Constructed in 1903, the Klickitat Trail was originally a railroad connecting Lyle to Goldendale to transport agricultural harvests and lumber. Over the course of the century lumber became the mainstay of the line, and when the mills in Klickitat and Goldendale closed in the early 1990s, the line was abandoned. Soon the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy stepped in and acquired the railroad right-of-way. Ownership of the line was then transferred to Washington State Parks, which currently manages the trail with the Klickitat Trail Conservancy.
Though the most popular portion of the trail begins at the Lyle Trailhead and continues up the Wild and Scenic Klickitat, the portion reviewed for this hike begins at the Harms Road Trailhead and proceeds west and then north through Swale Canyon. This end of the trail receives less traffic in part because it is a little farther along the road, but also because the high prairie environment means intense sun exposure in warmer months. Spring is an excellent time of year to hike this section, as you will not only avoid intense heat, but you’ll also catch emerging prairie wildflowers.
The complete Swale Canyon section is 13 miles, and is best completed with a shuttle set at the Wahkiacus Trailhead. In the absence of a shuttle, the 6-mile walk in to the fourth bridge provides a good sample of the canyon and the unique rails-to-trails route. Swale Creek has a modest beginning at the trailhead, appearing more as a watering hole, but it gains character as the trail proceeds and more tributaries course in. The steep canyon walls form the perfect amphitheater for redwing blackbird and meadowlark performances. Plenty of improvised sculptures collected from old railroad hardware mark the trail like cairns.
Private land, livestock, rattlesnakes, ticks and poison oak are all good reasons to keep your dog leashed if you are bringing one along. Finally, keep in mind that the trail usually closes mid-June through October as a wildfire precaution.