Few trails in the country offer greater biological and climate diversity over a relatively short distance, ranging from arid, wildflower-studded shrub steppe to alpine meadow to rain forest. At times you can survey them all from the same spot.
The new William O. Douglas Trail in central Washington offers hikers, bicyclists, and horseback riders dramatic contrasts between sage-covered grasslands and forested mountains, including a dozen distinct ecosystems. At the same time, the trail tells the colorful history of a giant in the American environmental movement.
The 80-mile route from the William O. Douglas Federal Courthouse in downtown Yakima west to Mount Rainier National Park is designed to be a “story path.” It follows the footsteps of Douglas, the famed U.S. Supreme Court justice and environmental activist who grew up in Yakima, as well as those of native Americans and white settlers who traversed the area.
As a boy, Douglas hiked the foothills outside town to strengthen his polio-stricken legs. As an adult, he kept a cabin at Goose Prairie nearer to Mount Rainier, and camped, fished, hunted, hiked and rode throughout the Southern Cascades. He nearly died in a horseback riding accident in Chinook Pass in 1949.
“It is only by foot that one can really come to know the nation,” Douglas wrote in his autobiography, “Go East, Young Man.” While serving on the Supreme Court, Douglas led hikes in the 1950s and 1960s that built political support for preserving wilderness areas, including the Olympic National Park beaches and the Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington.
“Those hills gave him physical and emotional strength and a deep love of nature,” his widow, Cathleen Douglas Stone, said in June during the centennial celebration for the monumental stone courthouse renamed for her husband, who served on the Supreme Court for 36 years and died in 1980. “Now young people will walk this trail and will replicate those values.”
The new route links a series of existing trails, passing from historical city sites to remote wilderness, says Ray Paolella, head of the William O. Douglas Trail Foundation. In 2005, Paolella walked the entire path in four days.
One long stretch from Snow Mountain Ranch, 15 miles west of Yakima, to Jumpoff Lookout offers broad vistas of the city, the grasslands, the forests and meadows, Rimrock Lake, and the mountains. Further west, the path crosses the William O. Douglas Wilderness and follows the ancient Yakama-Cowlitz Pass Indian Trail used by native people to travel between Puget Sound and the Yakima Valley to trade blankets, berries and salmon.
“At Jumpoff you see the expanse to the west of Rimrock, Goat Rocks, Mount Rainier, Mount Adams and the Cascades in all their splendor,” Paolella marvels. “If you look the other way you see the city, the desert, and the shrub steppes. And the climate changes very quickly because you’re going toward the Cascades’ rain shadow. It’s a magical spot where you can see the diversity in the landscapes and ecosystems all in one place.”
Much of the route is little-changed from the time Douglas walked it — even some of the human elements. In his autobiography, Douglas described meeting and talking with Depression-era hobos while hiking near the railroad bridge spanning the Naches River just outside Yakima. In June, Paolella and Douglas Stone hiked that same stretch, and met and talked with Great Recession-era homeless people living there.
Since Paolella’s foundation launched the trail effort in 2005, the organizers, now including the Cowiche Canyon Conservancy, have faced many logistical hurdles in their quest to get the route designated as a National Recreational Trail. The various trail segments lie on land held by different public and private owners, and even minor changes, such as erecting trail markers, require regulatory clearance. Linking the sections has required delicate negotiations with private landowners skeptical about hikers crossing their property.
The trail won't be fully signed for years, and some of the Yakima-area segments still need to be linked, but they are all hikable now and people can get from one segment to the other with some resourcefulness.
While the full development of the trail will take a number of years, the organizers last month introduced six usable sections on the eastern end. Here are highlights of several of those paths:
- Downtown Yakima to the Naches River. This two-mile stretch starts at Davis High School, from which Douglas, who grew up poor and fatherless, graduated as valedictorian in 1916 before heading off to Whitman College in Walla Walla and later Columbia University Law School. There’s an expressive statue of a restless, windblown Douglas in the school courtyard. The trail passes the nearby federal courthouse, where Douglas issued several controversial rulings in the 1970s, including declaring the U.S. bombing of Cambodia illegal. It also passes the former site of his childhood home, where a mural of the house has been placed. Hikers can follow young Douglas’ footsteps over the railroad bridge crossing the river and up Selah Ridge.
- Cowiche Creek Canyon. The three-mile span is a level path following an old railroad bed that crosses the creek nine times on footbridges as it winds through the basalt-walled canyon. The trail joins with uplands trails that climb the hillside. Another linked trail ascends to two scenically located winery tasting rooms and vineyards -- Wilridge Winery and Naches Heights Vineyard.
- Cowiche Mountain summit. This two-mile segment climbs 900 feet, offering striking vistas of arid shrub steppes. A surprising range of plants grow here, including various types of sage, antelope bitter brush, rabbit brush, bluebunch wheatgrass, and desert buckwheat and other wildflowers.
- Box Spring Canyon. This four-mile path climbs 900 feet through open shrub steppe country, leading to a dramatic view of the canyon.
Further west, the Douglas route follows established national forest and wilderness trails. You’ll come to Kloochman Rock, a grueling climb that terrified Douglas when he was 15; Indian Creek, where a Yakama Indian taught Douglas how to spear salmon; and Cowlitz Pass, where Douglas camped with a shepherd and read him news of the outbreak of World War I.
This article originally appeared in The Oregonian.