I won the lottery—and I didn’t even know I was playing. Growing up in Europe where there is usually another town every couple of miles, I wasn’t aware that I could ride for 75 miles without seeing a single gas station. In Washington, I don’t need the additional excitement. Two beautiful passes offer enough adrenaline for the day. They take me via Highway 20 across the North Cascade Mountains, from the lush green western side of Washington to the “dry side.” I came here for a reason. This less populated part of the state offers some of the finest off-road riding in the country.
I’m very happy to find a sign of civilization. The town of Winthrop, with its wooden boardwalks and houses, is a little gem that reminds visitors of the Old West. Since coming down in altitude, the temperature has risen within a short time from about 65 to 90 degrees. But my thirst is quenched and all provisions have been replenished. I continue southeast beside Methow River until my map shows a forestry road through Cold Creek Valley, past 6,213-foot Fox Peak. After a hefty climb, the route continues along the top of the ridge until I arrive at Cooper Mountain. On the ride up, the views were stunning, but now they are just incredible. Right below me is Lake Chelan, and in the distance the Columbia River, my next goal. After the high-altitude workout on my KTM 990 Adventure, I enjoy the cruise on asphalt along the largest river flowing into the Pacific from North America. Forty-five miles along its western shore take me past Wenatchee to Cashmere on the clear Wenatchee River.
Tonight I’m looking to camp at a higher and cooler altitude. The ascent via Mission Creek is very promising. After a short bit of pavement a gravel road lets me climb steadily up to 6,000 feet. The temperature drops accordingly, to a pleasant 65 degrees. That’s not my only joy. When the scenery at Devils Gulch can’t seem to get any better, I find a perfectly even spot to pitch my tent—million-dollar view included.
A sunny early fall morning keeps my spirits high from the first moment I open my tent. The light is so beautiful that I forget breakfast and continue riding. At pretty Haney Meadow I manage to stop and eat a granola bar. I stay for about 20 minutes, but none of the elk, which are supposedly often seen here, appear. The upcoming road over Table Mountain compensates. Views get better and better until a curvy asphalt road takes me down into Green Canyon and on to Ellensburg where I finally catch up with my breakfast schedule. Rising heat and city traffic encourage only a brief visit. Crossing Umtanum Creek Canyon through the riverbed brings a short relief from the high temperatures; the barren and 4,000-foot-high Umtanum Ridge doesn’t. Back down at Wenas Creek I hope for a swimming hole but am unlucky. Following Evans Canyon and riding over Cleman Mountain offers another chance. I arrive at Little Naches River and follow State Route 410 upstream. Another four miles on FR-19 takes me even deeper into the forest. On the way to Longmire Campground, I can tell paradise is close. From a bridge I spot a swimming hole with a sandy beach. There is even a 20-foot-high rock to jump off of for additional excitement.
Small Town Comfort
Perfectly refreshed, I attempt the next climb: Bethel Ridge. It starts at Rattlesnake Canyon. The name tells you all you need to know about the current temperature. A steep dirt road takes me higher and higher, when it gets really technical. Football-sized stones provide a workout for the big twin and even more for the rider. The reward is worth every drop of sweat. A pine forest and dry grassland provide a diversified route toward the highlight, a vertical drop of a couple hundred feet, the path winding more or less along its edge. At one point there is a breathtaking view of two volcanoes, Mount Adams and Mount Rainier. In the plains about 3,000 feet below me I can clearly see the city of Yakima. But daylight is fading and I can’t go any farther. I have to pitch my tent right here, even if the ground is rocky. Luckily, sunset and sunrise keep all of their promises.
Motorcycle & Gear
2012 KTM 990 Adventure
The descent starts right from my campground. This section of the road is called “The Microwave.” Soon I shall know why. It leads through pitch-black lava stones on a southerly slope. The early morning temperatures are fine here, but I guess from midday on you get cooked. At noon I’m far from cooking, rather enjoying the shores of Clear Lake, which lives up to its name. Shortly afterward—just at the moment I need it—I get my dose of comfort. Packwood, WA, has everything a traveler needs. This small-town world feels perfect. The lady in the grocery store greets me with “Good day, love.” In the Butter Butte cafe a cheerful girl serves me 16 delicious ounces of cappuccino. At the tourist office I ask for off-road possibilities in the area. The enthusiastic employee immediately spreads out at least half a dozen loops and hands me a well laid-out Forest Service map. In exchange, I listen to the sorrows he has about his beloved town. “First they closed the sawmill. Then the forestry administration went to a bigger town. Now they even want to close the primary school. The only prospect left is tourism.” But that’s a very good one, as I shall find out in the next couple of days.