There's not much there there, but the back roads to Conconully, Okanogan County, are all about the journey.
CONCONULLY, Okanogan County — As a lover of maps who’s probably whiled away whole decades of his life concocting routes of one sort or another — for bike, for foot, for snowshoe, etc. — I’ve long been intrigued by Conconully.
Look at it on a map: Hidden in the shade of the giant Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Conconully is nestled in a quiet valley between two big lakes: Conconully Lake and Conconully Reservoir, which has its own state park. As the crow flies, Conconully is sort of in the flight path for Winthrop, Omak and Tonasket, but not really on the way to any of them.
I mean, how could I not be intrigued by this tiny town of about 200?
Finally, about a month ago, my curiosity was quenched when friends and I stopped in Conconully in the midst of an epic, 80-mile, gravel-grinder bike ride from Winthrop. (Gravel-grinder, because 50 of the 80 miles were on gravel Forest Service roads.)
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What we found was a quaint, lakeside burg — a general store, four restaurants (“three of which are taverns,” boasts the Chamber of Commerce website), a terrific camping park, some waterfront lodgings and, truthfully, not much else.
If you love the outdoors, you don’t need much else.
A hallmark event
“It’s a great place to live if you can entertain yourself, and you can entertain yourself 12 months a year in Conconully,” says Marilyn Church, a past president of the local chamber.
“There’s hunting and fishing and snowmobiling — over 300 miles of groomed snowmobile trails nearby — and, of course, we’re known for the Outhouse Races down Main Street in January. I guess you’d say that’s our hallmark event.”
Once known as Salmon City, Conconully’s history includes a 25-year run as the Okanogan County seat, as well as turn-of-the-last-century fires and a flood that nearly washed away the town. Depending on the source, the town takes its name from the Okanogan Indians’ word for “garden” or “place of abundance.”
That there’s not actually much there there is fine because the town’s not-on-the-way-to-anywhere-ness is what makes visiting Conconully worthwhile. The most common approach is from the south via Conconully Road, wherein you pass from the open, agriculturally rich Okanogan Valley up through the Scotch Creek Wildlife Area, a 9,000-acre mix of shrub steppe and marshy birch forest. It’s a protected habitat for sharp-tailed grouse.
Taking the hard way
Or, you can get there the way that Bellingham’s Scott Young, Brian Ecker and I did: the long way. We linked up a chain of Forest Service roads and followed them high onto the nearly 7,000-foot shoulders of Tiffany Mountain, where we basked in open ridgeline vistas extending far into the Pasayten Wilderness. Admittedly, it’s also the hard way; our 80-mile loop included more than 10,000 feet of elevation gain!
From Winthrop, we pedaled north on paved East Chewuch Road for eight miles to FR 37, where we turned right and began a 15-mile climb — the first five miles of which were paved — to Freezeout Ridge on Tiffany’s west flank.
We climbed through fragrant forest of pine, larch and cottonwood, as well as miles and miles of giant standing toothpicks — dead snags from the 2006 Tripod Complex wildfire that burned some 175,000 acres.
We roller-coastered up and down, now on FR 39 and later FR 3820, where the thinned forest treated us to stunning views of wave upon wave of the North Cascades’ sea of peaks. In winter, these same roads — in fact, much of our route — comprise some of the vast network of snowmobile trails that Church alluded to. In the next month or so, many of these spots will also become awash in fall Technicolor.
“When the Alpine and Western larch up there turn gold, it’s just dazzling,” says Chris Williams, recreation coordinator for the Tonasket Ranger District. “If you’re ready for a fall show, head up to Lone Frank Pass; it’s off the hook.”
At Lone Frank Pass, we began a rollicking, 16-mile descent into Conconully, the rough, washboarded road rewarding us with two flat tires. On the way we passed several trailheads and four campgrounds, including Salmon Meadows, popular for horse camping.
At the 50-mile mark, we reached Conconully (yippee!), where we raided the general store, loading up on soda, water, sandwiches, candy bars and whatever else looked good. We did our best to take in our surroundings, but mostly we sat in the shade and drooped. (Our ride took place on a day when temperatures hit triple digits.)
Once sated — hunger-wise, thirst-wise and Conconully curiosity-wise — we began the 30-mile journey back to Winthrop via even more view-rich forest roads: FR 42 to FR 4225 and various paved back roads.
It was a truly amazing day. And so what if there’s not much in Conconully; it’s all about the journey anyway.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of the newly published “75 Classic Rides: Washington” (The Mountaineers Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog is mcqview.blogspot.com.