“… nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.” – Mark Twain.
Choosing traveling companions is an art. And especially when bikepacking where the miles ahead are uncertain. Will they be flexible when conditions are rough, will they laugh at my jokes, will they know how to take care of themselves, will they get up and be ready to ride at a decent hour?
Choosing well is sometimes just getting lucky. And I got lucky with Martin. We hadn’t even met before — I had signed up for an endurance mountain bike event that he is organizing for April 30 in Vantage and we were chatting on-line about other trips we were wanting to do this spring. We both wanted to fit in a trip of the eastern John Wayne Trail so decided to do it together. With generous help on the shuttling from Pat (my partner) we were ready to bump eastward by mid-morning on Friday, April 8.
The John Wayne Trail is an odd route made even odder by recent secret attempts to give away this State Park to adjacent landowners. The guilty southeast Washington legislators failed and now a dedicated group of Trail supporters are rallying around efforts to get better funding for improvements and to address some of the concerns of adjacent landowners. Here is a good place to find out more about that effort: http://www.friendsofjohnwaynepioneertrail.org/
The John Wayne Trail is the old Milwaukee Road Railroad bed that was acquired by the State of Washington in the early 1980’s when the company went bankrupt. It winds across the center of the state, once linking Seattle to the Idaho border near Tekoa. The section of the John Wayne Trail west of the Columbia River is nicely developed by State Parks and its western terminus is Rattlesnake Lake in the western foothills of the Cascade Mountains. However, the section east of the Columbia River is without amenities and the sometimes rugged gravel surface suffers three decades of neglect.
Our first hill is a push up the embankment from the sad community of Beverly, past gang graffiti and broken glass. It was probably once a railroad town of some importance. The smooth gravel of this first section takes us through mostly public land. It is surprisingly lush with small ponds, wetlands, and the turbid Crab Creek. Saddle Mountain ridge looms to the south. Given three more weeks the flowers and leaves should be in full swing.
Last year’s dry reeds each side of the trail hides a special treat for those who like wildlife that rattles. We abruptly straddle a rattlesnake sprawled across the trail and then listen to its cousins rattle away as we go by patches of dense reeds. Fortunately, the railbed is free of those reeds in most places. And the gravel is so smooth.
Just short of the house cluster that was once Smyrna we hit a patch of goatheads that puncture our tires in dozens of spots. We had prior warning of the goatheads and our tubeless tires with sealant work as intended. Hiss and seal. Initially, Martin’s tires do more hissing than sealing but nothing that a few pumps of air can’t remedy.
The trail is not continuous east of the Columbia River. Just 16 miles into the trip a bypass of 46 mile is required. This is because the tracks are still intact and being used in the Othello area. State Park maps suggest a detour along paved highways but we have a better idea. Once we leave the trail, we head north through the sagebrush and agriculture fields on gravel and paved back roads. Our aim is the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is a large area of scablands that is home to sandhill cranes and other waterfowl. The agricultural land is not without some charm too.
Orchards and vineyards pop up among the irrigated wheat and alfalfa. We run into a guy on a motorcycle who stops and talks mountain biking with us. It turns out he is one of only four in all of Adams County who race mountain bikes. And we had just passed his dairy.
The scablands of the widlife refuge and surrounding area are a result of the Missoula Floods which scoured large swaths of central and eastern Washington leaving behind exposed rock, often pocked with depressions that hold water in the spring. It is good to be a duck in this country.
There was water for us too. The wildlife refuge headquarters has drinking water if the gate is open. Look for the frost free faucet near the fueling area across from the visitors center. By this time the temperature has risen into the 80’s, which is unusual for early April, and I am nursing a bad headache from the heat. The bumpy gravel roads through the refuge get my head thumping even harder. Once we exit the refuge to the north a paved road with wide shoulder takes us into Warden, just in time for an early dinner.
English is not the first language of many people who live in Warden. The primary industries are farming and food processing. The Las 3 Amigas has Mexican food and if your head isn’t splitting and robbed you of your appetite, it is really good (so says Martin). I just suck on a bottle of Coke and stuff my food in a plastic bag for later that night. By the time we leave the restaurant the air has cooled and I am feeling better. We sail into the endless sagebrush and chatter of the meadowlarks. Also, some sounds of tire hissing as we hit another patch of goatheads.
It is a land of straight trail and subdued geology. Walking around windrows of tumbleweeds and opening and closing gates breaks up the routine.
Our first day ends after 74 miles. We find an ideal spot on the trail away from road noise, trains, and farm houses just as the sun drops below the horizon. With the help of Martin’s phone app we identify the various planets popping out. The moon was new so the stars and planets have the sky to themselves.
We pack as the sun rises and wonder about our chances of finding real coffee in Lind, just an hour down the trail. Jim’s Market does not disappoint. In fact, much about Lind is charming (and healthful). We come away from Jim’s fully loaded down with food and water for the next stretch.
The trail east of Lind to Ralston delivers even more sagebrush and dryland wheat. Relics of grander times litter the railroad corridor. Mostly, it is just plain peaceful.
Ralston has a memorial park with a faucet. I guess you could camp there too if you were tolerant of the traffic on the adjacent paved road. The faucet is turned off but a friendly neighbor walks over and offers water from her kitchen. Usually, the park faucet is on before May 1, she says.
Eastward, the Cow Creek chasm is missing its trestle and lack of cooperation by the adjacent landowner requires a lengthy bypass to the north. State Park maps indicate a detour to Ritzville along busy paved roads with no shoulder so instead we pioneer one along smooth gravel roads that is shorter, more scenic (as scenic as wheat fields can be), and free of traffic. It dumps us out at Marengo where the trail starts up again. The local wheat silo provides the only shade within a very large radius. The temperature has climbed into the high 70’s.
Eastward is the most isolated section of the John Wayne Trail. It climbs through rocky terrain leaving the wheat fields behind and into the sculptured scablands. The Columbia Plateau Trail, another rails-to-trail route that is a State park, passes overhead on a bridge dated 1916. We begin the gradual descent into the Rock Creek drainage.
About 0.4 miles past the Columbia Plateau Trail bridge we jump off the trail onto a jeep track and follow it through the Escure Ranch, a BLM ownership that is open to recreational use. It is a welcome change to the monotonous railroad grade — flowing, hilly, and a waterfall to boot.
It would have been an ideal place to camp but for us it is only mid-day. Instead, we exit the ranch onto Jordan Knott Road and head back to the John Wayne Trail. The next reach of trail takes us through the Revere Ranch, an ownership managed for wildlife by Washington. Quite ducky.
A new development over landowner restriction on a section of trail just west of Ewan that is privately owned sends us off on another bypass, this one a loop to the south. We turn onto Texas Lake Road and follow it through the scablands via Cayuse Lake Road and Cherry Creek Road. Here, of any place during the trip, we see the most wildlife. And the roads are the smoothest gravel. Cars are as rare as armadillos.
We drop into Ewan with water on our minds. So far we have been successful at not having to drink treated water from the polluted streams and lakes. The Nazarene Church has a faucet on the side of the building facing the street so we help ourselves, just as that Nazarene of fame would have probably wanted us to.
Now, we face a critical decision. The most scenic section of the John Trail follows the rugged cliffs next to Rock Lake east out of Ewan. Officially, a mile of that section is off limits because of private ownership. I, along with countless others, have ridden that stretch in the past with no repercussions. The private section isn’t even signed with no trespassing signs. The tunnels, trestles, and rock bluffs are amazing.
Do we poach the trail or head out onto the gravel road bypass to the south? I don’t do a very good job of communicating the options to Martin and we just end up doing the bypass out of default. And the bypass was a bust — hilly, steep, wheat-infested, and dusty from giant tractors tilling the adjacent fields.
We finally drop down into Pine Creek at dusk and start looking for a place on the trail to sleep. The trail follows scenic Pine Creek but cow shit, adjacent homes, backyard dumps (what is going on in Malden with the garbage?), and noisy roads keep us searching. Martin turns on his light and we ride into the night. After a 103-mile-day we are ready to call it good and indeed we find a good spot. Peaceful and among rock bluffs and trees.
The frost on my sleeping bag and cold toes wake me early. We fumble around in the cold trying to get our kit together. It is hard to believe that I was struggling with the heat only a day and a half before.
The trail winds through gentle terrain along a stream as we approach Rosalia. Nothing is open on a Sunday morning in Rosalia so we hop back on the trail and ride the trestle out of town, stomachs growling.
The scenery out of Rosalia is varied and pleasant, a mix of the new and the old. Missing trestles give us abrupt descents and climbs. Marshy areas keep us wary. We cruise into Tekoa intent on finding good greasy food. And we find it at the Feeding Station.
After a leisurely breakfast, we have 45 minutes to complete the last short stretch to the Idaho border where Pat is planning to meet us at 12:30. This takes us through more wheat but this time peppered by aspen and pine trees adjacent to the trail. Moose sign tells us we are getting close to Idaho. Martin sails into Idaho and doesn’t stop. Only a battered sign lets you know the ride is over. The railroad grade continues eastward only without an official designation or public ownership. I chase him down and we call it a finish. 210 miles in 50 hours. We settle down in the shade.
Pat arrives shortly with scones and becomes our podium photographer.
And Martin lets me know what he feels about me taking him on that Rock Lake bypass.
I don’t think that the John Wayne Trail east of the Columbia River will ever become a hugely popular ride for mountain bikers. Not like the Great Divide Route that follows the Rocky Mountains from Mexico north through Canada. And not like the Arizona Trail that extends from Mexico to Utah. The John Wayne Trail is subtle, seasonal, and (at least for now) pocked by bypasses. Some of the bypasses such as the one we took through the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge and Escure Ranch add to its charm. Others are detractors.
The land adjacent to the John Wayne Trail is often abused, be it from overgrazing, intensive agriculture, or backyard garbage dumps. In close up, most of it is not pristine. Grinding away for hours on a gravel surface is not the kind of mountain biking some people enjoy.
But the John Wayne Trail offers an abundance of empty space and grand landscapes, with only the sound of meadowlarks or ducks. The people we met were friendly and unpretentious. It is my kind of space.
Martin proved to be an enjoyable and capable riding partner. I thoroughly appreciated his company. Maybe we have another joint ride in our future.
Here is a link to the GPS track of the route we took: https://ridewithgps.com/users/132288
Permits are required to use the trail (long, stupid story) so go here to learn how to get those permits: http://www.friendsofjohnwaynepioneertrail.org/maps.html. Lots of other good information too.
And remember to fill your tubes or tires with sealant.
So it goes.