Palouse To Cascades Trail. Day 3. Warden to Escure Ranch

“Dude, who needs a mountain bike?”

-Me. May 28th 2022

I slept pretty well through the night but the birds around the reservoir came to life promptly at five in the morning (can you imagine how many birds hang out at Potholes in the spring when the water is still high? I couldn’t either, But I have a pretty good idea now). Once the seagulls joined in, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was up at 5:30am, enjoying my coffee on the water.

The rising sun over Potholes Reservoir

We all shared a solid breakfast of oatmeal, yogurt, and granola before packing up camp and getting dressed. Todays plan was for Rach and her Dad to drop us off at the Warden trailhead and then meet us in Ralston, before continuing on to Escure ranch.

I’m not going to lie, having people that love you nearby with a support vehicle is a pretty good feeling. It meant that we weren’t completely dependent on resupplying in Othello, and we also didn’t have to take the detour into Warden (I’ve been on the official Othello/Warden detour and honestly, I had no desire to ride it on a bike. There is a second option of taking the canal banks, and if we hadn’t had support, that’s the route we would have gone. Either way, I wasn’t out there to ride canal banks and boring farm roads).

We were at the trailhead by nine and pedaling east by nine-fifteen. It was an absolutely beautiful morning. The sun was shining and the temperature was hovering in the upper fifties with a nice tailwind. It was almost perfect, but as we all know, nothing is ever perfect and the next stretch of trail would turn out to be one of the hardest forty miles I’ve worked for in recent memory.

I knew that we were going to catch up to the Annual Cross-State Ride put on by the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders on this day. They had camped in Lind (20 miles ahead of us) and were headed to Ralston that day, which is where we were having lunch.

It’s strange because up to this point there was little to no evidence that the horses had even been on the trail, but here, at the Warden trailhead, it was as if an army of horses had walked shoulder to shoulder across the the entire width of the trail for as far as I could see onto the eastern horizon.

It didn’t matter how fast or how slow I tried to ride. It didn’t matter if I rode on the left, center, right, or anywhere else. The vibrations were relentless, and every turn of the pedals produced more. There was no escape. Keep in mind that I was on 2.2″ tires with a Shock Stop stem, so I can’t even begin to imagine what this would have been like on a 47mm tire, or something smaller.

It’s actually a bummer because this twenty mile stretch is mostly shallow dirt over hardpack, and without the billions of horse divots, I bet it’s pretty fast rolling trail.

Sand, ground up tumbleweeds, and divots forever.

As the day progressed, Matt and I realized that we were putting out way too much power for the speed that we are actually moving. Our pace wasn’t going to be sustainable, and we were going to have to back off (I don’t have a power meter on my bike, but Matt does, and we were regularly pushing 250 watts to go 10 mph).

Add to this that the first ten miles or so out of warden is… well it’s flat and there’s not a lot to see. There are some rock cuts but they are nothing in comparison to what we had seen the previous morning.

There were very few landmarks out there, it was mostly just us with a bunch of dirt, sagebrush, and a really rough ride. However, I did come across an old railroad spike that had been seriously weathered and what I’m pretty sure was a server farm just west of Johnson Road.

The railroad spike spent the rest of the trip in my handlebar bag.
Flat and bumpy forever.

We saw fields in the distance that have the same saturated green color that you find in the Palouse region, except these were relatively flat, so it’s like the “Palouse Light” which isn’t really that impressive if you’ve seen the real Palouse.

I was quickly losing patience , becoming frustrated with the pace. The faster I tried to ride, the bumpier it got, and the more my legs protested. I had no desire to burn all of my matches in the first twenty miles of the day, but I knew something. I knew that Lind was twenty miles from Warden, and I also knew that Lind had a coffee shop. Not like a diner, but like a legit coffeehouse with actual espresso. That became all I could think about. I just wanted to get to town.

It never ends.

I asked Matt if he had it in him so we could regroup and refuel. The answer was a definite yes, he also wanted to get to Lind because his chain was making a horrific grinding noise with each pedal stroke and there was a good chance that the market in town had some form of lube (my chain lube was in the car, on the way to Ralston).

The next ten miles hurt quite a bit. I remember the scenery changing as the trail turned north into the Lind Coulee, and I remember a small break in the trail surface where it smoothed out, only to return to divot infested sand far faster than I had wanted. I remember coming across our first locked gate, which opened on the first try with the provided combination, and I remember at least three missing trestles where the trail dips steeply, only to climb just as steeply back up to the grade on the other side. It’s honestly all a little hazy. My heart rate was peaking, my hands hurt, and my neck and shoulders had tensed up while I tried to maintain control over the pockmarked surface.

*In hindsight, Matt I both ended up in the top 10 on the Warden to Lind segment. I guess that’s what happens when I just want to be done with something.

Eventually we hit pavement which I knew was the detour for the missing trestle, meaning that Lind (and therefore espresso) was right around the bend, and as soon as I realized where we were, I also knew that regardless of how tired I was at that moment, I was definitely going to go see that bridge (or lack thereof).

A train passes through the gap of the missing trestle,
Such a shame that this trestle is gone.
Look at my bike leaning against stuff while Matt checks to see if he has service.

So anyway, photos of missing bridges are cool and all, but there was Espresso to be had. Matt and I pedaled hard into town, passing by a radar sign that displays the speed of oncoming cars. I definitely made sure I got up to the posted twenty-five miles per hour as we came into Lind.

Wheat-Lind Coffeehouse was exactly what I needed. I downed an iced 24oz vanilla latte and then sipped on a shot of espresso afterwards. They also stock a broad assortment of healthy snacks that’ll keep you going on the trail. Bonus: the owners are very nice folks who genuinely love coffee.

Coffee at last!

We swung by Jim’s Market and while Matt was stocking up on food (yes he did find some lube for his chain which made both of us happy that his chain was once again quiet), I got a text from Rachel saying that they were in Ralston.

Damn it. I had been so busy being mad at the trail surface and dreaming of coffee that I had lost track of time. We were supposed to be in Ralston in thirty minutes and Ralston was still fifteen miles away.

Matt and I headed back to the trail, which sits at the top of a nice little paved climb. We were in high spirits; full of espresso, food, and hope. We hit the trailhead and realized that we were on the very spot that the Wagons and Riders had camped the night before, and while there were plenty of divots, the surface of the trailhead was packed down quite nicely. I couldn’t help but smile, thinking about how we may still make good time to Ralston, but then came the first gate.

The first gate didn’t open, and I knew this might be a problem because I had read about others having the same issue. But lifting bikes over a gate isn’t a big deal, it was the trail surface beyond the gate that was the problem.

Milwaukee Road Ballast (this is actually the good stuff past Ralston).

The trail from Lind to Ralston is surfaced with chunky rocks (I’ve been told that this is basically the original Milwaukee Road ballast used when there were still tracks here, and that unlike other railroads, which used big, nasty, three inch rocks for their ballast, the Milwaukee preferred this smaller aggregate). We had encountered this surface before, and it was a little bumpy at times, but it was more than manageable with our tires. The surface itself wasn’t the problem. The issue here is that an army of horses had just spent the better part of the morning destroying it.

I have very few photos from this stretch. I just needed to get to Ralston and the trail felt like it was going to fight me the entire way. The horses may have chewed up the sandy surface between Warden and Lind, but they had absolutely wrecked the rocky surface between Lind and Ralston.

We passed a grain elevator just outside of town, a gate, and then came to the dip to get to the tunnels which go underneath Highway 395. This was WAY steeper than I had anticipated and as I descended down to the tunnels, all I could think about was having to climb back up the other side.

At least the surface at the bottom is hardpack

The climb ended up being every bit of a monster as I had anticipated. It had been freshly surfaced with crushed rock and it peaks out at twelve percent. Once at the top, the trail just continued on in a straight line, elevated from the surrounding landscape on a massive berm, with mile after mile of chewed up chunky rocks awaiting us.

Any effects from all of that coffee had already worn off at this point, and Matt and I just put our heads down and pedaled. At some point, we came across a farm road that crossed over to Lind-Ralston Road, which parallels the trail. We both stood there staring longingly at that beautifully smooth tarmac.

I was the first to make a move. Three whole pedal strokes and I was flying towards Ralston on what seemed to be the smoothest pavement I had ever ridden. I listened to the hum of my tires as I let the tailwind push me, and before I knew it, Matt and I were riding nineteen miles an hour towards our lunch stop. It was glorious.

Sweet, sweet, pavement.

A few miles on the road and we saw our first horse riders on the trail beside us. We rang our bells and waved, happy that we were moving so quickly with so little effort. Matt and I took our turns at the front, pushing faster and faster towards town. We passed by the Wagons and Riders camp (which consists of about sixty massive pickups and trailers) as we sped towards the park where Rach and her Dad were waiting for us with food and water.

Ralston isn’t so much a town as it is a handful of homes, a grain elevator, and a very quaint park, which is like an oasis out there. The park has water and tent pads and would be a wonderful place to camp on the trail (the grass is quite nice).

Ralston has a very nice park.

Rach and Paul had sandwiches and snacks waiting for us and we refilled our bottles. As we ate, we went over the plan for the rest of the day. We still had to cross Cow Creek.

*I should note here that I’m sure that the stretch from Warden to Ralston is okay later in the year once the horse hoof divots are filled in, I’m simply relaying my personal experience.

The swing set is a nice touch.

After a short rest, Matt and I headed back out. With a support vehicle, we had no need to take the long detour to Ritzville around Cow Creek where a missing trestle creates a significant gap in the trail. We had all the water and food we could need, so we had planned on taking the new Cow Creek Detour which officially opened to public use this year.

*I had been chomping at the bit to check out this route as I know a few folks who helped build it, and I had had a conversation with the landowner last year about whether it would be open and available to us for this ride. I had been told that while it wouldn’t necessarily be easy-going, it would be a far faster option (and probably more scenic) than the long way around Ritzville.

The family that owns the land has been kind enough to work with the Palouse To Cascades Trail Coalition, John Wayne Wagons and Riders, and Washington State Parks to create this detour through their grazing lands. So instead of a twenty-plus mile detour on rural farm roads, you get a five mile adventure across Cow Creek.

*I cannot stress enough how amazing this detour is to have for the trail. It goes without saying that anyone who uses this detour needs to respect the boundaries, stay on trail, and leave absolutely no trace.

And what an adventure it would turn out to be. The trail heads east out of Ralston, and while it’s the same rocky surface that we had been on previously in the day, the horses had yet to be here, so it was smooth sailing to the detour gate. Once inside, there are white posts in the field that direct you where to go, and there are definite jeep/dozer tracks that the white posts are following (they might be hard to see with all of the grass and flowers, but they are definitely there).

Just follow the white posts

A lot of the white posts had been knocked down, so we were just kind of following the rutted tracks until we found the next one. It’s pretty easy once you figure out what the path is supposed to look and feel like.

The land here is an absolutely vast expanse, littered with basalt formations in the distance. It has a way of making you feel very, very tiny.

So, what’s Cow Creek like? It’s a full-on adventure that may be more suited for a hardtail mountain bike but it was well within Matt and I’s skill level and we had an absolute blast. We couldn’t help but laugh every time we had to stop and figure out where the trail was heading.

The rutted path consists of soft sand mixed with very large rocks, and the detour is in no way flat. It curves and drops and climbs and curves some more. We had so much fun whipping our bikes around rocks and descending blindly through knee-high grass. I would definitely do this again, it was like a cyclocross course without all the mud and run-ups.

There are definitely cows present, and it didn’t take long to come across a few, but unlike the herd from the previous day these ladies wanted nothing to do with people, and they would trot away shortly after seeing us.

You can see the double track path near the middle of the field
A cow on the left, the path on the right.
Endless horizons.
That’s it. That’s Cow Creek. All of this trouble with detours is for that little creek.
Exiting the Cow Creek Detour. We came from somewhere over there.

The exit from Cow Creek requires a nice climb to a final gate and then a quick ride down a nice dirt road before connecting back to the trail. Feeling refreshed after such a fun break from the trail, we pedaled happily through Marengo which was a siding on the old railroad and is now only home to a lonely grain elevator. There’s a very cool concrete arch bridge here where the trail crosses over an active rail line.

Milwaukee Road Bridges were famous for their engineering and use of concrete instead of wooden beams.
Headed east.

Shortly past Marengo, there was a definite chill that started to creep into the air. The clouds had been amassing all day, and the wind was definitely picking up behind us. We knew there was a chance of rain later in the evening, but we were hoping to beat it. We pushed harder knowing we didn’t have that much further to go, and as we passed under the Columbia Plateau Trail, we started to feel the first drops.

The Columbia Plateau Trail passes over the Palouse to Cascades Trail between Marengo and Paxton.

Now, this is where things get interesting. The rain came on in the form of light showers, but the temperature was still in the low sixties with a tailwind that was really pushing us hard. I knew that our turnoff would be at Paxton (a former railroad depot), and while both Matt and I’s GPS file had that same turn, I had updated mine to take a different route through Escure Ranch to the campground. This meant that as soon as we turned off of the trail, Matt would be riding blindly and would just have to trust that I knew where I was going.

Now keep in mind that while I had heavily researched Escure Ranch as much as I could, the fact remains that I had never actually been there, and roads (if that’s what we want to call them) can look very different on Google earth than they do in real life.

We cut off the trail onto a farm road that Google Maps calls George Knott Road, however there are no signs indicating that this is anything other than a potholed dirt path that leads… well it leads somewhere. The first left turn took us on to Breeden Road, which on Google Earth appears to be a decently maintained dirt farm road. However, what Breeden Road appears to be, and what it actually is are two very different things.

In reality, it’s a poorly maintained jeep track that is nothing more than two deep ruts cut into the ground with a very high center. Fist-sized rocks litter the path and clumps of bunchgrass hide buried boulders the size of human heads. The road winds lazily along the landscape as it climbs and dips with no regard to maintaining any semblance of a comfortable grade.

Oh, remember how I said it had started to rain? So there we were, white-knuckling down this old battered road getting soaked while Matt continually asked me if I’m “really-really sure” that we’re going the right way. Meanwhile, I was smiling the entire time because the ruts are so deep that they create beautiful berms around each corner, allowing you to hook around the high point at speed (I’m sorry for the lack of pictures on this stretch but I was trying not to crash and it was raining).

*I said it while we were crossing Cow Creek, and I’ll say it again here: Who needs a mountain bike?

Shortly after a rocky descent with a hairpin curve at the bottom, we saw the reason that I had changed the course: Breeden Falls.

one hundred percent worth it.
Look at my bike leaning against stuff.
The concrete bridge over Rock Creek feels way out of place here.

I’m never one to miss a good waterfall, and this was a nice treat after such a long day. After a few photos, we continued on Breeden Road to Jordan Knott Road (which does have a sign and is actually a well maintained gravel road) as the rain really started to dump on us. Heads down, we pedaled hard to get to camp and a few miles later we were rewarded with our final descent into the campground.

Escure Ranch did not disappoint.

Escure Ranch is a sprawling old sheep and cattle ranch covering roughly twenty square miles with the trail running along its northern border. It sits in the Rock Creek Coulee which was carved out during the ice age floods. It’s a spectacular landscape that is now managed by the Bureau of Land Management. It’s free to camp here, and it’s first come-first served. There is a vault toilet, five picnic tables and three fire rings. There is also a large covered shelter with a picnic table which is where we pitched camp for the night.

*Escure Ranch is a beautiful example of Washington’s channeled scablands, and we lucked out to catch it in such a state of green. The spring rains have definitely left their mark out here. This is a place I want to visit again and explore further.

It wasn’t long after setting up camp that the rain stopped, and we were able to enjoy our evening camping. We grilled burgers, had a campfire, and the clouds cleared just enough to get a nice sunset over the basalt cliffs.

Looking back towards camp from the ranch road
The old ranch grounds are open to exploration.
Rock Creek
Exploring the ranch
As the rain dissipated, we were treated to a wonderful sunset in the scablands.
You can click here to see the Strava activity and route.

Go To Day 4

Published by joeski

Look Fast. Ride Slow

2 thoughts on “Palouse To Cascades Trail. Day 3. Warden to Escure Ranch

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