January 9, 1997
Hike of the Week: Spruce Railroad Trail - ideal for kids
By KAREN SYKES
SPECIAL TO THE POST-INTELLIGENCER
The Spruce Railroad Trail is perfect for a hike any time of the year if you like history, legend and picture-postcard beauty. The trail winds along the north shore of stunning Lake Crescent on the Olympic Peninsula. The lake, in the early days believed to be bottomless, reputedly never gave up its dead.
But there's nothing scary about the trail. It stays below 800 feet of elevation the whole way, is rarely snow-covered and is well-maintained.
The story of the trail begins with World War I, when the United States and its allies needed spruce, the best wood at the time for building airplane frames. A division was formed by the U.S. Army in 1917 to supply spruce for this endeavor, and it focused on the abundant Sitka Spruce on the north Peninsula.
In order to move the logs to a mill in Port Angeles, a railroad had to be built around the lake, since there were no roads there at the time. It was quite a feat for the time: a 36-mile line, built through forest and blasted through rock. It was finished in less than five months. Two tunnels were built along the route. They can be seen today from the trail, but have collapsed and exploration is dangerous.
However, history is full of irony, and the Spruce Railroad is one of them. The line was completed 19 days after Armistice Day, and although it cost millions, not a single log was shipped on it during the war.
The right-of-way and track were sold and used for commercial logging until 1954. Olympic National Park rangers turned it into a trail in 1981.
My favorite section of the trail is an arched bridge near what was originally called The Devil's Bathtub, where wildflowers grow profusely in the spring. A friend and I spent a happy hour on our hands and knees one spring photographing the somewhat rare chocolate lily -- we'd never seen so many. Look for these flowers in late March through April.
From the bridge, you can look out over the lake -- at 5,000 acres and 9 miles long the third largest natural lake in Washington -- to the surrounding Olympic peaks. Then you can understand why people might have thought it had no bottom (it's actually about 600 feet deep). Native Americans reportedly refused to canoe or fish in the lake, believing evil spirits lived in its depths. One story locals tell has it that a woman murdered by her husband decades ago was thrown in the lake. Three years later her body surfaced, and it had turned to soap.
Take the Edmonds ferry to Kingston, and drive to Highway 101 via State Route 104 then west on Highway 101 through Port Angeles. After about 16 miles, take a right onto East Beach Road, just east of Lake Crescent. Follow this winding road 3.2 miles, turning left on another paved road with a sign for the Spruce Railroad Trail. The road crosses the Lyre River and reaches the parking area near some residences.
The trail begins near the eastern end of the lake and passes by the remains of an old orchard. The trail turns into an abandoned logging road before descending to the railroad grade. The trail stays close to the shore and is generous in its views of the lake and peaks, including Mount Storm King. The trail then rounds a point and passes by the north end of the first tunnel before climbing over Devil's Point at about one mile.
Here begins the most picturesque part of the hike, the trail crossing a deep cove (the Devil's Bathtub) on the arched bridge. The rock walls are festooned with ferns and mosses and the cliffs plunge down into the clear, green water of the lake.
Beyond the bridge the trail goes by cliffs where madrona trees hang on in an endless battle with gravity. At about three miles, the second tunnel is reached, but it is partially collapsed and cannot be entered.
The trail leaves the railroad grade at about four miles and descends to the end of the North Shore Road (you can also begin the hike from the North Shore Road). This is a relatively gentle hike that kids will love.
Round-trip to the arched bridge is about three miles, with negligible elevation gain. The trail is snow-free virtually year-round. Be on the lookout for poison oak and ticks, especially in spring. Do not enter the tunnels.
For details, read "The Trail Guide to Olympic National Park" by Erik Molvar, (Falcon Press, 227 pages, $14.95). For legends about Lake Crescent and other places in the Northwest, read "Phantom Waters" by Jessica Amanda Salmonson (Sasquatch Books, 210 pages, $14.95).