Outdoors writer Mike McQuaide, fresh from penning a Mountaineers guidebook to Washington cycling routes, offers his five favorite roads to the middle of nowhere — suitable for riding or driving.
In researching an upcoming guidebook on road cycling routes in Washington, your intrepid author has been all over, sniffing out great places to ride throughout the hidden corners and back roads of this grand Evergreen State. Along the way, he’s seen some spectacular sights: the sparkling waters of the Similkameen River cutting through rocky canyons up near Oroville; the bird’s-eye views of the Columbia River Valley set against the Cascades from way up high on Badger Mountain; the roly-poly Dr. Seuss-esque hills surrounding charming Waitsburg and Dayton in the southeast corner of the state. And lots more.
I was looking for cycling routes — and strenuous, fairly longish ones at that — but for those who aren’t given to pedaling, these make for some terrific drives as well. They’re mostly on rural, low-traffic roads smack in the middle of nowhere but pass through small towns and parks that offer plenty of diversions.
Here are five Washington routes to the best kind of nowhere:
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Where: Northeast of Wenatchee.
Admittedly, this is two places. Or rather, this route to Waterville includes a climb of Badger Mountain which, for you cyclists out there, rises 2,750 feet in 8.3 miles. Youch! (Uh, and it’s the route’s first 8.3 miles; so much for a warm-up.)
But turn around on the way up — or pull over at one of several pullout spots and check out the view — Incroyable! Down in the valley, the mighty Columbia River lazes its way through the rich, fertile Wenatchee Valley while foothill upon foothill and rocky ridgeline upon rocky ridgeline rise ever higher to the majestic Central Cascades.
For you GPS-enabled riders, the climb is mostly 7 percent, with some stretches up to 12. (Did I already say, “Youch!”?) NOTE: This climb is unshaded and the route as a whole can be very hot. Carry two water bottles and avoid riding it in the heat of the day.
A little past the 8-mile mark, the climb levels out and bumps up and down — more up than down — through sagebrushy hills and pine forest, eventually topping out at 4,100 feet, 18 miles from the start. A 2-mile gravel-road descent follows (which might give skinny-tired cyclists pause), delivering one onto the high, dry flatlands of the Waterville Plateau.
Once on the plateau, the miragelike clump of trees and buildings to the north reveals the quaint, nowheresville burg of Waterville, the highest incorporated town in Washington. (Elevation-wise, that is.) The town of about 1,200 is at an elevation of 2,622 feet.
Get there by turning left onto paved P Road Northwest and in 2.5 miles, right onto 2 Road Northwest, which, just ahead, runs into Highway 2, Waterville’s main arterial. Founded in 1885, Waterville has long been a hub for the area’s wheat commerce and boasts many historic buildings.
Where: Northeast of the Methow Valley.
In Northcentral Washington, the Okanogan River town of Tonasket and the border town of Oroville, on Lake Osoyoos, can be linked together by a couple of fun riding and/or driving loops.
Loop 1: From Tonasket, a cool, funky town of about 1,000, an eastern loop heads up through the high, dry, open forest and farmland of the Okanogan highlands. It’s a consistent, but not brutal, 20 miles of climbing, but the sweeping views down into the Okanogan Valley are stunners and make it all worth it. Passing ranchland and dodging tumbleweed after tumbleweed through tiny spots on the map such as Havillah, you feel like you’re riding through the set of an old Western movie.
About 20 miles from Tonasket, reach the tiny, one-chairlift Sitzmark Ski Area (Whistler it’s not), this loop’s literal high point, and begin the fun 17-mile descent back down into the Okanogan Valley and the town of Oroville, just four miles south of the Canadian border. (There’s an official border crossing there.) From Oroville, head south back to Tonasket on Highway 7 along the west bank of the Okanogan River (less traffic than on Highway 97 on the river’s east bank). Or …
Loop 2: Follow the western loop on Loomis-Oroville Road, which traces the Similkameen River through a stunning rocky gorge on the edge of the Pasayten Wilderness. This loop passes through tiny burgs such as Nighthawk and Loomis and alongside Palmer Lake, a mouth-gape-causing stunner at the foot of 5,000-foot peaks, and climbs significantly less than the first. Eventually, Loomis-Oroville Road heads east to Highway 7, whereupon you turn right and follow it south for about five miles to Tonasket.
Places to eat and stay: Try the Tonasket Pizza Company (15 W. Fourth St., 509-486-4808) in Tonasket or Oroville’s Trino’s Mexican Restaurant (1918 Main St., 509-476-9151). For lodging: Tonasket’s Junction Motel (509. S. Whitcomb Ave., 509-486-4500).
Where: Southeast corner of the state.
The dry, rolling grassland hills north of Walla Walla are home not only to a couple of picture-postcard Small Town, USA-type places — Waitsburg and Dayton — but also some terrific low-traffic cycling (and driving) roads.
Head south from Waitsburg on Middle or Lower Waitsburg roads (they eventually hook up) and have a blast riding up and down the roller-coaster farm roads ‘twixt Waitsburg and Walla Walla. Most of the hills aren’t very big and if you wisely dose out your effort, your momentum descending one hill might just carry you up the following one. (Ideally.) Unshaded, these hills and roads offer stunning views of the agricultural wonder that is this corner of Washington.
From historic Dayton, which can lay claim to the fact that Lewis and Clark slept there (that is, in 1806, at what would become the town’s eventual location), an out-and-back ride to Bluewood Ski Area scrolls through a dazzling progression of landscapes.
Climbing about 3,400 feet in 22 miles, North Touchet Road (which starts out in town as South Fourth Street) transports one from the dry wheat-field hills characteristic of the Palouse to the dense Inland Northwest pine forest of the Blue Mountains. Climb-wise, it’s gradual, with nary a switchback along the way. Turn around at the entrance to Bluewood Ski Area; the return ride is fun and fast.
Link Waitsburg to Dayton (10 miles apart) by riding Highway 12 but detour from the potentially busy highway by throwing in Bowman Hill and Lower Hogeye roads, both on the south side of Highway 12.
Forest Road 51
Where: North of Winthrop.
Renowned for its Old West vibe and for being a mountain-biking destination spot, the Methow Valley is also a great place to pedal the skinny-tire rig. While Highway 20 offers the option of tackling a couple epic climbs — Washington Pass (5,477 feet) in one direction; Loup Loup Pass (4,020 feet) in another — it’s the paved Forest Service roads that offer that peaceful, out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere feel.
Chief among these is FR 51, which follows the gurgling Chewuch River north, deep into Okanogan National Forest and its lovely dry conifers. (It’s basically an extension of West Chewuch Road, which starts just outside Winthrop.) Traffic is low, the road a little rough in spots, but the river scenery is terrific. Several trailheads and campgrounds along the way allow for pulling over, taking a stroll and soaking it all in.
Turn around at the Andrews Creek Bridge and trailhead, where pavement ends. It’s about 23 miles north of Winthrop. The road climbs gradually — about 100 feet per mile — almost the entire way. That’s generally not enough to cause one to suffer on the way out, but plenty enough to make one feel invincibly fast on the return ride.
For a change of pace on the return, cross over the Chewuch River Bridge and head back into Winthrop via East Chewuch Road.
Tum Tum Mountain
Where: Northeast Clark County.
There’s nowhere and then there’s deep in the heart of nowhere. Chelatchie and Tum Tum Mountain qualify for the latter, making their low-traffic roads perfect for meandering exploration. (Not only that, but Chelatchie and Tum Tum are fun to say.)
Chelatchie (say “chu-LATCH-ee”), east of Amboy, north of Yacolt, south of Mount St. Helens, is a census-designated spot on the edge of Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
It’s surrounded by terrific rural roadways that pass prairie fields and farmland — as well as through the above-mentioned towns — and the conical mini-mountain, Tum Tum, which looks sorta like a giant Hershey’s Kiss. (Legend has it a Native American chief is buried at the summit.)
Forest Road 54 leads (and climbs) past Tum Tum deep into Gifford Pinchot and is a springboard for popular trails in the Siouxon Roadless Area. Though paved, FR 54 can be rough in places (info: www.fs.usda.gov/giffordpinchot). Near tiny Yacolt is the site of the Yacolt Burn, the state’s deadliest wildfire, which burned a quarter-million acres and claimed the lives of 38 people in 1902.
To get here, take Exit 21 from Interstate 5 in Woodland. Head east toward Amboy and just let the roads and your inclination guide you.
Places to eat and stay: Chelatchie Prairie General Store has food (42411 N.E. Yale Bridge Road, Chelatchie; 360-247-5529) and there’s a Best Western in Battle Ground, the closest big(ish) town: www.battlegroundbestwesterninn.com.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and guidebook author. His new guide, “75 Classic Rides: Washington” (The Mountaineers Books), is to be published in 2012. Email him at email@example.com.