The trail started off a little Stephen King and wound up a little Bill Bryson.
I had a freakishly rare couple of hours to kill after a shooting assignment near Lake Crescent and, knowing the Spruce Railroad Trail was mere minutes away, I jumped at the chance to amble up and down the lakeside path for the first time.
Being a novice in this country, I tried to imagine what a "railroad" trail would be like. The only thing I could come up with was a pair of train tracks I used to follow near my boyhood home; I romanticized it as a scene from King’s "Stand By Me."
Back in the present, I didn’t really plan on – or hope to – go find a dead body, like the young sojourners in King’s book. I really was looking for another simple day hike for my journal.
What I got was more like a "walk in the woods" that Bryson, one of America’s preeminent travel scribes, describes in his engaging chronicles.
For perhaps a quarter of a mile, the Spruce Railroad Trail takes hikers through thickly wooded areas, an awning of trees providing a respite from the uncommonly hot summer day. Being such a popular trail – close to the lake, a mere four miles each way and a rather historical pathway – I expected more traffic.
This trail follows an old rail bed built during World War I, constructed to transport Sitka spruce from the peninsula’s forests to Seattle to construct airplane frames. The line, historians note with great irony, was completed 19 days after Armistice Day and although it cost millions, not one spruce was shipped on it during the war. The right of way and railroad track were sold and used for commercial logging until 1954; park rangers turned it into a trail in 1981.
With that in mind, I found few remnants of the rail bed whatsoever. After some modestly rolling hills to and fro through the woods, the trail banks toward the lake and simply follows the shoreline, with enough space to go two hikers wide (or three skinny ones, I guess).
The trail features a few unmarked paths down to the shore and I ditched the trail to get an up-close view of the lake, gazing southward across the massive body of water.
I spotted a small powerboat with what I assumed was a dad and two of his children dipping fishing lines in what they thought was a secluded pocket of water on the lake’s north end.
Back on the trail, I crossed a small log by a gurgling waterfall and stream and saw my first hiking companions: a family of three, then another hiking couple, a solo hiker, then another. All of a sudden, the trail felt like a communal hike, yet not crowded at the same time. We all shared "Isn’t this nice" kind of hellos and kept on ambling.
Not far into the hike, I came upon the famed Devil’s Punch Bowl. County park officials estimate the depth of the small inlet as 300 feet, though no official recording exists that I can find. Last summer, I spent a few moments jumping and splashing off the Devil’s Punch Bowl Bridge, chickening out of the 40-foot drop from the cliffs above from which many daredevils leap.
On this, a hot summer day, four youngsters were making that leap while several more "seasoned" hikers looked on. I should have expected as much. Looking into the glacier-like turquoise water, I couldn’t help recall the Lady of the Lake legend, the one where Hallie Illingworth’s body was concealed by Lake Crescent’s depths for three years until 1940, when her body had become "soapified" (technically, "saponified") by the water’s minerals. I’m not jumping too deep in that lake if I can help it, even if Mrs. Illingworth already has been extracted.
The Spruce Railroad Trail meanders beyond the bowl for another two miles, shuffling back and forth from sparsely wooded path to scenic lake vista and back again. Through the branches of stately Pacific madronas that dot the trail’s shoreline crags, I spotted a family on the beach taking a break from kayaking and inner tubing, enjoying a midday snack.
Frankly, I was making terrible time since I found it hard to put my camera away.
While some of the lake speckled with glittering sunlight, most of it was reflecting dark and threatening clouds, I scampered back to the trail head. I forgot the cardinal rule of hiking in Washington: Bring rain gear at all times, particularly when it’s sunny. With rain starting to fall, I wasn’t going to give the Lady of the Lake or any other soap-like lake creatures someone to grab onto. I left the last mile-and-a-half unhiked (the final length leads to views of Aurora Ridge, Barnes Point and ends at Camp David Jr. Road), postponing it for another day.
Even though much of the trail was modest in elevation gain or terrain, the Spruce Railroad Trail was enough to get some blood pumping without the need for a breather, as if it were geographically wrought for hikers on cruise control. And that may be the best part of the Spruce Railroad Trail: It has enough for everybody and is suitable for anybody, especially those who would rather trade speedboat-powered watersports on the nearby lake for a leisurely walk in the woods, Bill Bryson style.
Michael Dashiell is sports editor at the Sequim Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Spruce Railroad Trail
How long: 4 miles each way.
How hard: Easy.
How to get there: Take U.S. Highway 101 to East Beach Road, west of Port Angeles at Lake Crescent. Turn right onto the road. Follow it for three miles. Turn left just past the Log Cabin Resort on a road marked by a sign for the Spruce Railroad Trail. The trail starts on the right at the parking area.
Note: No pets allowed; mountain bikes OK