Building a Trail: Building Community

Photo credit: Chris Brewer.

The organizers behind the Willapa Hills Trail Fat Tire Ride & Festival are passionate about promoting Lewis County through outdoor tourism and activities.

“We formed Lewis County Community Trails (LCCT) over 10 years ago specifically to help get people out of their cars and into the outdoors and their communities,” says Steve Ward, who, when he is not volunteering with the Festival, works as vice-president of the office of finance and administration at Centralia College.washington orthopaedic center

LCCT, a non-profit group committed to creating a trail system for the county, works with Washington State Parks and Lewis County Parks and Recreation to maintain and expand trail access for all users.

“You can now ride nonstop from Chehalis at least to Pe Ell on a standard bike,” Steve says. “We realized this is a huge moment in the development of the trail, so we wanted to have a ride in celebration. Between us wanting people on the trail and the people in Pe Ell wanting folks to see the great community they have, we partnered up.”

Each Monday at 6 pm, some riders gather to ride the trail together. Photo credit: Paul Downing.
Each Monday at 6 pm, some riders gather to ride the Willapa Hills Trail together. Photo credit: Paul Downing.

The result is the Willapa Hills Trail Fat Tire Ride & Festival: a two-day bike ride that begins and ends at the Veterans Memorial Museum in Chehalis, and includes a historic-farm tour, the festival, and overnight camping in Pe Ell.

Riders cruise 44 miles over two days, enjoying the beauty of the Chehalis River and the surrounding farmlands. Local farms and businesses provide healthy refreshments along the way.

The festival in Pe Ell includes a scavenger hunt, gold panning, croquet, quilting demonstration, camping and a live band.

“The event is a result of communities coming together,” Steve says. “That’s how it all started. We all just wanted people on the trail —and it grew from there.”

“Lewis County and the City of Chehalis came up with a lot of support funding,” Steve notes, “And that’s how we were able to get a lot of momentum for this event.”

Steve adds that the Willapa Hills Trail is important for several reasons.

“I think that people in western Washington sometimes don’t understand how beautiful our area is,” he says. “They don’t know it because they haven’t been outside of a car in it. When you ride the trail through farmland and small towns, past creeks, and waterfalls, we understand just how lucky we are to live in this area. It gives our local folks an avenue to get outside in a safe environment, increasing our exposure to the outside world.”

The Willapa Hills Trail grade is very gentle. Photo credit: Holli Schoonover.
The Willapa Hills Trail grade is very gentle. Photo credit: Holli Schoonover.

“The Willapa Hills Trail Fat Tire Ride and Festival is not a grueling race, but a family-oriented event,” says organizer Harry Bhagwondin. “It’s for people who have young kids, who want to take them out bicycle camping with plenty of things to do along the way.”

“The Willapa Hills Trail is the most beautiful trail we have in Lewis County,” he says. “You bike through farmland, forestland, bike along the river, experience the scenic beauty.”

Harry notes that the grade is very easy. “I hadn’t been on a bike since college, which was in the mid-80s, before I started riding the trail,” he says, laughing.

“It really is just like riding a bike,” he says.

He notes that tires suitable for gravel and roads are recommended because portions of the trail are unpaved. Any bike other than lightweight road bikes are appropriate for the event.

 Tour de Farm

Another part of the ride and festival that excites organizers and registered participants is the optional Tour de Farm component.

Riders will be able to visit farms — some of which have been on the Chehalis River for over 100 years. Riders who choose this option can visit such farms as the Rosecrest Farm, the Newaukum Valley Farm, the Wedin Farm, 3 Feathers Emu Ranch, Seedpod Farm, Willapa Hills Farm, and the Black Sheep Creamery,

“Tour de Farm brings an incredible element,” says organizer Holli Schoonover. “Riders can enjoy looking at the animals, sample the produce from our local farms — and then go and enjoy the Pe Ell festival.”

“Folks can also drive out to do the Tour de Farm if they’re not interested in biking,” Harry says. “Or take the Steam Train, which will have three runs on Saturday, do the farms tour, and then get back on the train to Chehalis, or ride out to Pe Ell for the festivities.”

Riders take a break to enjoy the beauty of the trail. Photo credit: Sheldon Su.
Riders take a break to enjoy the beauty of the trail. Photo credit: Sheldon Su.

“None of this would be possible without all the volunteers making it happen and their commitment to making our community a better place,” Holli adds. “It’s all about getting outside together, families enjoying nature and spending time together.”

Holli, who grew up in Thurston County, has lived in Centralia for five years with her family.

“We chose Lewis County because of the small-town atmosphere,” she says. “When there are community events all the businesses come out in support. Lewis County really makes family a priority.”

Holli adds that one of the things that excites her about the ride is seeing the growing confidence in people, especially young riders, as they realize that they can ride 22 miles each way.

“We have such a gem right here in Lewis County,” she says. “My family and I love the beauty here, being able to go to the parks, the trail system. Lewis County Community Trails had a big impact making that happen. My kids can enjoy being outside, the river right there, all the grass to run and play in, the birds, and the Willapa Hills Trail itself, where my kids learned to ride their bikes.”

“That quality of life doesn’t happen when you’re growing up surrounded by concrete and tons of people,” she says.

“I still remember after dinner rides with my family,” Harry says.

“The Willapa Hills Trail Fat Tire Ride & Festival is about making a weekend of fun and activities for locals, as well as out-of-towners, to come and see a really cool side of Lewis County,” he says. “It’s about being with your family and getting outside.”

The Willapa Hills Trail Fat Tire Ride & Festival takes place June 25 & 26.
Learn more and register at

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