Here are some favorite biking routes around the wind-carved, wheat fields of the Palouse country, starting from Pullman.
PULLMAN — A little more than a year ago, I moved back from Seattle to this little college town where, allegedly, all dirt roads lead. I traded a long nonnegotiable commute and six-month drizzle for a non-commute and noticeable winter.
I knew I could count on a cool job writing about science at Washington State University and a passel of old friends from when I lived here 12 years earlier. What I had forgotten about was the pure pleasure of bicycling on the Palouse.
Wide-open countryside minutes away. A new, easy bike trail to nearby Moscow, Idaho, and points deeper into Idaho. Smooth, lightly trafficked roads — on great pavement — in every direction. Endless blue sky and dry heat. And that crazy, convoluted Palouse landscape that fills your field of view with curves, hills and endless grain fields.
I’ve since reacquainted myself with much of it over the course of several Pullman-based rides that I’m happy to share. I tend to pick them based on the day’s breeze, an often prodigious force that has built these silty, windblown hills over the past million years or so. I like to head out into the wind so my way home is a fast, back-to-the wind whoosh.
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As flat as it gets
The most popular ride in town is the Bill Chipman Palouse Trail (www.pullmancivictrust.org/Chipman.html), which winds the seven miles to Moscow on a paved, lightly graded rail bed that crisscrosses Paradise Creek as it parallels Highway 270.
It has interpretive rest stops along the way and you can meander through Moscow and the University of Idaho at the end, or you can continue across hillier terrain to the town of Troy, a wooded village of 800 people and a few places for a sandwich. On Saturday mornings, locals jam into the Moscow Farmers Market for live music, food stands, crafts and crops (on Friendship Square from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday through October).
Quite often, the morning wind is out of the east, so you have a tail wind coming home. That wind sometimes changes to the west; if it does, please don’t write.
Finding the way: The trail starts on Bishop Boulevard just north of the Quality Inn (1400 S.E. Bishop Blvd.).
The high roads
The typical summer wind comes out of the southwest. You can ride nine miles to Johnson, home of a Fourth of July parade so short the procession turns around and doubles back. It’s three more miles to Colton, and yet another three to Uniontown on Highway 195. This is solid Palouse country at its treeless best: hilly, high and wheat-blond, with a couple of solid climbs.
Uniontown has some phenomenal artisan breads at Sage Baking Company. It’s also home to two architectural gems. St. Boniface Church, the first consecrated Catholic church in the state, was so expensive it caused a rift in the community that could only be resolved by the Vatican. North of town, the restored Dahmen Barn sits surrounded by an endless wagon-wheel fence. Inside are occasional music performances and works by various artists and craftsmen.
Finding the way: Head south out of Pullman on South Grand Avenue and stay on it as it merges on to Highway 195. From 195, take a short detour on Johnson Road to Johnson. Continue south on 195 to Colton and Uniontown.
When the wind is out of the west, I head toward the Snake River, 24 miles away. If you are a fit cyclist, the ride is epic and beautiful by either the Boyer Park route or the wilder, more barren Wawawai (sounds like “wuh-WHY-ee”) Canyon. Here you will see hardly any traffic and cross Union Flat, once a thoroughfare for early settlers. The canyon itself is hot and sparsely settled, a true taste of arid and rugged West. Come ready to climb 2,000 feet in a throw, and pack water as if you’re about to cross a desert.
For now I prefer a shorter, less macho version of the route, stopping short of the river. I take the turn on Highway 194 toward Boyer Park and enjoy about four miles of downhill, descending from the fertile Palouse highlands into open basalt, pastures, outposts of Ponderosa pine and air doughy with the smell of ripening grain.
You can continue on 194 to the riverfront Boyer Park, or, for my short route, I turn around at the intersection with Hamilton Hill Road. If the wind is strong, it will blow you home and help you up parts of the hill you just came down. With the wind gone from your ears, you’ll hear the soft purring of your wheels and the laughter of meadowlarks and quail.
Finding the way: Head west up Pullman’s Main Street to Wawawai Road, across Highway 195 and onto Highway 194. Follow the 194 signs for my short route or the ride to Boyer Park. For Wawawai Canyon, keep going south onto the Wawawai-Pullman Road and turn right on the Wawawai Road.
A town called Palouse
When the wind has a more northerly bent, head 15 miles up to Palouse, a town of one countrified square mile. Where other Eastern Washington farm towns have shrunk over the decades, Palouse has held its own, in part as a bedroom community of sorts for WSU employees.
It’s a charming place to visit, with historic brick buildings, antique shops, an art gallery and a newspaper museum. If you stop for a coffee or beer at the Green Frog, don’t be surprised if someone pulls a guitar or ukulele off the wall and starts singing.
Along the way, you might take in Kamiak Butte, an anomaly of rock and forest rising 1,000 feet above the wrinkled, wheated plain.
Finding the way: Head north out of Pullman on the bike trail just east of North Grand Avenue. About a mile north of town, it will put you onto Highway 27 for the rest of the way to the town of Palouse.
Tour de Lentil
But if you really want to take in the Palouse at its most corrugated, join the Tour de Lentil (cycling.wsu.edu/tour-de-lentil.aspx) Aug. 20 during Pullman’s National Lentil Festival. Run by the WSU Cycling Club, it has rides of 50 and 100 kilometers (31 and 62 miles), and the long ride cuts across a particularly steep stretch between Palouse and Colfax. And don’t be surprised if, somewhere around the 18th hill, as you climb into the sky and the temperature climbs into the upper 80s, you experience a revelation foreign to the wet side. There is a thing called summer. It’s hot, and on the Palouse’s million acres of treeless turf, it’s bountiful.
Eric Sorensen, a former Seattle Times reporter, lives in Pullman.