A perfect match: Trail running and the Cascades’ east slopes
By Steve Maher
WENATCHEE — It’s easy to see why trail running has taken off along the east slopes of the Cascades in Chelan County.
Get yourself running in the Wenatchee Foothills, or further west, say up Devil’s Gulch or in the Icicle, and you’ll likely travel through several microclimates that support their own worlds — ones that feature deciduous trees, pine and flowering balsamroot — all the while catching amazing view after amazing view.
It’s downright intoxicating.
“The beauty is apparent every time you trail run here. There’s always a view,” says Wenatchee’s Jason Jablonski, a longtime trail runner and mountain biker. “Other places you are working to get to a view when you trail run. When you are trail running here there is a view when you start, there is a view while you run, and there is a view when you finish.”
And then there’s the actual physical benefits. Trail runners say the activity provides a solid workout. And the terrain traveled is softer and less abrasive on bodies than hitting the pavement.
At its essence, trail running is like a forward-moving dance. You need to use your arms for balance. You need to make sure your footing is nimble and flexible. Your eyes need to move up and down, from the mountains in the distance to the earth trail below. Before long, you’ll find yourself in rhythm.
“We have world-class trails here, we really do,” says Wenatchee trail runner Ian Woodford, who serves on the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust’s trails committee. “When I run, I like to enjoy the peacefulness of nature and to escape an otherwise fast-paced life. We have that here in spades.”
The growth locally mirrors what is occurring nationally.
According to Running USA, the number of U.S. trail runners is now at more than 6.7 million. The Outdoor Industry Association reports trail running’s growth to be roughly 10 percent annually (over the past five years, the number has grown by 42.4 percent). The association ranks trail running, along with road running and jogging, as the No. 1 “gateway to healthier lifestyle” activity in the country.
Given the literally thousands of vistas present in the Cascades and foothills, the varied terrain here and easy access to trails, some foresee Chelan County increasingly becoming a major draw for trail runners, including those who live elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.
There are signs that is already happening. While no organization has conducted official counts of runners on local trails, anecdotally, at least, there’s mounting evidence the numbers are increasing rapidly.
“Every time I’m out on a trail, there is someone trail running,” Jablonski says. “I’ve ridden my mountain bike for 20 years here. I never used to see anyone trail running. Now I see people all the time.”
Marlene Farrell, a Leavenworth trail runner and writer who moved to the valley 13 years ago, says she used to have trouble finding running partners for trail runs but not anymore.
“I think people are now aware of the benefits of trail running that include less impact on our joints,” says Farrell, who recently started a business with two friends that puts on trail running retreats for women. “Trail runs make us better all-around athletes with the varied terrain and the spiritual and psychological benefits of getting away from developed areas and being alone with the sounds of wilderness and our own breath.”
Chelan County has been home to quality trail systems for decades, dating back to the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s and 1940s. The more-recent addition of trails in the Wenatchee Foothills, at Squilchuck State Park, in the Leavenworth Ski Hill and Freund Canyon areas, and at Echo Valley near Lake Chelan has been a boon, opening up new and easily accessible areas — some just a few minutes from people’s homes — for running, exploration and fitness.
The Wenatchee Valley Trail Run Series — put on by RunWenatchee and still in its infancy — and the Echo Valley Trail Run event near Lake Chelan have seen steady local and regional participation, including runners from Seattle, Portland and Canada who have heard about the world-class trails in Chelan County.
“Trail running near Lake Chelan provides incredible variety and is quite different than trail runs west of the Cascades,” says Richard Kresser of Seattle-based Evergreen Trail Runs, which puts on the Echo Valley event. “There is sun, and the smooth gentle single-track trails is a nice change from the technical rocky and rooty trails in the heart of the mountains. Plus, the astounding views rewards runners all day long.”
Earlier this month, RunWenatchee, in conjunction with the Wenatchee Valley Chamber of Commerce, released its first trail running short film, “Colors,” set in Chelan County. The short was created by North 40 Productions of Wenatchee.
Joel Rhyner, a partner in RunWenatchee, said the growing partnerships between his organization and others such as the chamber, Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, Mission Ridge Ski & Board Resort, Leavenworth Winter Sports Club, U.S. Forest Services, North 40 Productions and Vortex Productions have been key.
“We have a growing trail running scene here and these partnerships have helped cement the sport even more,” Rhyner said.
Indeed, the Wenatchee Valley Chamber envisions trail running as both a plus in residents’ quality-of-life and as a tool to attract visitors.
“The races are bringing people into this area,” said Matt Kearny, the chamber’s sports tourism director. “A lot of them are coming here for the first time and staying for another 24 hours to see what there is to do here, and then coming back later with their families. It’s a reason for them to come back and back.”
When they are here or when they return, they will find — as so many locals have — that the options are many.
Want rolling terrain? Head to Sage Hills in the Wenatchee Foothills. Want a forest canopy? Venture to the Red Devil and Red Hill trails south of Cashmere, or Squilchuck State Park. Want a rockier, more aggressive setting? Run up to Clara Lake adjacent to Mission Ridge. Want wildflowers galore? Mosey on up to the Horse Lake Reserve.
“Whether you’re looking for an easy run through the foothills with sweeping views of the valley, an adventure through the forest, or a steep scramble up a mountain, you’ll find them here, and you don’t have to drive hours to get there,” says Amy Kerker, a Wenatchee resident and avid outdoor recreationist. “You’ll find them just 15 minutes or less from downtown Wenatchee, so you can get out there any time.”
That diversity is a strong pull.
“I can find buffed dirt trails or rugged twisty trails that lead to mountain lakes,” says Farrell. “I love revisiting my favorite places and there’s always something new to discover. I switch to snow sports in the winter so it’s exciting to return to the trails as they become snow-free and flower-laden. When it’s really hot in the summer, shady and higher elevation trails are always a refreshing option.”
“The beauty along the trails here is truly uplifting,” adds Rhyner. “Who doesn’t want to place themselves amongst such beauty, to get the legs moving and to explore?”