The Quilomene Wildlife Refuge is an expanse of Washington state land north and west of where Interstate 90 crosses the Columbia River. This is my favorite bikepacking destination in the Pacific Northwest and also serves as a transition between winter and spring biking. The window of favorable conditions is short though.
I try to time my first spring trip to coincide with the flowers in full bloom at the lower elevations, which is usually early April, and then aim for two more trips as spring marches up the slopes to the 3600-foot-high ridgeline. All this occurs within six weeks and then the extended dry period sets in and turns the refuge into a desiccated and sepia landscape.
Troy and I met in Vantage at the service station with the faulty gas pump #3 that will spew gasoline into the air if you don’t remove the nozzle in time. The bathroom too is marginally functional but for $10 you can park a car in their lot for the night and have peace of mind that it will not be molested.
Troy is the mastermind behind the Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Route, a course across the state that follows mostly gravel roads, dirt roads, and rail-trails. You can ride it at any time from spring to late fall. Start in La Push at the beach and finish at the Idaho border near Tekoa. Or do it in the other direction if you like strong headwinds.
Those who want to start the route with others will show up in La Push on May 14 for an inaugural grand depart. Some will be racing, others will be touring. No support is provided. Each rider is responsible for their own navigation, safety, and pace.
Only Troy has ridden the entire route and that was last May when the snowpack was meager and spring turned hot early. This year the snow is deep and persistent and that creates a problem with the May start. The route reaches high into the snow country between Cle Elum and Wenatchee and the snow this year is still 3 to 4 feet deep. It looks like this:
So, our trip this weekend is partly to continue training for the upcoming race and enjoy the scenery but also to scout out a low route which bypasses the snow. Both of us have ridden this low route previously but reality bends with memories and we need a check. Should we actually send others into the Quilomene and expect an equal number to exit happily on the Wenatchee side?
A steep initial climb on a cobbly double-track leads to the first rise and then a swoopy drop to Whiskey Dick Creek, back to the elevation of the Columbia River.
Sadly, few flowers have yet emerged. Spring seems to be three weeks late this year. A few early adopters somehow endure the frosty mornings.
I balk at the first stream crossing and pretend a quick snack, thereby getting Troy to go first and test the water depth. He scrambles up the other side and I follow.
The extended climb up to Jackknife Ridge is a bugger. Steep and bumpy chews up an hour. I take ample pictures of Troy walking the unrideable pitches because he is a stronger rider than I and the visuals make me feel better about myself.
We get up to the exposed ridge and tack straight into the wind, which is pushing 30 to 40 mph. The noise is disorientating and I find myself tense from the battering. More than once I careen off into the sagebrush where the birds are flitting from the lee side of one bush to another. It doesn’t pay to have a high profile in this country.
We get to Army Road and begin the 2000-foot descent to where Quilomene Creek enters the Columbia River. Army Road is an abandoned relic from the past. Steep and chunky, it defies comfort or speed.
The destination is worth the 22 miles of today’s effort though. The spit at Quilomene Bay sports sand dunes and steep cliffs with pigeon holes (and pigeons to go in the holes).
Quilomene Creek is swollen and crossing it would probably be a thigh deep wade. In addition, the exceedingly steep track out of Brushy Creek is just beyond that and the high winds would be waiting for us on the next ridge. So we declare it the the end of the day and camp in the lee side of dense trees next to the stream.
A campfire provides comfort from the cold and prompts an honest evaluation of discomfort. Our efforts for the day got us only a third of the distance between the southern and northern boundaries of the Quilomene. More rough ground, some even rougher than what we just did, lies ahead. And then there is the question about how to get around a short section of private land that is signed no trespassing.
Except for this jaunt through the Quilomene, the route from the coast to Idaho is typically smoother surfaces and people will be inclined to bring bikes more adapted for gravel grinding. The Quilomene isn’t gravel grinding. My full suspension bike barely makes the cut. Yes, we conclude, it would be cruel and unusual to send people on this route.
Another option for the Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Route is to trek over Colockum Pass from Kittias to the Columbia River south of Wenatchee. It has one serious challenge. A walk in the snow this mid-May is guaranteed for part of the 38 miles since the pass is over 5000 feet in elevation. If the snow is melted up to an elevation of 4500 feet then that means 9 miles of walking and 4 miles if the snow level is 5000 feet.
The gauge near Colockum Pass currently indicates 38 inches of snow. How fast will that snow melt in seven weeks? Typically it is gone by the 10th of May but this year the snow water equivalent has yet to nudge downward. Multiply SWE (snow water equivalent) by 2.5 to get snow depth.
The next morning instead of backtracking yesterday’s route we choose the 3000-foot climb to the top of the ridge. The 10 miles up Army Road to the wind farm starts pleasant but turns nasty once we get high enough to catch the wind. Again, 30 to 40 mph headwinds. Our pace? Not much more than 3 mph. The wind turbines are spitting out electrons with a vengeance as our power meters sputter.
Finally, in a grove of pine trees at the top of the ridge we find shelter. And so have a half dozen cows. Only they are dead and in various stages of being consumed by predators. Presumably, they froze to death early last winter after being abandoned by their owners. Or else, they played hard to get during the roundup and paid the price.
Snow drifts span the road as we head south through the wind farm and we ride into the adjacent forest on random paths to get around them. Our elevation is 3600 feet. The wind turbines buzz as we tack into a quartering wind.
We arrive at the visitor’s center for the Wild Horse wind farm and warm ourselves with coffee. Next, we head down the long pavement glissade back to Vantage. No pedaling needed. Just gravity and tailwind.
Back at the cars we agree that the trip had all the elements of a proper mountain bike adventure: chunky surface, steep grades, bad food, cold, and extreme wind. But we should definitely not route the Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Race through the Quilomene. Instead, we should focus the race on other discomforts. I reckon I’ll need to rummage through the basement and find my snowshoes.