This Abandoned Railroad Could Become an Epic Trail From Portland's 'Burbs to the Sea

The Salmonberry Trail doesn’t exist yet. We hiked it anyway.

The man in the silver pickup warned me: If I hiked down the hill to the old railroad tracks, I wouldn't come back.

My buddy and I were 11 miles west of the town of Timber, standing at the junction of two jagged logging roads, as deep as you can get into the Oregon Coast Range without ditching your car. We were looking for Beaver Slide Road, the gateway to one of the Northwest's most dramatic and isolated day hikes—an unauthorized 6-mile stretch along the abandoned tracks of the Port of Tillamook Bay Railroad.

They call this the Salmonberry Trail, but it doesn't really exist yet. And unless the state can come up with tens of millions of dollars, it might never exist. That would be a huge missed opportunity, as the Salmonberry could someday be among the region's biggest backpacking and cycling attractions—86 miles of trail, stretching from Portland's western suburbs to the coast.

For now, the trail is an open secret shared by word of mouth and hiking websites.

I'm only a casual hiker, but I couldn't resist the lure of a deserted railroad in the middle of a rain forest. So I set out to hike the trail's most rugged and scenic 6.5 miles, getting dropped off at the top of Beaver Slide Road, with a scheduled pickup five hours later at Cochran Pond.

Related: The Best Hikes Along the Northern Oregon Coast

At least one person thought this was a very bad idea: the man in the silver pickup, who rolled in on the gravel road as if on cue from a low-budget, backwoods horror flick.

He knew the spot. But I shouldn't go down there, he said. Beaver Slide Road was too steep to climb back up. The tracks were so overgrown with brush, nobody could get through—I'd be trapped in the ravine.

He stared at me, pityingly.

"You might make it," he slowly conceded. "But you might wind up having a long, cold night."

The dashboard clock on my buddy's Saab read 3 pm. It was far too late in the afternoon to be looking for a trailhead, and clouds promised a May downpour.

I did what the city folk you read about in the newspaper always do in these situations—I threw on a backpack and started gingerly down to a trail that doesn't yet exist.

Workers pose in 1910 with first trainload of logs shipped on the PR&N line. Six years later, timber baron Coleman Wheeler was shipping as many as 14 carloads of logs a day out of the Coast Range. (Washington Country Historical Society) Workers pose in 1910 with first trainload of logs shipped on the PR&N line. Six years later, timber baron Coleman Wheeler was shipping as many as 14 carloads of logs a day out of the Coast Range. (Courtesy of Washington County Historical Society Collection)

For more than a century, visitors have underestimated the Coast Range. The 200-mile mountain range on the west edge of the Willamette Valley lacks the dramatic, snowcapped volcanoes of the Cascades. These mountains have the wettest weather in Oregon: The ravines are emerald-green rain forests, where Douglas firs grow massive on the ridges.

It's rugged country. Beaver Slide Road, the start of my solo hike, drops abruptly off the side of a mountain that smells of freshly logged fir trees. Hiking guides say the road's grade exceeds 40 percent—steeper than the Guinness world record for a residential street. It's a mudslide with a name.

Even if you've never heard of the Salmonberry Trail, you've probably seen it: Every car traveling to the coast on U.S. Route 26 passes beneath the Port of Tillamook Bay tracks. The railway's 150-foot wooden trestles are Pinterest shorthand for #authentic Oregon adventuring.

Building those trestles was an epic struggle.

"The Salmonberry is a rugged, remote canyon," says Ross Holloway, a former state forester who now directs the Tillamook Forest Heritage Trust. "It always has been. I guess you could call it one of the last vestiges of manifest destiny, building that railroad through the canyon."

Elmer Lytle, a Portland railroad promoter, started building the Pacific Railway & Navigation Co. line in 1905. Japanese, Polish and Hungarian immigrants dynamited the tunnels and erected the trestles, then among the tallest in the world. (At least two workers died on those trestles—killed by a runaway train car.)

Engineers dealing with blind curves, Oregon fog and nauseated passengers gave the railway another name: "Punk, Rotten & Nasty."

Workers finished building the Pacific Railway & Navigation line in 1911. One of the final projects was the Big Baldwin trestle—520 feet long and 167 feet high. (Tillamook Pioneer Museum Collection) Workers finished building the Pacific Railway & Navigation line in 1911. One of the final projects was the Big Baldwin trestle—520 feet long and 167 feet high. (Courtesy of Tillamook County Pioneer Museum Collection)

The railway opened in 1911, offering daily passenger service from Portland to the coast. But its main use was hauling logs from Coast Range old-growth forests.

Before the PR&N line was completed, a local timberman named Coleman H. Wheeler purchased more than 70,000 acres of prime timberland around Nehalem, according to Paul M. Clock's book Punk Rotten & Nasty: The Saga of the Pacific Railway & Navigation Co.

Wheeler used the new line to bring massive quantities of timber into Portland, building a fortune and a lasting legacy—Coleman Wheeler is the great-grandfather of Portland Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler. The line carried logs and cattle feed until December 2007.

That's when a winter storm whipped into the Oregon Coast, delivering 20 inches of rain in two days, and destroying large portions of the track then operated by the Port of Tillamook Bay.

"Oregon's little railroad that could doesn't know if it can anymore," The Oregonian reported. "Landslides and washouts have left sections of track hanging in midair. One tunnel is packed full of thousands of cubic yards of mud and trees."

Federal officials pledged to find $26 million to restore rail service. They never did.

Instead, a railway through a gorgeous stretch of remote terrain between a major port city and the coast was abandoned and left to rot.

Tunnel 27 on the Salmonberry Trail. (Aaron Mesh) Tunnel 27 on the Salmonberry Trail. (Aaron Mesh)

At the bottom of Beaver Slide Road, I spotted the abandoned railroad tracks, gliding past a Salmonberry River swimming hole and into a tunnel. It was the stuff of movie-house nightmares: pitch-black, seemingly endless. But inside, lit only by my iPhone, the tunnel was peaceful and silent, with little debris and a smattering of hot-pink graffiti.

Out the other side, the tracks ran east, crisscrossing the river on small bridges. The air was perfumed with creosote, the pungent tar used to seal the wooden rail ties. Soon, evidence of the 2007 storm appeared: The hillside dove out from beneath the tracks, leaving them twisted in midair like a kiddie-park roller coaster.

That meant scrambling along the ravine to skirt the washouts, each one bigger than the last. At a place called Kinney Creek, the tracks had snapped off completely, shearing the metal 20 feet above the water.

Related: Bikepacking the Tom McCall Memorial Route

Getting around the wreckage meant scrambling down to the creek along a plume of mud. Someone had tied a heavy rope to a tree at the top of the hillside, with knots along every 3 feet of its length.

I grabbed the rope and slid down the muddy, 20-foot hill, caking the seat of my jeans in dirt. The plunge didn't feel like a feat of wilderness endurance. It felt like being Huckleberry Finn.

I yelled the only thing in my head: "Wheeeeeeee!"

Sheared-off tracks at Kinney Creek. (Aaron Mesh) Sheared-off tracks at Kinney Creek. (Aaron Mesh)

The Salmonberry Trail dangles a tantalizing prospect in front of hikers and cyclists: a route from Portland to the coast that doesn't use a highway.

"It would mean a really beautiful ride," says Alison Graves, executive director of Cycle Oregon. "You'd literally be riding down memory lane, and seeing what built this state. For people who want to try long-distance cycling without having to compete with cars, it would be a huge draw."

Less than two months after the 2007 storm destroyed the Port of Tillamook Bay railroad, people started suggesting the tracks should become a trail.

That's not a novel idea. The rails-to-trails movement is more than 50 years old in America. The Salmonberry Trail would be the 22nd stretch of railroad turned into a bike path in Oregon. The most famous is the Banks-Vernonia State Trail, which runs along 22 miles of modest Washington County hills. The longest is the OC&E Woods Line State Trail outside Klamath Falls: a 109-mile ride through ponderosa pine and sagebrush along the rail bed of the Oregon, California & Eastern Railroad.

But none of those trails runs through territory as rough and isolated as the Salmonberry.

(WW Staff) (WW Staff)

In the past five years, the plan has become an official state project, with all the tedious trimmings: its own intergovernmental agency, bimonthly stakeholder meetings, and a 125-page concept plan that charts the fixes needed to develop each mile. If you catch planners at the right moment, you can hear them whisper about the "Infinity Loop"—a figure 8 of bike paths stretching from Timberline Lodge to Haystack Rock, with the Salmonberry Trail at the center.

The chances of the Salmonberry Trail becoming reality are strengthened by a formidable backer: Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose), who represents this coastal district and sits on the Oregon Legislature Ways and Means Committee, which dishes out state dollars.

"I don't wear a lot of spandex or spend much time on a bike," Johnson says, "but this is an area of spectacular vistas and amazing terrain. I think we are creating something that will have national, if not international, cachet for bicyclists."

Still, there are obstacles: Most obviously, money. Cost estimates range from $18 million to $54 million, and that's not counting the price of reinforcing the tunnels and trestles so they won't fall on tourists. The Salmonberry Trail Intergovernmental Agency has raised just $1.1 million.

Parts of the construction job will be in a remote canyon with few access points for vehicles—the same problems that faced Elmer Lytle more than a century ago, but with new environmental constraints. Already, project supervisors are conceding that paving the trail with asphalt through the Salmonberry River canyon probably isn't feasible. Hard-packed dirt may have to suffice.

And all of this will take time—which is something advocates might not have.

"One of the biggest challenges is keeping the passion alive through a very bureaucratic process," Holloway says. "Gosh, it's been four years since people started talking about this, and we're still about two years away from serious trail-building."

Wahouts along the Salmonberry River (Austin Antrican) Wahouts along the Salmonberry River (Austin Antrican)

Already, the forest is reclaiming the Punk, Rotten & Nasty line.

The trestles appear in good condition—give or take a terrifying plank wobble—and exactly as breathtaking as their many Instagram glamour shots suggest. At least one tunnel is starting to collapse, leaving a dripping skylight in a mountain.

As I walked toward the trestles, the train tracks disappeared under raspberry brambles and huge maple leaves. It was at times impossible to see I was on a trail at all, except by sweeping away the overgrowth to find the twin metal rails below.

Yet there was never any danger of tumbling off the tracks. Every time the railway approached a washout, a well-trod dirt pathway would dogleg to safety well in advance. I was being guided through a storybook forest by the people who had read the landscape before me.

By the time I reached Cochran Pond, it was nearly dusk. The man in the truck had been wrong: The walk was painless, except for the tick attached to the back of my neck.

The lure of the Salmonberry Trail is a chance to walk through Oregon's past—a world of railroad engineers and lumberjacks. But on the hike, I caught a glimpse of the future: a state where people can hop on a bike in Banks and ride to the coast while passing more steelhead than cars.

That future is no sure thing. But the Port of Tillamook Railroad is a place where Oregonians meet vast challenges. The tracks are ready for the state's best trail. We're going to make it.

Wolf Creek trestle. (Joshua Thomas) Wolf Creek trestle. (Joshua Thomas)

Editor's Note: The New Coast

Essential Oregon Coast Experiences

What I Learned When I Left Portland and Moved to Astoria

Top 10 Coastal Clam Chowders

The Best Hikes on Oregon's North Coast

Stand-Up Paddleboarding

Astoria's Finest Restaurant

Where to Eat on the Coast

The World's Quirkiest Brewery

Favorite Beer and Bud Spots

The Rusty Magic of Sou'Wester Lodge

Best Places to Stay

Portland Outdoor Stores

Scandinavian Astoria

Secret Beaches, Hidden Features and Easter Eggs of the Coast

This Abandoned Railroad Could Become an Epic Trail From Portland to the Sea

Willamette Week

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.