Impressions along the Columbia Plateau Trail

The sky stretches far in central Washington and usually it’s dry; two good reasons to ride the Columbia Plateau Trail (CPT) from the Tri Cities to Spokane. The route goes first along the Snake River, then cuts through Devil’s Canyon and meanders through the Scablands, and lastly flies through the ponderosa pines in the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge.

I admit that I had not heard the term Scablands before, and so I did not know that the mini-version of Monument Valley that I would be riding through had any special significance in geology. The meaning of the word Scablands apparently is not well known, but it was coined in the 1920’s by geologist G.J.H. Bretz. Wikipedia has a good entry describing the debate surrounding this large-scale geological feature in central Washington. Apparently a big, big flood happened about 16,000 years ago after a big lake drained suddenly. These geological feature are apparently similar to Mars, where large, rapid outflows occurred and then stopped.

The Scablands near Horeshoe lake between Benge and Lamont, WA.

The Scablands near Horeshoe lake between Benge and Lamont, WA.

Aerial view of the same lakes from Google.

Aerial view of the same lakes from Google.

Some canyons on Mars.

Some canyons on Mars from Google.

The Columbia Plateau Trail was established in 1991 after the Burlington Northern Railroad abandoned the tracks and the right of way was handed to the State of Washington as it is now a state park. This 20+ feet wide railroad grade is still in fairly good shape, though the sleepers have been removed and some of those are stacked in a big piles north of Lamont, WA, on Mullen Road. The right-of-way extends about 100′ in either direction, as indicated by fence markers along the trail.

The trail surface has not been improved for most of the route, meaning coarse railroad ballast is the norm. A fatbike with 4″+ wide tires is the only way to do this IMO. Walking would be possible, but one would surely twist an ankle. A normal mountain may also work if one didn’t mind several unplanned dismounts on the rolly, rocky surface. In general, making progress looks like this:

I was holding my camera with one hand and steering with the other, so this looks a bit more shaky and wobbly than it really was. In any case it is slow going: 7 mph is a good speed, though one can certainly go faster and amazingly the amount of bumpiness does not change with speed; slow or fast, it all feels the same.

The best seasons to be riding the Columbia Plateau Trail (CPT) are spring and fall when the weather is moderate. The weather can change quickly and turn from cool and rainy to windy, to hot and stale within 24 hours. One should be prepared with a good assortment of layers.

The sounds along the trail are diverse and interesting, and can be heard over far distances. The song from birds carries all the way across the wide Snake River, as do the sounds of tractors, trains, and other motorized things. With gravel beneath the rolling tires being pretty loud, one has to stop every now and then to listen and let the expanse of the land soak in.

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Along the Snake River.

Quite a variety of wildlife can be seen. Small feathered friends come in red, yellow and blue, and bigger ones include hawks, goshawk, turkeys, grouse, ducks and geez. Surprisingly, along the scablands are various wet lands and beavers can be seen running around there.

Reeds growing in a section of the CPT near Lamont.

Reeds growing in a section of the CPT near Lamont.

Small towns along the way are the best places to restock on food and water. A small convenience store/deli has opened in Kahlotus (open 9-5 Monday-Friday, closed Sat., Sun.) and a bar also appears to be open daily. Washtucna also has a bar that serves good food and beverages.

Convenience store in Kahlotus

Convenience store in Kahlotus

Bar in Kahlotus.

Bar in Kahlotus.

Clear-looking water is flowing under the trestle crossing the Cow Creek. With cows everywhere, careful filtration would be advised.

The Cow Creek flowing under the closed trestle.

The Cow Creek flowing under the closed trestle.

Note that Winddust park is closed and the water pipes are empty between 2 September and 15 May. In Benge, the little store has long been closed, but an elementary school on the north side of town appears to have a outside spigot. Friendly locals may also be available to help with liquid refreshments. Don’t underestimate how much water is needed for this trip: it’s dry and hot – and riding a fatbike on ballast means a lot of sweating.

Closed store in Benge.

Closed store in Benge.

Church in Benge, WA.

Church in Benge, WA.

25 miles (or 4 hours if you’re riding quickly) north of Benge is the town of Lamont where 3 spigots in the town park provide plenty of refreshment. That’s about it in terms of water along the remote sections. I suppose that there is always the Snake River, but I was concerned about agricultural run-off.

An interesting side story about water in this area is that Kahlotus is situated in a valley that used to have an ample supply of groundwater. According to a chatty local, the ground water supply is nearly gone due to irrigation. Without rivers to in this area, the town must face some dramatic changes in the next 8 years. Most maps still show a lake north-east of Kahlotus, but that is now just dry ground.

Former lake near Kahlotus.

Former lake near Kahlotus.

Another interesting side note about Kahlotus and Washtucna is they got their names mixed up for a little while when the rail road was built. What happened was simply that someone from the Northern Pacific Railroad dropped off the signs at wrong towns! The Indian name Kahlotus means “hole in the ground” or “stinking water” due to the high alkaline content in the lake.

There are quite a few big trestles along the Snake River and these are closed as described by CrazyGuyOnABike. It would be a very impressive (silly?) task to ride this section of the CPT and scramble down&up to bypass the trestles.  The trestles are impressive structures and luckily they can be enjoyed from a secondary track that runs below the CPT along the Snake River. This secondary track is the obvious route to take along the Snake River as it is not covered in ballast and is a delight to ride.

Burr Canyon trestle along the Snake River with Lower Monumental Dam in the background.

Burr Canyon trestle along the Snake River with Lower Monumental Dam in the background.

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After riding 33 miles next to the Snake River to the Lower Monumental Dam, the CPT goes up Devil’s canyon to Kahlotus. It is well worth riding the 5 miles of ballast through the canyon as the views are magnificent. There is a tunnel at the beginning and end. A cool breeze blows through them and a light is necessary at the southern tunnel #16. The paved road through the canyon would make an easy alternative.

Devil's canyon

Riding through Devil’s canyon.

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Perhaps someone took a really long break and got bored.

Perhaps someone took a really long break and got bored.

The least interesting section of the CPT is from Washtucna to the  Cow Creek at Highway 26 and S. Gray Road. The section from Kahlotus to Washtucna is also not the most enticing route. Depending on one’s mood and traffic, it may be more pleasant to ride some gravel roads to bypass the annoyingly-busy highway 26, and also take the highway (260) between Kahlotus and Washtucna. Whatever you do, don’t miss the 12 miles of the CPT along the Cow Creek: it is plain beautiful. On this portion one needs to bypass the astonishing trestle over the Cow Creek. On the southern end of the trestle, this is best done by following a cow path down the west side to the Cow Creek, which is easily forded, and then staying within the right-of-way of the CPT and going up under the trestle on the north end and rejoining the trail.

Trestle over the Cow creek.

Trestle over the Cow creek.

Benge to Lamont also has some nice sections through the scablands, but some sections of the 24 miles, or 4 hours, can get a bit tiresome. When that happens, it’s good to stop, take a drink of water, and remember that this is exactly what one came for.

Along a scenically challenged section - you can't see far as the track is below ground.

Along a scenically challenged section – you can’t see far as the grade is below ground level.

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A few miles onwards we come to splendid scenery. A few beavers might be seen running around down there.

The last bit of the CPT goes through the Turnbull Wildlife Refuge and has a completely different character than prior (middle) section between Kahlotus and Martin Rd. Amazing wetlands are left and right with ponderosa pine forest. The trail is straight as an arrow, but the scenery is first class.

Along the Turnbull Wildlife Refuge.

Along the Turnbull Wildlife Refuge.

North of Cheney, the CPT is paved to the end at Fish Lake trailhead. The Fish Lake trail then picks up and connects to Spokane’s west side. The first 3 miles of the Fish Lake trail to Scribner appear to be almost open – the northern end is open, but at the southern end there is no sign indicating that the trail extension exists. Maybe in a couple months one will not have to detour those 3 miles on road anymore.

Route planning: If you one is considering this trip and riding most of the ballast, one should probably plan on about 3 nights. Though this is a bikepacking trip, finding places to camp off-trail is a bit of a challenge; City parks and the Winddust park come to mind. One might also check the wind forecast carefully, and decide what the prevalent wind direction is. Sites with useful planning info are CrazyGuyOnABike and also WileyDog blog. The entire route between Richland and Spokane is 170 miles and 4500 ft. elevation gain. If one goes the other way, one only has to climb about 2500 ft. el. Wind and sun exposure should probably be higher on the checklist in deciding which direction to go.

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Sugarloaf Peak – with sunshine

Another fatbike/snowbike ride up to this peak – but this time in beaming sunshine.

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The warm weather meant that the roads didn’t have a lot of snow in the beginning and a sign said that the road was closed to vehicles. But, oddly, the snowmobiles were gone too, so I had the entire Entiat range to myself. Oh, it was delightful. Only the occasional sound of a bird, or snow falling off trees, added to the sound my stomping.  Yes, not much riding was had on the way up as the snow was very difficult to ride on. First, it was like velcro, offering immense rolling friction, then it was 4″ of fresh powder over ice, which was even difficult to walk on at times.

But, progress was made and eventually, after 4 hours, I had covered the 10 miles to Sugarloaf Peak.

Tiny ripples frozen in the snow.

Tiny ripples frozen in the snow.

Leaving pedal tracks in the 4, 5" of powder up on NF-6101.

Sugarloaf Peak in sight, I was leaving pedal tracks in the 4, 5″ of powder up on NF-6101.

From higher up, I could see that the Fish Lake SnoPark was void of snow. No wonder there weren’t any ‘bilers out. A bit of riding here and there lead to the final push up to the peak.

No snow at Lake Wenatchee.

No snow at Lake Wenatchee or Fish Lake.

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Made it.

A bit of looking around, eating, and photography lead to a doze/nap on a dry wooden bench. It was cold and a bit windy, but the warm clothes that I had brought were perfect for this and I enjoyed the view for half an hour.

My view from the bench: Stormy mountain the middle (far back), and Baldy mountain to its right.

My view from the bench: Stormy mountain the middle (far back), and Baldy mountain to its right.

Glacier Peak in the middle.

Glacier Peak in the middle.

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Mount Stuart and the Entchantment Peaks in the south.

Mount Stuart and the Enchantment Peaks to the south.

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Sugarloaf Peak lookout.

Sugarloaf Peak Lookout.

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Obligatory panorama shot.

Then, it was time to go back. I wasn’t sure how much would be rideable, but tried it immediately. I took a tumble riding over a small snow cornice at the top and was lucky that my bike landed besides me, instead on top of me. Brushed off the snow and then was able to ride down all that hard-earned elevation. Much better than last time when I had to push down from the top. What a ride: plowing through deep snow and only sliding out a handful of times. Delightful.

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Riding down from the top...

Riding down from the top… no pedaling required..

quickly lead to where I had been 2 hours before.

quickly lead to where I had been 2 hours before.

I mostly avoided riding in the rut that I had created on the hike up since it had gotten a little wobbly and hard. Sunshine, snow, downhill – all this brought me back to the car in 8 hours, during which I had covered a grand total of 21 miles and 4000 ft. el. It doesn’t seem like much, but I felt like I had been way out there on top of Sugarloaf Peak. And wondering what it’d be like to stay the night, or perhaps push on towards some of those mountains that I saw in the distance.

Perfect ending to a great day out with the bike.

Perfect ending to a great day out with the bike is to be coasting down after having pushed all this up.

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Sugarloaf Peak – all snowed in

I wanted to see if I could peakbag Sugarloaf. As I found out on my ride last weekend, the Fish Lake SnoPark is a bit too far away for doing this as a day trip for me, so the next best approach appeared to be from Deer Creek Road. There are a couple small parking lots plowed for vehicles along the 7520 Rd., and I parked right at the intersection. A lot of snowmobilers were going up and down in the first mile, so many actually that I almost thought of turning around; the stench of the engines was just awful.

But, after that initial busy-ness, I had the road all to myself for the next hour or so. It’s so peaceful to ride on a snowed-in road, and snow makes everything look so pretty and clean.

It was snowing all day and I almost chocked on a big fat snowflake. That was silly – it melted and I didn’t even have to cough. My thick woolie baselayer kept me warm enough, even though it was soaked and covered with snow. It seems to be the ticket down to 25 F while climbing at a snails pace.

Heading up the Entiat Summit Rd.

Heading up the Entiat Summit Rd.

Sugarloaf Peak! Almost there.

Sugarloaf Peak! Almost there.

I had to walk the last mile – the snow was getting soft and thick. A group of ‘bilers arrived just before me and wanted to take my picture. That’s the second time in 2 weeks; I seem to be quite the attraction out there on the trails. Many people would stop for a quick chat or gave me a thumbs up.

Sugarloaf Peak lookout.

Sugarloaf Peak lookout.

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The snowmobilers up at the top told me of all the views that one would have on a clear day. I need to come back here! After the obligatory peak shot and my last cookie, I spent 10 minutes in the outhouse trying to come up with the best way to switch up my clothing layers. In the end, I just put the fleece pullover over my wet woolie, and then the thin wet jacket, covered all with a windbreaker. For bikepacking, the wet baselayer on the bottom would have been a bad idea as my fleeze was damp after a while, too. I added a backlava and pulled the hood over that. Finally, big puffy mittens went on my ice cold hands and I was ready for the descent. After laughing and sliding for the first mile down, I let some more air out and was on my merry way. I’ve never heard of anyone riding with 2 psi, but that’s what my digital gauge tells me I have in the front and rear tires. It seems to do the trick. With still an hour before sunset, the ride down was incredible. All the hard work going up paid off: coasting, riding bumps, sliding, pedalling some, watching snow-covered trees go by – all the while enjoying toasty toes and warm fingers.

Back down the Entiat Summit Road.

Back down the Entiat Summit Road.

21 miles, 4000 ft. el., GPX track

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Fish Lake SnoPark excursion

There are a lot of SnoParks in Washington. This weekend, I explored the trails starting at the Fish Lake SnoPark near Lake Wenatcheee. It was cloudy and foggy all day – not the best for pictures, but it was still a fun outing. I met sled dog teams near the beginning – a first for me. The dogs are totally quiet when they run, and they were excited to be running. Their blue eyes looked like they just came out of “Dune”.

The first sled dog team that I encountered - ever - near Fish Lake SnoPark.

The first sled dog team that I encountered – ever – near Fish Lake SnoPark.

Sled dog teams 2 and 3.

Sled dog teams 2 and 3.

I decided to ride up the Faultline trail and then head out towards Sugar Loaf Peak. At one intersection, a couple guys on snowmobiles were taking a break and asked about my bike – I let them ride it – and in return they offered to let me take a snowmobile for a ride. I accepted. First time riding a snowmobile for me! So, off I went about a hundred yards and then decided to turn around. However, that didn’t really happen as snowmobiles do not turn around easily, and my manuvering and heaving the beast just got it more into the ditch. After a while, the two guys came over and just gassed it. It went right over a brush and out of the ditch. Whoof. That was fun.

I headed onwards and had my lunch break after a while. Looking at the clock, I was only 1/2 way along the bottom trail, 7D, towards the turn-off for Sugar Loaf Peak, so I turned around. Maybe I’ll go for that destination another time.

20150110_135934small 20150110_152316smallIt was a pretty good ride. The trails were semi-busy. A group would pass me every 20 minutes or so, and wave or count-down which position in the group they were in. Nice. But overall a bit too busy for me with regards to the exhaust fumes which lingered in the still air for a long time.

32 miles, 4000 ft. el., GPX track

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