One of the great benefits of living in the lowlands of western Washington State is that this area was once interlaced with multiple railroad lines. As these have been abandoned in favor of roads and trucks, the railbeds have been converted into trails.
These trails have multiple points of access, are gently graded, and give folks a space for a ramble at a moment’s notice.
Finding Your Trail
Trails along converted rail lines can be found all across the United Stated. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a non-profit organization that supports building and using these trail systems, is the place to go to find trails of various lengths in all fifty states.
The Conservancy helps people explore the entire system through their website and their free app. They highlight details of trail types, photos, and maps.
In the Washington State Rail-to-Trail system there are eighty-five trails providing 1,124 miles to explore. With all the options, the Chehalis Western Trail is my favorite go-to when introducing friends who want to explore the system.
Chehalis Western Trail access and route
The 22-mile Chehalis-Western Trail passes through a variety of ecosystems, in both urban and rural environments. The best map of the entire trail is available from Thurston County Parks who also provides trail condition updates.
Along the trail there are amenities, ranging from stepping off trail for a quick coffee or a treat from a local bakery to on-trail access to 170-plus acres of park land. From the trail, I can also access the Deschutes River, Chambers Lake, and the Puget Sound.
Toward the southern end, it intersects with the Yelm-Tenino trail, adding another 14.5 miles for those looking for a longer distance for biking.
Motorized vehicles are barred from the trail, leaving a peaceful space for walkers, bikers, runners, and horseback riders. Each time the trail and a local road cross each other there are signs, and barriers that can be removed by local authorities in case of an emergency.
The Chehalis Western Trail is paved, and there are distance markers every half mile. In longer sections, parallel dirt paths on either side of the pavement give horses a softer surface on which to walk.
Cross roads are clearly marked for the benefit of both trail users and crossing drivers. I have several favorite starting spots, depending on my mood and how much time I have, where I can park the car on a side road or in designated parking area.
The Chehalis Western Trail was borne from the Chehalis Western Railroad, which operated from 1926 to the mid-1980s. The timber company Weyerhaeuser built the line to bring logs down from Vail, just south-east of the town of Rainier.
The line’s terminus was at the Puget Sound in Woodard Bay where logs could be transported on to Seattle and Tacoma’s major ports.
Because the rail line predated the construction of Interstate 5 and several other major roads, raised bridges have been added over the last thirty years so that those on the trail can cross safely.
People quickly develop an attachment to a particular section of trail, so making friends with those who walk their section regularly is an added pleasure. Local service organizations have added enhancements, like the ramp and elevated seating provided by the city of Lacey’s Rotary club.
Along the Trail
While not a challenging hike, this is a perfect space for the unplanned wander. The trail is open from dawn to dusk, so depending on the time of day, I can do a relatively solitary “thinking” walk or I enjoy the company of other people. There are lots of dog walkers so getting a chance to say “hello” to a furry new friend is pretty-much guaranteed.
There are spectacular seasonal floral displays along the side of the trail. Non-native foxglove blossoms grow right next to the paved path in shady areas. In summer there are long stretches with wild Himalayan blue berries to pick for a snack.
Benches provided all along the way are excellent stopping spots. I especially love to sit for long period to watch birds and people as they go by.
On hot summer days the shaded benches are perfect spot to read a favorite book or do a little writing. Because it is easy to choose how far to walk, it is also easy to have a change in plan from a long walk to a shorter, more contemplative distance spent immersed in being outside.
While the lowlands of Western Washington are known for rainy winters, about once a year there will be a snowfall. The trail is transformed by the white covering, and snow muffles footfalls. The snow also provides a record of the animals who have passed by, revealing the abundant wildlife that use the trail at night. I’ve encountered the snowy tracks of racoons, coyotes, rabbits, weasels, and occasional bobcats.
No matter the weather or how much time I can carve out of a busy day, the Chehalis Western Trail beckons. On long summer days on a bike, I can ride the entire trail with stops along the way. In late spring when the leaves have come in, I can wander just a mile or two on foot, enjoying a short respite in the midst of a busy day. Oh, and yes, I am planning to do the entire 48 miles when the connections between trails are completed.