Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Crossing The Columbia

If you think I was gonna drive all the way across the state last weekend without doing a little John Wayne Trail recon, then you are a fool, and I know you are not a fool and therefore, I know you did not think that.

From what little I know about the trail so far, there are quite a few discontinuites that require detours. Of those, the three that have the most impact to the experience would seem to be:
  1. The section along Rock Lake that is privately owned by someone who won't cooperate with the state on allowing passage by trail users.  I'll get into this in more detail another time.
  2. The currently closed 2+ mile long tunnel at Snoqualmie pass.  We did stop at the Hyak [snopark by winter/JWT trailhead by summer] and talk to one of the attendants, who told us that the plan for restoring passage to  the tunnel was underway and that it would probably be open by around June of this year.  That was great news to me, as I wasn't even aware that funding had been secured.
  3. The currently closed railroad bridge over the Columbia.  And the subject of this post.
We're all familiar with the I-90 bridge at Vantage. This view is from just south of the bridge on the shoulder of Hwy 243, looking north. You get here by exiting I-90 just before you cross the bridge, if you're traveling from the eastside to the westside.

The trouble with riding your bike across the bridge at Vantage is that the traffic is heavy as a wet blanket, bat-outta-hell fast, and there's no shoulder. Ugly business on a bike.

But despite that, I'd still do it. I'd just time it for early in the morning, when traffic was light, and bite the bullet. The bigger problem, from the perspective of someone (me) wanting to travel across the state on the JWT is that the detour takes you so far off the trail on nasty, shoulderless, RV-laden roads that I assume would kill any middle-a-nowhere pioneer solitude mojo that you (I) may have built up in previous days.  The forced shock of re-entry into the greater Puget Sound mass of population and advanced civilization is just a couple of days away, but why rush it.

Aside from Vantage, there exist a coupla other crossing structures in the vicinity.  3 miles south of Vantage is Wanapum Dam, with its gorgeous road over the top.  And in-no-uncertain-terms gate.

We all know what 9-11 did to civilian travel across the top of dams, but I've heard different reports of cyclists crossing at Wanapum, even post-2011. So we stopped at the dam museum (the only dam office with public access) to ask about the possibility. I might as well have announced that I had just arrived from Pluto on a VW microbus that I'd converted into a spaceship fueled by spent coffee grounds. But after just a few moments processing my request, the attendant made a coupla calls. The short of it is that anyone crossing the dam would have to go through the same clearance as someone visiting the dam for a tour (i.e. school groups, which visit regularly), which takes a coupla weeks, and would have to be accompanied by an escort at all times. Which sounds sort of hopeful, except that educating a group of school children on the inner workings of a major hydroelectic powerplant just flat sounds like a LOT better use of PUD employee time and energy than helping some nutjob ride his bike, unimpeded, through a bunch of sagebrush. I was told that I was pretty much dreaming, but I was also given the name and number of the PR person for the dam (who arranges the school tours). So the door wasn't totally slammed shut; there's a slight crack. I may or may not follow up.

Another 3 or 4 miles south of the dam, is the rail crossing at Beverly.  This is the actual bridge used by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (aka JWT).  This is maybe an engineer-thing, but it's breathtaking, spectacular, in my eyes.  What I wouldn't give to ride across it on my proposed journey.  But alas, it's closed.  And I'm pretty sure it won't be re-opened anytime soon. 

On the other side, the trains took a 90 degrees right to begin the climb out of the gorge. And thus avoided slamming into the cliff.

We drove into the town of Beverly, got out of the car and hiked down the JWT.  This is the gate that restricts you (me) from crossing.  Although I don't exactly see any "No Trespassing" signs.

Patty says:  "Yo dumbass!  Barbed wire.  Don't be stupid."

A (very) small grown-up part of me knows she's right. And at the same time I struggle to summon the maturity necessary to accept as fact that this bridge is really, truly closed.  (Notice how there's barbwire on the top and bottom but not on the sides? Just sayin.) On the way out, I was mercifully (yet temporarily) distracted by this fine piece of tallbike yard art.

Coupla days later, we found ourselves on the west side of the river, looking down upon the same brilliant structure.

This is the JWT, as it heads up out of the gorge, toward Ellensburg.

Turning my camera 180 degrees, this is the view as the trail heads into the Yakima Firing Range.

At this point I'm so damn fascinated with this trail that even if I never end up riding it, I will consider the hours checking it out to be time very well spent.


Nate said...

Wow, thanks for that complete and funny report.

I wonder what kind of political-corporate ass-kissing would be needed to convert that trestle (back)to a bike bridge.

I find the 9/11 rationale pretty lame for the dam. Whole sections of the country are getting walled off from citizens. But, it's probably a thought-crime to say so.

There should be "Bicyclist on Bridge" warning lights on the Vantage bridge. Well, just be glad you don't have to ride to Wenatchee, or to the next bridge to the South (which is also back to the East).

Vantage has a gas station market and a restaurant (or two), and the State Park. It's pretty sparse and desolate before and after, so maybe a (very) little civilization (ie cold beer) will feel good at that point of your ride anyway.

Excellent news about the Snoqualmie tunnel, if true.

Anonymous said...

Build a bridge, Pat!

John Speare said...

I love Sarah's idea -- clearly, she knows you well.

I've heard of people working around the fence and going over the Beverly bridge.

The piece across the Yakima firing range is pretty cool. In 2003, there was water dead-center b/t the road you took a picture of and where it exits on I-90 about 20 miles away.

Agreed with Nate on the Snoqualmie tunnel -- that's a critical piece of the trip.

There are at least two other cool tunnels -- one in the firing range and one along the Yakima river on the west side of Ellensburg.

Jason Gilman said...

The barbed wire on the left side has clearly been cut. I think two people working together could get a bike around that. What did the two brackets holding the gate hinges to the big poles look like? It looks like a U with nuts on the end that could be loosened if they aren't welded.

Bryan B said...

@The Dean of Spokane Cycling - The Yakima firing range seems really cool, though boy is it the sticks. I remember being stopped at Ryegrass on a trip to the west side and having an M1-A1 pull up to a stop directly across the fence from us...so the tank crew could use the bathroom.

Besides that, the Beverley bridge seems the best bet...though I'd be hesitant to cross it any time other than early morning, too. I'd rather not be seen hauling a bike around the fence. It looks like you'd be pretty exposed to anybody, and I would want to keep that under the radar.

lazyeye72 said...

Could you just thumb a ride to cross the Vantage bridge, or would that entirely compromise your integrity?

I find your research fascinating. At the end of it all you could author the definitive guidebook on the JWT.

Anonymous said...

How about paddling across?

Maybe a little hairy, though. This report advises kayakers to stay on the West side of the reservoir, though that mostly seems a wind advisory.


You'd get bonus cool points though, if you pulled it off.

Otoh, if you didn't, maybe you'd be dead. Which wouldn't be cool.

Still, water looks pretty placid most days. Since it's midway, maybe friends could meet you with a canoe flotilla.

Anonymous said...

Or, haul a kayak with you:


Glen said...

Seems like the rail bridge, under cover of darkness, is the way to go. I'm in.

Anonymous said...

Just make sure to keep crossing the rail bridge on the down low. Like, don't mention it on the internet on a blog or anything.

I'm in--I'll be the one in the commando face paint.

Pat S said...

This post set a 26InchSlicks record for visits, so apparently, I'm not the only crazy person in the room. I totally appreciate all the rad comments - there are a bunch of sub-plots there that I could go on about, but won't. Thankfully. For your sake.

In short, I'm on exactly the same page as Glen (which scares me). The optimal solution, as I see it, is a nighttime crossing of the Beverly bridge. Under a full moon, if possible. There's a lotta shit that could go wrong, like falling through a gap in the deck to your death in the river below, but if you (I) happen to pull it off, the experience could totally nourish your (my) soul.

Anonymous said...

Ironically, satellite reconnaissance of the trestle surface on Google maps doesn't work, because the bridge is obscured with the words "JOHN WAYNE PIONEER TRAIL."

Wiki has the interesting detail that the bridge was taken by the State of Washington en lieu of back taxes from the railroad.

So, we own it.

Bryan B said...

Its you versus the mighty Columbia. Fortune favors the bold.

JMH said...

I grew up in Eastern Washington, went to college in Cheney and Spokane during the early '90s, and now live in Massachusetts. Reading this post makes me long for the desert. I will admit I was just online looking at flights for next summer. I'm in.

Russ Naber said...

Here is some additional information for ya:

1.) Yakima firing range, be sure to call the MP's phone number listed on gate for the combo lock number to enter. If using a car it would be a good idea to give them your license plate number if you park at the old Doris Parking lot. (I have the combo number, I doubt it has been changed but it is probably some type of post 911 sin to give it to you. :) )

West out of Doris is very sandy and rock cuts are almost filled up with fallen rock after 30 years, unless the army has gone in and clean it up. This was in 2005 btw. I am sure it is worse now. Although when I was there they were just done installing a toilet half way up to the tunnel and may have cleaned out the cuts. btw, be sure to bring a camera and tripod, when you get up to the reverse S-curves in late afternoon you can get a great shot looking downgrade at all the rock cuts in shadow and the saddle mtns to the south. Fantastic view/shot with light/dark shadows in the cuts.

2.) Rock Lake, the local Glacial Flood society/group does occansional rides out by rock lake, they must get permission somehow to ride this section I would think.

3.) If you plan to ride this give me a email shout, I might like to do it also. (draw40@webband.com)

See Ya,

Russ Naber

Pat S said...

Thanks, Russ, great info.

Katie said...


I live in Bellingham, WA, and my boyfriend and I are planning on biking the length of the John Wayne Trail (plus some-- to Spokane) next month. Google Maps had us crossing the Columbia on the Beverly Bridge, but I have recently discovered the Columbia crossing predicament (your post was super helpful-- thank you!). I am considering getting in touch with the people at Wanapum since I am seriously not wild about crossing on I-90. Do you think you might be willing to share the phone number you acquired?
And/or are there any other major glitches/valuable info from your research especially regarding the Eastern half of the trail?


Pat S said...

Katie, so cool that you're doing this trip! Yeah, I can give you that contact info and some other bits - email me at pat.sprute@gmail.com

Jama said...

Russ - I hope you might still be checking comments.
I have about 100,000 touring miles - including lots in Wash state.

I recently wrote the regional WA DOT director about cyclist options to cross the central Columbia. As most people note, crossing the Vantage I-90 Bridge is extremely dangerous. I suggested either a twice-daily shuttle service contracted to someone in Vantage. Another possibility I suggested was a cyclist-activated flashing sign on either end of the the main bridge segment - like those used by Oregon DOT at various tunnels and bridges. It would warn of bike/ped users ahead and, ideally have a 45 mph right lane speed when flashing.

She wrote back saying that WA DOT feels that the best cyclist option for crossing the Columbia is the Beverly Bridge. My grandchildren will be old before that ever happens. Use of federal highway funds since the early 1990s has required multimodal accommodations. It's not the job of WA DOT to "hope" that WA Parks will do something when there are sufficient funds. WA DOT has an obligation to do something - sooner rather than later - if it uses these federal funds.

I'd love to ride the Beverly Bridge - but I just do not see it happening.

Love your pix -
Best -
John Egan
Buffalo, WY

Anonymous said...

A section of the Beverley bridge was burned. It is not viable.

Unknown said...

Funny entertaining and informative. I was going to set off soon and ride it, but now I think I will (unfortunately) have to find another rout. My grown up logics and experiences have alouded (not a real word) me to take advice from funny bike riders. Thanks