Washington Spring Rides: Cold, Soggy Fun!

This is actually a trail report about Skookum Flats and Ranger Creek… sort of.

And a bike review.

And a strange story about riding alone in the deep, dark woods in Washington in the spring and the love/hate relationship I have with riding trails in the Pacific Northwest.

Most of all, it’s a story about making yourself ride despite the weather–in order to clear your head and think about what really matters in life.

The forests of Washington dwarf trail users and offer a variety of challenges

Cold plops of water hit me in the head under the leaky roof at McDonalds that I foolishly trusted to provide some shelter from the cold drizzle. For the first time in a long time, I questioned my dedication to this sport. What started out as an optimistic-hearted attempt to report on spring riding in the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington state evolved into an exercise in futility. That figures… I mean, who rides bikes when it’s raining anyway?

“The trails are used to it and people ride here year-round,” I reminded myself, trying to drum up weak enthusiasm. After all, I had seen some signs of mountain bike life once or twice in the past week: muddy trail bikes draped over the back of an old pickup coming back from what was certainly “spring training” for adept North Shore riders. “No wonder they’re good, if they ride in this crap most of the year,” the rational part of me shot back, stepping out into the rain now, knowing that I had already convinced myself to go ride alone in the wet, two hours from my hotel, on a trail that had virtually no cell reception or no way to seek help if I needed it. Yeah, I broke a few rules that day… but I had come here for a reason, and I wasn’t turning back.

Ben Wise, at Crystal Mountain

One of my closest friends, Ben, used to live near Seattle, and he is the person I could usually rely on to co-indulge in this type of tomfoolery… along with his crazier brother Jeremy. In fact, one of the last times I saw Ben alive was near Skookum Flats, convincing him to try snowboarding for the first time (at Crystal Mountain), just a year after Jeremy was killed in Afghanistan–a place that would eventually claim both of them (you can read about their story here). They weren’t exactly my riding buddies, just my “try anything with” buddies. Heck, they were practically my brothers, and I came to this isolated part of the world just to get away and think about what they meant to me, and how much I missed their friendship. Weather is sort of irrelevant at that point.

The roots from a felled tree illustrate the scale of Skookum Flats

Having traveled to Seattle and the surrounding areas in the spring or fall several times for work, I’ve explored a few trails despite less-than-ideal riding conditions during these fringe months. Earlier that week, I tried to ride Green Mountain (for the second time) on the Kitsap Peninsula, though my shoddy rental bike taught me that the strongest will cannot overcome lack of basic bicycle maintenance. Having completed this trail a year earlier (and it was a memorable experience), I found myself forcing this ride despite a drivetrain snafu, the world’s worst frame geometry, and virtually no brakes.  It was the first time in a long time I didn’t have any fun on a mountain bike.

That brings me to one of the few things I actually don’t like about Washington: finding affordable places to rent a decent mountain bike. Unable to bring my own ride on this business trip, I called more than 10 shops searching for the best rental deal. The problem is, only two of them rented mountain bikes at all: Montlake in Seattle and DasRadHaus in Leavenworth. Both were too far for me to drive, and/or were more than I was willing to spend for the time that I needed them (though both shops were very friendly). Lesson learned: never again come to Washington without your own bike. Check.

Wet roots are challenging expert-level features on this intermediate trail.
Wet roots are challenging expert-level features on this intermediate trail.

Despite what I convinced myself of before I embarked on this trip, not having a bike here really bothered me: Washington indisputably has some excellent singletrack, and a lot of it can be ridden when it’s wet because the landscape absorbs water like a sponge. Literally. In fact, IMBA has awarded the Epic moniker to both Skookum Flats, and most recently to the Plains of Abraham (Ape Canyon), which was still under a good amount of snow during my travels.

In addition to the IMBA Epics, Singletracks lists 121 trails for Washington in its database. Of those, 46 are categorized as “Intermediate,” and 6 are “advanced.” What is surprising is how many of those 121 trails are “unassigned.” What is even more surprising is how little information there is on most of the trails. Many of the trails listed have no photos, vague directions, minimal trail descriptions, and very few reviews.

FYI, I’m determined to help change that. The problem for visitors like me (and local riders too, I’m sure) is that many of these trails are really spread out across the state. Knowing which trails are wet, under snow, or too hard/easy is a challenge without any good trail beta. Washington is indescribably beautiful and remote: the inlet, island, and mountain geography make it difficult to decide which trails to ride. We rely on riders/readers like you to submit photos and trail reviews and help everyone out. So, hey, thanks in advance!

Skookum Flats is impregnated with rocks and roots as it parallels the White River.
Skookum Flats is impregnated with rocks and roots as it parallels the White River.

IMBA has recently taken a stronger interest in Washington. It helped develop and promote the bikumentary “Pedal Driven,” a story about local “hooligan” mountain bikers riding rogue trails who upset hikers, but began working with the USFS to develop sustainable, IMBA-approved, multi-use trails around Leavenworth. The co-op efforts turned this Bavarian-themed tourist magnet on its heels, and now the town actually embraces mountain biking as a form of tourism revenue and recreation. Local riders and shops have been working like busy trail gnomes to cultivate a plethora of singletrack to make your legs ache and your lungs scream. About 2 1/2 hours east of Seattle, Leavenworth is evolving into a mountain bike destination.

Unfortunately for me, I did not have the time to visit it, but used my day off to scope out Skookum Flats and Ranger Creek. Here’s the twist: the only other bike at the shop that I had access to was a brand-new Cannondale Quick CX cross bike–complete with a head shock, reflectors, and yes, a kickstand–which was in better shape and 10lbs lighter than the aforementioned hardtail I suffered on… so I eagerly claimed the cyclocross bike!

Navigating a nimble cross bike through this sea of loamy stone required focus and poise, but was a blast!

Finding the Skookum trailhead proved to be challenging (I’ve since updated the database), and there were only three previous trail reviews for what IMBA once considered to be the best ride in the state. However, a local mountain biker named Paul I encountered on Hwy 410 East, whose pup “Addy” I almost flattened as it galloped off-leash in the middle of the road, helpufully pointed out the start of the trail at the Buck Creek parking area. We rode together for about a mile until he suffered a catastrophic derailleur/hanger mechanical, and sadly had to turn back. I would have held him up anyway–I took lots of pictures, and stopped often to do some ruminating.

Bridges and platforms cross running water, but some wading is required.
Bridges and platforms cross running water, but some wading is required.

Skookum isn’t what most folks have in mind when they think of the word “epic,” especially when compared to trails like Monarch Crest, FATS, or Telegraph trails. It’s only about six miles long, running along highway 410, as an out-and-back. This is somewhat disappointing, but what this trail lacks in distance or variety it makes up for in scenery. It is, in a word, breathtaking.

The loamy soil is littered with rocks and roots of every size, as the singletrack undulates along the banks of the White River. Enormous trees, green with moss and ferns, cast an eerie emerald hue that is a bit spooky if you are alone under dark platinum spring skies. There are short punchy climbs, sheer drops, rock gardens, tree obstacles, and some smooth rolling sections in the middle. I felt very small in this forest. Riding the CX bike made me feel like a beginner again, concentrating to keep the hard, skinny urban tires on the wet roots, and using my body english to compensate for the bike’s lack of suspension. Truthfully, on a trail bike, in late summer, I’d ride this trail back and forth a dozen times. But, as I quickly neared the other end of Skookum (six miles go by fast), I decided to head up Hwy 410 with hopes to ascend FS 72 and descend the gnarly Ranger Creek.

Tight switchbacks grace the climb on Ranger Creek

I missed FS 72, but found the small parking area at the start/finish of Ranger Creek, so I decided to climb it as far as the bike and weather would allow. If you know this area, I only made it to the falls before turning around, but it was absolutely amazing: steep pitches, super-tight switchbacks, and lots of rocks and exposure. I can’t wait to return to this trail in drier weather with a legit mountain bike and enduro fanny pack.

It was near dark, raining, about 42 degrees, and I had been riding in shorts on a cross bike with plastic flat pedals and sneakers for 4 1/2 hours. It was time to get warm and have a coffee, and a beer… in that order. The ‘cross bike did great, and was nimble on the climbs and absorbed just enough of the bumps that I rarely had to get off and walk either up or down… and that’s saying a lot for a ‘cross bike on trails like these.

Nevertheless, on the short 2 mile jaunt back to the car along the road, after 3600 feet of vertical climbing, I bonked, and realizing I’d eaten nothing the entire 19-mile ride because I enjoyed the scenery so much, I pulled over to scarf down an Odwalla bar and hydrate. As I stood in the stinging rain looking up the canyon at the aromatic fir trees, I thought, “this is Washington. This is why people come here to ride. It is fantastic no matter what.”  My head cleared, my heart lightened, amd I suddenly missed my family very deeply, so I pressed on hard and the car came quickly.

The fast, tight, bumpy ride on the Ranger Creek descent

I admit, I pretty much did everything wrong on this ride: bike choice, nutrition, clothing, riding alone, etc….  but I did the best I could with what I had, and went out there for a reason–and my stubbornness prevailed. After all, you never know if you will ever be able to get back to places like these again: your path in life may take you elsewhere, or end abruptly. So ignore the crazy spring weather and go ride your bike, and enjoy every minute of i: because not everyone has the means or ability to do so.

Your turn: have you ridden in Washington? What are your favorite trails? If so, write a review and post some photos!! 🙂

 

 

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