One Foot in Front of the Other
E.L. Doctorow once compared writing to driving in the fog: “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I’d say the same applies to hiking, especially if you’re going through the Snoqualmie Tunnel on the Palouse to Cascades Trail, where you’ll only see as far as your headlamp, and you’ll have to make the whole trip that way, because you’re in an abandoned pitch-black railway tunnel that’s 2.3 miles long.
I don’t mean to scare you off. On a recent sunny Saturday, the Snoqualmie Tunnel section of the 110-mile Palouse to Cascades Trail near Snoqualmie Pass made for a perfect diversion — if a slightly spooky one. Just remember to bring a headlamp or a flashlight (relying on your phone is a bad idea), and maybe go with someone whose hand you wouldn’t mind grabbing in a moment of panic, should one arise.
Walking into the tunnel, I felt like Frodo Baggins skulking through the Mines of Moria in “The Lord of the Rings.” You know the horror movie trope when someone walks into a cursed and/or malevolent space, and the doors slam shut behind them, and they look back in terror and surprise?
Walking into the Snoqualmie Tunnel feels kind of like that.
No Balrogs were sighted, but you could be faced with a more primal fear: Once you’re in the tunnel, it’s a long, dark journey, and the only way out is (literally) through.
The 5.3-mile hike begins at the Hyak trailhead in Iron Horse State Park, where you’ll find easy parking and clean restrooms. A short distance from the trailhead, you’ll feel a palpable temperature drop, and you might even see a light mist emerging from the charcoal-black void looming between two massive doors in front of you. This is the entrance to the Snoqualmie Tunnel, and you won’t see anything else for the next 2.3 miles.
This is a good time to put on a few extra layers — even if it’s hot out, the tunnel will be cool — and ready your headlamp or flashlight.
If you’re traveling with a panicky child (or adult), this is also the point where you can turn around and avoid the next couple of miles altogether. Choose wisely.
Inside, the wide walls and high ceiling keep claustrophobia (mostly) at bay, and the railroad grade is flat and smooth, which makes for easy walking or cycling. As you travel farther into the tunnel, the light falls away, a heavy silence sets in, and the far-off exit will look like a winking pinprick of light in the distance. It’s so dim you could mistake it for a bike light.
Keep an eye on the terrain in front of you, and watch out for water pools forming where mystery liquid trickles down from the ceiling and slimy walls.
Now and then, you might see other people in the tunnel, their various lights creating force fields of visibility bobbing along otherwise dark walls, their words echoing into nothingness. Watch out for bikes. Say hi when you pass. You’re in this dark little world together.
At just over 5 miles round-trip, most of it extremely flat, a journey through the Snoqualmie Tunnel isn’t a difficult hike by any traditional measure.
But there’s a psychological barrier to walking through a pitch-black tube blasted into the mountain, and I’m not sure I’d recommend taking kids on this one. They might love the weirdness of it, but they also might be like a child in a group we passed on our way out of the tunnel, who let out a bloodcurdling scream.
In a moment almost cinematic in its eeriness, the scream echoed across the tunnel’s walls. It’s not really something you want to hear in an abandoned train tunnel, but I understood where the kid was coming from.
Still, I found the journey worthwhile, if only because it made me extra appreciative of the sunshine on the other side of the tunnel. The view at the end of the tunnel isn’t the best you’ll encounter in the Northwest’s wild places, but it will feel like it is. I had never been so glad to see a picnic table, much less a shock of wildflowers and the actually stunning Granite Peak, easy to identify by the lookout on top.
My fig-and-fruit bar tasted wonderful. The sun was shining. Cyclists were cruising past happily. It was one of those perfect summer days where you can’t imagine living anywhere but the Pacific Northwest.
And then it was time to go back into the darkness, bike lights guiding the way this time. As with all things, it was less stressful the second time around. I even experimented with extinguishing my light source a few times (I don’t recommend this). I had walked into the void, and walked back out.
And isn’t that what we’ve all been doing, one quarantined day at a time, for the past 16 months? It’s been over a year of trauma, mass death, loss and fear. You can handle a creepy hike.
Snoqualmie Tunnel section, Palouse to Cascades Trail
Distance: 5.3 miles round-trip
Good for: Cyclists, hot-weather hiking, horror movie enthusiasts
Parking: The trail begins in Iron Horse State Park. Stash your car at the Hyak trailhead, whose generously sized parking lot was nearly empty on a recent Saturday morning. It also has amazingly clean restrooms.
Terrain: The former railroad grade is wide, level and well-maintained, but watch out in places for water leaking from the tunnel’s ceiling into puddles underfoot. A strong headlamp or flashlight is essential: Once you’re in the tunnel, you really can’t see anything without a light source, and you can’t exit for 2.3 miles. Extra layers are also a good idea; even when it’s hot outside, the tunnel stays cool.