“I can’t believe I’ve waited 10 years to do this.”-Me. May 28th 2022
I didn’t sleep very well the first day. I was way too excited for the upcoming adventure and I tossed and turned all night, wanting nothing more than to get out there on the trail. My alarm went off at 6:30 but I was already awake.
Turns out Matt was in the same boat, but we couldn’t just get up and go. We had a schedule to keep and we had to meet Rach and her Dad at noon, so leaving anytime before nine was pointless. So, we watched the Giro d’Italia on Matt’s phone, and instead of making Hotel Keurig coffee, Matt treated us with some craft instant coffee from Bluebeard in Tacoma. It was wonderful.
We ate the free hotel breakfast that only a Holiday Inn Express can provide. I’m not complaining, I actually kind of love all the options they provide, and if you’re trying to fuel for three more days of riding, it’s pretty awesome to have a never-ending supply of oatmeal, cereal, cinnamon buns, and orange juice (also, I need that automated pancake maker in my house).
Remember how excited Matt and I were to get on trail? Well, it turns out we just couldn’t wait until nine. It was too much to sit around so we were on the road at 8:30am, pedaling towards the Ellensburg Rodeo Grounds where the trail picks back up on the east end of town. It had rained most of the night and into the early morning, so we pedaled over wet roads towards the trail.
As we hit gravel, we settled back into our rhythm, excited for what the day would bring us. Matt had never been beyond Kittitas, and I couldn’t wait for him to see the Yakima Training Center.
It became clear pretty quickly that we were both over dressed. The clouds began to thin and with a tailwind that we were keeping pace with, it was kind of like riding a trainer in a room that’s fifty-eight degrees with no fan. Layers were removed at Kittitas and we pedaled on towards Renslow.
One of the things I love about riding in the morning is the abundance of wildlife, especially in spring. We had a dozen rabbits cross the trail in front of us, along with a handful of magpies. We also saw several red-winged blackbirds and one yellow-headed blackbird, which may not seem like a big deal if you live in Ellensburg, but they are all foreign on the west side of the mountains.
Right after leaving Kittitas, a Heron flew across the trail and landed in the field next to us. It was a pretty amazing moment, and Matt and I both stopped to watch it. We both laughed, trying to zoom in on it and get a good photo, joking that it would probably just look like a stick in a field. Matt clapped loudly and it took flight back to the west behind us.
I had walked across the Renslow Trestle last year, right after it’s completion but had yet to actually ride over it, so I was pretty excited. The fact that no detour is required here anymore is just wonderful, and the view from over I-90 is definitely worth it. We lucked out on this particular morning and experienced very little crosswind while out on the span.
*It was also pretty rad to finally see the kiosk on the other end of the bridge. Two of the photos on the graphic are mine and it’s the first time I’ve seen it in real life. It was put together by Marilyn Hedges, who runs a great site dedicated to the trail. Thanks again, Marilyn!
Entering the Yakima Training Center (YTC) was exactly how I remembered it, and I was thanking myself for having chosen such a large tire. The last time I had been here, I was on a 50mm tire, this time I was on a 2.2″ tire, and it really smoothed out the bumpy, sandy surface.
One thing I wasn’t prepared for was just how green it was. The wet spring had really left its mark, and the wildflowers were in peak bloom.
The first five miles of the YTC is never easy; it’s all uphill and the surface is deep course sand that’s been churned and pockmarked by horses. There was a slightly less worse path on the right side of the trail, and the recent rains had made things a little less loose, but it was still slow going.
We rolled into the tunnel cut to see the the western portal, and then took the detour that goes up and over.
The detour has been freshly cleared of vegetation and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it had been packed down since the last time I was here. There are now a few pretty clear lines that you can ride in without all of the large chunky rocks. It’s still plenty steep in places; grades push eleven and twelve percent on the punchier sections, and the descent on the other side is just as steep, but it was still more enjoyable then possibly ending up with wet feet and hacking through a willow thicket.
After the tunnel, it’s a long and steady descent to the Columbia River. I was impressed to see that the rock cuts had been cleared of debris, which allowed us to maintain speed all the way down.
Matt was just as impressed with the landscape as I was the first time I had seen it. Pictures do this place no justice. The vast open horizon coupled with the canyon-like cuts is unlike anyplace else, and the spring blooms were out in full force.
The Yakima Training Center is a spectacular landscape that has a way of making you feel very insignificant. Most days you can ride through and not see another person the entire time, which is exactly how we wanted it; just endless miles of solitude and beauty… all for us.
Anyway, here’s a photo dump, enjoy.
It’s a relatively fast descent and with a tailwind you can easily push twenty-five miles per hour down to the Columbia. Soon, we got our first view of the river, followed by Wanapum Dam with Sentinel Gap in the distance, and before we knew it we were rolling down to the trailhead where Huntzinger Road intersects the trail (which was our first meeting spot with Rachel and her Dad).
We had left the hotel thirty minutes early, and although I tried to stop and take a ton of photos, we still beat Rach and her Dad to the trailhead by twenty minutes. Our excitement had gotten the best of us and so we just sat and waited.
Rach and her Dad had left Tacoma at nine, and given the holiday weekend traffic, it would probably take three hours to reach us. The fun thing was that Rach and I had shared our locations on our phones, so I could see on the map that they were pretty close to us, and it wasn’t long before we were feasting on sandwiches and gummy bears.
At this point with a support vehicle on route, Matt and I were able to unload quite a bit of stuff from our bikes, continuing on with minimal gear and weight. This meant we could cover quite a bit of ground for the rest of the trail.
The plan for the rest of the day was to continue on the trail to Lenice Lake where two burned trestles force you over to Lower Crab Creek Road. We would then ride to Highway 26, just outside of Othello where we would be picked up for the day.
But first, we had to cross the Columbia. I’ve been waiting so long to ride across the Beverly Bridge, I almost feel like I had built up the experience too much in my head, after all, it’s just a bridge, right?
Expectations were set and they were definitely met. The ability to peacefully cross the river at a leisurely pace without worrying about an endless stream of traffic barreling past you at over seventy miles per hour is priceless.
Rachel and Paul crossed as well, sharing the experience with us. It was a perfect mid-day break.
The landscape changes pretty dramatically on the other side of the river. The trail continues through Crab Creek Coulee alongside the Saddle Mountains. Matt and I marveled at the massive hills to the right, and once the Russian olive trees thin out, there are some really cool basalt structures on the opposite side of the valley.
As the afternoon progressed, the sun began to peek through the clouds, warming our backs and casting real shadows for the first time. It was a welcome change in the day.
At Lenice Lake, we dropped onto lower Crab Creek Road, which, for the most part is beautifully graded and fast-rolling gravel. Like, it’s gloriously packed and smooth. It’s the kind of gravel I dream about. There is a section that is paved, but over this entire stretch we saw a total of two vehicles, both of which gave us a wide and comfortable gap when passing.
We opted to not rejoin the trail at Smyrna (I grew up in a region with goatheads and I’ll pass, thank you) and instead just kept straight through on the road. The paved section had some nice rollers before turning back into gravel, where there was a super cool climb as the road rises out of the coulee and up onto the hillside.
Eventually, regardless of whether you got back on the trail, you have to get onto the pavement, and if you know where the trail actually ends here, you can find a nice surprise. Matt and I both thought we were looking at an old pipe, until I saw it from below. At that angle it became clear that what we were looking at was the ghost of the original Milwaukee Road. It was a good reminder of how the trail got here and why it exists in the first place
At this point, the trail ceases to exist. It does technically continue, but beyond here it’s active rail line, so everyone has to ride the road to continue. It’s a bummer because as you pedal on the pavement you can look up to the right and the tracks run up along the hillside, undoubtedly providing some grand views of the surrounding landscape.
Meanwhile, the detour road turns back into gravel and we start coming into contact with… cows?
So. Many. Cows.
We had rolled over several cattle grates and now I was beginning to see why. The road bisects open rangeland and while the cows weren’t aggressive or anything, they also didn’t seem to be afraid of us. Nor did they want to move. Like at all. We had to pass really slowly and they would finally take a few steps to move just enough to let us pass. It was funny how much these cows didn’t even seem to care that we were there.
I was just trying to dodge the cowpies on the road and not accidentally crash into an actual cow when I looked ahead and saw a car approaching.
“I’m pretty sure that’s my car!” I said to Matt. Which seemed odd because we were still a good three or four miles from our pickup location.
It was indeed my car, and Rach and Paul couldn’t stop at the location I had given them because a bunch of construction equipment was parked there. So they continued on to pick us up a little early. Matt and I called it, loaded up our bikes, and hopped into the car.
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because there were at least four times more cows down the road. It was still slow going but they seemed a little more apt to move for a car than two guys on bikes.
Once we got back onto the highway, it was a quick drive to Potholes State Park where we camped for the night. After a big dinner we settled in, sharing stories and beers over the campfire. I had zero complaints with day two, we were even treated to a spectacular sunset, which was a welcome end to a pretty perfect day.
*Pro tip- the General Store across the street from Potholes State park has the single largest selection of Cheladas I’ve ever seen.