Have you ridden the Olympic Discovery Trail? I hadn’t even heard of it until I reached Washington’s North Olympic coast on a “last-minute” bike tour this past September. In fact, it took a string of coincidences to put me on the road around Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula and back to my home in Astoria, Ore. Hopefully, I can inspire you to give it a try without waiting for your stars to align.
Trestle bridges like this one were built in 1915 by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific railroad line. Today cyclists, rather than trains, cross them regularly. Trestle bridges like this one were built in 1915 by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific railroad line. Today cyclists, rather than trains, cross them regularly.
Wanting to escape for a week, I had been studying my map collection, looking for a new route that would interest me enough to pack and get going. I realized that I would have to use some transport — either road or rail to jump-start this ride. In 2012, I had ridden county buses from Astoria to Bremerton in eight hours, connected with the ferry to Seattle then taken the bike trail north to my destination in Ballard. I arrived around 10 p.m., and was pleased to find my total cost was less than $4!
However, I had no idea if this system could help with a real tour. Then I received an email from a boating friend reminding me that the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival was on the upcoming weekend. Every few years I have driven there after Labor Day with my bike in the truck and my kayak on the roof, and had a great outdoor experience. I decided then and there to go again, using the bus-and-bike system.
By midweek I had packed the bike and was taking a test ride along the Astoria waterfront before departing. I stopped in at the dive shop on Pier 39 at the east end of town to talk to the owner. When I explained what I was planning, he stopped me in my tracks by offering me a ride to a dive camp he was leading on the Hood Canal that weekend. That would save me about 200 miles of bus riding, so I gladly accepted the offer.
We set off on Friday afternoon with my bike perched on top of a pile of air bottles, wetsuits and gear bags. I enjoyed the winding road along the canal, not having to keep my eye on the road. That evening, at Mike’s Beach Resort in Lilliwaup, Wash., I watched the dive students gear up with lights and compasses for a night dive while the moon rose over the water. After an hour, they returned safely, and I was soon in my bunk bed in the cozy cabin they had rented.
Waking at first light, I slipped out quietly and what little there was of Lilliwaup was soon behind me. I enjoyed skirting the unspoiled shoreline below Highway 101. It was cool, misty and silent as I rode over the Duckabush River and continued pedaling steadily north to Brinnon past oyster beds and rustic resorts where no one was awake.
Soon after, the mist turned to light rain. I pulled on my cape and pressed on. By 11 a.m. the rain had eased off and I was ticking off the miles, still trying not to rush. Navigating the old-fashioned way (by signposts and a road map), I had begun with the idea of reaching the festival around noon, but I was now fairly sure the total distance was over 50 miles.
Noon passed on the busy 101, where all the traffic seemed to be headed to the big event. I had been on the go for six hours and was running out of steam when I saw a bike path miraculously appear. I gratefully turned off and was led on a meandering six-mile route through the forest, past a paper mill, and along the shore into the Port Townsend Boat Haven — the municipal boatyard that stretches for about half a mile.
I felt quite pleased with my first long ride as a senior citizen, on a loaded bike with no serious training since March. I threaded my way past big wooden schooners and motor yachts with their ribs and planking exposed until I rejoined the highway, where everyone was looking for parking. I rolled right up to the festival entrance, found a spot in the huge bike parking lot, locked up and changed my shoes.
Inside Point Hudson, the festival was packed with people and wooden boats large and small. However, when I reached the crowded ramps and pontoons, I found I could hardly keep my balance on my tired legs. I had ridden closer to 60 than 50 miles. Since the show would be closing in 24 hours, I had to push on regardless. Somehow, my legs carried me around the marina and I recovered enough to ride out to the county fairground, where I camped for the next two nights.
On Monday morning, I picked up a bike map at The Broken Spoke on Water Street before heading west. After 20 noisy miles on the shoulder, I found the Old Blyn Hwy paralleling the 101 and the adventure began. I rounded the head of Sequim Bay and passed the Jamestown S’Klallam tribal casino, decorated with carved logs in the native tradition. Here I stayed by the water and found another back road, though I wasn’t actually aware it marked the start of the off-road section of the Olympic Discovery Trail (ODT), with 30 miles of paved pathway all the way to Port Angeles.
I left the map in my bag and let the trail lead me on. It wasn’t long before the path drifted north into the forest and began the marvelous stretch where it runs along an old railway bed, crossing nine bridges built in 1915 by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific line. Four of the bridges are spectacular large railroad trestles.
The first is the Johnson Creek trestle just east of Sequim, a 410-foot structure 86 feet above Johnson Creek that carried lumber trains until the 1980s. Then I made a short detour off the trail and into Sequim to find some food. I settled on Kiwi’s Fish and Chips, which looked and tasted like the real English style. It was just what I needed, and I returned to the trail with a full stomach.
I couldn’t believe my luck when two more overpasses appeared ahead: the second is a 150-foot tall truss bridge over the Dungeness River that stretches 585 feet with the approaches. Its original fire barrel stations have been converted to viewing platforms so you can see the lower structure and spawning salmon in season.
When the sun set I started scouting out a campsite and eventually found a quiet spot just yards from the trail. Early in the morning, bike commuters started coming by with their lights on, which inspired me to follow their example. The route continued west through the Dungeness prairie, between fields with great views of the Olympic peaks.
There’s one longer trestle bridge to cross over Morse Creek before dropping down to the seashore for the last four miles to Port Angeles. I arrived right by the port before encountering the first car I’d seen for hours. Here I detoured from the last leg by the airport and turned uphill past some fine historic murals to find the library and do some emailing.
There are several route options from there. I took the quiet road west along Hwy 112, which goes through some wild hilly country and has very few settlements. I camped near the ocean before pushing on to Forks, avoiding the temptation to take one of the many “Twilight” tours on offer. There were no vampires to be seen either — they too were surprised by the temperature hitting 95 degrees!
I picked up a few food items and a cold drink to carry me the last 25 miles to the Pacific Ocean. However, my enthusiasm flagged when the road dropped down into the mist and the mercury plummeted about 30 degrees. I pulled on several layers and then continued with less enthusiasm down a deserted road through the forest until I saw a hand-painted sign that read “Rainforest Hostel.”
I was 20 yards down the road before managing to react to this latest surprise and jamming on the brakes. I rode up the driveway to find a rather suburban-looking ranch house — the front covered with the flags of many nations. I found the owner working in the vegetable garden around the back and soon settled in for a good night’s sleep.
This is indeed a unique and independent place and a hostel to remember. The price is right at $10 a night if you help with a chore in the morning. The owner lives at one end of the house, the guests at the other, with the kitchen and a rather crowded living room that is shared. It was the right place at the right time and another amazing surprise on the Discovery Trail. I highly recommend this route for anyone looking to take on a multi-day tour that both inspires and delights.
Editor’s note: The Peninsula Trails Coalition website is full of information, maps and pictures. Find the details at olympicdiscoverytrail.com. The Rainforest Hostel can be found at fp1.centurytel.net/rainforesthostel.