Finding Gravel by Bike in the Columbia River Gorge

July, 2012

Dan, Tom, Tad, Ashley, Scott, and Nick.

We assembled quite a rad team for this ride. Nick, Tad, and Tom were seasoned riders; it was Dan’s first bike camping trip, and Scott and Ashley just happened to be visiting. I think we tried to go on one training ride beforehand, but it was quickly mutinied and we ended up drinking beer on the Sandy River instead. This was a good sign: these are the kind of people I want to go bike camping with.

We met up promptly after work on a Thursday and the sun was already low in the sky as we headed out of Portland into rural Washington. We optimistically planned to pound out 45 miles before sunset. Once through Washougal–our last food stop for over a hundred miles–the pavement disappeared and the gravel got steeper and looser. Sure enough, the sun was setting as we crested the Tarbell shoulder and we knew there was a dark, treacherous descent ahead if we didn’t hurry. We got a proper jostling regardless, and arrived at the Rock Creek Horse Camp just after dark. It left us down a few rack bolts, two tubes, and one tire.

Ashley slogging up an unmarked forest road.
Salmonberry season.

The second day as we rode through Sunset Campground we met the chatty host who had been coming there to swim for the last 50 years. I tried explaining our route to him and he just shook his head, positive those roads didn’t go through. Spirits were high though, and the rest of the crew still trusted my judgement so we pushed on, stopping to gorge ourselves on salmonberries every few minutes. Then the sun started getting hot and the grade into the double digits. It was a long, relentless 12 mile slog, and soon we had patches of snow in the shade and vistas of Mt Hood on the horizon. After a quick snack the group split up a bit–both intentionally and unintentionally–and we wound our way through the scrappy alpine forests and volcanic scree, finally descending into the Wind River Valley. We were wiped out at this point, but I coerced the remaining crew to bushwack up Dry Creek to check out a rumored waterfalls on the off chance it was awesome. And it was.

A tall plume plunged into a cold pool surrounded by a lush green basalt amphitheater.

After a quick, refreshing dip we reluctantly remounted. At this point I knew we were never going to make up to our planned campsite at the Forlorn Lakes, so we just cruised the few miles to Panther Creek and called it a day.

Camp stories

Day three started the same way as two: a long gravel ascent. Knowing we had many miles to make up, we didn’t linger long in Indian Heaven, and put it into high gear for the amazing 30 mile bomb down to White Salmon. Okay, well we did stop in Trout Lake, but just long enough to grab some coffee, milkshakes, onion rings, burgers, fries, and postcards. Back down at the bottom of the gorge we effortlessly thumbed a ride across the Hood River bridge. And then after some brutally steep city streets and a glorious, air conditioned co-op in Hood River, we aimed our tired legs toward Lolo Pass. As per tradition for this trip, we limped into camp just as dusk was falling. Some friends had ridden out to camp with us for the night and set up camp in a long-forgotten county park on one of the forks of the Hood River. All the loop roads were covered in tall grass, the bathroom’s roof had collapsed, and the fire pits still worked. Pretty fantastic accommodations if you ask me.

That’s his “gravel grin”

Our last day was pretty straight forward, but was going to be another long one. We headed up the backside of Lolo through cold mist and strong winds, and then cruised down the fast, winding powerline road into Zig Zag. Time for more burgers and shakes, and this time, beer! We still had 50 miles to go, but hey, it was the home stretch. Turns out, it wasn’t exactly a flat stretch. We took the popular road training route along the Barlow Trail, through Dodge Park, and finally rolled up to Dan’s house off the Springwater where we patted ourselves on the back with a few more celebratory pints from his kegerator.

248 miles
30% gravel
19,300' elv
GPS Route
Start / End: Portland, Ore
Services: Washougal, Trout Lake, Hood River, Zig Zag
Tires: 32c

Route notes:

  • Snowpack probably doesn’t clear in the high elevations (4,000') till mid June sometime.
  • It was an ambitious route, be prepared for long days on the bike or make it a full 4-5 days.
  • The pass over the Cascade Range in Washington is not marked at all and criss crossed with ATV trails. Good maps and GPS are mandatory.
  • Not a lot of tap water on the route. You’ll need a purification system.
  • Dry Creek falls is worth the rugged hike (literally through the stream)
  • I wish we had more time to explore (and fish?) the Forlorn Lakes in Indian Heaven
  • To add more gravel you could take some alternate routes farther east from Trout Lake to White Salmon.
  • It was super easy to hitchhike across the Hood River bridge mid-day, but riding across is forbidden.
  • Don’t ditch your riding partners to go to a wedding, then try to find their campsite in the middle of the night but miss the turnoff for Lolo Pass and go to Lost Lake instead (Tad!)

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