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All Over The Map: 90 miles of history and scenery on Olympic Discovery Trail

There’s good news this week for the Olympic Discovery Trail between Port Townsend and, eventually, La Push on the Washington coast.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Washington, D.C., announced the award of a modest grant to the nonprofit Peninsula Trails Coalition, the all-volunteer group that supports the trail, and which is based right here in the other Washington.

Peninsula Trails Coalition was founded in 1988 to work with multiple jurisdictions to convert a number of abandoned rail lines, utility easements, and other public corridors in Jefferson and Clallam County to an uninterrupted stretch of hiking and biking trails.

The Northwest is considered a leader in the so-called “rails-to-trails” movement, with such early examples as the citizen-driven effort to create the Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle 50 years ago. Projects like this can be complex, and typically require decades of dedication and commitment – as well as luck and good timing – and the Peninsula group has made, quite literally, miles of progress in the past 30 years.

The planned route of the Olympic Discovery Trail goes from Port Townsend, the county seat of Jefferson County that was named in 1792 by Captain Vancouver for George Townshend, to the Pacific Ocean at La Push – a variation on the French “la bouche” or mouth, for the community’s location at the mouth of the Quillayute/Quileute River on the Quileute Indian Reservation – over a total distance of roughly 135 miles.

Jeff Bohman is board president of the Peninsula Trails Coalition, a group he’s been part of for 30 years. He told KIRO Radio earlier this week that the Olympic Discovery Trail is already about 70% complete, which translates into about 90 miles of hard-surfaced, eight-foot wide, accessible pathway.

And because much of the route covers old railroad grades, including many miles that were once part of the Milwaukee Road, there are several vintage pieces of railroad infrastructure that remain in place for hikers and bikers to use, and for historical interest, too.

“There are, I think, five restored and repurposed trestles and a number of smaller just little stream crossing structures,” Bohman said. “There’s a particularly noteworthy one at Dungeness River. In fact, that was one of the first pieces of the trails that was completed back in 1992. [And] there’s another trestle just east of Sequim.”

One of the most interesting and visually striking stretches of the route is in Olympic National Park along the north shore of Lake Crescent, a 10-mile section that Jeff Bohman says is the “crown jewel” of the Olympic Discovery Trail.

That particular stretch, Bohman says, is known as the Spruce Railroad Trail.

“It was given that name because it was built in order to carry spruce trees that would be used to build airplanes back in World War One,” Bohman said. “That ended up never happening because the war ended, but that’s just as historic and maybe, in some ways, even more interesting.”

A portion of the Spruce Railroad Trail was closed by a mudslide in January 2021, so it’s best to check for the latest conditions before planning a visit. Other sections of the Olympic Discovery Trail are not affected.

The grant from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy totals $10,000, and will support the hiring of a consultant to help work on designating and improving stretches of trail that aren’t yet accessible. The route goes through 13 different jurisdictions, and Bohman says the Peninsula Trails Coalition has agreements with each of the cities, counties, and tribes to manage things like volunteer maintenance and oversee other improvements like signage and trailhead parking lots.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy awarded the grant to Peninsula Trails Coalition because in 2019, the national organization designated the Olympic Discovery Trail as the “western terminus of the Great American Rail-Trail.” This means that it serves as the final western stretch of a series of trails in a dozen or so states – including the Palouse to Cascades Trail in Washington – that cross the entire country from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean over a distance of more than 3,000 miles.

“When the trail is all completed,” Bohman said, “that’s going to be the ‘milepost zero gateway’” of the Great American Rail-Trail.

And while Bohman estimates it could take another 15-20 years until that final western stretch is finished, there’s already plenty to enjoy right now – a full 90 miles worth – of the Olympic Discovery Trail.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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