Palouse to Cascade Falls State Park: The Sand Route

Day three:
Ellensburg KOA to the Columbia River south of Vantage
40.30 miles

Our morning-selves turned out to be just as indecisive as our nighttime-selves. Even though we woke up around 6am it was already hot outside. We decided to take the road – we had put a poll up on IG and everyone agreed, we should do the road. That decision lasted about fifteen minutes when I finally expressed that I really thought we should do the trail AKA the sand route. Kyle laughed and agreed, we didn’t come out here to ride on the road. We came out here to have an adventure. We packed up our stuff and loaded most of it into the back of my parents car. Since they were there to shuttle most of our camping stuff to Wanapaum State Park where we would be camping that night we only had to carry the necessities with us. And a lot of water. We weren’t sure but we were pretty sure there wasn’t going to be any of water out there.

Settling onto our bikes that morning was pretty painful. We broke it up by stopping at two different gas stations on the way out of town trying to find a sunscreen with a SPF higher than 30. We also managed to get lost going through town but finally located the trail over by the rodeo grounds and got back on it. The familiar bumping and grinding of gravel settled into our bones and we coasted down the trail to Kittitas.

Kittitas would be our final opportunity to take the Vantage Highway. When we got there, despite the pain we were feeling in our sits bones we decided to camel up on some water (basically we bought a gallon of it, filled up our water bottles to the brim and chugged the rest) and head out into the desert. No paved road for us. We were in it for the sufferfest.

Not long after being back on the trail we came to a detour and had to ride some pavement around to the other end of an uncrossable train trestle that went over I-90. Right after that we entered the dreaded Army Training Base. We registered ourselves at the self-register kiosk, reapplied sunscreen (the sun was already brutal) and took off down the trail.

Over the course of the next couple of hours we learned so much about sand. Like how it can be simultaneously soft and extremely bumpy. There was a very narrow strip of packed sand on the right hand side of the trail that we tried to stay on but the moment you accidentally veered off of it, even an inch, the deeper sand on the sides would suck you in and suddenly you would find yourself shouting, hanging onto your bike for dear life as it kicked and bucked like a bronco – peddling hard to straighten back out onto the compact four inch strip of safety.

Not only were there deep pockets that you had to watch out for and keep your speed up through but there were also firmer sections that had these terrible divots in them. I think the divots were from horses walking on the trail, Kyle swears they are from tanks, but either way riding over them was like riding on washboard. Especially once we started going downhill half way through the day it was absolutely necessary to hover over your seat and hover your hands over the handlebars AKA touch your bike as little as possible – but you couldn’t lose focus for even a second because if you hit a patch of deeper sand all of a sudden you hands had to be ready to leap into action and wrestle you out of the sand that threatened to pull you down.

And then there were the canyons. Because we were still following the railroad route we rode through these shallow canyons that you could tell they had blasted through hills to keep the railroad flat. The canyons typically weren’t very sandy but this part of the trail is clearly never maintained and so there are years worth of rock fall (off of the canyon walls) littering the trail. Huge rocks, small rocks, medium sized chunks – strewn everywhere. Dodging them was like some kind of a sick video game and there would be shallow indentations filled with smaller rocks that you had to ride through hovering over your seat like you were on a mountain biking course. Only difference being we don’t have any front shocks so the whole time our hands and forearms feel like someone is beating them with a rubber mallet. Every time I successfully made it through a canyon without wrecking my bike on a basketball sized boulder I breathed a sigh of relief. It didn’t feel like I was skilled enough to dodge all these boulders so I attributed my near perfect dodging record to pure luck.

It was hard to say what was worse – the open sandy sections or the rocky canyon obstacle courses. For better or worse they alternated back and forth so you got to ponder the pros and cons of both constantly. Around lunch time we got lucky and found two burned up trees on the side of the trail which offered us our only shade of the day. Just ahead of us at that point was a deep canyon and the Boylston Tunnel, which was closed to bikers. We would have to take the reroute, which turned out to be un-bikeable.

The reroute was a new type of gravel – deep 2-4 inch jagged chunks that were basically impossible to bike on. Kyle biked some of it but I opted to hike-a-bike the entire thing which must have been a mile and a half long. I was kind of pleased to see the sand again when we got back to the trail because it meant I would be able to bike again but I was not pleased to discover that the bumps were more aggressive on the downhill. We rocketed down the trail, teeth chattering in our skulls, forearms screaming in pain.

Finally we crested a curve in the trail and before was the vast blue of the Columbia River. Moments later we were out of the Army Base Training Area and just like that the trail was firm and smooth and easy to ride. No tanks out here. We could see the end of the trail where it rose up slightly to meet the old train trestle that went across the Columbia River. It was hot – so hot, but the end was in sight and then it was closer and then we were there, staring at the burnt up railroad ties. Kyle, who was hot and hungry was not looking forward to the seven miles we still had to bike to camp but as luck would have it, just as we were climbing back up to the road who should drive by but my dad. Kyle spotted the volvo come around a corner and stopped dead in his tracks, “Is that your dad?!?” Sure enough it was and I don’t think Kyle has ever been so happy to see him. When we got in the car we discovered it was 92 degrees outside. We celebrated with AC and a cold gatorade.

And that marked the end of our first bikepacking trip! We learned so so much throughout the experience, about gravel and sand and our nether regions! And we are so grateful to have the support of my amazing parents who shuttled us and fed us and entertained us and just generally lavish so much love and affection on us.

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As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."

16 thoughts on “Palouse to Cascade Falls State Park: The Sand Route

  1. Thanks for the shout out Linz. Honestly, being asked to support you and Kyle is one of the joys of my life. Allows me to adventure alongside you two and live vicariously through you but without the pain.

  2. Btw, your hardtail was the right bike for that mixed trail. I have ridden it with both my hardtail and my full suspension Epic and which I ended up choosing to lock out the rear shocks. In fact, if you could lock out all shocks you can granny down and spin through most sand bogs. Still sux worse than a migraine.

    1. Good to know. I think we were wishing for front suspension through some of the bumpier sections but in the end we got through it on these bikes and I can see them doing a lot of trips in the future.

  3. Yes, your writing indeed! I vicariously enjoy your climbing adventures like a fan but this has brought back feelings I forgot from maybe 25 years ago (my own first bike epic in a desert–different desert). No social media then, no “sharing”, and would/could I even have shared? Don’t know, but all these things you write just put me right back in a place. You are a multi-gifted person and your partner K is from the freaking cosmos! 🙂 I hope, with all ya got on your plate, you can build up your saddle callous and choose to go onward and upward from here. This was a lightning bolt beginner start–really man, overachiever city. Applause. Now, though, you owe yourselves the Southwest. Meantime, time to try some singletrack skill building, nothing hairy yet.

    For the record, sand is the worst. Get a couple years’ riding behind ya and see if I’m right. 😉 Gonna have to find and follow on IG…

    1. Aw thank you so much for these kind words! I am so glad you enjoyed reading these! And yes, Kyle is seriously the best. We are super stoked to be exploring this new sport, we have our next bikepacking trip on the calendar, I only wish we had more weekends. And we are getting out for our first single track adventures in July (gonna rent mountain bikes and try it out). I can’t wait. There is SO much to do out in the big wide world. And so many ways to access it. Thank you for your encouragement and your advice on these posts! Greatly appreciated!

    1. Thank you John! I really wish I had more time to write but this spring especially has been crazy with the mountaineering class that we teach! Hoping to get back into it this summer! So many good adventures have slipped by without me writing about them and it feels like a terrible shame.

      1. I had a major hear attack last year, so its a slow ride back, but you can go as slow as you want, you are clipped in and you don’t fall over! Ha! Mine is a tadpole trike, I’m not hypnotized by the front tire, I’m looking at the clouds and trees.

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