Riding the John Wayne Iron Horse Trail

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Sometimes, when you head for the great outdoors, nothing goes right. Your body is a bit sluggish, maybe from not enough breakfast or not enough sleep. You never quite warm up. You don’t have the right clothes and you end up always feeling a little chilled around the edges. Your sandwich gets squished at the bottom of your pack and ends up an unattractive mass of food that would be better eaten with a spoon, if you’d remembered to pack one.


You get a flat and you actually have to repair it because you haven’t packed a spare. When you finally get back to the car, you go straight to the nearest coffee stand, where you promptly spill your drink on your shorts. You have forgotten to toss a change of clothes in your car. You go home, take a shower, and climb in to bed thinking, wow, I could have just stayed home.

Yesterday was not that day. Yesterday, my friends and I rode the John Wayne Iron Horse Trail. And it was perfect.

We met at Rattlesnake Lake to park the first car. My pals were just pulling in to the parking lot as I arrived. “Whaddaya say we eat lunch?” they said, so we picnicked on the grass next to the lake. We watched the boats slide across the water while little girls splashed around at the beach. Fueled up for the ride, we tossed my bike and gear in to the pickup and headed up to the Hyak trailhead.

The tunnel, which is one of the big draws for this ride, is just past the Hyak trailhead. We strapped on our lights and plunged into the darkness. Water was falling from the ceiling. There was a pinpoint of light in the far distance, the crunch of gravel under the tires, and a weird echo when I rang my bell. Mike disappeared ahead, but we’d see him every now and then when my light hit something reflective. The lamps picked up wires on the walls and six feet of trail. Beyond that, there was only blackness and the tiny light at the other side of the tunnel.


The tunnel is just over two miles long and it’s cold in there. We rolled out blinking on the other side, instantly re-warmed by the sunshine.




The rest of the trail is hard-packed gravel, easy riding on fat tires. It’s bumpy and today my hands are a bit sore from the rattling, but my legs aren’t complaining at all. The trail is about twenty-one miles; we did it in three and a half hours. You could ride it a lot faster, but we kept stopping to look at things on the way—the view from the trestles, an immaculate and oh so pretty backcountry campsite, a stream gauge, the highway, some rock climbers who’d wandered up from a trailhead below …


There’s no water on the trail, but there are plenty of lovely spots to stop for a snack and there’s the luxury of outhouses at various places on the way. You ride past boulder fields, clearcuts that have turned into meadows, through maple and birch forest. The trail smells of water, of clean earth, of pine and spruce.

This is a remarkable ride. The 2.2 percent downhill grade makes it very easy to go the distance. You can’t coast the entire way—though you can do it as a leisurely spin. If you want, you can gear down and hammer on the pedals until you get going quite fast—there’s no traffic, no stoplights, and, when we were there, not many other people. The reverse direction, from Rattlesnake Lake to Hyak, must be quite a slow burn, as you’re always going uphill. We took the easy route, though ambitious cyclists could absolutely do it as a round trip from Rattlesnake Lake.

If you’re going to do the one way, like we did, you need two cars. One of them needs to carry all the bikes. You need lights for the tunnel—don’t screw around with this; you can’t see a damn thing in there. You want gloves because the gravel trail is hard on your hands and if you fall, it’s going to be rough. It’s good to have a jacket for the tunnel; it’s really cold in there. Take plenty of water and some snackage. Fat tires are good because the trail is rough—think dirt road. Pack a spare, a repair kit, and your tools; this is no place to blow out a tire—five miles on a hiking trail dragging your bike can’t be much fun.

Rattlesnake Lake is a terrific spot to leave one friend with the bikes while two others make the shuttle run back to Hyak to get the other car. But here’s an idea. Pack a cooler and all the stuff in the Rattlesnake Lake car. Set up your friend in the park with all the fixins for your dinner. By the time you get back with both cars, your friend has got the coals going and is grilling your Gardenburger just the way you like it. Or, hey, you can do what we did and head in to North Bend for fried carbs and sugar burgers and shakes at the Dairy Freeze. There’s nothing like fried carbs and sugar after a good ride.

Riding the John Wayne Iron Horse trail might be my new favorite thing to do outside the city. Get your bike out of the basement, round up your gear, and head on up to Hyak. The ride is easy enough that you can do it even if you haven’t been on your bike in ages. You’ll be tired when it’s over, but there’s no reason to think you can’t do it. And give me a call. You need two cars, after all, and I can hardly wait to do it again.

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