A walk on the Centennial Trail

It’s right there, waiting for your footsteps.

A trail you may have never considered winds through the heart of Snohomish County, cutting a 17-mile path through picturesque forest and a bit of working farmland and alongside a tree-shrouded river. The path criss-crosses grassy fields dotted with old farmhouses and a sparkling lake.

Cougars, bears and other wildlife are about, which lends the Centennial Trail an “out there” feel. So does a minimum of intersections and a path that often veers away from roads.

“There are sections of the trail where you could feel like you’re in the middle of the state somewhere and not close to an urban center,” said Amy Spain, executive director of the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau.

But it is urban.

The Centennial Trail starts in Snohomish, heads through Machias, skirts around Lake Stevens and Marysville and ends — minus a couple of gaps — in downtown Arlington.

There are plans to extend the trail to the Skagit and King county lines, but some say those plans are moving too slowly.

Last week, the Arlington City Council urged Snohomish County to fill in a gap in the trail that puts trail users at risk.

Snohomish County doesn’t know how many people are using the trail, but take a stroll on a weekend day and it’ll become clear how popular it is.

“There are people out here all the time, from the crack of dawn to dusk,” said Sharon Spoelstra, owner of Alltrak Express in Machias. “It’s a rare minute that I can look on the trail and not see anybody.”

She should know. She has the only business that’s directly on the trail.

Spolestra pumps Gatorade and energy bars into athletes who train on the trail, rents bikes and in-line skates to tourists, and sells popsicles and sandwiches to stroller-pushing moms and dog walkers.

She suggests the chicken salad, a homemade concoction of chicken, dried cranberries and mayonnaise served on a croissant.

Thirsty dogs lap up water from an always-fresh bowl and slobber over dog treats.

Roomy confines

The trail is a wide enough for side-by-side double strollers. In-line skaters rave about how smooth it is. Next to the trail is a dirt path for horses and joggers who like to run on the dirt.

“We all love the Centennial Trail,” said Kristin Kinnamon, a local trail advocate. “It’s a good long trail. As someone who travels by bicycle, this trail is a big attraction for people to come visit Snohomish County from around Washington and around the country.”

The trail got its start in the late 1980s, when a six-mile segment opened north of Snohomish. It opened in 1989, the state’s centennial year. It follows an old railroad route established in the late 1800s.

A second piece linking Snohomish to the outskirts of Arlington opened in 2004, creating the current 17-mile configuration.

“We’re really blessed with the trail system here,” said Tom Teigen, county parks director.

Snohomish County is working to fill in a key gap in Arlington as it moves ahead with plans to extend the trail from downtown Arlington to the Skagit County border.

The county also is seeking money to extend the trail to Monroe, where it has the right of way but no money to start construction. The eventual goal is to go from county line to county line.

Each community has looked forward to the trail coming its way, said Marc Krandel, planning supervisor for the county’s parks department.

“It’s an incredible amenity,” he said. “Trails are real economic drivers, and I think they know and count on that. It brings a lot of people who don’t go there normally.”

Arlington eager

Because it goes right through its downtown, Arlington is particularly eager to get the trail finished.

People call City Hall “all the time” asking when the trail will be complete, said Bill Blake, Arlington’s interim community development director. “It’s a key part of our economic development strategy,” he said.

The Arlington City Council last week passed a resolution urging Snohomish County to fill a 20-block gap in the trail between 172nd Street NE and 152nd Street NE.

The section of the trail would connect Arlington to Marysville. Currently, bikers and joggers who want to use that section of trail must navigate a “dangerous” section of 67th Avenue NE that doesn’t have shoulders or sidewalks, Councilwoman Marilyn Oertle said.

“It’s just a little two-lane country road that’s very narrow and very dangerous,” said Oertle, who refuses to bike along the road because of safety concerns. “There’s nowhere to walk. It’s definitely a hazard.”

The biking community also can’t wait for the “Arlington Gap” to close, said Bill Weber, president of the Bike Club of Snohomish County.

“It has very poor shoulders and deep ditches,” Weber said.

There’s no price tag linked to the project yet, but because trail expansion cost about $1 million per mile, it’ll likely cost $1.5 million to fill in the gap, Teigen said. If grant money comes in, construction could start by the end of 2008.

The county does have $5 million to extend the trail from north of Arlington to the Skagit County line. Starting work on that project, which includes bringing back to life an old rail trail trestle over the Stillaguamish River, depends on getting a handful of environmental permits. Krandel “optimistically” hopes the work will start in the spring.

There’s also a 1.2-mile gap in the trail in downtown Arlington between 204th Street NE and Lebanon Avenue. The city plans to pave that portion of the trail but currently doesn’t have funding or detailed plans for the project, said Len Olive, Arlington public works director.

The city is applying for grants and hopes to have permits within 18 months, with construction beginning in late 2008 or 2009. Fixing this section isn’t as pressing because trail users can follow the path along an old abandoned rail bed and sidewalks.

“We have a lot of attractions here and the trail certainly is a viable magnet to get people up here to eat lunch and buy some of the cool stuff we have downtown,” Olive said.

To the south, the county has secured right of way for the trail from Snohomish to Monroe, Krandel said. The city is working on buying access to land south of Monroe.

There’s no money or schedule for building those segments, but he said it helps to have locked up the route to Monroe. He said it will follow the high-voltage power lines that can be seen south of U.S. 2.

Beyond that, the county has plans to build the Whitehorse Trail, which will connect Arlington with Darrington on a route that largely follows the North Fork Stillaguamish River.

The county owns the 27 miles of right of way for that trail, but minus some small sections that are open, there is no money to build it yet.

Eventually the Centennial Trail will be 44 miles long and will splinter off to the Interurban Trail that cuts through southeast Snohomish County and a trail that could be developed along a Snohomish-to-Woodinville Burlington Northern Santa Fe line. King County is trying to buy that line and turn it into a trail.

“Ultimately you could ride all the way into Auburn and points south in King County and Pierce County without really ever having to get on a public roadway,” said Olive from Arlington. “The possibilities are really, really exciting.”

Reporter Lukas Velush: 425-339-3449 and lvelush@heraldnet.com.

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