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Thrills and Chills Biking the Snoqualmie Tunnel

Bike or walk through a mountainside on the Iron Horse rail trail

Published on: May 31, 2017

Entrance to the Snoqualmie Tunnel
Jennifer Johnson

Gravel crunched under our bike tires as we picked our way along the path. Our headlamps illuminated the way only a few feet in front of us, and we could just make out a light in the distance: the literal light at the end of the tunnel and our exit from under this mountain.

In the beam of my headlamp, I could see my breath hanging in the frigid air. Drips of water fell onto my face, startling me. Echoes of other hikers’ and bikers’ voices bounced off the concrete ceiling and walls, and though we couldn’t see them, we tried to avoid running into anyone as we pedaled slowly along. Finally, triumphantly, we emerged from the darkness and into the fresh, warm air and sunshine. We had completed our ride through the 2.3-mile Snoqualmie Tunnel, and we deserved a snack.

Section of the Iron Horse Trail. Credit: Jennifer Johnson
Section of the Iron Horse Trail. Credit: Jennifer Johnson

Rail trail

Located at Snoqualmie Pass, about 50 miles east of Seattle, the Snoqualmie Tunnel is part of the 110-mile-long John Wayne Pioneer Trail. A portion of this trail is managed by Iron Horse State Park and often referred to as the Iron Horse Trail. The trail travels the old road bed of the Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul-Pacific Railroad. Visitors can bicycle or hike the trail, and passing through the tunnel is a unique outing for families looking for an exciting adventure on a summer day. Entering from the east end, the tunnel passes underneath the Snoqualmie Pass ski areas and emerges on the western side, offering expansive views down the I-90 valley.

We started our ride at the Hyak trailhead, east of Snoqualmie Pass, where there is a large parking area with restrooms. A Discover Pass is required to park — buy a pass from the automated pay station at the parking area if you don’t have one. Once we’d unloaded our bikes and geared up, we rode west along the flat, gravel path and around a gate that keeps motorized vehicles off the trail. At about a third of a mile from the parking lot, we encountered the eastern tunnel entrance.

Into the darkness

The opening loomed large and mysterious in front of us, and we dug in our bags for our headlamps and jackets. The atmosphere in the tunnel stays cold and damp even on the hottest days, so we were grateful for gloves, scarves and layers. Bright headlamps or flashlights are a necessity on this ride, as the tunnel is pitch black for most of its length. But it is plenty wide for the amount of traffic it receives; it was built for trains, after all. Many people choose to hike this path, so bicyclists must use caution when passing and, when in doubt, riders should slow down or stop until they can locate other users. There were times the darkness made our ride a little disorienting, but that’s the thrilling part, and all the kids in our group made it through just fine.

West end portal to the Snoqualmie Tunnel
West end of the Snoqualmie Tunnel. Credit: Jennifer Johnson

Exiting the tunnel at its western end, there are outhouses and picnic tables to relax and take care of needs. The thick greenery of the forest felt luxurious to us as we admired the surrounding mountaintops peeking through the clouds. We could have ridden farther if we had wanted to; the trail continues 18 miles down to its western terminus at the Rattlesnake Lake Trailhead. Along the way, the trail passes the Annette Lake and Twin Falls State Park trailheads. All of these allow for rides of different lengths. We decided we’d gone far enough for that day, and after eating our snacks, we rode back through the darkness of the tunnel to our waiting car.

I-90 valley view. Credit: Jennifer Johnson
I-90 valley view. Credit: Jennifer Johnson

Options to go longer

Families who want to continue eastward from the Hyak Trailhead will find a long, beautiful stretch of trail through the eastern slopes of the Cascades. Backcountry camping spots and established campgrounds at Lake Kachess, Crystal Springs, Lake Easton State Park and Wanapum State Park allow riders the flexibility to plan a multi-day trip. The trail continues over the Columbia River and further into eastern Washington, but it gets more rugged and there are sections that are closed or difficult to ride.

If you go ...

Where: The Hyak trailhead within Iron Horse State Park is a good place to start this adventure, with the eastern tunnel entrance less than a half-mile away. The tunnel is 2.3 miles long, end to end.

When: The tunnel is typically open May 1–Nov. 1 each year. In 2017, the tunnel was still closed in early May, but a recorded message at the Lake Easton ranger station indicated the trail was open as of May 26, 2017. Keep an eye on trail conditions at the WTA website.

Cost: A Discover Pass is required to park at Hyak and other state park trailheads along the trail. An annual pass costs $30 and a daily pass is $10.

Tips: Whether you bicycle or hike this adventure trail, you’ll want to bring along warm layers for the tunnel, where it stays quite cool no matter how warm it is on the outside. Bring at least one bright headlamp or flashlight per person, with extra batteries. Consider bringing a couple of backup lights in case one stops working. Make sure you have ample water and snacks for the duration, noting that walking through the tunnel could take well over an hour each way, depending on walking speed.

Upcoming events:

Saturday, July 8, 2017
The Mountains to Sound Greenway is leading an organized point-to-point bike ride that includes a shuttle ride to the start, biking through the tunnel, a scenic descent along the trail and a barbecue at the end! While the length of the ride is 20 miles, it's generally flat or downhill, making it not too strenuous for younger riders. Preregister.

Saturday, July 15, 2017
Want to experience the tunnel with hundreds of friends all aglow? Check out this summer's Glow Run, an all-ages 5K run or walk through the tunnel. Preregister.

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