Washington: In the Horse Heaven Hills

Washington: In the Horse Heaven Hills
If you've never heard of Bickleton, Washington, don't feel bad; you're not alone. Little more than a general store, a tavern, and a 90-student K-12 school, the town lazily straddles a quiet county road (the grandly named Bickleton Highway) in the baked brown hills above the Columbia River. However, in the brilliantly plumed realms of ornithology, Bickleton can claim a share of fame: it's the Bluebird Capital of  -  nothing less than  -  the World!

Planning a ride from Portland with a friend, I decide to include three of my favorite roads: Washington 14, which parallels the Columbia to Lyle; the Klickitat Canyon Road to Goldendale; and the Bickleton Highway through the Horse Heaven Hills to Mabton.

Swimming upstream

Portland's official nickname is the Rose City, but with good reason it's also known as the City of Bridges. Planted as it is at the confluence of the Willamette and the Columbia, Portland has ten permanent crossings spanning the Willamette, plus the I-5 and I-205 bridges across the Columbia. Chris and I must cross two bridges from downtown to get to the Washington side. I'm riding one of motorcycling's great all-round machines, a DL650 V-Strom (the "wee-strom") on loan from American Suzuki, and Chris pilots a BMW K1200GT. We join I-405 a few short blocks from the Vintage Plaza and emerge from the shadows of Portland's office towers into a blue-sky July morning.

The air is cool and fresh, thanks to Portland's position west of the Cascades; but by midday, we'll be east of the chain in the pizza oven of Washington's central valley  -  a northern outpost of the Sonoran Desert, where the Evergreen State is usually a toasty brown.

Sweeping along the Horse Heaven Hills on the Bickleton Highway.

It's easy to miscue the numerous on-ramps, exit ramps and lane shifts needed to get us from I-405 to I-5 to US 14, but we roll unscathed onto the Columbia River's north shore, mixing with the commuter traffic to Washougal. From here, the traffic on 14 thins and the highway swings inland, climbing through a dense canopy and abruptly emerging to dramatic views of the hazy blue Columbia spread below. There's a narrow pullout too slender for a car or motor home, but Chris and I can park our bikes safely off the road to spend a few placid moments appreciating the scenery. Further east, though, the view disappears as 14 swings into the trees again, descending to the river.

Bonneville's Triumph

Captain Benjamin Bonneville of the U.S. Army is credited with pioneering much of the Oregon Trail that early settlers traveled, so it's no surprise the dam and lock system we're soon riding past is named for him. Built between 1933-7, the huge concrete span retains a vast reservoir. This is an area where the Columbia squeezes through a gap in the Cascade Range, focusing western breezes into a roaring wind whipping the reservoir's surface. Windsurfers call it "The Gorge," and scads of brightly colored sails skim across the water as we ride by.

In Lyle, turning north on Washington 142, we leave the Columbia behind. The Klickitat River has scoured a broad canyon through the hills, now showing dirty brown terrain in the gaps between the thinning trees. We're trading the lush landscape of the Cascades' western slopes for the dry Horse Heaven Hills. As we swing alongside the winding Klickitat, the canyon narrows and the road gets twistier before firing us onto a golden plateau of swaying wheat. Over my left shoulder, Mt. Adams's snowy crest gleams above the heat haze.