The Columbia Plateau Trail – WAY HARDER THAN IT LOOKS

3/18 to 3/21/2015 – Looking for a quick way to buck the recent “routine” Grete and I have developed around Whitefish (given the little snow and rainy forecast), we began searching for a quality adventure that would be low stress in a slightly drier place.  Soon, I discovered the Columbia Plateau Trail – an old railroad bed converted for bicycle travel – connecting Spokane with the Tri-Cities and figured out that we could connect to the trail and back purely with Amtrak.  What really sealed the deal was a review stating part of the trail “isn’t really meant for the tires of a bike unless you have the great big fat ones for riding in sand…” With eastern-Washington calling for a couple days of warm and dry weather, it seemed like the perfect mellow bikepacking trip to get the wheels turning for summer!

Beginning the journey with a late-arrived train, we headed out of Whitefish at 1030pm, arriving into the heart of a dark downtown Spokane at 3am with bikes, gear, and no place to be…  We assembled the bikes, contemplated safe and free places to sleep, then opted to just ride out of town (15 miles) to the trailhead and hopefully catch a couple hours of sleep there.  Nighttime navigation of unfamiliar cities is EXCITING!  We ended up hopping into our sleeping bags right at the crack of dawn, and slept until mid-morning… not the best start to a tour…

Later that day we rode ~25 miles of paved then maintained gravel trail through Turnbill National Wildlife Sanctuary, and the beautiful rolling Palouse Hills, to the Martin Road trailhead and crashed early to try to catch up on sleep.  The next morning, we began rolling through the ballast… and the hopes of 2nd-ring spinning quickly diminished into a slow, bumpy slog of a day.  Brief sections the trail offered some variety, with swampy grasslands overcoming the old railroad beds, offering quality cattle-track-singletrack as well as character-building bushwacking-granny-gear-riding-hike-a-biking.  Occasionally, we’d pass a nearly deserted little farm town with ghostly silos standing proud in the horizon.

After 30 miles of brutal riding, we swung into Benge, WA to stretch and consider our options. From there it seemed the trail would parallel a couple of state routes and cross through a few small towns, but would not improve.  Also, considering that Grete’s knee had begun acting up due to the constant rattling of the ballast, the pavement bliss sounded magnificent when compared to more low-speed, jarring “bicycling.”  We rallied onward, arriving in Wastucna, WA just before nightfall, and camped out in their lovely town park.

Waking to a symphony of birds singing all around us, we had renewed hopes for the trail ahead.  We opted, again, for a bit more paved road to Kahlotus, WA and began to descend down to the Snake River.  We hoped to regain the trail (though always within sight of our road riding) near Burr Canyon, but were concerned with little gaps in the trail map along the Snake River section.  Turns out those gaps are old, un-maintained, barbed-wired and fenced-off (un-passable) railroad bridges crossing over small canyons.  Having discovered that, we continued linking small dirt farm-roads and pavement to the Snake River Road Junction/Trailhead and camped there that night.

The next morning we awoke excited at the mellow (assumed) day ahead, with 15 miles of maintained gravel trail left, then a short road jaunt into Pasco.  It turns out that when the road surface improves, this trail wants to keep it challenging.  As we pedalled off towards the Tri-Cities, the winds began to roar… directly at us… again bringing our hopes of high-gear cruising to a halt.  We rallied-on and made decent time through the stout head-winds to the Ice Harbor Trailhead, where the winds were nearly strong enough to blow you over while standing.  From there, the winds -unbelievably and hysterically- increased as we toiled our final miles into Pasco; battling in nearly our granny gears for almost two hours to ride a mere 12 paved miles.

Once in the Tri-Cities, a huge plate of curly fries, a chocolate milkshake, then dinner with family friends at the local brewery served as a glorious morale-boosters.  As we loaded the train back to Whitefish that night, we knew that we could sleep well after toiling through four days of far-more adventure than we had planned for!

So it turns out that the Columbia Plateau Trail is not very “converted” or “developed” for bicycle travel (or any decent travel)… The surface was leftover loose railroad ballast (2-4″ diameter basalt rock) for a majority of the trail, which rides “like sand, but with in-cohesive fist-sized grains,” as Grete described it. Also worth mentioning – if you are riding south-west towards the Columbia River Basin, expect a constant headwind… One plus of the ride is that it will tickle the ornithologist within each of us, with plentiful birds throughout singing and cheering you on.  Overall, I don’t think I would recommend this trail to anybody (except some really masochistic folks), but if it is improved over time, it could be a hidden gem of South-Eastern Washington.

Oh and the photos I’m sure you are expecting:

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3 thoughts on “The Columbia Plateau Trail – WAY HARDER THAN IT LOOKS

  1. Thanks for writing up your adventure. There isnt too much real information available on this trail..the state of washington website doesnt mention that the trail is virtually unusable in its present condition. But they have some great .pdf maps that give the appearance of a finished project. Some of the trailheads (with paved parking) and signage are so well developed and then the trail is unusable – Must have run out of dollars.

    Loved your photo essay and adventure.

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