Hiking the Swale Canyon trail in spring. (photographer: Debbie Asakawa)
Trail Description Driving DirectionsThis section of the Klickitat Trail breaks away from the Klickitat River and the road and follows Swale Creek. Near mile 2, the route starts its descent into Swale Canyon, a remote gorge punctuated with volcanic rock outcroppings and vibrant Columbia desert parsley. Cross three railroad trestles in the next 1.5 miles and continue heading west. After 4.5 miles, the route swings to the north for the final 0.6 mile to a waterfront lunch spot along Swale Creek. Savor views of the creek's chutes, waterfalls, and small pools. Please stick to the path, as much of the adjoining property is private. This trail is popular with mountain bikers.
Note: Dogs are required to be on leash on this section of the Klickitat trail.
Klickitat Trail History
In 1889, a group of Goldendale citizens incorporated the Columbia Valley & Goldendale Railroad. Surveys were conducted for a route that ran southwest from Goldendale across a plateau to Swale Creek. It followed the creek northward through Swale Canyon to join the Klickitat River near Wahkiacus; then wound southwest past Klickitat to terminate on the Columbia River at Lyle. The grade was gentle and the route required no tunnels and few bridges. In 1902, new investors took over the surveys and began construction of the Columbia River and Northern Railroad. Freight and passenger service began in May 1903.
There was no easy road access to the towns along the route until the mid-1920's. Thus the railroad was the only viable way to move grain and agricultural products from Goldendale and timber and paper products from Klickitat. In the early years, these goods were carried to Portland by steamship. Then in 1908, the main rail line along the north shore of the Columbia River was completed from Portland to Spokane, and river transport faded. By the early-1930's, good county roads were completed and passenger service ceased. Freight service continued, declining gradually, and came to an end with the closing of a large mill in Klickitat in 1990.
Ownership passed from the Northern Pacific to the Burlington Northern. By 1992, the rails were removed and in 1993 the line was purchased by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, who donated it to the Washington State Parks, who in turn coordinated with the US Forest Service to eventually build a trail along the railroad grade. The US Forest Service looked into recreation management of the trail in the mid-1990s, but opposition from the Klickitat County Commission stalled efforts.
Those efforts resurfaced in 2001 when a young man writing a thesis on rail trails visited the trail. The County Sheriff's office cited the man for criminal trespass, even though he was on Washington State Parks land. This led the state of Washington to vigorously rebuke the County and a group of local trail enthusiasts began hiking the trail on a monthly basis to reassert the public's right to the trail. A small group of property owners along the route were aggressive and hostile in their opposition. Proponents, hikers and Forest Service staff were threatened and intimidated, and incidents of violence occurred. Eventually, a majority of locals embraced the trail and recognized it as an asset to their communities.
Those early local trail enthusiasts created the Klickitat Trail Conservancy, incorporated in 2003 and has since has worked tirelessly to improve the trail and promote its use and to raise funds for these goals. In 2006, the US Forest Service and Washington State Parks signed an official Cooperating Agreement with the Conservancy. Today, the Conservancy provides over 1,000 volunteer hours a year to the trail and works with the two agencies to ensure effective stewardship and enhancement of this amazing 31-mile trail.
Come and hike or mountain bike through the rugged beauty of Swale Canyon, view the Klickitat River Gorge at Fisher Hill Bridge and the gathering of Bald Eagles every January along a 2-mile section of handicapped-accessible trail starting at Lyle. Enjoy all the wonders of this incredible area!
- Submitted by Jim Chase
Learn about the Klickitat Trail Conservancy. + Read More
- Type: Out and back
- Distance: 10.2 miles round trip
- Elevation Gain: 1000 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Family Friendly: No
- Restrooms: Yes
- Trailhead Pass: No
Gorge Trailhead Passes Guide
Preserve the Wonder Hike Challenge
This spring’s hike challenge highlights the many wonders of the Gorge.