Riding or hiking in Washington just got easier with the new Columbia River Bridge

The Columbia River has long divided the two halves of the Palouse at Cascades State Park Trail, which runs through Washington State. Now a reconstructed railway trestle over the river south of Vantage connects the two sides, making it easier for cyclists, horseback riders and hikers to undertake a spectacular east-west journey.

The Palouse to Cascades Trail stretches 285 miles from the outskirts of North Bend, Washington to the Idaho border, including a 2.5 mile tunnel under Cascade Crest. Fred Wert from Winthrop rode the entire length once and cycled and walked it several times. He sometimes calls it the “invisible path” because it is little known.

“I try to tell people it’s a secret way to cross the state,” Wert said. “One of the beauties of this one is a far cry from everything else in general. It’s open all year round. It goes from the deep forest to the wheat fields of the Palouse. It is a difficult, but fascinating journey to make.

The mostly gravel rail trail still has many gaps requiring detours. The wide Columbia River presented one of the most inconvenient obstacles for cyclists, as the next closest public crossing was the Interstate 90 Vantage Bridge, which has no sidewalks or shoulders. Hikers and cyclists usually have to hitchhike in a vehicle to cross.

“A lot of people have stopped at the Columbia River,” Wert said in an interview along a trail at the foot of the renovated Beverly Bridge. “The fact that it’s open will make a big difference.”

Wert leads the nonprofit Palouse to Cascades Trail Coalition to promote this long-distance route and advocate for improvements. He and several hundred other outdoor enthusiasts gathered on the trail last Friday to celebrate one of their biggest wins to date, the opening of the rebuilt trestle on the Columbia.

A marching band led the crowd on a ceremonial first crossing of the Beverly Bridge. The band from Wahluke High School played for a while as the bridge is nearly two-thirds of a mile long. The signing event took place in blustery weather that forced dignitaries on stage to clutch their speaking notes tightly and sent many caps flying towards the looming brown cliffs of Sentinel Gap.

“I am very excited to see this. It’s something we’ve been working on for years,” Governor Jay Inslee said. “It’s a national asset.”

“The land you cross, the water, is still sacred to our people,” said Lela Buck, a tribal representative from the nearby village of Wanapum. “As you take your animals, as you take your bikes, as you cross this bridge with your feet, keep reminding yourself that this is a place that continues to connect us to who we are.”

“The idea is a trail to the Pacific Ocean – the Idaho line to the Pacific Transstate Trail,” former Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro said when his turn has come to speak.

“We’re getting closer and closer with segments here and there,” Munro, 78, said with growing enthusiasm. “Everyone keep going, don’t give up. You better do it soon or I’m gonna die!”

Munro was instrumental in the early 1980s with the Back Country Horsemen of Washington and many others in getting the state to acquire the right of way relinquished by the bankrupt Milwaukee Road Railroad. The Beverly Bridge was completed in 1909 by the railroad to connect Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul to the Pacific terminus at Tacoma.

The conversion of rails to trails was originally called John Wayne Pioneer Trail and Iron Horse State Park. The State Parks Commission renamed the route in 2018 to the more descriptive Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail.

“This was the highlight of my career,” said Adam Fulton, Beverly Bridge Rehabilitation Project Manager for Washington State Parks. It goes straight ahead to replace a double trestle over a creek ten miles to the east. The trestles burned in a forest fire.

The Washington Legislature last month approved $2 million to rebuild the Crab Creek trestle. Much further east, the 2020 Babb Fire burned three more bridges near the small town of Malden, forcing trail users to use roads until the State Parks Department could complete the repairs.

On another stretch of the route in Grant and Adams counties, riders must detour via rural roads and a national highway, as a shortline railroad is still actively using the tracks there. . Elsewhere, priorities include improving the trail surface and providing restrooms in more places.

“There are a few pieces missing – the property, some decks are being replaced, trestles are being replaced,” Fulton said in an interview. “Overall everything is ready to go. There are many workarounds and workarounds.

The renovation of the century-old Beverly Bridge cost $5.5 million. It also cost the life of a construction worker. Gabriel Zelaya, 39, died last August when he fell from the bridge about 60 feet off the ground. The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries fined contractor Boss Construction more than a quarter of a million dollars in January for “gross and willful” safety violations which, according to the agency, resulted in the worker’s death. The Bellingham-based entrepreneur is appealing the agency’s judgment.

Next month, an equestrian group named the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders Association will repeat their annual ride across the states for the 41st time. Veteran rider and association president Tom Short, 80, of Woodinville plans to bring a team of horses pulling an open carriage.

“We’re looking forward to it this year because we’ll come down that hill, we’ll see the river and we’ll continue to Beverly,” Short said in the warm afterglow of the bridge’s inauguration. “It will be so awesome.”

“I predict that in ten years you’ll have families — multi-age families — taking two-week summer vacations from North Bend to Idaho and camping along the way,” Short continued. “They will be able to do it at very little cost. They are going to keep a small restaurant, a store open in each of these trail communities as well as a bike shop.

Short said the appeal of the Palouse to Cascades Trail for him crosses nearly every ecosystem, geology and weather in Washington state, while enjoying the hospitality and history of the small towns being road. On horseback, the crossing lasts about twelve days with shuttles around the gaps, not counting the days of rest. [Copyright 2022 Northwest News Network]

Clyde P. Johnson