New Centennial


Centennial Trail: The scenic route just got longer

March 30, 2005:  Full story

By Diane Brooks Times Snohomish County bureau

An achievement 22 years in the making deserves more hoopla than your standard ribbon-cutting. So when Snohomish County on Saturday officially opens a 10.3-mile section of the Centennial Trail, celebrants instead will lift a faux railroad-crossing arm, symbolizing the trail’s 116-year-old roots as a railroad grade.

"It definitely was worth the wait," said former state Rep. John Wynne, who was among a small group of Lake Stevens visionaries who conceived the rails-to-trails project in December 1982.

Now equestrians, joggers, cyclists, skaters, scooter riders and stroller-pushing families have 17.5 miles of semirural trail to choose from, for casual, short excursions or a full 35-mile round trip between Snohomish and the Arlington area.

Although it technically isn’t yet open, many recreation buffs discovered the new section of trail — and its views of the Cascades and Olympics — immediately after its asphalt dried in early February. "It’s a wonderful addition," said Des Skubi, who helped christen the $6.75 million trail addition last month with a 32-mile ride. He and friend Jeff Capeloto, both of Everett, parked at the Pilchuck Trailhead outside Snohomish and pedaled to the Arlington area and back."You do the old part, which has always been pleasant, and then you get into the new area. It has enough gently rolling terrain that when you’re done, you feel you’ve done a little bit of work," he said. "The farther [north] you go, the more rural it feels. You get some lovely wetland areas and forests."

The older portion of the trail, a seven-mile stretch between Snohomish and Lake Stevens, attracts 200,000 to 300,000 people a year. Those numbers are expected to shoot up after the opening of the new stretch, which continues north from the trail’s former terminus at 20th Street Northeast.

"Now it’s long enough that we’re going to get bike people coming from all over the place," said county parks planner Marc Krandel. "Now it’s long enough to make a more substantial, reasonable ride." Wynne predicted that when the trail’s next $5 million section is built, extending north to the Skagit County line, the Centennial will emerge as the county’s biggest tourist attraction.

Bed-and-breakfast inns will appear along its corridor, he said. "Trails and parks are pressure-relief valves for communities. Without them, I think we’d have more law-and-justice problems and more mental-health problems," Wynne said.

Barring problems with funding and permits, the county hopes to complete that third phase of the Centennial by 2008. The fourth and final phase will extend south into King County, probably into the Bothell area to connect to the Sammamish River and Burke-Gilman trails. When finished, the Snohomish County trail will measure about 44 miles. The county is working with the Puget Sound Regional Council and Sound Transit, which hope to obtain more Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway right of way for a future light-rail extension on the Eastside, Krandel said.

The trail might be built through the same corridor, he said. Wynne’s original trails-activism group, the Pathways Task Force, was an arm of the Lake Stevens Chamber of Commerce. Early on it made a decision to recruit allies representing a cross section of the county’s cycling, hiking and horseback-riding interests.

The original goal: to create a trail between Lake Stevens and Arlington along a rail corridor that Burlington Northern had abandoned in 1970. Then, in 1987, Burlington Northern began pulling up tracks along a seven-mile stretch between Lake Stevens and Snohomish.

Key members of Pathways soon helped form the Snohomish-Arlington Trail Coalition, which lobbied hard — locally and in Olympia — for trail funding. Then-County Executive Willis Tucker affectionately nicknamed some members "the housewives from hell" because of their devotion, Krandel said with a laugh. "It wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them," he said.

The coalition’s first major victory was the Centennial Trail’s first phase, built along the southernmost stretch of the rail corridor. The $1.4 million trail earned its name because development began in 1989, the year of the state’s centennial.

The trail opened to rave reviews in 1991. It’s somewhat rural in flavor, offering views of the Pilchuck River and horses and cows grazing in pastures. Yet it’s hardly remote, running along Machias Road for much of its length.

The new section starts out in an industrial area on the edge of Lake Stevens but soon breaks free. The trail drops beneath Highway 92, through a $1 million trail tunnel, then heads into groves of cedar and fir trees. Unseen frogs serenade passers-by.

Owners of area homes seem happy with the trail, said Debbie Isaman, whose 3.5-acre property abuts the new route. "It’s really cool," said Isaman, who last week took a walk along the 12-foot-wide paved path with a friend, Deanne Kruick of Mukilteo. It was a beautiful day, and Mount Pilchuck and other Cascades peaks were in clear view. "I use it a couple, three times a week. And my kids love it; they bike and Rollerblade on it," Kruick said. "My neighbors have horses, and they’re using the trail, too." Krandel said planners listened to advice from equestrians when they designed the new portion of the Centennial. Riders disliked the gravel that lines the original horse trail, he said, so the second phase instead features an earthen horse route.

Wetlands are the theme between Highway 92 and the Lake Cassidy area, popular for bass fishing. The trail project includes a small park with a boardwalk extending into the peaceful, shallow lake, which is ringed with cattails and reeds. Songbirds trill in nearby alder trees, which are just coming into bud. "We built it purposefully on the trail so people couldn’t drive to it," Krandel said. "It’s a really gorgeous little thing."

The northern reaches of the new section offer a different mood: views overlooking the rural, upper Marysville valley as well as weather-dependent Olympic vistas. The trail passes the Quilceda/Allen Watershed Interpretive Site, a small park along Quilceda Creek.

Mountain bikers Mike Robinson and Julie Smith of Machias last week left their car at the park to try out the new trail. Both endorsed the addition when they returned from a 90-minute ride. "It’s a wonderful asset for the area," Robinson said. "Quick access, being 10 minutes off the interstate to being in the middle of what makes Washington wonderful, with the scenery and the birds, seeing the trees coming into foliage."

The Lake Stevens juncture of the first and second phases is nothing special. Its most notable feature is a large, new parking lot built for one of three new trailheads. But when the county began planning its grand-opening celebration, Wynne was adamant about its location. "I’ve worked on a lot of community projects over the years, and this is probably the most important one," said Wynne, who on Saturday will help County Executive Aaron Reardon and other officials lift the symbolic railroad-crossing bar. "I told parks it started here, so we’re going to have the party here."

Diane Brooks: 425-745-7802 or