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Cascade Foothills Bypass

See beautiful Washington as you bypass I-5's worst traffic

Quiet streets of Morton, Washington on a weekday evening.Tired of the old I-5 grind through Tacoma, Olympia, and points south? Looking for a pleasant alternative route for your next trip to Portland? Here's a route that gets you past all the congestion south of Seattle. Bypassing Federal Way and SeaTac for quiet little towns like Black Diamond, Buckley, Elbe, and Morton, you'll travel some roads that satisfy anybody's definition of "good riding." You'll rejoin I-5 at exit 71, about six miles south of Chehalis -- refreshed, not frazzled, and ready for the remaining miles to Portland.

Start at the State Highway 169 exit of I-405; it'll be exit 4-A or 4-B depending on which direction you're traveling from. Go east from Renton on highway 169, Maple Valley Road. This stretch of road is likely be be fairly busy, as it's the main road connecting Renton with Maple Valley, Black Diamond, and other communities. But 169 parallels the Cedar River until you get to Maple Valley, and soon after you leave the sprawl at the outskirts of Renton the river treats you to some impressive views.

Stay with Highway 169 through Maple Valley and Black Diamond. Both towns offer plenty of chances to fuel yourself and your mount. Besides those visible from the main road, Black Diamond offers some eating and dining places in the old town, which is to the right of the main road. (But if you're hungry for burger and a chocolate shake, wait till you get to Buckley -- you'll be there soon enough.) If the road has been busy so far, traffic is likely to lighten up once you've cleared Black Diamond.

From there, it's about eight more miles to Enumclaw. Highway 169 carries you into town and ends; here you pick up State Highway 410 West (Tacoma), which is clearly marked. Highway 410 takes you to Buckley, where you can find those burgers and shakes I mentioned at Wally's, on the left as you get into town. You can sit outside and admire your bike or sit inside and dig the decor, which runs heavily toward classic Americana: candy-apple red metalflake Naughahyde, boomerang-print Formica, and images of The King and other notables. Buckley has some decent opportunities for food so now's the time to fuel up unless you want to wait till you get to Eatonville which has the Ohop Bakery and the Pizza Deli and Company.

On your way out of Buckley, pick up State Highway 165 (Wilkeson). Follow it a couple of miles out of town, keeping your eyes peeled for the sign announcing State Highway 162 (South Prairie, Orting). Where 165 veers left for Wilkeson, you'll veer right onto 162.

Blink once, or, (if there's time) twice as you pass through South Prairie, then look for the road to Electron -- it is a left turn just before a railroad crossing. (If you miss this turn, no worries: continue to Orting and take State Highway 161 south to Kapowsin, where you can rejoin the ride route.) This road, known as Orville Road or the Kapowsin Highway, passes through some farmlands, then follows along the western shore of Lake Kapowsin. The road here is bumpy and twisty, and if you get stuck behind slow traffic you will likely follow it for a while.

The route turns left at the little village of Kapowsin and rejoins the lakeshore. After you pass the marshy south end of Lake Kapowsin you'll have some fine views of the picturesque Ohop Valley, with occasional views beyond to Mount Rainier and the Cascade foothills. The views continue as you pass Ohop Lake. South of the lake, Orville Road meets highway 161; turn left to follow it into Eatonville.

highway 161 continues through Eatonville to end at State Highway 7. The best riding of the whole trip begins when you pick up highway 7, a smooth, well engineered thoroughfare with excellent sightlines and many passing opportunities. Mount Rainier is a constant presence on the horizon, and the perspective on it from that road is different enough to make it seem like "the same mountain, only different": you're viewing it from almost due west, not from the northwest as you do from Seattle and other Puget Sound environs.

Elbe is a favorite rest stop whenever my wife, Anne, and I take this route on our way to party with friends in Vancouver (the "real" one, in Washington). We stop by the railroad cars, which you'll see on the right as you pull into town. Some of the cars have been converted to make a restaurant, a tavern, and a motel. We've never tried any of those establishments, but they seem to have a fair amount of traffic. Scale Shack Burgers is a regular destination from many riders as well and the lines can get long if the weather is good.

Instead, we like to grab an espresso at Charlie's, a little roadside place, and check out the old steam locomotive parked by the road. It's interesting to look at if you've a mechanical turn of mind, because most of its moving parts are exposed.  

Twin cylinders, old and new.  The big round object beside the boiler is the locomotive engine's cylinder head cover!Below the massive boiler is the locomotive's huge V-twin engine. It's a 90-degree engine, like a Moto Guzzi, and a huge cylinder protrudes out and up on either side of the "tank." The crankshaft is exposed, and you can see the huge crankpin that both connecting rods share. (I didn't measure it, but the crank throw was around a foot.) Since this is an "external combustion engine" -- the fuel burns not in the cylinder, but in the firebox underneath the boiler -- the engine doesn't use piston strokes to pull in its fuel/air charge or to compress it: every downstroke of the piston is a power stroke, and every upstroke is an exhaust stroke. Consequently the valve gear runs at engine speed, not at half speed as it does on the four-stroke Otto-cycle engines most of us are familiar with. The steam engine's cam is an eccentric mounted directly to the crankshaft on the front of the engine, just forward of the massive main bearing. The valve gear itself remains a mystery: it's boxed up in front of the cylinders, and nothing in my BMW toolkit is large enough to remove the cover bolts.

The locomotive's mighty driveshafts have been removed, but you can see where they connect via U-joints to the wheel trucks, which have immense bevel gears transmitting power to the axles.

The whole thing is a gearhead's delight, as you can see from how long I've gone on about it. If you prefer the ecclesiastical to the mechanical, you can feast your eyes on the historical Lutheran church on the other side of the tracks: it's a tiny building, and from a platform outside the window you can look in at the church's austere and orderly design, which packs a dozen pews, a podium, and an altar into a space only about 18 feet by 24 feet.

We've seen the sights and finished our coffee, so let's get back on the road. The 17-mile stretch of highway 7 from Elbe to Morton is even more gorgeous than the stretch you saw on your way into town. It's much more open than the roads we traveled on before we picked up highway 7, and it offers great views both of the road and the surrounding terrain.

As you enter Morton, look for the turnoff for State Highway 508 on the right, or continue into town for gas and food. This is your last taste of great riding before you rejoin Interstate 5 about 30 miles hence. Tighter than highway 7, highway 508 meanders down from the Cascade foothills, occasionally granting perspectives of the hills receding in hazy ranks to the horizon. Follow it through Cinebar, Alpha, Onalaska, and Klaus.

When you hit I-5 you'll be at milepost 71, and Portland will be just a little over an hour south -- unless, of course, you decide to get there by crossing the Columbia at Longview and following scenic US 30 south along the river, but that's another story! Sometimes, the slow way is the best way.

Bill Nolan/Spring 00

Bill Nolan is a local rider, member of WMRRA and regular contributor to Sound RIDER!


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