Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Tumwater Pipeline Trail, May 17, 2009

This is an easy hike near Leavenworth, a favorite of locals. Years ago I found the hike by accident while driving US 2. I'd often noticed a steel bridge crossing the Wenatchee River just outside of Leavenworth and wondered what it was. An old railroad bridge? Could I walk across it? I was always on my way to somewhere else and put it on the back burner.

One day I stopped to see what the bridge was all about. There were no signs then - and there are still no signs along US 2 indicating the bridge as the starting point for a short, scenic hike. Then I walked across the bridge and found a trail on the other side of the river. The trail was aglow with spring flowers, the river was running high and it was lovely. I walked until I ran out of trail, perhaps a long mile from US 2.

Eventually I found the trail on a Green Trails map - it was designated as the Penstock Trail. Further research revealed that the trail paralleled a section of a historic wooden pipeline built to carry water from a dam upstream to a powerplant needed to power electricity for the Great Northern trains.

Prior to the construction of the Cascade Tunnel trains toiled over Stevens Pass via long switchbacks but the route was hazardous, snow removal from the tracks was time-consuming and dangerous. In 1900 the Cascade Tunnel was built to alleviate the perilous route though that created more problems. The tunnels were smoky, passengers and crews were sickened by the smoke, some critically. The railroad company solved that problem by powering the trains with electricity. Trolley wire was hung in the tunnel and boxcar "motors" were purchased. A powerhouse and surge tank were built below the dam in Tumwater Canyon enabling the pipeline to carry water from the reservoir to the surge tank. The pipeline was called a "penstock" and followed the river from the dam to the powerplant and surge tank. The electrical system served the Great Northern until the late 1920s when improved system was built.

The original bridge that carried the pipeline stands today serving as a walkway for hikers, railroad history buffs and wildflower enthusiasts. When you cross the river you are actually walking on the bottom half of the old pipeline. After crossing the river you can walk upstream a mile or so before the trail rounds a rocky prominence where the "trail" disappears. Two streams cross the trail, one is a step-across, the other a little challenging when the stream is running high. As of this writing, two small logs serve as a bridge; it would be nice if it had a handrail.

Several spurs drop to sandy beaches, nooks and crannies ideal for a picnic or to cool your feet. You can also watch climbers practice their airy maneuvers on Castle Rock. Bring binoculars to enhance the viewing.

For wildflowers April through early June is best. When we were there we were a little too late for the spring flowers and a little too early for summer flowers. We saw serviceberry, Tweedy's lewisia, arnica, spring beauties, glacier lilies, lupine (just starting to bloom), waterleaf and Indian Paintbrush. En route we passed a memorial for two young women who drowned - please be careful on the river if you are swimming or rafting. We also found a geo-cache.

Apparently there are petroglyphs on some of the boulders near the trail; we didn't know they were there until we got home and researched the area on The Internet. If you find them, leave them as they are. No one needs to know or cares that "John loves Mary", etc. Let others discover their magic.

There is also an old tunnel just past the end of the "trail" that the railroad built to carry the pipeline through an outcropping. I found the tunnel a few years ago by "scrambling" but it is not easy to find and could even be dangerous. I stood inside the tunnel and spotted the remnants of the penstock. The wood had rotted away but the coils of steel that held the wood in place were obvious; I knew immediately that I had struck "gold". I tried to find the entrance to the tunnel this time but apparently there have been rockslides; I was unable to find it.

While you are in the region take time to stop at "The Alps" candy store a couple miles west of the trail on US 2. The candy store burned down but is being rebuilt and you can still buy fudge, taffy and other culinary delights on your way to or from the trail. The fudge is delicious!

To find the trailhead (from Seattle) 2-3 miles east of the candy store look for a steel bridge crossing the river. Just past the bridge, a road on the right-hand side of US 2 leads to a parking area with a restroom. It is not signed but if you are looking for it, you'll find it. If you get to Leavenworth you've gone a little too far. It is between mileposts 97-98.

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