This drive/hike features a little-changed segment of the Mullan Road that you can still drive today. To get to that short segment, you will also experience the Cheney-Palouse scabland tract, much of the region's railroad history, a Mullan Road marker, and a desert waterfall.
At 2:49pm, on August 29, 1943, Paxton was a scheduled stop of the main line of Milwaukee Road.1 Just 0.4 miles to the west, the Spokane, Portland & Seattle (SP&S) railroad crosses over the Milwaukee Road. Both lines have been converted to trails managed by Washington State Parks: the John Wayne Ironhorse/Pioneer Trails (Milwaukee) and the Columbia Plateau Trail (SP&S).
From either direction on I-90, take the Sprague exit (#245) and head south on Highway 23 towards the town. Cross high over the current Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail yard, once the Northern Pacific's division headquarters and best equipped shop west of Brainerd, Minnesota.2 The restored depot now houses the Sprague Railroad Museum, typically open Saturdays during tourist season. Sprague has gas, food, and parks available.
At Sprague, continue south on Highway 23, and enjoy the features of the channeled scablands. About half-way to Lamont, you will cross the current Northern Pacific line. Just over 7 miles south of Sprague, turn right on Lamont Road. A Mullan Road 'pyramid' marker is a few feet to the south on Hardy Road.
Lamont Road essentially follows the Mullan Road route through town. The SP&S Railroad generally followed the Mullan Route from here to Benge. Lamont provided water, a crew-change point, roundhouse, and a 6-dock coal station for that line.#f3 As you leave town, notice the wall of rocks to the north piled there as workers blasted a grade through basalt rock.
Shortly after leaving town, you will come to a Y. The Mullan Road follows McCall Road to the right, but for this adventure, you need to go left on Revere Road and climb up the hill. After a nice gravel drive through a long, fertile valley, you will descend into the large coulee containing Rock Creek and the old Milwaukee Railroad. (You could bike to Paxton on the John Wayne Pioneer trail starting at the trailhead here.)
After a sharp turn to the east, turn right (south) on Jordan-Knott Road. Cross Rock Creek and climb out of the coulee. When you reach the top, Breeden Road leaves to the right.
Breeden Road is described as a hiking trail in guidebooks,4 but most people drive it. In winter and spring, you will encounter large muddy puddles and deep ruts. In the summer, the road is covered with an inch of fine, pillowy dust. High-clearance vehicles and off-road experience is recommended. There are several places to park and continue by foot or mountain bike. About half-way to Paxton, an amazing concrete arch bridge crosses Rock Creek at Breeden Falls, worth the trip alone.
Once you arrive at the Paxton area, you have returned to the Mullan Road. Going south, the BLM has left the road open, and this remote segment sees just enough traffic that it looks pretty much the same as it did in 1864. Again, know your capabilities for driving remote roads and consider hiking or biking this segment. The segment heading north is on private land and ends at the intersection of Harder and McCall Roads. (From there, McCall Road follows the Mullan route to Lamont.) Please respect private property and resist the temptation to explore that privately-owned segment.
At Paxton, you may wonder how such a remote place could be a railroad stop. The Mullan Road provided early farmers from both the north and south a wagon route to the station. If you consider the thousands of sheep that were later raised at nearby Escure ranch, you can imagine large bales of merino wool being loaded here. Escure Ranch is now defunct, and managed by the BLM. Towell Falls is a popular and scenic hike on that ranch.5 Several old roads (hiking only) connect Paxton with the ranch.
From Paxton, you can hike 0.4 miles west on the John Wayne Pioneer trail to the place where the SP&S crossed the Milwaukee Road. Both rails have been converted to trails providing hundreds of miles of hiking. Here, the Columbia Plateau Trail (SP&S) is covered in heavy ballast making walking or biking hard work. The John Wayne Pioneer Trail (Milwaukee Road) had its ballast layer removed making for relatively easy hiking and biking.
A side trip to Wall Lake, shown on the map, is worth the time and adds 1.5 round-trip miles.
1. Lentzner, J. (2003). Washington Division in Twilight. The Milwaukee Railroader, 11.
2. Meinig, D. (1995). The Great Columbia Plain: A Historical Geography, 1805-1910. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 338.
3. Gaertner, J. T. (1990). North Bank Road: The Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway. Pullman, Washington: WSU Press, 36 and 40.
4. Bauer, A. L. (2004). Best Desert Hikes in Washington. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 205-206.
5. See Bauer, A. L., Towell Falls, page 207 and Escure Ranch, page 203.