4. Hyak to North Bend

All Downhill!!!


There's a nice quiet parking area 1/2 mile east of the tunnel, with vault toilets and picnic tables. A little further west is the main trailhead area at Hyak, which offers running water, too.

In August 2011 BusUp90 was advertising a shuttle service dropping hikers and bikers off at Hyak for one-way trips along the grade, from either Cedar Falls on the west or Ellensburg on the east, for $22 a head.

Pass layout. Tunnel is the double-dashed line near the bottom, above Hyak Lake.

I rode off the grade looking for some kind of store for food and wine. Nada, and the hills are mighty steep after being spoiled for days by an easy railroad grade.

I hadn't climbed far when I spotted the Aardvark Café - the first name in good chow here. Le chef told me there's a minimart a few miles up the hill. I didn't need to go - he drove up to get change and picked me up a bottle of good cheap red. He saved me climbing to the pass when my object was the tunnel, and he cooks up delicious potent pan-Asian fuel, too. I coasted back down to the tunnel satisfied and stuffed.

Round a bend on the grade and there it is, huge mediæval gates wide open, usually from May to November. Aside from failsafe lights, you'll need to bundle up a bit - it's shockingly chilly in there, and in some places quite drippy, too. They say it's closed in the winter so nobody gets clobbered by a falling icicle.

I'm a city kid who's spent way too many hours in dank NYC subway tunnels, but even an old rat has to be impressed with the enormous mass of the Cascades crest overhead. Stop and think about it - turn off your lights - see if you freak out! That little pinhole above is the west portal.

Tunnel construction took from 1912 to 1914. It's 2.25 miles long. From 1909 until the tunnel opened, the line had to snake its way up over Snoqualmie Pass on tough grades - 2.2% from the east, 2.75% from the west - with heavy winter snowfalls often totalling well over 500 inches.

Some records from "History of Laconia at Snoqualmie Pass"-

1909-1910, 548 inches; 1910-1911, 413 inches; 1911-1912, 437 inches; 1912-1913, 572 inches; and 1913-1914, 400 inches.

Over the Pass, 1912

Drilling 11,890 feet in 2 years works out to about 16 feet a day - drill, blast, clear the rubble, repeat til daylight.

Tunnels are often drilled from both ends at once, counting on precise surveying to meet in the middle. The 8-mile Cascades tunnel had a shaft down to the tunnel level allowing crews to work on 4 faces at once.

This compressed-air multi-drill rig in action on a Great Northern Railway tunnel in the Cascades was the state of the art 100 years ago. Current tunnel-boring machines claim a speed up to 96 feet a day in solid rock.

Facing that, John Henry would just sit down and light up a Camel. Back in his day, drilling with a hammer, hand steel, and black powder, 3 shifts might make 4 feet a day, barely waiting for the dust and smoke to clear before going back to drill some more.


Of course the rate of progress with any method varies with the hardness and density of the rock. The geology around the tunnel is layers of volcanic and sedimentary rock. I'm guessing they drove the tunnel through rhyolite, a volcanic with the composition of granite in a finer-grained form.

When you come out into the sunshine on the west end, you've not only left the tunnel but also the drier eastern slopes of the Cascades. Ahead there's a view far and wide of steep heavily-forested mountains above the glacier-cut valley. Consider, if you will, the nerve and skill it took to run a smooth railroad grade through here 100 years ago.

It's quite an inheritance - and it's all downhill from here 30-odd miles to North Bend!

Of course you can blast it. Watch out for some dangerous deep-gravel speed traps here and there. I took my sweet time, to appreciate the country and the engineering that got heavily-loaded trains through it. After the tunnel was drilled through, the maximum grade up the west slope is just 1.7%, quite a break from the former 2.75%.

You've also crossed the line into King County, which, by royal edict, orders all its bicycle riding subjects to wear helmets on its trails. I'm a citizen who doesn't own a helmet, and have yet to be seized by the sheriff's men, but you never know. I'm sure the punishment is brutal enough to keep the peasants in order. Can you stand that hanging over your unhelmed head? Well can ya, villein?

1880s Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern route actually didn't quite make the Pass, pulling up a bit southeast of North Bend near Sallal Prairie in 1889. It was taken over by the Northern Pacific Railway in 1892. The map date is 1888, when Issaquah was the less euphonius "Squak".

Early next morning I rode on down to the Cedar Falls trailhead. The spur to North Bend is there somewhere, but I couldn't find it on a dark wet morning. I wound up following the mainline to its end by Rattlesnake Lake, then headed north on a paved road. Soon the spur grade of the Everett Branch obviously ran alongside, and I hopped on for the long coasting through the forest to North Bend.

On the map below, I think the "Cedar Falls" trailhead is actually near the B in Boxley.