Tolt McDonald Campground is my childhood idea of what a camp looks like on the show Bug Juice, and is close enough to Seattle be the perfect wilderness getaway by bike. Phil and I are pretty new to bike camping so we thought Tolt would be a good mini-graduation from our last multi-day trip to Fay Bainbridge Park. Tolt is nestled very conveniently near the town center of Carnation, Washington (population 1,786), named in 1917 in honor of a nearby Carnation Milk research farm. This Memorial Day weekend trip had everything – small American towns named after their nearest corporate overlords, biker bars, accidental mountain-biking, log-art (maybe too much??), spooky forest-happenings and possible food poisoning of mysterious origin.
Where Tolt McDonald Campground 31020 NE 40th St. Carnation, WA 98014
When Friday May 25, 2018 – Monday May 28, 2018
Distance 95.7 (route)
Booking Camp You can make reservations online through the King County portal. You can even book a yurt if you want, go nuts, it’s your life.
Firewood You can’t buy firewood at the campsite, but the town center of Carnation is super close by and you can usually find wood at the Ace Hardware store or the IGA. If it’s a holiday weekend, make sure to secure your firewood early, as it sells out quickly.
Water There is potable water at the front of camp as well as many restrooms throughout the campsite. Even showers if you’re dirtbag-averse.
Day 1 // “What in Carnation?”
In order to maximize our time away from modern life and all of its burdens and responsibilities, Phil and I packed up Thursday night and rode to work on Friday morning, our bikes loaded with all of our camping gear. I left work at 4:00pm, and hopped right onto the Burke Gilman trail, a gem of a rail-to-trail route that goes right past my office near the Fremont Cut. The weather was gorgeous and by 6:30 I had made it to the Jerry Baker Velodrome for the Friday night races. A few members of Phil’s teammates from Liquid Velo were racing, and we enjoyed burritos and tacos from the Vet Chef food truck.
Around 7 we got back on the road, winding behind the velodrome and riding briefly on the Sammamish River Trail, through a residential neighborhood, and then highway 202.
Highway 202 was half an hour of white-knuckle riding for me, as the shoulder is small and the traffic is fast.
We also discovered that my dynamo was out so that was a problem as the light was fading fast.
After turning off of Highway 202, we had a harrowing one mile climb up Tolt Hill Road, and after a long downhill we finally turned into the camp ground’s gravel road entrance.
We rolled into our campground, set up our tent, and fell immediately to sleep.
Day 2 Saturday // Fall City gravel adventure
On Saturdays I like to give myself the gift of sleeping in after long rides so it was a late start for us. We didn’t leave the campground until around 1:30 and stopped in town at what looked like a very cool biker bar, Pete’s Grill and Pub, for some breakfast-lunch. They also let us charge up our extra batteries in their outdoor area, which was super nice.
We took the Snoqualmie Valley Trail towards Fall City which is a GORGEOUS gravel trail that takes you through the forest between Carnation and Fall city near the Snoqualmie river. We stopped briefly in Fall City to go to the market and pick up some snacks for later, and headed back to Carnation via some quiet farm roads. We stopped at the hardware store in town and got the sad news that the entire town was out of firewood. The closest place to grab firewood would be the Safeway in Duvall which was another 16 mile round trip. It was already 7pm by then so we decided to get creative.
Since I am from the Midwest and not afraid to approach strangers, a really nice man let me gather some spare firewood from a nearby landscaping business. Between that and foraging for tinder near our camp ground, we were able to gather enough to cook up some steaks and sweet potatoes.
Day 3 Sunday // Just a wild day in general.
On Sunday we left the campsite at around 10AM and set out to find the very elusive Cherry Valley Truck Route, an old gravel logging route route Phil had found deep on adventure motorcycling internet forums from 2012. We headed north up through Duvall and stopped at the Duvall Grill Tap Room for an amazing brunch with lots of bacon. Our goal was to find the trailhead for the Cherry Valley Falls and try to work our way to the logging routes via this trail. In retrospect this route was definitely not for steel frame touring bikes. Every other biker we saw on this route was a mountain biker with full suspension and tons of safety gear. We spent most of the time walking our bikes over gnarly roots and down through streams and puddles, and getting weird looks from hikers. I’d say if we ever did this hike again, we’d probably lock up at the trailhead and just walk, unless we get actual mountain bikes.
This hike is very cool and has a few of these very mysterious smashed cars littered around the trail itself. I spent days googling this but couldn’t find the story behind it.
Past the falls we did find the remnants of something that seemed like it could have been a trucker route at some point. It was pretty grown over and after one of the scariest downhill segments of my life through super tall grass, ended in what looked like a forest canyon, so I don’t know if we actually found the route or not. We ended up turning around and stopping for coffee at the waterfall.
The journey out was pretty rough, and since we didn’t have the right gear, we did it mostly on foot. I did attempt to ride a lot of it back out but definitely found myself getting scuffed up around the more technical areas. Phil had to do it in bike shoes, which didn’t look super fun.
We made it out and rode back to Duvall, tired as hell. A few hikers we saw on the trail cheered us on as we made our way downhill into town. We stumbled onto Valley House Brewing, a real light at the end of a long, woody tunnel. We stopped in for a recovery beer and an excellent beet salad. From there we were able to hop back onto the Snoqualmie Valley Trail and head back into Carnation for the night.
Coming back into the campsite we realized we were the last two people left on our very far side of the park, which was very eerie under the light of the almost-full moon. We made dinner and night fell. Seriously spooky stuff started happening. An owl was hooting back in the woods, and something that sounded like a small dog was scurrying around our campsite. When a tree fell back somewhere not too far from our site, we knew there was no way we were going to get any sleep back there.
Whatever was scurrying around the campsite was not leaving us alone. Phil and I took turn packing up the site while the other literally kept watch with the bear spray out. We loaded up our bikes and took what felt like the longest half-mile walk to the front of the camp. Some really nice UW grads staying in the yurts let us set up camp near their fire, and even let me sit with them and nervously gulp the wine I was able to haul out of the campsite. Feeling like giant cowards we turned in for the night. The sleep we got that night was worth it though.
Day 4 Monday // “Get home quick before Phil discovers he has a giardia.”
Monday morning we woke up late and bummed around the campsite a little longer than usual, nursing bruised egos from the prior night’s spooky experience. Phil had a stomach ache and was trying to sike himself up for the long ride home. We packed up and headed to Fall City, where we took the Preston-Snoqualmie Trail to the Issaquah-Preston Trail to Issaquah. Phil was being a real road warrior and was pedaling through what we found out later to be a nasty stomach virus.
We stopped at a Wal-Greens for some gatorade and Ibuprofen, and pedaled over to the newly finished E Lake Sammamish Trail, a cycle through the backyards of Puget Sound’s billionaires. Getting this trail finished was apparently a huge todo for the city, and apparently there’s still sore feelings because a definitely very cool, likely very rich man yelled “HOW’RE YOU LIKIN’ THAT BIKE PATH?”. It’s actually great and the city rules for pushing this through. We followed that around the north tip of Lake Washington, back through Marymoor Park, passing the model plane field. That connected us again to the Sammamish River Trail, and finally back to the Burke Gilman, the path home.
Pete’s Grill & Pub