The Tommy Thompson trail in Anacortes and other trails around Western Washington use old rail trestles to get you where you want to go.
ANACORTES — On a dark, blustery afternoon in the middle of Fidalgo Bay, a couple of double-crested cormorants dive below the chilly chop in search of food while, overhead, gulls appear to hang motionless. Nearby, billowing smoke streams sideways from the stacks of “Blade Runner”-esque refineries and, ever so slowly, parting clouds above the eastern foothills reveal an ultra-snowy Mount Baker, practically aglow from a recent fortnight of epic snowfall.
Meanwhile, Sandy Hirzel gets in his afternoon constitutional.
“I like walking across the water,” says the retired Anacortes resident, not at all implying that he possesses supernatural powers. Rather he’s partaking in his twice-weekly routine of walking the Tommy Thompson Parkway, an ultracool 3.3-mile paved-and-boardwalk trail from Anacortes to March Point, which includes a mile-long crossing of Fidalgo Bay.
For a little less than a half-mile of that water crossing, the trail travels atop a 2,000-foot railroad trestle that once carried a BNSF Railway line.
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“You see a lot of wildlife out here,” Hirzel says. “Sea gulls, otters, great blue herons, harbor seals, eagles — a whole lot of stuff.”
The trail is named for Tommy Thompson, a local railroad enthusiast who once ran a small-scale steam engine train in Anacortes.
Open to pedestrians and cyclists — it’s a terrific way for two-wheelers to avoid the hustle and bustle of the Highway 20 approach to Anacortes — the trestle trail first opened to the public in 2005. But four years later, it closed when a 300-foot section of the trestle burned in a suspected arson.
“It’s suspected arson only because nobody could figure out a way that the fire could’ve started on its own,” says Gary Robinson, director of Anacortes Parks and Recreation. “No clues or evidence were ever found.”
They love their trestle
Thankfully, trestle-lovers throughout the area rallied, raising more than $300,000 to repair the trestle, which reopened about two years ago.
It’s seen a fairly steady stream of walkers, runners and cyclists ever since, many of them out even on a chilly, constant-threat-of-rain day.
Adds Robinson: “People who live here absolutely love it because it’s almost like having your own boat, only better: You don’t have to scrape the barnacles off it or pay moorage fees.”
The Tommy Thompson Parkway trail is 3.3 miles long (one-way) and extends from the intersection of 11th Street and Q Avenue in Anacortes (by the downtown Safeway) to March Point on the east side of Fidalgo Bay. Along the way, the paved, flat trail passes through industrial waterfront to madrona- and fir-heavy forest to an RV park. The last mile crosses the bay, first via rocky causeway mere feet above the eelgrass- and muck-heavy mud flats, before reaching March Point via the 2,000-foot trestle.
Getting there: From Burlington, at Exit 230 from Interstate 5, head west on Highway 20 for about 11 miles. Just past the Highway 20 turnoff to Whidbey Island, turn right on Fidalgo Bay Road and in about a mile turn right into Fidalgo Bay Resort RV park. Tommy Thompson Trail parking is just ahead on the right.
There is also on-street parking in town near the trail if you want to make a longer walk of it.
Here are a few other Western Washington rail trails that offer a trestle-top experience:
Taylor Avenue Dock, Bellingham
This one-third-mile restored trestle boardwalk extends out over Bellingham Bay and boasts big-time water, island and Canadian mountain views. From Boulevard Park, at the foot of Bellingham’s South Hill neighborhood, head south across the newly restored Pattle Point Trestle (reopened last year) and continue on to Taylor Dock, just ahead. Mosey your way along, taking in the waterfront and “Grace,” a guerrilla-art sculpture of a yoga pose installed in the middle of the night last fall atop a heap of old tin from the city’s cannery days.
From the south end of the dock, by the Chrysalis Inn & Spa, you’re a quarter-mile from Fairhaven, easily accessed by trail and a short stretch of lightly traveled 10th Street.
From I-5 take Exit 250 and head west on Old Fairhaven Parkway into Fairhaven. Turn right onto 12th Street and follow for 0.7 miles to the Boulevard Park entrance on the left.
John Wayne Pioneer Trail
This beloved rail trail follows the old Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul-Pacific line — roughly paralleling Interstate 90 — and is probably best-known for its frighteningly cool but frighteningly dark 2-plus mile Snoqualmie Tunnel.
Along the way, the John Wayne, which extends east from Cedar Falls for more than 100 miles into Eastern Washington, crosses a number of high trestles. They offer stunning views into deep, dark ravines and to the surrounding peaks and Cascade ridges.
A good one to check out is the Hall Creek Trestle — rebuilt in 1999, and a key puzzle piece in enabling the John Wayne to be a continuous trail west of Snoqualmie Pass — just off I-90’s Exit 38. Make a day of it and explore a couple of tumbling waterfalls while you’re at it: Twin Falls and Weeks Falls, both at Olallie State Park, also accessed via Exit 38.
Orting to South Prairie
Mount Rainier is the star of this 7-mile stretch of paved rural rail trail, for its views and its Carbon River, which the trail crosses via a railroad trestle.
Along the way, several trailside viewing and rest areas offer opportunities for contemplative enjoyment of the surrounding forests and farmland. (Look for the farm with emus and buffalo!)
Along the way, the trail also crosses Voights, Roush and South Prairie creeks, making this Pierce County gem a sort of trail-trestle-palooza.
The Foothills Trail runs through downtown Orting; a good place to start is near Orting City Park on Washington Avenue. On-street parking is available.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “75 Classic Rides: Washington” (Mountaineers Books) due out in May. He can be reached at email@example.com. His blog is mcqview.blogspot.com.