I have a good friend who’s a Canadian immigrant and ironically knows US history and politics better than almost anyone I know. One thing that strikes me about him is his belief that I should be proud to be an American. He says that no other country on Earth affords its citizens the ease of access to some of the most beautiful, remote and varied landscapes anywhere. The Great American Road Trip is always beckoning, and that is why he loves this country. Coming from an outsider who also deeply understands our country’s incredibly troubled politics and history, this vicarious sort of American pride surprises me. But, it perfectly serves to illustrate how lucky I feel to be in Washington and to have the mountains, deserts and volcanoes surrounding me, just waiting to host my adventures.
The advent of rail trails and their current, rapid expansion is yet another reason we should count our blessings. After all, Maura and I met on a rail trail. These converted railroad lines serve as gentle, multi-use paths that can span a tremendous amount of distance. A cyclist can ride sometimes hundreds of miles without contending with motor vehicles. While horses and pedestrians are also allowed on this trail, I didn’t see anyone else in the few hours I spent on it.
The John Wayne Trail
Also known as The Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail, this dirt and gravel path spans east-west across most of the state, and features several very long tunnels, including the longest trail tunnel in the world. On this particular November weekday, I rode the section from Kittitas, WA to the Columbia River. I presume most people ride the trail sections closer to Snoqualmie Pass, where the mountain views are more breathtaking, but I chose to ride east of the pass, where the climate is more arid. The rainy, dark season of the PNW had begun, and this was the only sunny place within hours of Seattle. I modelled my ~50 mile route on Ride With GPS after someone else’s recent ride I found, their photos making it clear that this was exactly what I was looking for: pastoral dirt roads and solitude.
I’ve written before about my conflicting feelings about adventuring alone, but this was short enough to attain all of the benefits and none of the drawbacks. I had a some time off for a job change, and while I didn’t have time to plan a big road trip, I still got that perfect and ever-fleeting feeling of freedom and self-reliance from this ride. I can’t really adequately describe the way an empty, remote dirt road calls to me, but it does, and central Washington is full of them. This ride further confirmed that the access I have to adventure in Washington is too great to want to leave anytime in the near future. From this ride alone, I saw numerous desolate, unexplored roads snaking over the countryside, begging me to see what’s on the other side of their passes. Accompanied with the feeling of independence during a remote, solo ride was a tremendous sense of gratitude that I have the means and access to explore this country on my beloved two wheels.
I started at around 11:30am, leaving from the Renslow Trailhead. I was the only one parked there, and was still the only one when I returned. After a sharp climb to the trail, I was pedaling over soft, sandy gravel, pockmarked by hoofprints. The beginning was flat but much rougher than usual rail trail fare. Dropping to 30 psi helped, and thankfully the hoofprints dissipated a few miles in. Bypassing a tunnel (closed due to rockfall), I enjoyed the first bit of 14 miles of blissful downhill. The trail goes through many cutouts in the rolling hills, which expose the beautiful basalt columns the area is known for. Seriously, the geologic history of central Washington is fascinating and worth binging every episode of Nick On The Rocks over. This part of our state is like if Iceland had open desert – it’s volcanic big sky country.
The cutouts also kept things interesting because I was dodging rocks fallen onto the trail. Nothing was unavoidable, but it is something to be wary of when entering the shadowy areas from the bright sun. After the tunnel bypass and the first cutout, the trail smoothed itself out, allowing for some much faster riding. At this point, I was really trying to stay present without having a meltdown (in the best way possible). Due to the negative effects and FOMO, I had recently committed to disconnecting from all social media, limiting my time spent on Reddit, and overall trying to become more connected with the real world. Descending to the Columbia River Gorge that day, I was succeeding in my mission.
As the trail follows an railroad, it is often raised above the surrounding land in order to keep the grade as even as possible. Sweeping views of the countryside open up between the cutouts, and the trail crosses a few beautiful, meandering gravel roads, begging to be ridden. One of the crossings even had potable water available, which would be an extremely welcome sight in the heat of the summer. Finally, after taking a steep, twisty section of double track to the paved road bordering the Columbia River, I had reached the low elevation point of the ride. A few hundred yards away, I ate my lunch at a deserted park with picnic tables and ample cell coverage.
Returning via Vantage Hwy
Feeling invigorated and refreshed, I pumped my tires back up to 45 psi and began my relatively peaceful return trek, starting northbound along the Columbia River. I saw people for the first time in my ride as they politely gave me space to pass in their cars, occasionally waving as they did so. Vantage Highway bends leftward after the small town of its namesake and heads gradually up for a whopping 11 miles. The highway is lonely, with traffic passing every few minutes or so. Unfortunately, Vantage Highway isn’t nearly as scenic as John Wayne Trail, but it does pass though a sprawling wind farm and past trailheads to the Ginkgo Petrified Forest. About 3/4ths of the way up the climb, I was briefly chased into the road by a large Rottweiler before its owner whistled it home, so take caution. After the summit, it was smooth sailing through rural roads back to the John Wayne Trail, and my ride ended just after the converted railroad trestle spanning I-90. I rode just under 50 miles with 3,275 ft of gain: a satisfying solo day trip and one to reflect on our country’s impressive adventure infrastructure.
For more information about the Palouse to Cascades Trail, including current construction status and conditions, visit their web site.