“This is boring, man. Let’s just get to Ellensburg.”-Me. May 26th 2022
It’s amazing how much the reality of an experience differs from the expectation, especially when you’ve been planning something for a decade.
A decade? Yes. That’s how long I’ve been planning this ride (I promised myself that as soon as the Beverly Bridge was passable, I’d ride the trail in its entirety). That seems ridiculous now that I’ve typed it out, because while it sounds impossibly long, it doesn’t feel like it now that it’s finally done.
As I type this, two days after finishing the trail, my water bottles still have mud clinging to them. My legs and lower back have that familiar soreness that I’ve grown to appreciate, and the exhaustion is complete throughout my body. I have a lot of emotions about the experience, and I want to get it out while it’s still fresh in my mind. I will eventually write about the eastern half of the trail in a more technical manner, as a tool to those who need the info, but for now, this post is about me, my journey, and my experience.
I had initially planned this as a five day bikepacking trip, which would have spaced out the stops enough to maintain water and food supplies, while still keeping decent mileage on fully loaded bikes. Memorial day weekend seemed like a sure-fire timeframe to accomplish the ride as the tunnel would definitely be open, snow would no longer be an issue, and we would be less likely to encounter the sun and unbearable heat of the eastside (Spoiler: only one of those assumptions turned out to be correct).
My good friend Matt has accompanied me on my yearly ride to Ellensburg and back for the last six years, and was just as excited as I was to take on the trail.
All we needed was someone to pick us up in Tekoa. I asked my Father-in-Law if he’d be interested in meeting us in Tekoa and he instead offered to follow along the route. As a seasoned cyclist and avid camper, he wanted to share in the adventure. Knowing that her dad was going with me, Rachel (my wife) offered to go as well.
And that’s how a five day trip became four; having a support vehicle drastically changes the amount of gear you have to carry on your bike and how much ground you can comfortably cover in a day.
I really can’t express my appreciation for Rach and her dad. They really made the journey a memorable one, and it was absolutely wonderful to share the experience with them (they had their own adventures, trusting my directions down dirt roads with no names in the middle of nowhere, but we’ll get to that later).
So let’s go.
So yeah, about those earlier assumptions… After an abnormally cold spring with late snows, it turned out that not only was the Snoqualmie Tunnel still closed, but if we chose to take the Denny Creek bypass (or just start at Hyak), we’d have ten miles of snow to contend with just to get to Easton. The Cross Washington Mountain Bike Race (or XWA) had started four days before us and I had seen what that stretch of trail looked like.
Some of the XWA riders that had passed through the day before were reporting that it took up to three hours to get through this ten miles.
Weighing out our options, I came to the conclusion that we just had to cut day one short and start at Easton. I still have a lot of feelings about this decision and there’s a little voice in my head that keeps telling me I cheated.
“Starting at Easton isn’t actually riding the entire trail!”
I’ve gotten better at telling this voice to shut up because of two things: I’ve ridden the western part of the trail more times than I can count, and I also HATE snow. I can easily think of several hundred-thousand things I’d rather do than carry my bike through more than ten miles of snow in cycling shoes.
So on Thursday May 26th, at roughly noon, Matt and I loaded our bikes into our friend Tim’s Honda Odyssey (note to self: bikes fit in the back of an Odyssey with wheels on and standing up) and made our way up to Lake Easton State Park.
*Comically, on the drive up, I found out that the tunnel had opened that morning, but it didn’t matter because the snow was still there, and regardless, it was past past noon and too late to change the route plan.
Day one was an odd one. I’m a morning ride type of person and I can’t remember the last time I started a ride at two in the afternoon. The weather also felt like it was having a difficult time figuring out what it wanted to do. As we took our first pedal strokes it was in the low sixties with dense cloud cover. Light sprinkles would chase us east, but would never turn into real rain.
It took a while to get comfortable, and honestly, once I settled in and found my rhythm, I just found myself wishing I was already in Ellensburg.
Don’t get me wrong, the area around Lake Easton is beautiful, but I’ve ridden it so many times I just found myself drifting into autopilot, pedaling at a steady pace while I daydreamed about sections of the trail I had never seen.
It did feel strange to pedal right past the Easton Trailhead, which is usually where we would have lunch and refill water bottles, but there was no need. We were fresh-legged and our bottles were still full.
One thing that did stand out was the trail surface, especially the section between the Easton Trailhead and The Upper Yakima Canyon. Historically, that stretch has felt monotonous. It’s a long straightaway with deep gravel that can be hard to push through. Front tires sink into it and it requires constant vigilance to maintain a straight line.
Having a reasonably clear idea of what awaited us east of Ellensburg, we had both chosen to roll on pretty large tires. Both Matt and I had opted for 650b / 27.5 wheels, and Matt was on 2.1 Teravail Sparwoods while I was on 2.2 Maxxis Ikons. Both of these tires have a fast rolling XC tread that’s perfect for gravel and we were both set up tubeless.
So, with such a large contact patch, instead of digging in, our tires simply floated over the deeper gravel stretches allowing us to both set personal records coming into Cle Elum.
The miles beyond Cle Elum passed in a blur. We had a decent tailwind and Matt and I had realized that we could be in Ellensburg by 4:30 if we pushed hard enough.
As usual, the canyon did not disappoint. The spring rains had given us an abundance of wildflowers and left the area gleaming in a vibrant green that I can’t remember ever seeing this late in the year. It was beautiful.
*I’m going to digress for a moment and talk about traditions. If you’ve ever ridden the stretch of trail between the Thorp Tunnels and Ellensburg, you are probably familiar with the Partybarn sign that sits off the trail as it intersects East Taneum Road. If you’re riding from Cedar Falls, it’s a landmark that let’s you know that you’re almost to Ellensburg.
I have a taken a photo with that sign at least once a year for the last nine years. It has become a tradition on the Ellensburg and Back ride that dozens of folks have taken part in. One of the things I look forward to every year is seeing everyone’s poses with that sign. I even made a commemorative beer koozie one year for everyone that accompanied me (I’m not kidding, here’s proof).
Here’s the thing- the sign is gone. Apparently someone finally purchased Springwood Ranch (where the partybarn was) and no longer uses it as a venue. So they removed it.
I get it- Things change. Traditions die. It’s just a dumb sign. I don’t know why I became so attached to it. Maybe it’s that at mile sixty-four, sweating, in the dead of summer, baking in the sun, that sign made me smile.
I’d love to know where it ended up. Hopefully they didn’t turn it into kindling.
Anyway, we rolled onto Water street in Ellensburg at about 4:20pm and stopped into Pretty Fair Beer to celebrate our first day on trail. They have a fantastic beer selection and a nice patio around back as well.
It felt strange to not be completely covered in dirt and sweat. I’m usually celebrating after close to eighty dusty miles in the summer and due to the damp trail surface, Matt, myself, and our bikes were still relatively clean.
After checking into our Hotel for a change of clothes, we made our way to Brix (which is where I ate dinner the first two years on the Ellensburg and back rides). Brix has a nice pizza menu and outdoor seating as well. They have a decent taplist and a tremendous amount of wine if that’s your thing.
*Two guys in lifted pickups tried to coal roll us on our way back to the hotel. They were both towing trailers and obviously going away for Memorial Day weekend. Luckily, they both missed us and ended up just wasting a bunch of gas. I’ll never understand why anyone would think that blowing black smoke all over someone on a bike while you’re on your way to a vacation with your family is cool.