The Willapa Hills Trail is a 56-mile trail link between the central I-5 corridor and the Pacific coast that offers a challenge for just about any cyclist.
Starting in Chehalis, Washington and ending in the town of South Bend on the Willapa Bay, not far from the ocean, the trail was once a railroad that has since been converted to trail use by Washington State Parks. More and more people have been discovering the trail and enjoying it over the past couple years, and especially I’ve noticed more traffic on it since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Willapa, or WHiT as I like to call it, is a perfect break from urban life and offers a great opportunity to get a great bike ride in without having to worry about traffic. It’s close enough to amenities and yet far enough to feel like you’re going somewhere new.
Hopefully if you’ve found this post, you’re looking for some info on the trail in consideration for an upcoming visit. My goal is to help you prepare and ensure you’re good to go with what you need to tackle this journey.
Riding the trail from start to finish is a day-long excursion; you’ll want to plan an entire day around this journey and the associated travel from your home or wherever you’re staying. Although parts of this ride are very difficult, I trust you’ll find it an enjoyable trek regardless of mileage you ride.
All information on this post is current as of October 10, 2021.
Who Is This Guy Anyway?
Oh hey, in case we’ve never met, I’m Chris Brewer, an avid cyclist who lives in Lewis County. I have biked from Chehalis to Pluvius (mile 32) and back a number of times — more than I can count on both hands, for sure. However, I’ve only ever ridden the entirety of the trail twice. Frankly, part of that is due to trail conditions, which I’ll describe later on in my post here.
In case you’re still wondering if I know about what I’m talking about: I’m the board president of the Lewis County Community Trails Association, a group that enjoys a fantastic partnership with Washington State Parks and works hand-in-hand to help provide grant funding and much more. I’ve ridden more than 33,000 miles since I started biking in 2012, with thousands of miles logged on rail-trails and scenic routes here in Washington state.
I also directed the annual Ride the Willapa bike ride on the WHT from 2018 to 2021. My love for this trail and this section of the world runs deep, and as such I hope you feel the same appreciation I do for this recreational gem when you read this and ride the trail on your own time.
What to Bring and Consider
The key to a successful journey on the Willapa Hills Trail, as with just about any bike ride, is proper preparation, planning and packing. You’ll want to be outfitted with proper gear and sustenance to make a 56-mile journey; in this particular instance, a non-negotiable is a bike with wide tires for starters.
Here’s what I bring on each trip:
- My mountain bike, of course (in my case, a Trek Marlin 7 with RockShox front fork)
- Two bottles of water (I refill at a restaurant in Pe Ell and at the Menlo Store)
- Sunscreen and extra chamois cream
- Two extra bike tire tubes, two tire levers, and a bike pump
- Portable charger and cords for phone, GPS head unit and watch
Here are some things you should consider:
- The entire 56-mile trip will take you at least 5 hours if you’re in relatively good shape, and that’s just time in the saddle. Doing this one way will take you an entire day. Plan for this as you travel, and consider having someone drop you off on one end and pick you up at the other; or camp out or get a hotel overnight in Raymond or South Bend and ride back the next day.
- I’ll repeat this point: Several parts of the trail are very difficult. Remember to take breaks and rest where and when necessary. Conserve your energy, and gear down on sections that are either uphill or have deep gravel. Don’t be ashamed if you have to walk your bike through or around some sections, or if you have to re-route.
- Always, always be respectful of landowners and people living adjacent to the trail. Respect goes a long way. Don’t make unnecessary noise and don’t litter. Basically, don’t be a jerk.
- On the topic of littering: the WHT is a Leave No Trace trail. There are no garbage cans on the trail. If you generate trash, pack it out.
The Lay of the Land
Now a slight majority of the trail is in a condition the vast majority of people would refer to as “complete,” with refurbished bridges, compacted gravel, and rights of way improved for cyclists, pedestrians, and equestrians to enjoy. The entirety of the trail in Lewis County is feature-complete, while most of the trail west of the Willapa Hills in Pacific County requires a lot of work.
But I’ll have you know: if you have a mountain bike, you can ride the entire Willapa Hills Trail in its current condition.
It’s not the easiest journey, but it can be done.
Before I get into the granular details of what you’ll find along the trail, I want to show this Google map compiled by Wayne VanWeerthuizen, who founded the Willapa Hills Trail Fans group on Facebook. This is the most definitive map showing current trail conditions, and Wayne does a fantastic job updating it as conditions and construction change the complexion of the corridor. It has a LOT of info and is pretty exhaustive, so take your time with it.
If you, like me, appreciate the work Wayne has done on this map, please drop a note in the WHT Fans Facebook group and let him know.
The “Finished” Portion of the WHT
The start of the Willapa Hills Trail is easily reachable from Interstate 5.
To start the trail from its true beginning, you’ll need to hit the Chehalis Trailhead off of Exit 77. It’s only 5 minutes from the freeway, and you’ll be off and rolling on the trail in no time. OCTOBER 2021 UPDATE: As of October 2021, the trail is closed three miles east of Chehalis for the majority of the next year, and you will need to originate your trips from Adna, at the Dieckman Road Trailhead. Please read more about that here. The segment of trail between Chehalis and Adna is paved and 5.5 miles in length. Three historic trestles cross rivers — the first two take you over the Newaukum, and the third goes over the Chehalis River. This section of trail is rather easy, and if you’re traveling by mountain bike you’ll find this segment an appropriate warm-up for the gravel section to come. One problem area is an at-grade crossing of Highway 6 at a funky curve. Take appropriate caution through here and make sure you look both ways before crossing, and hit the button for good measure to activate the yellow lights that warn cars you’re coming. (An overpass will soon be built to remedy this problem area.)
10/10/21 EDIT: Once you park at the Dieckman Road trailhead, it’s an easy hop, skip and a jump onto the gravel portion of the trail.
Once you cross the trestle over the Chehalis River at Adna, the trail transitions to gravel and you won’t see pavement again until mile 51 at Raymond. This is where the trail shines and the scenery starts.
Off and on between trail miles 6 and 12.5, you’ll pass through several wooded areas and along the Chehalis River. This is a personal favorite section of the trail because of the peaceful setting and the condition of the trail. You’ll find the compacted gravel in this area rather enjoyable.
Two trailheads exist on this segment of the journey: the Adna trailhead at mile 4.5 and the Ceres Hill trailhead at mile 10. Equestrians visit these trailheads and this area frequently, so ensure you’re staying aware of their presence.
Once you get past mile 12.5, the trail will straighten out for four miles or so. This can be a bit of a drag, but power on through it — there’s a respite at mile 15.5 as you can take a side trail to Rainbow Falls State Park, which offers good camping and amenities. Hiker and biker campsites are available at the park, making it an ideal spot for bike packers to rack out for an evening.
Trail conditions gradually get a bit tougher, as the depth of the gravel deepens a bit and the terrain varies. Still, a mountain bike is no match for it, but you will find yourself expending a few extra watts to maintain the speed you had earlier.
The straight stretch ends and finds a slight curve toward the Dryad and Doty areas around mile 16.5. A bridge takes you over the Chehalis River and out toward Doty, where you’ll come to a small hill and hit another straight stretch of trail. From here it’s not long to Pe Ell, a good spot to grab lunch at a variety of cafes. A couple small stores exist and offer good opportunity for you to replenish food and water you will need for the remainder of the trip.
West of Pe Ell is where the gettin’ gets good. The trail starts ascending at mile 23 and lasts for a few miles until you get to mile 29, bringing you up the eastern flank of the Coast Range in the Willapa Hills. You’ll gain about 400 feet from Pe Ell to Pluvius summit at a grade anywhere between 0.5 and 2 percent, making the climb achievable by anyone in just about any shape or condition.
Once you reach Pluvius, it’s time to enjoy a downhill stretch that you can enjoy for 5 miles or so — with a brief interruption. The scenery in this segment is absolutely wonderful, and as a bonus, about 4 of the miles of trail swing out from SR 6 and you have no road noise to contend with.
Now there’s one area you need to be watchful for. There are two unplanked bridges between mile 32 and 33 of the trail. I’ll put it in all caps here: THESE BRIDGES ARE CLOSED. DON’T TRY TO CROSS THEM.
There is a side trail that takes you off the main path and onto State Route 6. I don’t think this is an officially sanctioned route, but as it is the only safe path to get past the two bridges without incident, I’m giving it a brief mention here. Look to your left once you get on a long straight downhill stretch and you’ll find it. If you go under the highway you’ve gone too far.
Dismount your bike, walk your bike to the highway shoulder, then cross safely. Bomb downhill for about 1/4 mile then you’ll see a small trail off to the right allowing you to jump back on the trail. Bingo, you’ve bypassed the two trestles.
Now things start to get a bit tougher…
The “Wild West” Part of the Trail
The unplanked trestles at mile 32 mark a stark change in the trail conditions, as the majority of the trail in Pacific County is technically rideable, but nowhere near the shape it is in Lewis County.
That’s why I recommend anyone attempting this use a mountain bike with a suspension fork to make the going a bit easier.
This part of the trail starts off well enough, finishing the descent from Pluvius to the small community of Frances, but before too long you’ll be riding on some rougher terrain. The trail gradually goes from smooth surface to a mishmash of rocks, mowed grass and much more as this section generally consists of the old railroad bed and nature’s reclamation of the corridor.
Because I’m unfamiliar with the mileage along this section of trail, I’ll use the names of communities that are spaced about five miles apart as they’re easily findable along the trail.
Between Frances and Lebam, the trail is gentle enough and provides for some decent trudging along. At Lebam, though, things get a little interesting, requiring a detour onto Lebam Road and then Robertson Road to avoid a washout that needs repaired. (Refer to the trail map embedded above to show the detour around this section.)
Once back on the trail, the conditions become a bit rougher as larger rocks make their presence known under your tires. For a traveler who has been in the saddle all day, the segment between Lebam and Menlo is where you’ll start to feel a bit of fatigue set in. But there are plenty of shaded areas to rest, and the scenery along the trail is beautiful, especially the hills off in the distance.
Plus, a couple of river crossings help as well.
The community of Menlo is only about five miles from Raymond and provides a really nice place to stop. The Menlo Store offers water, snacks and more for you to fill back up again and get you to the finish line. I highly recommend stopping in here, as the folks running the place are super friendly to cyclists and the decor inside is reminiscent of the railroad era in this community.
Once through Menlo, the going gets tough. I mean it, this is the toughest section of the trail and one that you’ll have to grit your teeth through. Once you pop back onto the trail and exit Menlo, you’ll immediately hit deeper gravel. Gear down and take note of channels you can ride through safely.
Passing Camp 1 Road, the deeper gravel continues and after 1/4 to 1/2 of a mile, you’ll encounter a trestle that is blocked by ecology blocks. Take the trail to the left and you’ll have to ride the shoulder of SR 6 to get past this. The shoulder is wide enough, but you’ll want to ride defensively and in a fashion that vehicles can see you. You’ll only need to ride the road for 1/3 of a mile or so, then take a slight right onto Heckard Road and immediate left to get back onto the trail.
The difficulty continues from here, with the trail going through some rough patches of briars and dips. In fact, if you opt to take Heckard for about 1/2 mile and rejoin the trail, I wouldn’t blame anyone for doing so.
Grit your teeth and grind your gears to get through this segment, and before you know it you’ll cross a couple of roads and find the reward: the gravel ends and the pavement begins on the outskirts of Raymond, and you’ll pass along a slough that connects with the Willapa River. You’ve just about reached the western end!
From here, the trail is easy to navigate and get through toward Raymond’s city center and the city of South Bend. The trail comes to an abrupt end at a crossing with SR 101 just north of South Bend’s city center, but anyone wishing to pedal onward to the coast will find 101 a very adequate road with wide shoulders and several amenities along the way.
The Willapa Hills Trail from beginning to end is a great feather in the cap (or should I say helmet?) of any cyclist, and the trail presents a wide variety of conditions and challenges for anyone willing to tackle it all. Although it’s only about 75 percent of the way finished, State Parks is committed to seeing the trail through to completion and I think it won’t be too much longer until we are all able to enjoy it in finished form.
With that said, I hope you’ve found this condensed guide a bit useful for planning a trip on the trail. Hit me up in the comments if you have any comments, criticisms or observations, and thanks for reading!