So Let’s go to Ellensburg!
What began as a seemingly ridiculous plan over beers at a dining room table in 2014 has slowly grown into a thirty+ person adventure over the years.
In 2015 I made this journey with one friend, and now every summer I lead a group on the same adventure, and every year, it seems to get bigger and better.
You can do the same ride, or a totally different ride, it’s entirely up to you. I believe that the true beauty of gravel, touring, bikepacking, etc, lies in the planning and the journey. The destination is the goal, but it’s never the best part. You just need a few friends, a good weekend, and the desire to suffer together.
The ride starts at Rattlesnake Lake and goes straight to Ellensburg on the Palouse to Cascades Trail. That’s 80 miles of gravel across the Cascade mountains, through the Upper Yakima River Canyon, and into the golden fields of Kittitas County.
We stay the night in Ellensburg and we credit card tour, which means that we book a block of rooms and sleep in real beds with showers and hot tubs. This accomplishes two things: Day two will be much easier after a good night sleep, and with no tent or sleeping bag, you can pack light on your bike.
Day two is riding 80 miles of gravel through unrelenting headwinds back to your car.
This is a self supported ride. You will need a bike that is capable of riding the gravel and carrying your stuff. You also need to be capable of riding that bike over these distances and terrain.
You will get dusty, dirty, sweaty, and probably sunburned, all while you experience the beauty of crossing the mountains at bike speed!
Have I convinced you that this will be fun? Great. Let’s get you ready to go.
Things you’ll need.
A Discover Pass. The PTCT is a state park. You need a Discover Pass to park at the trailhead overnight. The gate gets locked at night, and while I’ve never had an issue, I wouldn’t leave anything of value visible in your car.
A mechanically sound bike that’s capable of making the journey.
Flat bars, drop bars… whatever. Just know that 80 miles on gravel takes longer than it does on pavement, and you’ll probably be facing a brutal headwind on the return trip.
Most of the gravel is hard pack but there are some sections of softer stuff where a larger tire is nice to have. I recommend a minimum of 38mm. If you can fit bigger than 38mm then you are golden. I also highly recommend tubeless tires. This isn’t singletrack. You don’t need super aggressive, knobby MTB tires, in fact, a mountain bike is overkill on this ride and suspension is not necessary. You don’t need crazy low gearing. There are no real hills.
You will need a bright light that will mount to your bike. We go through a total of five tunnels, and while most are short, there are at least three that are long enough to require light. The Snoqualmie tunnel is 2.3 miles long, and the darkness inside is all encompassing. Without a light, you will become disoriented almost immediately and lose all sense of direction.
You will need to be able to carry your stuff, so either a rack and panniers or frame bags will work. Frame bags are better, because panniers stick out from your bike, and on day two when you’re riding into the wind, you’ll absolutely hate your panniers.
*Seriously, they will be like sails and you will curse the ease of packing and convenience of rack placement compared to the horror of riding into an 18 mph headwind with them.
What do you need in your bags?
spare tubes, tire levers, multi-tool, pump, patch kit, quick link, etc. You need to be responsible for your bike. There are sections with little to no cell service and vehicles are not allowed on the trail, so a mechanical failure could have you walking for a very long time. It’s also a really good idea on a trip like this to have a spare cleat and derailleur hanger as well. Ask me how I know.
A BIKE LOCK:
To lock up your bike when you stop somewhere in Ellensburg.
There aren’t a lot of places to stop on the trail. You can stop in Cle Elum and ride into town for a re-supply, but it’s best to just bring what you need. You will need sugary snacks and carb heavy stuff that’ll keep you going. The Easton trailhead is the half way point (40 miles), and is a perfect place to stop and eat lunch. There is a toilet there, several picnic tables, and a spigot with drinking water as well.
There are several places to refill bottles on the trail.
Hyak- Mile 20
Easton- Mile 40
Cle Elum- Mile 50
Thorp- Mile 68
In the past, I have done it with two 24oz bottles but that was really pushing the limits of thirst. Three bottles is the magic number. Or if you’re a Camelback person, that’ll be fine too, as long as you’re fine with wearing a backpack on gravel for eighty miles in the heat.
I also recommend some type of water additive (Nuun, Gu, etc). You will be sweating on the east side and keeping salts in your body will prevent cramping.
Sunscreen- Don’t get cooked.
Toothbrush, toothpaste, etc.
The trail has nice pit toilets all along it so you don’t need to pack TP.
You may want hand sanitizer, though, as that is not always available.
A little First-aid kit: Gravel sucks if you crash in it.
Advil or Tylenol or whatever… trust me.
Chamois Cream. DON’T risk saddle sores.
Any lady products that may be required.
Recreational flasks and/or greenery for mid ride celebrations and victory laps. 🙂
Something to wear in a hotel hot tub. A basic change of clothes to eat in a restaurant (shorts, T-shirt, whatever…it’s casual.) Cycling clothes to wear on day two (Another option is to wash your kit in the hotel and wear it again on day two).
You will also want a light, packable jacket or arm-warmers for the Snoqualmie tunnel. It will be 36-40 degrees inside regardless of the temperature outside. The first twenty miles on day one can also be foggy, cool, and possibly raining, as it it is on the west side in the Cascades.
So what’s stopping you?
Ride to Ellensburg and have a victory beer at Iron Horse Brewing. The hardest part of the trip is riding back the next day. If you’d like to know what to expect on the trail, you can read my guide to the westside.