Bike Overnighter on the Tolt River

Forgiveness vs Permission during a Eastside Shakedown

Jonathan McCurdy
18 min readMay 25, 2021

Part 1 — Aslan to Carnation via Velodrome

by Jonathan M

The best thing about bikepacking overnighters is that the more you do them, the easier they become.

With practice, one begins to have a place on the bike for all the gear needed for a successful trip. One begins to amass a collection of close-by and accessible campsites, and with any luck, a collection of friends who are similarly equipped for such a last-minute excursion when the whim strikes!

So far Erin and I had been to Fay Bainbridge a couple of times already over the last year, and we were hoping to switch it up.

One pleasant night during a jovial dinner party with our friend Paul we were pondering the age-old question: this weekend, bike camping or gravel ride?? I sipped down a tasty s’mores stout I had bought from Hello Brewing in Spokane, and took it as inspiration.

Coincidentally, Erin had already signed up for an intro class at Jerry Baker Velodrome at Marymoor Park for Saturday, which made doing any kind of big gravel ride more challenging to plan, but camping afterwards wasn’t out of the question.

We also needed to do a shakedown trip for our upcoming Memorial Day trip (or Johnmorial Day if you’re wise to that). Well, Paul did anyway. Erin and I just wanted an excuse to go camping again.

In some of our forays out east of Seattle, we had come across signs for camping in the town of Carnation, by the name of Tolt MacDonald Park. Just a couple dozen miles outside of the big city, one finds oneself near the foothills of the Cascades, among farm-land, winding rivers and tree-covered gravel paths. Some familiarity with the roads in this area, and previous experiences left us with an inflated sense of ease for this trip. The riding would be trivial! And the camping would be seamless! The important part is having fun and pedaling!

The Friday night before our trip arrived, and we felt no real urgency to prepare. Many of our bags were still packed from the previous camping trip, and I had picked up some easy backpacking meals from REI for this occasion. Besides, we weren’t leaving until the following afternoon!

Perhaps it was boredom, or a desire to check all the boxes as a formality, but Erin suggested we check the campsite to make sure there were walk-up sites available. For whatever reason I had assumed they had them, just like many of the other State and County Park campgrounds we had been to.

And yet —

The website for Tolt MacDonald had the following note:

Hmmm. That’s not promising.

And we didn’t know if this was a matter of COVID-related policy (albeit an uneven application of it). This late into the pandemic, it seemed arbitrary and a bit theatrical to apply this sort of restriction. What’s more, when we tried to call, we found out the line was “voicemail only” — ie leave a message and we’ll get back to you. And probably not on Saturday.

This left us with a bit of a dilemma. Do we proceed with the original plan and hope for some luck with the campground? Or do we retreat to a fallback option — there are some other campgrounds in the greater Seattle area, but most would require either some initial driving, or a much longer bike ride than we were prepared for.

What’s more, we had to make a game-time decision while Erin was in class and away from communication; for Paul and I would have to start riding an hour or so ahead of time to meet up with her!

I presented Paul with these alternative options and I was met with this response:

“well I already packed the bike, and I’m not super enthused about doing it again.” Which ruled out the drive-2-ride options.

So, Tolt-MacDonald it would be.

A note on this type of camping. Historically in Bike Touring literature and common wisdom, there is a not-infrequent practice of “wild camping”. This entails setting up your tent on the side of the road somewhere when there is no established camping available. The legality of this is questionable, especially in regions of the world with a heavy proportion of private land. Much of this depends on your orientation towards land-use, authority, and what I call “Forgiveness vs Permission.”

I have to admit that in the past I have landed in the former camp; specifically when touring through parts of Sweden, the only campgrounds available were quite grand “Family Holiday” type affairs with RV plug ins, laundry rooms and (in some cases) a full-fledged amusement park for children. Rather than pay for the whole experience, I may have just ridden my bike in and set up a tent in a far-off corner out of sight.

All that to say, having done so before, I was a bit more comfortable with this course of action than the others, though I took the consensus on Tolt MacDonald as an implicit acceptance of this possibility, for better or worse.

Paul and I were scheduled to meet at Aslan Brewing in Fremont for a pre-ride pint. And by that I mean, I would be drinking, and Paul would be cheering me on. From there we rode on over the 520 bridge and up the Sammamish river to Marymoor Park where Erin would be finished racing and join us for the second leg.

First stop : beer!

This first leg was mostly uneventful! Save for some lackluster navigation on my part, and then a course correction, during Paul zoomed ahead to make sure we were going the right way. My insecurity brain assumed he wanted me to eat his dust and I started feeling sad until he explained his rationale.

I was riding this trip, again on my Rodeo Labs Flat Bar Flaanimal (the bike’s name is Kino if you care to know). Though there were a couple of differences between my setup this time and last.

  • First, I finally gave in and installed the Vittoria 2.1" gravel tires on front and back. A combo of learning the best tire pressures to run, and an improved fitness from my FUNemployed #bikesallday life had me feeling a lot better pushing such big tires on the asphalt.
  • Second, I had recently installed an absoluteblack oval chainring in a lower tooth count, which also contributed to a smoother pedaling experience on the big tires.
  • Thirdly, thanks to lighter packing and some smart equipment distribution between Erin and myself, I was able to eschew my grande handlebar roll in favor of a simple handlebar bag! Nice!

Paul rode his Otso Warrakin stainless gravel bike, replete with dynamo lights front and back, insuring safe(r) passage through Washington’s farm country no matter what the odds! He was running 38mm Panaracer SS tires, which was probably the wisest choice for the first leg of this trip given the asphalt-heavy mixture.

We rolled into the veritable shopping-mall-sized sports complex that is Marymoor Park and found Erin sunning on the grass by the velodrome, casually-yet-deliberately waiting for our arrival on the premises.

The next part of the ride was pretty simple. Between Redmond and Carnation there is a sizable plateau. We had to get over that plateau, and then it was a straight shot south on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail. The SVT is a favorite among cyclists for its chill grades, shady foliage and groomed gravel.

Getting up and over the plateau involved a pretty lengthy road climb, which at the height of the afternoon on a rare mid 70s sunny day on the asphalt meant things got hot quickly. However all things eventually must come to an end, and what comes up must also come down. And come down we did. At gradients greater than 18%, I’ve never been more happy to have disc brakes at my disposal. I love my All City townie bike, but I have no idea if I could have sustained this descent without blowing one of my tires (something that’s happened to me before from heavy prolonged rim braking).

We weren’t super jazzed about the prospect of riding back up this monstrous thing, so we put a bookmarked the idea of finding a different route home.

I really can’t remember if this was day one or two, but it fits into the story.

Fortunately we were then rewarded with a heavenly section of riding along the SVT. On this stretch, I felt at once eager to get to camp, trepidation for the uncertainty of our campsite situation, as well as a desire to bask in the perfect sunny weather and savor the ride with my two companions.

We finally pulled into the campsite with plenty of warm evening sunlight to run out the night. It felt like a scene straight out of Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. In fact one could argue a well-equipped bicycle could easily take the place of Leo’s Happiness Machine.

There was still some trepidation over the prospect of spending the night there without explicit permission of the camp host, we agreed we didn’t have a great alternative, and that our worried souls could be salved with a bit of monetary forgiveness sent by mail after the fact.

That, and settling into the rhythm of setting up camp and eating our camp dinners would soon keep our anxious mind’s occupied, come what may.

Our shelters for the night

Postscript: The King County parks department returned my call the following Monday.

The reason they could not accept walk-up reservations was due to a policy against handling cash during COVID-19 pandemic, and that the rules should be changing back to normal soon. Whether or not you believe an individual has the right to exercise agency over rules they think are illogical, we felt a little better knowing we merely pre-empted an upcoming rule change by a week or so. Right?

Part 2 — A Night Out at Tolt MacDonald

by Paul T

There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, “Where are you going?” and the first man replies, “I don’t know! Ask the horse!”

- Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching”

It was at about the 30 mile point of the ride out of Seattle and into the Snoqualmie Valley that I finally felt the lingering tensions and anxieties of a busy week fall away. Riding along the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, basking in the glow of golden hour light, and appreciating the way that the dappled sunbeams were shining on my riding partners, I stopped worrying and simply appreciated the privilege that made a trip like this possible. It didn’t matter what I’d forgotten to pack, or whether or not I’d have a restful night of sleep, or if there would be other unforeseen hiccups in the coming hours. I was on a carefree cycling adventure with good friends — what could be better than that?

Pedaling lazily down the SVT towards our campsite for the night, it was easy to see traces of its previous life as a spur line of the “Milwaukee Road,” an ambitious transcontinental rail line built by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad that eventually fell into disrepair and abandonment (before being redeveloped as the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail in the 1980s). A railroad tie here, some rusted and pitted metal there; I found myself picking up on details that I’d overlooked or missed entirely on more spirited and unladen rides down this same route.

Part of the joy of bikepacking is the luxury of traveling long distances with less clock-watching; when you have everything that you need for a night in the woods, there’s no incentive to pedal fast and make it back to town before nightfall. The miles roll by at a slower pace, taking on added beauty and significance. The ride is less about the numbers on the Garmin and more about the photos and memories that get captured along the way. As someone who often views cycling as a competitive and solitary pursuit, this sort of trip casts that assumption into stark relief and helps to reverse the burnout that long hours spent suffering (willingly, and not without reward!) in the saddle can result in.Campandgoslow, indeed.

We turned off the SVT and reached Carnation with the sun beginning its slow descent to meet the horizon, heading over the hills we’d climbed earlier that afternoon. The town sits at the confluence of the Tolt and Snoqualmie Rivers and was originally inhabited by Coast Salish people of the Snoqualmie and Tulalip Tribes. After these indigenous populations were forced into reservations following the signing of the Point Elliot Treaty in the 1850s, white settlers founded Tolt (as it was originally known — a Anglicization of the Lushootseed name for the river) in 1865. To add insult to injury, the town was further removed from its native roots when it was renamed for the Carnation Evaporated Milk Company that established a research farm there. Despite protests from tribe members and a short-lived reversal, that remains the name today. Living in the Pacific Northwest, it is blindingly apparent that almost all of us are immigrants…

Our three-person group arrived at Tolt-MacDonald Park just as the campsites were starting to fill up with harried parents and exuberant children. We were waved through a gate separating the sports facilities from the RV campsite circle, and paused at an information board to gather our thoughts. The COVID-19 pandemic, while seemingly more under control than in previous months, was still cause for modified operations. Walk-up reservations would not be accepted, and two night stays were the official requirement. Because our group 1) had not booked ahead of time and 2) had plans to stay for one night only, we elected to ask for forgiveness instead of permission. The decision settled, we set out in search of an unclaimed campsite.

Tolt-MacDonald Park started life as Tolt River Park, established when King County purchased and developed a private land parcel into a recreational space in the 1970s. Originally, the park was only on the east side of the Snoqualmie River. That changed in 1976, when, as part of the United States Bicentennial, plans were drawn up by John MacDonald (a Seattle Boy Scout troop leader) and the Army Reserve’s 409th Engineer Company to construct a bridge allowing access to a larger campground on the river’s western bank. An estimated 20,000 Boy Scouts volunteered their time to bring the vision to fruition, with 6 yurts and 22 campsites (along with an amphitheater and several pavilions) being completed as well as a beautifully maintained suspension bridge. MacDonald died shortly before the park was opened in June, and so it was dedicated in his name.

We crossed the surging Snoqualmie via the aforementioned bridge, watching the water flow underneath us through slatted and creaking wood beams. The other side of the campsite was hillier and more densely forested than the RV camping circle, and there was a lively atmosphere as barbecues were lit for dinner and baseballs were tossed around. Children ran up and down the steep gravel road, immersed in a lively game of freeze tag as we looked for a campsite. A few other cyclists nodded in our direction, filling up their bottles from the communal water pump that stood outside a small restroom. A lone figure stood at the crest of the hill, photographing the magnificent alpenglow on the Cascade Mountains. Amidst the hubbub, we spied an unoccupied fire pit and headed towards it. We conferred with the closest family, who confirmed that it was an available campsite (perhaps because it was missing the wooden picnic table present at all the others). This would be home for the night.

After a quick trip into town for some last-minute supplies, we set about making camp. Jonathan and Erin had their freestanding Big Agnes up in minutes, while my ultralight backpacking setup required some experimentation (and expletives) before I could contort the single-walled material into something resembling a tent. I was unprepared for the difficulties that hardened and stone-packed ground would present for my thin aluminum stakes; additionally, my plans to use my bicycle frame as a guying-out point were more frustrating in practice than I’d anticipated. Finally, the campsite was on a minor pitch, and the low-friction nature of my tent floor and sleeping pad led to some slipping and sliding when getting comfortable. Given the low-stakes (ha!) environment of a state park, however, these issues were minor niggles as opposed to potentially trip-ruiners. It’s not a shakedown ride if you don’t find some flies in the ointment!

Friends at camp

Once our tents were set up, our sleeping pads inflated, and our bike clothes exchanged for camp loungewear, the day truly felt like it could wind down. We boiled some water and swapped stories of previous trips while waiting for our dehydrated meals to be edible. The darkness grew closer as the last of the light reflected off of the mountains, and the temperature began to drop steadily. We finished our dinner just as the mosquitoes began to make their presence known; without a campfire, there was no smoke to offer some protection from their dogged single-mindedness. Everyone was in their tents by 9 PM, and I listened to a podcast while Jonathan and Erin read stories quietly to one another in the darkness.

The night was uneventful, and everyone woke feeling refreshed and appreciative of a glorious day for the return trip. The skies were blue, with a light breeze carrying the tantalizing aroma of bacon and eggs from one of the yurts a little bit down the hill. We sipped coffee and made some breakfast, watching the campsite spring to life around us. A young boy struggled to carry a huge reservoir of cooking water back up the gravel path to his family’s site. A few young children started running around with the same enthusiasm of the previous night, heading down to the shoreline to skip stones on the water. A line formed at the restroom, with bleary-eyed parents trying to corral their kids and get an early start home. I plotted out an ad-hoc route home while oatmeal bubbled away on my cookset; we didn’t merely want to retrace our steps.

With a full meal in our stomachs, breaking camp felt like a much faster process than setting up, and we were back on our bikes in short order. We surveyed the site, satisfied that we had left it as we found it. Waving goodbye to our camping neighbors, it felt surreal passing families struggling to fit their camping setups back into their cars. Carrying the essentials and keeping luxuries to a minimum has multiple benefits, as it turns out. I found myself reviewing what I’d brought with me; did I really need that extra shirt? Could I have pared down my hygiene kit? Had I carried too much water? I now see how planning trips and preparing for situation-specific eventualities can become an addiction, and almost as enjoyable as the adventure itself.

The return leg of the route would take us up steeper climbs and down more technical descents than the route we’d followed yesterday — but for now, I was relishing where I was and who I was with rather than thinking about the journey ahead. Not a bad way to spend 24 hours!

Part 3 — Hike-a-Biking Our Way to the Tolt Pipeline

by Erin B

Sunday rolled in with perfect weather — gentle dawn, clear skies, just a touch of dew in the air. At 6:00AM sharp, a loud boom somewhere in the woods roused us awake. Was it a wake-up cannon from a local scouting camp? The explosion of Mount Rainier which will someday bring an end to metro Seattle? The mystery remains unsolved — but with that sound, we began to stir in our tents.

We clambered out and gathered around the fire ring for coffee and breakfast. Jonathan and Paul enjoyed deluxe instant coffee (“Structured” for Paul and “Complex” for Jonathan) and I sipped some black tea.

Jonathan and I enjoyed caramel stroopwaffles and Perfect bars, while Paul had some Quaker oats which were apparently tasty, judging by his happy dance after the first bite. As we ate, we discussed how we wanted to get back to Redmond and then Seattle — climbing Novelty Hill from the east side would be a nasty climb, and likely hike-a-bike without much of a shoulder. Paul’s encyclopedic knowledge of Eastside riding presented us with a few options, and we ultimately decided to head a few miles north of Novelty Hill before cutting West to cross the plateau and take the Tolt Pipeline back into Redmond. Paul mapped a ride using RidewithGPS and shared it, and we all agreed this was the best way back.

We packed up the tents without much fanfare, and by 9 we were rolling back across the suspension bridge and on our way home. The first few miles were on dreamy farm backroads zig-zagging across the Snoqualmie River — we passed horses in white-fenced paddocks and peeped at snow-capped Cascade Mountains along the horizon. As we approached the turnoff to climb the out of the valley, we saw the road which we had mapped to ride — and that it was clearly marked as private property. Sometimes going by heatmaps can lead you to take the same questionable routes that other cyclists have made… and then choosing to ride them then worsens the pattern. We paused to consider our options and decided to ride the private road to get to Tolt Pipeline. Forgiveness, not permission.

Turning to ride West on the private road, I immediately realized I was in the wrong gear. Wait, no, all my gears were wrong. The road approached 18% grade in some areas and even hike-a-bike was challenging. At least there were plentiful trees to provide shade. Jonathan and Paul quickly vanished from sight ahead of me and I began repeating “I think I can, I know I can” to myself to quiet the voice that wanted to curse the two of them for shooting off ahead. After about a quarter mile of steep climbing, Jonathan was waiting for me at a makeshift fence of concrete and wire cable indicating the public access right-of-way of the Tolt pipeline. Together we heaved our loaded bikes over the gate, and the trail turned to gravel and continued steeply upwards another quarter mile — this time with no shade to be found. It was about this point when I really started to feel the fatigue from riding fixed-gear bikes at the Jerry Baker velodrome the day before. If only I could inject calories directly into my quads…

Left: two riders, blissfully unaware of what lie ahead; Right: a lone bicycle, its rider nowhere to be found. possibly murdered by the climb?

After what felt like a lifetime, the hill crested and I could see the Tolt Pipeline Trail laid out ahead of me and the peaks of the Olympic Mountains on the horizon. Jonathan and Paul were somewhere ahead of me. Tolt Pipeline Trail is a glorious two-track gravel trail which extends about 8 miles in a more-or-less straight line from the Sammamish River to the Snoqualmie River. The trail is part of the infamous gravel route “Woodinvilla Thrilla” (see our Fay Bainbridge writeup for more about that). We all caught up with each other and cruised the gentle rollers for several miles, enjoying the company of other cyclists and a few horseback riders. As we neared the final descent to the Sammamish River, lovingly called “heart attack hill” we decided to descent a gentler way on roads instead of bombing down a steep gravel grade and risking going over the handlebars of our heavily-loaded bikes.

The paved downhill was dreamy and we enjoyed a few minutes of cruising at 30MPH down beautiful suburban roads into downtown Woodinville until we intersected with the Sammamish River Trail. Now, we had a few flat miles in a multi-use trail back to Redmond where my car was parked. We bumped into a few friends and said “on your left” more than a few times.

Once we got to Redmond, I loaded my bike in the car, and encouraged Paul and Jonathan to stick together on the ride home (no drops!). Though my ride was done, the trip wasn’t over. We agreed to meet at Aslan Brewing back in Seattle for a post-trip beer and debrief. On the drive home, I had plenty of FOMO for the other two who got to keep riding. After a shower and quick sandwich, I walked to meet them at the brewery for a round of “highs and lows” and to scheme for our next adventure.

Before we part… beer!

Follow us on instagram:

Erin — @embailie

Paul — @bristoleffect

Jonathan — @jona.mcc

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Jonathan McCurdy

Seeing and tasting the world via bicycle. Designing fun and usable products and currently open to new work opportunities!