Total Ascent: 100ft
Highest Point: 650ft
Total Distance: 8 miles
Location: N 48° 5.6160, W 123° 48.1440
Required Permit: None
During the winter months we often switch between snowshoeing beneath snow-heavy trees and brisk lowland hikes along rivers and lakes. A few weeks ago we opted for the latter and took a drive out to the Olympic Peninsula to Lake Crescent and the Spruce Railroad Trail.
In 1856, the deep, 12-mile glacier lake now known as Lake Crescent was dubbed Lake Everett by John Everett and John J. Sutherland, a pair of hunters and trappers who also lent their name to nearby Lake Sutherland. But by 1890, boosters in nearby Port Crescent began referring to it as Lake Crescent, in a bid to raise the prominence of the logging boom town and attract more settlers. The ploy failed and by the end of 1893, Port Crescent was all but abandoned. Today, the settlement is gone, but Lake Crescent remains, likely named not only for its own vaguely crescent shape, but also after the shape of Crescent Bay where Port Crescent once stood.
In 1917, the United States entered World War I and quickly needed vast supplies of Sitka spruce to produce warplanes. At the time, Sitka spruce was the gold standard in warplane material, and within a year the Army formed the Spruce Production Division to help pull as much spruce out of Northwest forests as possible. To that end, the Spruce Production Division Railroad No. 1 began construction in May 1918, eventually stretching 36 miles along Lake Crescent and into the Olympic Forest. The effort involved the blasting of two tunnels and was constructed at breakneck speed, compressing a 1-2 year project into just 6 months. As impressive as that feat was, it was not fast enough to beat the end of the war, which stopped timber operations before the railroad could haul a single spruce. The railway languished for a few years until 1925 when Port Angeles Western Railroad operated the line before tapering off in 1951 and officially abandoning it in 1953. After that the Spruce Railroad again languished for nearly 30 years until 1981, when portions of the line along the lake were converted to the Spruce Railroad Road Trail.
Two trailheads serve the Spruce Railroad Trail, allowing hikers to start at either end, or take two cars and shuttle between the trailheads for shorter hike. From the eastern trailhead, the route begins easily, following the bones of one of the many logging roads built to bring lumber down to the railway. Firs and hemlocks thicken as you move beyond a few cabins and houses clustered near the trailhead. Before long, the trail dips down toward the lake, finding portions of the railbed as it skirts along the lake. The first mile of trail involves a few of these ups and downs as you make your way around the base of Pyramid Mountain, and the views of the lake begin to widen. As you progress, the firs begin to give way to madronas and the trail dips down to the lakeshore and crosses over a deep swimming hole known as the Devil’s Punchbowl. The bridge offers one of the first of many big views of the lake and surrounding mountains. Pick out Mount Storm King almost directly across the water, and Mount Aurora and Mount Sugardough as you look to the south.
As you continue past the bridge you soon regain the railbed and may notice a rough path up the mountainside. If you’re feeling adventurous, scramble up to find one of the tunnels built for the railway. These are not particularly safe at the moment, and we don’t recommend exploring them unless you have the right experience and gear. After you’ve taken a look at the tunnel, press onward along the lakeshore for more pristine views of Lake Crescent and sections of quiet forest. There are some great spots to take a break along the way. After 4 miles you’ll reach the far trailhead. Turn around and enjoy the walk in reverse.
To get there, take the Bainbridge Island Ferry, following State Route 305 through Poulsbo to State Route 3. Follow SR 3 to the Hood Canal Bridge, taking a left over the bridge onto State Route 104. Follow SR 104 as it merges onto US 101 and continue another 36 miles to Port Angeles, taking a left on Lincoln Street to stay on US 101. Continue 17 miles to East Beach Road and take a right. Continue for about 4 miles, crossing the Lyre River to a road signed Spruce Railroad Trail. Take a left and find the parking for the trailhead where the public road ends. -Nathan
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