By Kristine Lowder
I’ve been hiking for most of my life, racking up zillions of trail miles across multiple states. My preferred routes usually reside in national parks. But once in awhile a local trail grabs my fancy and becomes a stand-out, like the trail to an old pioneer cemetery atop a lonely, green-garbed hillside hugging the Johns River Wildlife Area in Grays Harbor.
Located near the Ocean Spray cranberry plant, the wilderness area includes two access sites nestled between Markham and Ocosta. The cemetery trail is located on the east side of the river, just before the Ocean Spray plant.
The day Old Iron Knees and I hiked this scenic stretch of land, the morning calm was broken only by birdsong and the high speed whine of highway traffic along Highway 105. Few people have heard about this idyllic spot. Even fewer have actually been there. It’s worth exploring. The trail winds around a slough and through thick forest for about 1.6 miles until you reach the old Markham Cemetery at the crest of a knoll.
Starting out from the gravel parking lot off of Highway 105, the trail is lined with alders and evergreens. The river is on your right. The trail is wide and well-shaded. You’ll find a weather-beaten bench on the left side of the trail at roughly a mile in.
Deb Blake of Aberdeen is the founder of Harbor Rescue and a frequent visitor to the area. Blake, who has been working with dogs for some 40 years, says the east side of Johns River is a favorite place to visit and exercise her canine companions. She’s been taking her dogs out to the area for 12 or 13 years.
Blake says, “The dogs love to play in the slough. For the most part, it’s an excellent place for dogs to get some exercise and I don’t have to worry about cars.”
Back on the trail, you’ll find a truck bridge just past the bench. Cross it and start climbing. The trail levels out as you approach a clear cut area. It winds past this area and loops around to the right. The trail then straightens out and is fringed with soaring evergreens. Head downhill for about 250 meters. Cross a culvert with an expansive view of the Ocean Spray plant. Continue uphill.
You’ll soon reach a barely discernible sign. You can just make out the word “Cemetery,” accompanied by a right arrow. Follow the directional indicator.
The entrance to the cemetery trail looks like something out of the Amazonian rain forest. If you’re over four feet tall, you’ll have to stoop. The trail opens up a few steps later. Watch for downed logs.
The wilderness area and cemetery are located in Grays Harbor County Commissioner Frank Gordon’s District. He estimates that he’s had an interest in the site and the cemetery since around 1967. “It’s a really special place for me,” says Commissioner Gordon. “I can go in there and almost touch the people who were buried there. You can see the love that was put in to making the place” he says.
Blake agrees, “It’s an awesome place.” She adds, “It’s pretty interesting that some of the pioneering families of Grays Harbor are buried there. There are more graves than you can see with all the downfall and undergrowth.” She says there are about 20 graves, some of them aren’t obvious. Some sources indicate that the cemetery was once part of the Fry Family homestead. Because the cemetery itself is unmarked, it’s easy to get lost. Pay attention to where you’ve been and how you’ll get back.
A casual hiker can reach the site in about an hour.
Leaving the cemetery, the trail continues briefly. Says Deb Blake, “If you go straight up the road past the cemetery, it leads you up to a path out on the point by Johns River. It’s an absolutely magnificent place to enjoy the peace and quiet.” She notes that not a lot of people know about the place. (There’s evidence of bear in the area, so keep a sharp eye and a clear head.)
Tips: Wear sturdy footwear and a hat. Use sunscreen. Bring water. There isn’t any on the trail and you’ll need it.
The Johns River Wildlife Area is managed by The Department of Fish and Wildlife. The area covers more than 6,700 acres, managed in 15 units located near the Pacific Coast. The local portion is 12 miles southwest of Aberdeen off Highway 105.
Access to the cemetery trail is unmarked and easy to miss. To access the site, head out of Aberdeen toward Westport on Highway 105. The undeveloped parking area at the trail head is on the left, near the sign for Markham. It’s the next driveway past Dave’s Harbor Guns, about 10 miles from Westport. If you hit the Ocean Spray plant, you’ve gone too far. But if you’re looking for a quiet, scenic morning or afternoon digging into some secrets of Grays Harbors’ past, the trail to the old cemetery at Johns River is a great place to start.