to turn … at all! This lack of variation, coupled with increasingly difficult-to-ride gravel, took a toll on our enthusiasm.

By midafternoon, things were even worse. The temperature, which had risen above 90 degrees, was frying our brains and muscles. We stopped at the Thorp Fruit Stand for fresh apple cider and peaches. It didn’t cool us off enough to motivate us to ride the last 6 miles into Ellensburg through deep gravel, so we cheated a bit and took the Old Thorp Highway into town.

One of the things I love most about visiting small town America – on a bicycle or motorcycle – are the kooky things you see. I really want to know who verified this claim in 1934.

We pedaled lazily to the KOA, where cool showers revived us just enough that we could continue into town for the rodeo. We missed the professional bull and bronc riders by a few hours. Our consolation prize was the local talent show, which featured mutton busting, barrel racing, team roping, the businessmen’s cow milking contest, and calf roping. It was a real hoot.

We rode back to camp just as the sun was setting. We collapsed into our tent, not quite wanting to admit that we were exhausted and not looking forward to tomorrow’s ride. Never mind, though, we were going to leave early to (hopefully) beat the heat.

Morning came early. We didn’t set an alarm, but as soon as our eyes opened, we hustled out of bed, wolfed down our instant oatmeal and tea/coffee, and packed up the tent. Temperatures were supposed to top 90 degrees again today and we wanted to get most of our final day's ride done before lunch, if possible.

The John Wayne Pioneer Trail is interrupted in Ellensburg by the town itself. To pick it up on the east side of town, we had to thread our way on city streets back to the fairgrounds. Once there, we picked up the trail, which was actually more like an overflow parking lot for rodeo horse trailers. We threaded our way through horse poop, sticky mud patches, potholes, and other obstacles, hoping the trail would improve as we got out of town.

Once we were on the trail proper again, it was much like yesterday – deep gravel with two strips of barely rideable dirt down each side. And it was still straight.

This is Washington’s cow country, and each of the animals greeted us as we rode past.

I’d like to spin you a yarn about how fantastic it was to sail through desert sage lands to the mighty Columbia, but it was not to be. Not too far east of Ellensburg, we realized it had taken us an hour to cover a paltry 4 miles. What?! Why?

In a word – sand.

Horse hooves had pounded and pulverized the rail-trail until it was nothing more than a strip of soft, soul-sucking hell. As we pedaled, our tires plowed four-inch-deep trenches. We had to stop every quarter mile or so to muster the courage to keep moving forward.

This is the point in the trip where the devil and the angel on our shoulders start arguing:

"See that road over there? It parallels the trail. You could take it for just a few miles. It would fee so good!"

"No! You came here to ride the John. Wayne. Trail. Not ride some of the John Wayne Trail. Harden up and endure your adventure already!" 

(I’ll leave you to decide which was the devil and which was the angel.)

We soldiered bravely on for another mile or so until we reached a turning point – a mandatory detour.

I can’t lie. I was absolutely thrilled that we would have to ride on the road for a bit. Just look at that smile!

Not too many miles later, we discovered the reason for the detour. The final railroad trestle over I-90 had no deck! We’ve been known to carry our bikes around construction sites and go places we’ve been warned not to go. But this detour seemed like a pretty good idea.

The final leg of our journey was another 15 to 17 miles of trail and then a few miles on road to get back to our car, which was parked behind the gas station in Vantage. After a short snack break, we headed back to the trail only to discover that we’d have to be very careful on this next section. We’d be travelling through Army territory!

We wondered which speed limit applied to us and whether we would actually encounter any tactical vehicles.

Sadly, once we were back on the trail, we found it to be in just as bad of shape as the previous section. We stared, disappointed, down the long stretch of sand. In the distance, a woman, walking her dog, approached us. We rode up and down a hundred feet or so of trail, and waited for her arrival.

"So, do you know anything about the condition of the trail between here and the Columbia? Is it all sandy like this?" I asked.

"Well I only went about a mile, but my husband says it's pretty chewed up by horses at this time of year. It's better riding in the spring when the winter rains have packed it all down," she responded.

We sat on our top tubes for a few minutes, digesting our disappointment at not wanting to finish the trail with that much suck. We looked at a map. We sighed. In the end, we struck a compromise: We’ll ride the old Vantage highway back into town today and come back to finish this section of the trail in the spring.

And let me tell you … it was awesome! Smooth blacktop, beautiful scenery, lots and lots of downhill, oh yeah!

The final verdict on the trip? All in all, it was pretty good – scenic, informative ...

... and just hard enough to make me look like a genuine Rapha Continental model at the end of a photo shoot.

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Tip for this adventure: I'm not sure what tires I'd recommend for people wanting to ride this entire route. For the early part of the trail, the Continental Travel Contacts (1.75 inches, cross-hybrid style) that I had on my bike, combined with front suspension, actually made a really good setup. My husband's Rivendell Roll-y Pol-ys on his cross bike were way too stiff. He was beat to heck and gone at the end of day one. For the second and third days, we wanted nothing less than fat bikes, the kind people are riding in snow. That sand was something else. I guess if I had to make a recommendation, I'd go with as fat of a semi-slick as you can find. The Kenda Small Block 8 is one suggestion. It comes in 26 x 2.35.

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