This is a gentle walk along the old Great Northern railroad grade built over the Cascades in 1893. At the time it was built, it was considered the best engineered of the transcontinental railroads. Your journey will take you on one of the intricate switchbacks that once started trains up the Cascades Mountains.
Start out at the Martin Creek trailhead, where you will now find a wonderful trail for hikers with physical challenges. The first part of this loop contains almost three miles of ADA-accessible trail, and it is both interesting and beautiful. It is a wide gravel trail with wooden bridges across small creeks making the journey easy on wheelchairs. Admire the small waterfalls coming down. There are several old tunnels with trails going up to the opening, and collapsed timbers that once were protection from the snow. Note the dates stamped in the concrete at the entrance of the tunnels. Many of the tunnels and snow bridges were built after the Wellington Avalanche Disaster to better protect the trains from snow. Pause and read the interpretive signs in front, but the tunnels are unsafe to enter!
There are more than tunnels and timber to tell the rail story. Interpretive signs along the way also tell of the people that built the railway. In a little over three miles, reach the paved turn off to the right and the start of the alternative trailhead by the red caboose. Stop here, let the little kids climb on the red caboose while the big kids read the display and check out the history. There are vault toilets here too.
To take the upper loop, follow the signs to the Windy Point crossover trail left at the junction. This is a steep switchbacking trail that gains elevation much faster than a train could. At the top, this trail intersects with the upper trail. You can go to the right and on to the Wellington trailhead for a longer hike, adding almost six miles to your total. For a nice lunch stop and good views of Stevens Pass, surrounding peaks and the present railroad line, take the right trail for just a quarter of a mile to the Windy Point viewpoint. There are some nice lunch rocks and if you are lucky, you might hear, or see pikas.
To make the loop and return to Martin Creek, take the left upper trail, a rougher trail than the lower one. This trail will take you by the remnants of several snow sheds. There are usually waterfalls coming off the top of some of them. Notice the signs beside the trail with numbers, these are the miles to (or from) Chicago, where the railroad originated. It is worth taking the Spillway Spur stairs just to see where the old reservoir once was. The new Cascade Tunnel was opened in 1929 and the old grade abandoned. Perhaps you can hear the whistle of a train climbing over the mountains even now. Follow the Martin Creek crossover back to your car.
The railroad was built by 800 workers — many of them Japanese immigrants — who laid the train tracks across the Cascades through Stevens Pass. The Wing Luke Museum offers hiking tours of this history.
WTA Pro Tip: Read ‘The White Cascade’ by Gary Krist, an account of the Wellington Avalanche Disaster, then hike the rest of the trail to the Wellington trailhead with a deeper appreciation of history and our Cascade mountain weather.