Olympic Discovery Trail is a dream

October 3, 2013 

BLYN — During breakfast we saw an American icon commit murder. By 11 a.m., it briefly appeared we were approaching the edge of the earth, the horizon erased by a wall of grayish white. And at lunchtime we stood on a beach, clad in spandex as members of the Queets Tribe gave us a tour of a canoe they were paddling around the Olympic Peninsula.

If it seemed as if we were in the middle of a dream, it’s because we were.

The dream is the Olympic Discovery Trail, a multiuse paved path supporters hope one day will stretch from Port Townsend to LaPush.

“Connecting the Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean, that is the vision,” said Andy Stevenson, president of the Peninsula Trails Coalition.

At the middle of this dream is a 40-mile stretch between Blyn and the Elwha River that already is reality. And, as some friends and I discovered during a July bike tour, the trail, despite being only 40 percent complete, already is like no other trail in the Northwest.

It winds through trees and pastureland, crosses rivers, visits Port Angeles and Sequim, a state park, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and offers easy access to numerous side trips. It rolls and twists more than the Northwest’s flatter, straighter and better known multiuse trails, such as the Foothills, Chehalis-Western and Burke-Gilman.

“It’s good variety, so it’s not just a flat boring ride,” Puyallup cyclist Russ Meyers said during our ride.

Vicki Heckman, owner of Port Angeles’ Sound Bikes and Kayaks, says the trail is the ride she most often recommends for visitors.

“You can go out for an hour or you can spend all day,” she said. “It has something for everybody.”

Slow down

I’d just opened a pack of strawberry Pop-Tarts to fuel up for a day of riding, when we were distracted by a bald eagle circling a small water bird afloat on Sequim Bay.

We abandoned breakfast to watch the action.

“Bird, you better look out,” said Rick Beitelspacher, a Puyallup resident making his first trip on the trail. “You’re gonna be dinner.”

That’s exactly what happened. The bird of prey swooped low and plucked its victim from the water.

We were camping on a private beach just off the trail and it was moments like this that drove home the point that a ride on this trail shouldn’t be about going fast.

We rode about 77 miles on the completed section of trail. We would typically finish a ride of that distance before noon, but this time it would take us two days.

On the first morning, we started at the south end of the bay and headed through Sequim Bay State Park to Sequim where we stopped at Mike’s Bikes (now All Around Bikes) to replace a tire Meyers managed to blow out during the first mile.

At the shop, the staff recommended we skip certain sections of the trail and ride on U.S. Highway 101 if we wanted to go faster. Even in this finished section of the trail, there are stretches of unpaved trail that won’t faze most users but might make road cyclists stop and push.

Heckman agreed. “The trail isn’t the place for a training ride,” she said. “You can’t go whomping along at max speed. You can get great training rides in on the shoulder of the highway, but the trail is more for commuting and enjoying the scenery.”

The rain shadow

Perhaps the trail’s best amenity is the famous Olympic rain shadow. The completed section of trail sits in this area that receives less rain than the rest of Western Washington.

“You can come out here and ride the trail any time of the year,” Heckman said.

Of course, lack of rain hardly means perfect weather. While you might stay dry, you also are likely to encounter fog, wind and cold.

As we made our way through the pasturelands west of Sequim and transitioned from riding inland to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we experienced several changes in the weather.

We could see the Strait before we got there. The blue skies on the horizon abruptly gave way to a fluffy wall of grayish white as if a cloud had fallen from the sky.

As we got closer we were greeted by the wind, but once we were rolling along the beach, the fog started lifting.

It’s these last four miles or so before Port Angeles that really sets the trail apart. There are dozens of places to hop off your bike and explore the beach and watch cargo ships cruise through the Strait.

It was about two miles from Port Angeles when we noticed a small group of people resting on the beach next to painted wooden canoes.

We stashed our bikes on the side of the trail and asked for a closer look at the boats. The group was from the Queets tribe and was paddling around the Olympic Peninsula as part of the annual Canoe Journey.

Each year since the journey began in 1989, Pacific Northwest tribes from various locations in Washington and British Columbia spend weeks paddling to a predetermined location to celebrate their culture.

Going west, forward

On the second day, we made the short ride along the trail from Port Angeles to the Elwha River, but first we warmed up with a side trip on the Waterfront Trail to the end of Ediz Hook, a 3-mile sand spit.

The quick side trip passed through the Ediz Hook Reservation for Native Birds (all we saw were gulls) and reacquainted us with the Strait’s famous winds. As we took a leisurely pace on the way out, I glanced at my speedometer and noticed we were going 24 mph. When we turned around at the U.S. Coast Guard station and headed back to the Discovery Trail, our speed dropped to 15 mph.

Heckman said she doesn’t typically recommend inexperienced cyclists head west from Port Angeles on the trail. The reason: Hill Street. Heading west you’ll climb the entire way and Heckman says she’s seen some unsuspecting riders get frustrated.

Experienced cyclists, especially those who regularly ride in Western Washington, aren’t likely to suffer any such Hill Street blues.

Heckman also recommends packing snacks and water if you’re heading west. While you’ll find plenty of restaurants and stores between Blyn and Port Angeles, you won’t have those options on the way to the river.

This section of the trail runs through the trees and makes a steady descent on an old railroad bed to the Elwha.

“There is nothing in the universe that makes for a better bike trail than an old railroad bed,” Stevenson said. “You have long sections that are straight, the corners are nice and it’s not too steep. If it’s something those old train engines couldn’t do, then we don’t want to do it anyway.”

The paved section of the trail ends on the west side of the Elwha River, crossing via a bridge hanging below the Elwha River Road Bridge.

While it’s a gorgeous spot to stop, take pictures and have a picnic, Stevenson is excited for the day when the trail continues on.

He often keeps riding west on the shoulder of state Route 112 to Joyce (road construction turned us around before we reached this tiny town) then heads south to Lake Crescent and Olympic National Park.

While there is no estimated completion date for the 130-mile trail that passes through 11 different local, tribal, state and federal jurisdictions, Stevenson holds on to hope that the dream will come true sooner than later.

Until then, he says, the 40-mile sneak preview between Blyn and Port Angeles has plenty to offer.

“It kind of reminds me of an Eagles song,” Beitelspacher said. “You have ‘a peaceful easy feeling’ as you’re riding it. It’s nice, relaxing and enjoyable. It’s a nice time to think and enjoy the scenery.”

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