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Thursday, October 12, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Making Tracks To Lake Crescent -- Spruce Rail Trail Delivers Its Visitors To Stunning Vistas

LAKE CRESCENT - The deck is stacked in favor of the Spruce Railroad Trail.

Most railroad buffs, mountain bikers and flatland hikers will tell you that, more often than not, converted rail trails pass through lands bordering on boring. Let's face it, when it came to building railways through inhospitable lands, the rule of thumb was obvious: the more hospitable, the better.

Thus, spectacular natural features were largely avoided, and many of today's rail trails rely on historical oddities as drawing cards.

The Iron Horse Trail has its big tunnel.

The Iron Goat Trail has its collapsed snowsheds.

The Snohomish Centennial Trail has cow pastures.

And the Spruce Railroad Trail has . . . Lake Crescent.

That puts this four-mile path along the state's most spectacular lake in a class by itself. That may not be fair to the others. But it's more than fair for visitors who manage to find the Spruce Railroad Trail, one of Washington's most intriguing - but lesser used - converted rail-trails.

A central attraction

The Spruce Trail winds four miles along the north shore of Lake Crescent on a path once occupied by a timber railway. A short portion of the trail's east and west ends winds through fir and madrona forests typical of the northwest corner of Olympic National Park. But the central portion is the attraction here.

For much of the middle two miles, the path comes within feet of the majestic, aquamarine waters of Lake Crescent, one of the more mystical and memorable bodies of water in Washington.

Staring deep into the seemingly endless aqua, it's tempting to launch yourself right off the trail and into the deep. Think twice before making that plunge. Even in the summer, this north Olympic National Park basin is filled with water cold enough to make your lips turn blue.

Lake Crescent is full of big fish, clear water and old legends. One of them is about the old railroad train that formerly chugged up the north banks, doing its part for the war effort.

Spruce 'em up

That's World War I, for you history buffs. What connected Lake Crescent to the global conflict being waged in Europe? Trees. The Lake Crescent area used to be surrounded by old-growth spruce trees. Spruce was the material of choice for construction of war planes, which was a vital national interest near the end of the war.

The Army, seeking spruce in a hurry, built the 36-mile Spruce Railroad in only five months, local writer Fred Wert notes in his guidebook, "Washington's Rail-Trails." The idea was to rush spruce logs from the Olympic forests (Olympic National Park, which now encompasses the lake and the rail path, wasn't established until 1937) to Port Angeles, where they were shipped out through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The Army's construction job was impressive but ultimately futile. The war ended a few weeks before the railway was finished, Wert notes. Still, the railroad carried logs for a variety of uses for about 30 years.

Tracks were removed when the railway was abandoned in 1954. Olympic National Park built the present trail, with trailheads accessible by road from the west and east, in 1982. It quickly became a favorite among Lake Crescent visitors staying at Fairholm Campground on the lake's western shore, or at Lake Crescent Lodge or Log Cabin Resort on the south and east shores, respectively.

It also was adopted by mountain bikers, grateful for the opportunity to cycle within Olympic National Park. The Spruce Railroad Trail is the only mountain-bike-accessible path in the nearly million-acre park.

Many cyclists making a tour of the Olympic Peninsula use the trail, and the connecting North Shore and East Shore roads, to bypass the winding, narrow stretch of U.S. Highway 101 that skirts Lake Crescent's south bank. Others ride to the trail from Fairholm Campground or make a day trip from the Seattle area just to make the eight-mile round trip on the rail-trail.

Good access is available at each end. To reach the west-end trailhead, turn north off 101 at signs for Fairholm Campground, about 26 miles west of Port Angeles. Follow the road about five miles to the trailhead at road's end. The road is quite narrow in places and very muddy but is smooth and passable by average autos. (The trailhead for the Pyramid Mountain Trail, another popular park hike, is near the end of the same road.)

To reach the east-end trailhead, turn north off 101 on East Beach Road, following signs to Log Cabin Resort. Continue just over three miles, turn left and follow signs to the trail, just beyond the resort.

Narrow path

From the east side, a narrow path leads to an old road, where it's just under a mile to the actual railroad grade. The path is grown over in spots to look more like a regular trail than a railway. Hike the whole route, and you'll pass two large, partially collapsed railroad tunnels. In each case, the path skirts the tunnels and drops to the lakeshore. Both tunnels are interesting curiosities - feel free to look in, but don't enter. They're not stable, and the floors are covered by fallen rock and timbers.

Good views of the lake and its impressive backdrop, Mount Storm King, await along the route. This is especially true in autumn and winter, when lakeside trees drop their leaves. At the trail's midsection, you'll find yourself directly across the water from the picturesque Lake Crescent Lodge, and you might see the lake's new interpretive paddlewheel boat, the MV Storm King, plying the waters.

This is a good all-season trail. Because it's only at about 500 feet in elevation, the path - unlike the vast majority of Olympic trails - is rarely under snow. And while the weather on Lake Crescent is often wet and windy, this area receives far less precipitation than most of Olympic's rain-forest-covered west side.

Good trail for kids

The grade is very moderate, with no steep hills, making this a good trail for children and the aerobically challenged.

A couple reminders: Because it's a national park trail, no pets are allowed. And several pests are present: Poison oak has been found in some places near the trail, and wasps, yellow jackets and ticks are a seasonal problem.

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Spruce Railroad Trail.

-- Description: A four-mile (one way) all-season hiking and mountain-bike trail on the north shore of Lake Crescent. -- Location: West of Port Angeles on US 101, with trailheads on North Shore Road and East Shore Road near Log Cabin Resort. -- Travel time from Seattle: Three to four hours, depending on auto and ferry traffic. -- Managed by: Olympic National Park (360) 452-4501. -- Other nearby activities: Pyramid Mountain Trail, just west of the west-side Spruce Railroad trailhead, is a vigorous (2,400 feet in 3.5 miles) climb to excellent Peninsula views. From the Storm King Ranger Station on the lake's south shore, the Marymere Falls Trail is a nice short (2.2-mile, one-hour round trip) family hike. From the same trailhead, the Mount Storm King Trail climbs 3.1 relatively steep miles to a fine viewpoint over Lake Crescent. Camping is available year-round at nearby Fairholm Campground, which has 87 campsites.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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