carnival ride in a hole in the ground

A view along the scenic route.

A view along the scenic route.

This weekend Liz and I bicycled along the Iron Horse Trail again, this time traversing the darkness of the 2.5 mile Snoqualmie Railroad tunnel that travels under a mountain pass. (Official sources say 2.3 miles, others say a bit longer.)

The first thing that happens when you ride into the tunnel is you quickly remember that your eyes are not accustomed to the blackness, even with a bike headlight on. I rode in near blindness for a few minutes, and even then it was not easy to see bumps and rocks in the path ahead in the 15-to-20-foot wide tunnel.

The next thing we noticed is a 40+ degree drop in temperature. It was 90 on the outside, much colder in the nether world. A sweat-soaked cotton shirt is not the ideal apparel for subterranean cool. An extra treat is ice-cold drops of water dripping onto your back and head from the tunnel roof.

It’s spooky in there. Lights from bikers and walkers are visible far ahead into the mostly straight tunnel. A light in the distance may be literally a mile away, or 50 feet. And the opening on the far side – at first you can’t distinguish it from someone’s flashlight. Add to that the echoing of voices, the barely visible walls passing by on either side, the occasional ghostly humans, and you have a good fun-house ride.

After an interminable time, the opening at the far end gradually resolved, enlarged, and came into focus. We finally spilled out onto east side of the Cascade mountain range. Unlike the opposite entrance, there is a cold breeze blowing out of the tunnel here and we had to keep riding well beyond the mouth to find warmth. Why was the air moving west to east? Does it follow prevailing winds?


Emerging in a cold breeze.

Not far from this entrance is a car parking area, near the interstate. We stopped there to warm up and have a snack.

A group of 30 people arrived. Lots of kids, but all ages represented. They met for a short meeting, then headed toward the tunnel on foot, flashlights in hand. Since we had reached the halfway point in our 42-mile ride, and would soon be heading back through the tunnel, we knew we’d be sharing underground real estate with these walkers.

A few minutes later a group of about 50 young runners filed out of a bus. They gathered together, a leader addressed them, and then they jogged toward into the tunnel. We’d have to deal with them in the dark also. Woo hoo! Underground party!

A half hour later we reentered the echoing, dank passage. After a quarter-mile or so, bobbing lights drifted down the corridor in our direction – these were runners on the return trip. Occasionally we’d encountered what we used to call “darkwads” when I attended the Burning Man festival: people with no lights at all, coming right at you or sitting in your path. Swerve to avoid. A mile later I started encountering clumps of people with kids, spread out across the width of the tunnel. Parents vainly tried to herd them to one side. Swerve to avoid. Don’t hit the wall.

When we finally got out of the cold passageway, we had a common feeling about the experience. As carnival rides go, this one isn’t much fun. The tunnel of love, it ain’t. Interesting to do once, or to get from Point A to Point B, but not a primo cycling experience overall.

A cool stream in extreme heat.

A cool stream in extreme heat.


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