Trying out a fabled mountain-bike trail near Wenatchee.
NEAR MISSION RIDGE, Chelan County — Not long after setting out from the Devils Gulch trailhead, Matt Rose and I hear the first rumblings. I’ve just pounded a PowerBar so I know it’s not my stomach and because our ride didn’t get going until after Rose’s noontime working lunch, I figure it can’t be his either. A look far ahead of us, to the sky-high, upper reaches of Mission Ridge, reveals its source: a massing of heavy dark clouds that look ready to let loose with bolts of lightning.
We won’t worry about that now. Rose and I have a long, long way to go and a lot can happen by the time we’ve pedalled our bikes up to the top of Mission Ridge, some 16 miles away and 4,200 feet above us. That’s a lot of ups, but as Rose has told me more than once, it will be more than worth it.
“The upper Mission Ridge Trail is just awesome,” says the 51-year-old Wenatchee machinist and mountain-biking enthusiast. “You’ll be in Seventh Heaven.”
Sounds great. I just hope it won’t be pouring when we get there.
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According to many sources, the Devils Gulch Trail, just outside Cashmere, is one of the top — if not the top — mountain bike rides in Washington. Hard-packed single track, a spectacular Central Cascade setting, long sweeping turns, and crazy-fast switchbacks (on the descent) are just a few of its calling cards.
“The ride has a lot of great elements: buff trails, diverse scenery, exposure for some danger factor, eastside weather and a good name,” says Wenatchee’s Andy Dappen, content editor of www.wenatcheeoutdoors.org, an outdoor-recreation Web site.
Cross-country riders love it because the smooth, dry trail aids in climbing and the ride from the lower reaches of the gulch to Mission Ridge doesn’t seem like a 4,000-foot quad-buster. (Maybe only 3,800 feet.) And in the past, downhill riders have dug it because they could do a car shuttle along Forest Road 7100 (Mission Creek Road), parking one vehicle at the lower trailhead (1,800 feet) and one at the upper (5,000 feet) and have themselves an 11-mile bugs-in-the-teeth-from-grinning-so-much descent that’s wicked fast and requires little in the way of actual pedaling.
But not this year. Or at least not without a lot of driving. A washout from last January’s flooding on FR 7100, about two miles from the lower Devils Gulch trailhead, prevents vehicles from accessing the upper trailhead via the road. Any plans for shuttling require parking the lower car near the washout and driving the upper car through Wenatchee and up, almost all the way to Mission Ridge Ski Area — a detour of many miles.
“The washout is making the shuttle harder for westside riders this year,” says Dappen. “And I suspect the trail is seeing less use as a result.”
Ooh, melikes the sound of that.
Up the down staircase
Earlier, after parking by barriers placed to keep cars from heading up the washed-out road, Rose and I maneuver through what’s little more than a trickle of water and head up the road, which is easily passable on bikes. Most riders pedal FR 7100 all the way to the top, it being the most direct and probably the quickest way up. But we opt for ascending the Devils Gulch Trail, Rose assuring me that it’s much more scenic and a lot more fun.
“I hate riding roads and I avoid them whenever I can,” Rose says.
After two road miles, we reach the Devils Gulch trailhead and after crossing a short bridge, duck into the dry eastside forest. This is my first summer as a full-on mountain biker and I immediately take to the trail’s smooth, narrow, dusty single-track like a technogeek to Twitter. All up the gulch, the hillside views and flowers — paintbrush, penstemon, lupine and more — are glorious, and I just want to ride and roll as far and as high as this trail will take me. With occasional dips down and then up to cross Mission Creek, the riding is so much fun that it’s easy to ignore the thunder rumbles that seem to be coming from right where we’re heading.
“We’ve got some major league exposure coming up,” Rose says good-naturedly at one point.
Soon, we’re traversing the steep rocky hillside via a trail that’s little more than a narrow, foot-wide, rock- and debris-riddled ledge. To my left, the tops of trees appear almost directly below me, with Mission Creek far, far down at the bottom of the gulch.
“This is typical eastside alpine mountain biking for you — these narrow benches cut into the hillside,” Rose tells me, which comforts me not at all.
Eventually, the last exposed stretch behind us, we cross Mission Ridge for the last time and begin climbing in earnest.
“Time to gear down and buckle down,” Rose says.
And then it got steep
Though we’ve already climbed 2,000 feet to this point, it’s been spread out over nine-plus miles. Now though, we’d gain elevation like we were being punished for something. Nine hundred feet in less than two miles; an 800-foot climb in a 1.8-mile stretch not long after that. But with mucho payoff, that’s for sure.
The climb’s not easy but the higher we go, the better the views. From time to time, switchback turns pop us out of the pine forest and afford huge sweeping views of the high, dry forested ridge to the west — Tronsen Ridge, accessed at Blewett Pass and itself home to some terrific riding through spectacular scenery. Eventually, we come to a four-way intersection with the Mission Ridge Trail.
“This is one of my favorite parts of the whole ride,” Rose says. “It’s very flowy.”
Ducking back into the woods, this stretch is mostly flat with a few dips and doodles to gain some speed and wide sweeping turns that give the impression of flying. It’s a serious kick and a half.
It’s also much cooler up here at almost 5,000 feet, and though the thunder we hear from time to time is louder because we’re much closer to it, the rumbles seem next to us rather than above us. Hopefully, we’ve dodged a bullet. Soon enough we come to FR 9712 and the upper trailhead for the Devils Gulch Trail, and catch the first of those Eastern Washington dry-side views that seem to extend all the way to Spokane. I want to stay and soak it in but Rose tells me it’s even better at the top and since we’re close — two miles or so, all of it uphill — that’s all I need to hear.
Finding the thunder
Twenty-five minutes later we’re at the top: 5,700 feet, open mouthed in wonder at the vista. To the west beyond Tronsen Ridge is row upon row of craggy peaks and ridges — the Stuart Range, the Enchantment Peaks, Icicle Ridge, Glacier Peak and many more — their tops all a-tangle in storm clouds. There’s our thunder.
To the east, under cheerful blue skies and puffy white clouds, are the tawny flatlands of the Columbia River basin, broken only by the wide sweeping blue ribbon of the mighty river, and splotches of green that mark the forested lower hills.
“There’s Wenatchee and East Wenatchee and up there is Quincy and beyond that is Moses Lake and over there… ” Rose narrates, filling in the blanks.
It’s probably 20 degrees cooler than where we started, and given the sweat we’ve worked up, it’s not surprising that we’re both shivering. Luckily, we each packed small jackets and upon donning them, find the signed Mission Ridge Trailhead and begin our fast swooping descent, soon connecting back with the Devils Gulch Trail.
It’s fast, it’s flowy, it’s full of adventure. Through rock gardens, meadows of purple lupine, thick heavy timber, out onto open ridgetop. Over and over again.
Rose was right. This is Seventh Heaven.
Funny it took a gulch named after devils to get us here.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “Day Hike! Central Cascades” and “Day Hike! North Cascades” (Sasquatch Books).
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.