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Thursday, June 3, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Path Less Traveled -- Pastoral Serenity Of Centennial Trail Is Refreshing Change

SNOHOMISH - If you hit it just right, a medium-sized cowpie clod will bounce up and make a chiming noise in your mountain-bike spokes quite similar to the theme music for NBC's basketball playoff coverage.

This is one of the first things you will learn on a sunny weekend ride on the Centennial Trail, a fairly new addition to a network of Rails to Trails paths slowly forming a web across the United States.

Actually, given these surroundings, the clod in question probably was not of the cowpie persuasion at all, but rather a bit of horse puckey. This shouldn't be a surprise: Unlike its snooty, big-city cousins, such as the Burke-Gilman Trail from Seattle to Kenmore, the charmingly hick Centennial Trail is a truly rural experience.

That is its beauty. You're more likely to find llamas here than Lycra. The trail, built on a Burlington Northern railroad right of way, winds through Snohomish County farmland and has its own special lane (actually a companion gravel path) for horses and other hooved beasts.

That makes it one of the few places around Puget Sound where horse and bicycle people mingle, enjoying the same scenery without getting tails caught in center-pull brakes.

That scenery - rolling farmland, streams and wetlands, with Cascade peaks, big red barns and plenty of wildlife teasing the eye in the distance - is soothing. The trail's design, which includes numerous picnicking spots, viewpoints and, most importantly, an

ultra-wide, 12-foot path that makes passing less harrowing, lends itself to a relaxed pace.

In short, the trail imparts the very peaceful, away-from-it-all feeling that will be celebrated across the continent Saturday in observances of the first National Trails Day.

On the Centennial Trail, you're not likely to find the pushy, bicycle-training freaks who frequent the Burke-Gilman. Design is one reason, distance another.

The path, which opened in 1991, is paved only from a trailhead near Snohomish to the town of Lake Stevens, 5.8 miles to the east. That's only temporary. Plans call for paving an additional mile of trail into downtown Snohomish this summer, and financing has been secured to pave an additional 10.3 miles to the city of Arlington sometime next year. That will create a 32-mile round-trip path.

Ultimately, the Centennial Trail will link with sister trails in Skagit and King counties, reaching Sedro-Woolley to the north and Duvall via Monroe to the south. It's likely to attract a more diverse group of users at that point. But it already has been a hit with some 250,000 Puget Sound area residents who have discovered its great charm and easy access.

In many ways, the six-mile Centennial Trail has become a Rails to Trails pathway for the common folk - older walkers and riders in search of aerobic serenity, families with bicycling children who tend to veer across the road, horse riders who want to ride, but loathe the logistics of hauling their animals in trailers.

The Pilchuck River trailhead on Maple Avenue just outside Snohomish has ample parking, and most riders and walkers begin there.

The path is conducive to a slower pace, which is what most riders will prefer, anyway, once they sample the surroundings. The paved section winds through an odd mix of pasture land and encroaching suburbia to the tiny town of Machias, where most of the horsebackers enter and where a new railroad-theme restroom will be built this summer.

The new section, between Lake Stevens and Arlington, will pass Lake Cassidy and run through lands even more rural. That's a source of contention between Snohomish County, which is developing the path, and horse groups and mountain bikers, who would prefer to see the railroad grade remain in its abandoned state.

"It will be similar to the first stage, with the exception of more wildlife habitat, wetlands and endangered plants," says Mike Parman of Snohomish County Parks. "It gets lots of equestrian use already. We'll work with those people. They'd like to see it remain pretty pastoral, pretty horsey."

County officials believe that flavor can be maintained by careful design. The trail's first segment suggests they're right. Last year it received a national trail-design award from the U.S. Department of Interior.

In any case, the Centennial Trail's completion no longer is a matter of if, but when.

"We're driven by something greater than us," Parman said.

TO GET THERE: Take Highway 2 to the Snohomish exit, turn onto Second Street and go north on Maple Avenue. The trailhead parking lot is visible on the right.

---------------------------------------------------------- NATIONAL TRAILS DAY CELEBRATION COVERS MANY LOCAL FAVORITES

The Centennial Trail and thousands of other trails across the U.S. will be celebrated Saturday, National Trails Day.

A celebratory walk and ride will begin Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Centennial Trail's Pilchuck River Trailhead near Snohomish. A $5 entry fee buys a commemorative T-shirt and a ride on one of the nation's finest rural rails-to-trails projects.

Elsewhere around the state, trail club members will gather to repair, improve and celebrate trails in a series of events to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the National Trail Systems Act. They include:

-- A National Park Service work party at San Juan National Historical Park in North Cascades National Park. Details: 378-2240.

-- A guided hike on a new section of the Pacific Northwest Trail, which runs from the Continental Divide to the Pacific. Details: 285-1485.

-- Trail dedications in the Darrington Ranger District (details: 1-206-436-1155), Skykomish Ranger District (details: 206-677-2414) and North Bend Ranger District (details: 888-1421) of the Mount-Baker Snoqualmie National Forest.

-- A trail work party at Deception Pass State Park. Details: 206-675-2417.

-- Mountain bike rides from Issaquah with the Backcountry Bicycle Trails Club. Details: 524-4014.

-- King County Parks trail dedications, bike and horse rides. Details: 296-4129.

-- A Mountain to Sound Greenway bike and hike. Details: 284-7470.

-- An REI trail work party at Discovery Park. Details: 323-8333.

-- A celebration of the new Cascadia Water Trail in Puget Sound with Washington Water Trails. Details: 283-4960.

Plenty of other activities are planned on a trail near you. To locate one close to home, call the Washington Trails Association, 206-625-1367.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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