Klickitat Rail Trail through Swale Canyon

March 17, 2007.

25 miles | 980 ft. elevation gain | 7.5 hours

The Swale Canyon segment of the Klickitat Rail Trail is described as “remote” and “desolate” among other things. It follows Swale Creek from the tiny village of Warwick to another small town called Wahkiacus in Washington State. The trail is just north of the Columbia Gorge, approximately across the river from the Dalles. It is an old railway that has now been converted into a multi-use trail. Due to its history, it is wide, gravelly and almost completely level. A trail like this would normally escape my attention. However, I was drawn to this route because of its length, remoteness, and the fact that it winds through a canyon. I decided to alternate hiking and running a 12.5 mile piece of it, traveling from the Harms Rd. trailhead to the Wahkiacus trailhead and back again (totalling 25 miles!).

At 8:30 am on a stunningly warm and bright March morning, I left my car on the side of the road near the unpopular trailhead and passed through a gate leading to the trail at mile 28.5. The terrain here was soft and rolling. The trail gradually descended along the Swale Creek, gently meandering over bridges, around the bends, and over smooth pebbles. As I proceeded, listening to the sounds of mallards, chickadees, canyon wrens and bullfrogs, the canyon walls rose on either side of me. The very tops of the tallest reaches of the canyon appeared to have tiny patches of snow. Along the trail, I found twisted iron railroad spikes and other interesting metal pieces that once were part of the railway. Less than an hour had passed, and I was ready to start running.

I readjusted layers and my pack and settled into a comfortable jog. The sun had not yet penetrated this section of canyon so the air was crisp and chilly. Perfect jogging weather. After about 30 minutes I had to stop because I kept noticing one pile of bones after another on the trail that I wanted to investigate. I picked up some of the more interesting bits and explored all around to try and find all of the animal’s remains. I could not figure out what type of animal had died here…the bones seemed fairly large, like those of a coyote perhaps. Most of the bones were shattered but I found one nearly intact spinal column and a couple of almost complete skulls. Cool stuff!

Okay, back to the trail. One thing that’s nice is that every so often there are mileage markers that gave me an idea of where I was. Usually they were located at the ends of trestles, but some were randomly staked into the trail at convenient numbers (20, 25, etc.). This made it easy to track my progress. Since I was making excellent time I was determined not to wuss out and turn back early on this one.After about mile marker 20, the canyon took on a different character. People had homes very close to the trail and their “yards” were strewn with beer cans, junk cars, old appliances, etc. There were several “Private Property,” “No Trespassing” and “Keep Out” signs kindly reminding the hiker to stay where she belongs. I wondered why, if these folks were so concerned about keeping people off their space, they couldn’t respect their own property enough to keep it tidy. Weird. I also noticed bullet holes puncturing just about every sign in this area as well. I was happy to pass through as quickly as possible.I soon crossed paths with some other hikers, slowly ambling along in jeans and not carrying any water, so I assumed I was getting pretty close to the other trailhead. Great! The canyon isn’t as dramatically pretty at this end, anyways. The steep canyon walls fade away, giving rise to scrubby brush and pine trees. The river is further from the trail, safely kept behind barbed wire, and soon signs of civilization come into view. A mere 3 hours into the hike and I’d reached my halfway point at mile marker 16.

I was ready for a little break so I backtracked about half a mile to a small, sunny patch of grass behind a line of trees separating it from the trail. I took off my socks and shoes, laid down in the sun and took a catnap. Here, I took out my little notebook and recorded all the birds I’d seen or heard, re-duct taped my heels (so far, no blisters) and checked to see how badly my Camelback was leaking (not bad). I refueled with Gatorade and half a Clif Bar before starting out again.Since about mile 10, I’d had some pain in my right hip so I was not too anxious to start walking again. It wasn’t feeling any better but I didn’t have much of a choice. I used my slow start as an opportunity to spot wildlife and listen closely to the birds. I noticed lots of butterflies darting through the air and saw a lizard or two dash between the rocks. I’d also see a handful of marmots along the areas on the way back today. Unpopular trails are great for seeing wild animals.

I knew I’d be slower on the way out due to my injury, the hot afternoon sun (believe it or not!!) and the very slight incline all the way back to the car. But I did manage to run two or three short sections in this direction. I could have spent all day here since it was just a perfect day to be outside. I stopped often to soak in the scenery, and I stopped once to soak in the river. The water was so cold, yet so inviting, and my tender feet deserved a quick dip.

More and more animals made themselves noticeable in the last few miles of the canyon. I frightened the same pair of ducks multiple times as they attempted to have a relaxing afternoon in the river. I saw a gorgeous heron leap into the air and fly off. Several killdeer were also out fishing and yelping. I found a dead gopher snake posed right in the middle of the trail, in a seemingly alert posture. And I wouldn’t see another person all day. Wow, this was almost an ideal hike for me.

As I hobbled through the last gate and changed into flip flops and a clean shirt, I felt tired, content, and successful. I managed to put in all the miles I planned, beat my goal time of 8 hours, saw lots of cool landscapes and animals, got to experience some awesome weather, and made my cold go away. Exhausting solo hikes like these are, for me, like hitting a “reset” button. Periods of time alternate between thinking of all the things that have been on my mind all week and thinking of nothing at all. I wish I could bottle up the satisfaction I get on days like this and sell it. I’d be rich.

Instead I retell the story and hope someone else can go out and explore these trails however she wants to, and maybe she too can experience the feelings that I do when I go out there. Although, I wonder if I’m better off keeping these less popular trails a secret, so that they continue to be quiet and available only to the few who seek them out. There are so many hidden gems within a few hours of the city that if you seek solitude, it’s not too hard to find.And by the way, the drive there and back is pretty sweet. Views of Mt. Adams, windy canyon roads, the cliffs of the Gorge, yeah…

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