Eastward, ho: Tom Short drives his wagon on what’s now the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail.

Day starts before dawn at the trailside camp, when riders roll out of RVs and sleeping nooks inside horse trailers. The John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders crew saddles horses and hitches wagons, then starts the daily procession east, down a straight trail of dirt and gravel. The travelers do it for two weeks straight, riding all the way to the Idaho border.

The annual trek down Washington’s John Wayne Pioneer Trail stayed much the same for 37 years, until the cross-state got a whole new name in 2018. Welcome to the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail, crown jewel of the state park system.

Tom Short holds the reins of two Tennessee Walker horses that pull a wooden wagon straight out of, well, a John Wayne flick. Cherry red with wood-spoke wheels, it’s a lot newer than it looks; the retired Kirkland shop teacher bought it from a Canadian maker. “I don’t want an old wagon, it’s too much trouble,” he laughs. “I don’t like old anything.”

Except, of course, this old path. When the state acquired the cross-state Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad in the 1980s, much of the track underwent a rails-to-trails conversion for horses, hikers, bikers, and, sure, wagons. The John Wayne name was meant to summon the actor’s aura of frontier derring-do; never mind that the Duke never lived in Washington.

By 2006 the state turned 110 miles—North Bend to past Ellensburg—into Iron Horse State Park; various agencies, from the state parks to the Department of Natural Resources manage the eastern end. The dual names were confusing, and the trail was threatened in 2015 when Ninth Legislative District representatives inserted a state budget provision to deed 130 eastern trail miles back to private landowners. Only a typo (it said “from the Columbia River to the Columbia River”) derailed the plan.

“The John Wayne name had lost its shine” by 2018, says Marilyn Hedges of advocacy group Friends of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail; the late actor is now remembered as much for racist remarks as shoot-’em-ups. The Iron Horse moniker was too common for good SEO. Hence the new Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail name.

“It’s an adventure,” says Hedges, musing on the trail whose name now spans the state as much as the footpath itself does. It’s elk and wildflowers, she says, rugged and remote. “You’re not paralleling any major highways, so you see things you won’t see on the freeway.” She’s a cyclist, but she gets why the Wagons and Riders group goes horseback. “They have this western ethos, that sense of adventure, that John Wayne kind of feeling, going out across the west. And they love it.”

Short himself struggles to find the words for the rich experience of riding the trail, but he uses the word “unreal” a lot to describe the landscape and the people they meet on every pilgrimage. The residents of small-town Malden host a meatloaf feast at one stop, and the Amish-like Hutterites show off their potato-growing commune at another. “You’re so tired by the end of the day, everyone’s asleep by eight,” he says. “Every day is a different experience—it’s endless, every day.”

Once a trail trestle, the Mine Creek Bridge now supports cyclists peddling across Washington.

Image: Mac Holt

Cycle the Palouse to Cascades

North Bend, 1 hour from Seattle | Unpaved Trail, Historic Tunnels

The ambition behind the newly named and still incomplete Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail recalls the big dreams of railroad barons: Just imagine an unbroken route all the way across Washington state. This byway actually replaces the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, reborn today as a 110-mile stretch of rails-to-trail for hikers, bikers, and horseback riders.

Thanks to a confusing name—until May it was called the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, but one stretch was also known as Iron Horse State Park—few westsiders knew there was a carless route across the Cascades. A recent rebranding could change all that, along with pushes to complete missing segments in eastern Washington. But for now, the Palouse to Cascades runs unbroken from near North Bend to the Columbia River, the old railroad tracks reincarnated as a gravel route at a gentle grade. Day users go a few miles; overnighters tackle the entire 110 miles.

Though sections of the trail approach  I-90, it’s a world away from the freeway. It hugs hillsides and runs under cliffs, passes over historic trestles and through the Snoqualmie Tunnel, known as the country’s longest hikeable railroad tunnel, a 2.3-mile stumble in the dark. Turn off your flashlight, since it’s the only part of the Palouse to Cascades without a memorable vista.

Written in the Stars

The Goldendale Observatory will reopen with a brand-new facility around its classic telescope in summer 2019, but until then park staff hold interpretive stargazing programs in nearby Maryhill.

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