Robe Valley, Washington… The hidden gem of an area for outdoor recreation, Seattle’s own historic backyard playground has so much to offer with sights to see and trails to hike it’s hard to choose what to spend your time to go explore. One fabulous hike really gives some incredible river views and allows the trekker to get a sense of the gold rush history that took place up this valley during the days of the wild west.
Steps away from Paca Pride Guest Ranch, the Robe Canyon Historic Park trail head leads hikers right from the Mountain Loop Highway directly into the forest where it approaches a series of switchback trails carved into the side of the canyon walls. Descending the canyon you marvel at the scope of nature’s river carving out this valley between the two bedrock walls that are a favorite for kayakers and the rapids that can become a roaring category 5 during the Fall.
The trail leads you out from the canyon walls along a meandering path of cottonwoods. Time your hike for the right point during Spring and you’ll be lucky enough to find a patch of Morels fruiting in the marshy turf. But, you’ll have to know where to hunt for them as this secret spot has many locals out hunting these treasures too. After a short walk the trail turns suddenly to the west to follow the river’s edge. At this initial river’s intersection, the river is low and flat. During the month of August you will see the river at its lowest point of the year with lush grassy banks.
Following the trail along the river and you’ll start to notice an abrupt change of scenery as you enter into the heart of the canyon with the walls on the far side rising over five stories in height and forcing the river through a series of rocky rapids. The meandering trickle starts to become a misty and roaring rapid.
The trail continues and evidence of just how intense the Pacific Northwest winters can become is obvious as some trail sections give way to walls of boulders with well worn pathways to traverse. Soon you start to see signs that industry once tackled the river edges as concrete walls tried to buffer the river’s course in order to support the tracks of the railway that once went up this valley.
The only parts left of the railroad are embedded railway ties that once held the iron of the actual tracks. Built and rebuilt for several years during the early 1900’s, you can still find the odd railroad spike jutting out of the rock of the trail bed. It was famous Rockefeller monies that built these tracks to travel all the way up to the mining town of Monte Cristo, but they had to solve the challenges of either laying track up the canyon or forging a pathway through the heavily timbered old growth forest. They choose the seemingly easy route next to what they thought of as a “simple little trout stream”. Needless to say, the folly of eastern financiers was in picking a route to carve out seven railroad tunnels without regard for how the river would become a challenge during the winter months. In the harsh winters to follow, practically every tunnel was filled back up with river debris or slides and needed to be dug back out or blasted back open.
Only two of the seven tunnels remain to this day. The first long one is what you will encounter. To reach it the trail requires you to traverse some slide areas that include large boulders and rip rap rock that have settled across the trail. This is best done with a hiking buddy and paying careful attention to where you put your feet. It is not a difficult task, but care is definitely warranted. The payoff of getting to the first tunnel is worth it.
You can feel the ghosts of history speaking to you as you entire the eerie calm that encases the air of the tunnel. The white noise of the river falls away to the echo of your footsteps on the damp bedrock of the tunnel.
For those inclined to think that you will be crouching down for a bit of spelunking through cave entrances, nothing can be further from the truth. These tunnels are large enough to fit, well, a train. They have however been in disuse for many, many years so as you observe the boulders and rocks strewn along the floor wondering where they came from, just look up and you’ll probably locate the empty spots on the roof from which they fell. These manmade structures are giving way to nature and falling rock is just one of the things to be wary of as you make your way through. To give you a sense of size, just take a look at this picture of tunnel number two, it may be shorter in length than tunnel one, but the shear vastness can be garnered by comparing to the big dog seen cavorting in the scene. These tunnels are a grand sight to behold and a sheer industrial marvel of construction when you consider the technology of the day used to construct them.
Overall, Robe Canyon Historic Park offers a relatively moderate effort hike for kids and adults (considering that you have to climb back up the steady switchbacks you descended at the beginning of the trail). It’s a glimpse into the history of the Robe Valley. After your hike you can stop off at Paca Pride Guest Ranch, which has restroom facilities for the public, and get a tour of the guest yurts and alpacas. Top off your day’s adventure with a stop back in town at the Granite Falls Historical Museum. It is a surprising rival to Seattle’s own Museum of History giving you a keen sense of what it was like back in the wild west days. You can see pictures of the actual railroad along with the famed “galloping geese” that were later used to trek tourists up the tracks to the Big Four resort, but, not without first stopping inside the tunnels for a “kissing moment”. Yes, even then the frontier folk could appreciate a good tunnel as a romantic interlude.