We had been hearing about the ghost town, or former townsite, of Lester for years. With two days in a row free for an adventure, we decided Lester would be our destination.
Little did we know what an adventure it would be just to find information on how to get there. In fact, trying to find Lester was the inspiration for this website. After scraping together what little information we could from maps, word of mouth, and blogs, we headed out.
After exiting from I-90 and heading for Stampede Pass, we started to get a little worried. Our 2-door Toyota Yaris, also known as "The Pony", is ideal for the urban landscape, but National Forest Service Road 54 is a long way from the cramped streets of downtown Seattle. Fortunately the amazing scenery helped ease the tension as we slowly navigated the potholes. We were so focused on avoiding potholes and finding the trailhead though that we completely forgot to take photos along this leg of the journey.
The trailhead for Lester is not a traditional trailhead, nor is it marked. But we knew we found it when we saw this gate. Apparently they really don't want bikes in there.
We posted our permits in the car, just in case someone was checking, and headed around the gate.
The trail to Lester is actually a gravel road. It might seem remote, but we knew this road was maintained and patrolled. You see, Lester lies within the Green River Municipal Watershed. This is the City of Tacoma's primary source of water. While limited recreation is allowed up to the ghost town of Lester, straying beyond it is strictly forbidden. Evidence along the trail told us that the gate was not always there though.
After passing through the woods and getting peek-a-boo views of the Green River, the landscape changed. Here a wide, flat expanse was peppered with clumps of trees and scotch broom. To the north the land rose sharply after going under massive power lines.
On maps we had seen this area called an air strip. Later we would learn this area was primarily used by Scott Lumber company as a log landing yard.
At this point we realized we had no cell phone reception. This being our first true adventure, we made the rookie mistake of not printing or writing all the details down. The sky started to darken and we feared we would either a) not find Lester or b) end up being driven out by bad weather. Then we caught a glimpse of something interesting.
Foundations and rusty metal! Could this be Lester!? We weren't sure, but it was cool. We thought we had heard reports that some wood buildings still stood in Lester. So we kept following the road as it narrowed and wound back into mixed forest.
We spotted a mowed trail off to the left and glimpsed something that looked like a bridge. Off we went to get a closer look.
We found train tracks and a steel truss bridge over the Green River. Even though the bridge was fascinating, we didn't need the No Trespassing signs to keep us off. It looked like it could barely hold us, let alone an iron horse.
We continued east along the tracks, away from the bridge. This is now a line for Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) but was once the Northern Pacific Railway. Lester became a boom town because of this railway, which was the only lifeline in and out of town in the early 1900s. As we walked the tracks, we imagined what it was like when the big steam locomotives came into town, filled their coal cars, and then made the journey up and over Stampede Pass.
Eventually the tracks and road connected again. So we hopped back onto the road. But this is where things got confusing. We saw a No Trespassing sign along the tracks. It was unclear what area was off-limits, or if we had already passed into the closed area of the Green River Municipal Watershed.
Being law-abiding citizens, we decided to play it safe and turn around. We figured we had missed the rest of the Lester townsite while we were on the tracks. So we followed the road back. In short order we got back to the foundations, but found no other signs. So we started snooping through the brush. We found a dump of historic debris.
Among the remains we found a fridge door. Behind the enamel veneer was solid wood. Most of Lester's history happened before electricity became common in homes. This now forgotten artifact must have been the pride and joy of one family when it was new.
As cool as the dump was, we still felt like we had missed the heart of town. But we had already spent a couple hours going back and forth over our trail. We decided to stop for lunch and then go back. Just as we were hoisting our packs onto our backs, we saw a big truck coming up the road. It was unmarked, but coming from the "off-limits" area. Since Julie works in the neighboring closed area, the Cedar River Municipal Watershed, we got excited: Maybe this was a Watershed Inspector who could help us find Lester!
Sure enough, the truck stopped and the driver rolled down the window. A man in green camo (who we learned later was named Lee) leaned over and asked, "Are you folks lost?"
We told him we were looking for Lester, and that we couldn't find it. He offered us a ride to town. It turned out that No Trespassing sign was actually for the BNSF tracks. Oops.
We had struck gold with this chance encounter. Lee had worked the valley for more than 45 years. He gave us a personal tour of the townsite. If you ever find yourself looking for Lester, and you have the chance to chat with an Inspector, thank your lucky stars. And if you ever find yourself drinking a glass of water in Tacoma, send out a thanks to these people. They are largely unknown, yet they put their lives on the line everyday to protect the safety of that water.
After the Inspector dropped us off in the heart of town, with a warning to be good, we began exploring the remaining structures. When walking into Lester, the most noticeable thing is a black tanker car. Lee told us this holds water for fighting forest fires.
The cluster of buildings next to the tracks were once used as part of the guard station.
Sadly, the garage and maintenance shop had mostly collapsed under last winters' snow.
We didn't see any ghosts, but we saw evidence of the people, most now dead, who had lived and worked here. Who were the people that had worn the grooves into this stairwell?
After fully exploring the guard station, we crossed the track area and found a trail into the woods. The first thing we saw were the remains of a cool old historic car. It reminded us of something in a vintage gangster movie.
At the end of this trail was a trio of structures. The last building looked like something out of a horror film. Or maybe it was just the overwhelming odor of mildew seeping out.
The first building on the left turned out to be a roof over a trailer. We didn't stick around to explore this area for very long.
After heading out of the forest we finally found the sign we had been worried about. Turns out it's hard to miss!
Thank you for reading about our adventure to the ghost town of Lester. If you choose your own adventure to Lester, drop us a line. We'd love to hear about it.