Gifford Pinchot National Forest / Southern Washington State:
Motorcycle Quest for Gravel

  July 2012
I'm still not a backrest
2 1/2 days, 322 miles.
Stefan and Jayne's July 2012 motorcycle trip throughout
Gifford Pinchot National Forest / Southern Washington State.

Our route July 2012Last year, on our way back from Seattle, we toured around Mt. Adams a bit, including staying at the beautiful Lower Falls campground, and had vowed to return to the area for a weekend motorcycle trip, since it's is so close to us. July presented the opportunity. When we were there in 2011, I'd been on my Honda Nighthawk; now, I'd be on my KLR.

And our goal for this trip wasn't just to see lovely sites and enjoy the ride; I wanted to find some gravel roads to practice riding on. If I want to see even some of the sites that adventure motorcycle travelers cherish, I've got to be able to ride off-road, at least up to a point. I'll never be able good enough to do a back country route - but I want to go to ghost towns and not be panicked during the entire ride. I want to feel like I can ride to charming towns in Latin America or Mexico and navigate the gravel with a relative amount of confidence. But, no, I'm not ever going to do the Dakar.

I tried to microblog from the road during this trip, but it didn't work, as you can see; what's in parenthesis is supposed to be the subject of the microblog, and then the rest is supposed to be the content. I don't have a smart phone - I have what's called a feature phone, meaning I can do a very limited amount of web browsing; I was hoping this text messaging system would integrate with my blog but, alas, it didn't. It would be so nice to have regular employment so I could afford a smart phone... the hope and search goes on... anyway, either subscribe to my Twitter feed or like me on Facebook (different from friending) if you want short updates from the road for future trips.

The trip was terrific, and much needed, as we had to give up our long-planned June motorcycle trip. We were supposed to attend Burning Moto Man, June 22-24, 2012, but at the last minute, Stefan had to work. I was super heart-broken over it. It feels like not much has gone right since we moved to the USA, and these trips are our everything. This July trip to southern Washington wasn't really a make-up trip for missing the June gathering; we had already planned to do a July trip. But it became even more important when that June trip was canceled. 

We didn't drive out until 3 p.m. on Friday, two hours later than planned. Yet we still went 119 miles that day and made amazing time, without feeling rushed: I wanted to make it all the way to Washington state to camp that day and, indeed, we made it, without knocking ourselves out. I printed out this very helpful map of camp sites from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest web site (which also has fantastic road condition information), so we could decide where to camp on a whim (since we don't have a smart phone, we wouldn't know how close we were to a camp ground otherwise). We took Interstate 205 to the Estacada / Mt. Hood exit, to 26 around the mountain, onto 35 and through Hood River, over that toll bridge that I hate (if you have ridden a motorcycle over it, you know why).

Then we headed east on 14 in Washington state -  a road I love - and a right on Cook-Underwood road. Stefan missed the turn to Willard Road, and stopped to ask some people on the side of the road watching the river if they knew where it was. They turned out to be helpful Kiwis (from New Zealand) - but, of course, is there any other kind? We got back to Willard Road, and a turn here and there got us to Moss Creek Campground. 

Stefan set up the tent, then I got the air mattress blown up. Then I started cooking: supper was baked beans, with fried turkey bacon mixed in (cooked half the package and saved the rest for breakfast), served with corn bread that I had baked that morning. It was something new for us, actually - we'll be doing it again!

At the Moss Creek Campground in Washington state, USAWe love national forest campgrounds. I think they are my favorite of all campground. Private campgrounds tend to pack tents right up against each other, allow RVs to run generators into the night, and have too many kids. National park campgrounds have flush toilets and are usually really near interesting sites or visitor centers, but you have to get there by 4 on Thursday, Friday or Saturday to maybe get a tent site. State parks in the USA are fantastic - they usually don't pack campers in tightly, and often have showers - but, again, often really hard to get a site on the weekends in high season without arriving early. But national forest campgrounds are plentiful, usually quiet, usually have drinkable water in facets (but rarely flush toilets), are almost always in scenic locations, and usually have spaces available even quite late.  

Moss Creek Campground is a lovely area, and I really like the campground - the pit toilets are clean, the sites are well kept, and the river is beautiful. But despite there being camp hosts, I still had to be the one to ask a group of campers to be quiet after 10 p.m. It was a group of about six, high schoolers or 20 somethings. I could have tolerated the loud talking and laughing - and occasional screaming (yes, screaming) - in the distance, but a group of girls decided to walk over to the camp site right next to ours for a late-night giggle fest. I'm so weary of being the bad guy, of being the one that has to ask people to please quiet down so I can sleep - why are camp hosts so reluctant to do their jobs? And before you ask: yes, I wear ear plugs, which I hate - I would like to be able to hear something or someone coming into our camp site in the night. Wearing ear plugs leaves me in a very vulnerable position. Plus, I'm CAMPING. In the WILDERNESS. Where's the quiet I cam for?

It was very warm - hot even. I started off the evening on top of my sleeping bag, but at some point in the night, it cooled off enough that I got in. But I was really glad that I brought no warm clothes at all - it was a gamble that paid off.

Turkey bacon for breakfast!The next day, we slept until 9 a.m. - which is later than we like to sleep, as the best riding is early in the day, but we just have really needed that 11 hours of sleep.

That morning, after breakfast, I got a pleasant surprise: when I asked Stefan if my breakfast was good, I was ready for his usual, "Mmmm Hmmm." Instead, I got, "That was the best breakfast you've ever made while camping." Which is more words than he ever says before 10 a.m., actually. What did I cook? First, I fried the rest of the turkey bacon in our beloved Trangia Non Stick Pot with our MSR XGK EX multi fuel stove, put it aside, and in the same pot, fried four eggs and an entire diced tomato. I added a little seasoning -  pepper, salt and paprika. I guess I channeled my inner Kentuckian. No question that this must now be the breakfast our first morning out.

And before you ask: yes, we bring a small cooler, which can be strapped to one of Stefan's boxes or can be put into one of his panniers. We also have a cool sack from REI, that's supposed to keep things cool, but Stefan prefers using it for all our cookware (other than pots) and spices. It's so nice to be able to keep some things cool - it allows us to have meat, eggs and milk at some meals, which, when you are tent camping via motorcycles, feels like luxuries.

We packed up and headed out - me oh-so-nervous about going around the camping loop because, often, that can be the most challenging part of the trip: dirt and gravel road full of pot holes and trenches, sharp turns, steep inclines, kids and dogs darting about, vehicles pulling in and out - sometimes, I think I should just focus on driving around national forest campgrounds in order to improve my adventure motorcycle riding skills.

We decided to head for a road we did on our last trip; we'd go National Forest Road 66, also known as South Prairie Road, which is almost all gravel - but just 10 miles or less. That would bring us to NF 24, also known as Carson Guler Road and 141, which is mostly paved  - it goes by the turn offs for the Ice Cave and the Natural Bridge (those short roads are not paved, FYI). Last year, we'd gone the other direction from Trout Lake, and I had been on the Nighthawk.

Just before we got to the gravel part of the road on NF 66, I got what I hoped was a positive omen for the rest of the trip: a coyote pup darted across the road, far enough in front of me so I didn't panic but close enough so that I got a good look. We stopped there and took a short break, so Stefan could give me last minute advice. His primary advice for gravel: do everything smoothly, stay in the tracks that cars have made, avoid the places where it gets thick, and don't use my front break. 

When we had gone on this road in the other direction last year in September, there had been places where the gravel was quite thick, and there had also been a lot of Latino families living in tents and cars along the road - I think they were there to harvest mushrooms and berries to sell elsewhere. This time, there was no new gravel, and the only families camped along the road were recreational. The road is just 8 or so miles of gravel, and it was quite manageable - even with all of the many potholes, I averaged just over 20 miles an hour, which is very good for me. No cars behind us (hurrah!) and there was plenty of room on my side of the road the two times a truck came in the opposite direction.

We turned off onto NF 24, which is gravel for just a bit, then made a right on a bridge and headed towards Trout Lake. There are some pit toilets nearby, and visitor's information about Peterson Prairie (there's a camp ground across the street, and a cabin you can rent); I felt the need to stop and celebrate. While we were standing there, a guy on a very shiny Harley went by, headed towards where we'd been. Stefan said, "He'll turn around. He'll be back. No way is he going on that gravel." And he was right. Harley guy stopped, and turned out to be super nice. In the course of our conversation, we found out that he had done a car road trip back in the 70s in Eastern Europe, including Bosnia, and longed to go back. We told him, GO ASAP - we loved it in Bosnia.

We headed on to Trout Lake and decided we didn't need lunch, after our huge breakfast - just smoothies. The diner at the gas station had milk shakes instead, and we were too lazy to walk around to the other side for the smoothies. The shakes were delicious and, as usual, there were lots of motorcyclists stopped. We asked a local sitting at our table outside for some road information, and he said, "You know, the ranger station is just down the road and would have the most up-to-date information." Duh - why do I continually forget that ranger stations have the best, most up-to-date information about roads, campgrounds, weather, EVERYTHING?

We headed back to the Trout Lake Ranger Station and asked about road conditions. At first we wanted to know about a drive that would take up onto Mt. Adams; the ranger said that, indeed, the road was open, but there were at least 300 climbers there at the moment. Not wanting to deal with at least 200 parked cars, we asked about NF 23, the road to Randle. We had done the road in the other direction last year; it's a gorgeous ride, with amazing views of Mt. Adams, and it's paved all the way until the turnoff to NF 90, which is where we had taken it from last year. At 90, it turns to gravel. We wanted to hear about the gravel. She said that the road was officially closed, but reports were that there were only about 3 miles of snow in the middle, and there were good tracks through the snow. What she didn't tell us was that the road was SUPER thick with gravel...

Stefan & Mt. AdamsWe happily drove onto 23, enjoying the gorgeous scenery and curves. The photo at the top of this page is from the tiny vista point along the road, as is the photo at left. It was the highlight of the entire ride for me. I forgot we had ridden the paved part of this road before, in the opposite direction, coming from the other direction after turning off from NF Road 90 - we had much better weather this time.

There were a few motorcyclists about, not not nearly as many as I would have expected on a weekend, on such a perfect day.

We got to NF Road 90, but we didn't turn off - we continued on 23... and quickly came to the gravel. Oh, the gravel. We stopped, and I just stared. I was not happy. But I decided to give it a try - maybe it would get better later, as so many roads do. I hated not at least trying.

We didn't make it even a quarter of a mile in. The road conditions were horrific. The gravel was unbelievably thick. I could have dug down with a shovel and not hit hard ground for several minutes. And there were so many cars, far more than we ever dreamed, coming and going. Trying to find a packed down track was impossible - and heaven forbid we had had to go onto the side of the road for oncoming traffic, into gravel that had never, ever been driven upon. I was going to fall, for sure - or worse.

We oh-so-carefully stopped, and I couldn't even turn around - the road was too slippery. Stefan had to do it for me. Then we oh-so-carefully headed back to pavement. I felt utterly defeated. But Stefan said that he hated the road too, and said the only time a road like that is worth taking is if there is something truly spectacular along the way or at the end of the road. That made me feel better.

We decided to head back onto 90, and possibly stay at Swift River campground. NF Road 90 is mostly paved, but it's also full of sunken grades, even a boulder across part of the road (photo from last year). And for about a quarter of a mile - about a mile from the Curley Creek Road turnoff - it is hilly gravel. A lot of people turn around, thinking the rest of the road will be that way. I road it last year on my Nighthawk, and wanted to try it again on my KLR.

Jayne on gravelThe paved part of the road was more degraded than last time, the sunken grades even deeper and not newly marked with spray paint yet. There were many more potholes. But all-in-all, it was, once again, a lovely drive. We made great time, even though we weren't trying to. We stopped to eat an apple, and then headed on to the last leg of the road - and the gravel. Once there, Stefan road ahead, to the top of a hill, to take a picture of me coming up the hill.

Thank goodness I waited for a truck behind me to pass me and go first; just after that truck started down the gravel, a white SUV, coming from the opposite direction, came into view, swerving around the corner at high speed. Had I gone first, instead of waiting for the truck behind me to pass me, I would have been exactly where that SUV was swerving. I would have been hit, no question. A young white guy, hat askew in that really annoying way that I HATE, honked and waved as he drove by. I waited a bit more, to make sure he wasn't with anyone else. And then I started down the road. Stefan said I did very well. He also said the SUV went as fast as it could over the hill, in order to be airborne, and he'd watched in horror, thinking I would be coming around the corner and into its path right at that moment.

We continued on the paved part of 90 and headed to Eagle's Cliff, buy beer. We bought one of their last two six packs of Widmer Hefeweizen, complimented the store on their snazzy new logo, then headed to Swift Reservoir to camp - though I did ask to see if Eagle's Cliff has camping and, indeed, they do.

When we were here last year, there were very few campers. This time, the camp ground was just over half full. We picked a spot, and realized we really should have bought ALL of the Widmer at Eagle's Creek - it was really, really early. We had a few hours of daylight left, but not much to do. Instead, we drank some of the beer we had, I fixed supper, we ate, and then we took a slow walk all through the camp site. We went into a part of the camp ground we didn't even know existed - turns out the site is twice as big as what we thought. We past a few campers sitting quietly, reading, and I so wanted to be next to them; I had a bad feeling that the campers around us were going to be LOUD long into the night. We met some guys playing cornhole and, of course, had to walk over to say something - they are the first people we've ever seen in the Pacific Northwest playing it. They were nice, already a bit drunk, and they complained that they had been made to quiet down after 10 p.m. "and all we were doing was talking!" Campers: if you talk in a normal voice while standing in my bed room, I will NOT be able to sleep; it's the same when you are CAMPING - you are in my bedroom! Shut up! So I had hope that things were going to be quiet when quiet hours started. We walked over to the beach at the reservoir. It was... icky. The water was murky and full of... stuff. We waded in a bit to cool off, but decided swimming wasn't something we wanted to do. We walked over to the boat dock, then walked back to our camp site to drink the rest of the beer.

I was so tired. I could have gone to bed at 8. But given the noise level - kids screaming, at least two campers around us playing their radios or stereos, the people in the  site next to us yelling at each other across their site and banging pots and pans - I knew it was useless. And kids just kept walking or riding their bikes RIGHT THROUGH OUR SITE. I started telling them to stop, and they would look up totally confused - how could I not want young children riding into and out of our camp site?! I wanted to go walk through their camp sites, in between their tents and chairs, and when they asked me what the hell I was doing, tell them!

By 9, I couldn't keep my eyes open anymore, and went into the tent to lay down. I lay there with earplugs in but still hearing radios, music, laughing and loud talking through them. And it continued past 10. And it continued past 11. We heard the camp host go around in his gas-powered golf cart at some point, but its engine is so loud he couldn't have heard the noise from campers as he passed. And there's no way I was walking around to a half dozen camp sites and begging people to please STFU. So I just laid there, breathing, falling in and out of sleep as the noise allowed. Why had the corn hole players been asked to quiet down? They were just a few feet from the camp host site.

If you have to camp at Swift Reservoir Campground, and you don't want to be disturbed: camp in the sites right at the entrance - you turn in to the left. These sites have thick foliage all around each of them, which will keep bicyclists, hikers and strollers out of them, and will keep you some distance from the main site where the party campers are. If those are full, look for a site that is up against the lake, thick bushes or a fence - in other words, that provides no place for bicyclists to ride through.

The next day, I was up and ready to start breakfast by 7:30 a.m. The camp ground was completely silent. No one was stirring at all, except me. I very kindly waited until 8 a.m. - the end of quiet hours - and I proceeded to be as LOUD as I possibly could. I fired up our stove, I banged pots and pans, and even started up my motorcycle at one point for no reason other than to wake everyone up. I talked loudly to Stefan. I continued to try to be loud while we packed up. We were all packed up and ready to leave right at 10 a.m. Most other campers were just starting to stir. I hope their last two hours trying to sleep were HELL.

I watched two boys who had kept walking through our site the night before walk right up to the tent of two people sleeping and they started talking about how small the tent is, and how they wondered how many people were asleep inside - which would be like walking right up to someone's bed, with someone in it, sleeping, and starting a conversation. Un-freaking-believable!

Jayne & the volcanoI put all that behind me and we head back down 90, stopping at the Pine Creek Information Center, which I blogged about in 2010 - it's always a friendly place and we make a point of stopping every time we're in the area. We asked the volunteers there about road conditions for National Forest Road 81/8100, and the guy there said the gravel part of the road was as bad - or as good, depending on your point of view - as the worst parts of NF Road 90. Spoiler alert: he was right.

But first, we headed down 830 to the Lava Canyon loop, for some spectacular views of Mt. St. Helen's (we skipped the Ape Cave - we'd seen it last year). In one of the viewpoints, we met a guy in an RV that we had met on Friday in a gas station parking lot in the Dalles - he'd done a motorcycle trip with a friend in Kenya years before, and his friend had ridden an Africa Twin.

Lava Canyon was gorgeous, but we skipped the hike to the falls; it was really, really heating up, and we wanted to get the gravel before it got too ugly. We went back to NF Road 81/8100 - the road to the climber's bivouac. We took a break in the shade near the start of the road, to eat an apple, eat a snack bar, hydrate, and be ready for the road in general. And the road - it was dandy! I'd totally love to do it again, this time a bit faster. There were a LOT of people camping just off the road - something I'd definitely like to give a try at some point.

The road became paved, and we drove through mostly shade, at one point driving through a tree-covered canopy.

We stopped in the town of Cougar and pulled in to have lunch at Lone Fir Resort, which is also where climbers must register for Mt. St. Helens. As I got off the bike and got my keys, I realized that I had lost my beloved United Nations Volunteers - Afghanistan key chain - it had broken off somewhere between the start of NF Road 81/8100 and here. Someday, someone will find it and create a web site with a photo of it, declaring that it is DEFINITIVE PROOF that the UN is mobilizing its vast secret Belgium army against the USA in preparation for martial law being declared by our secret Kenyan Muslim President. So, be sure to stock up on plenty of beer, chips and salsa.

We had a hearty lunch of burgers, checked out the Mt. St. Helens climbers' checking area, and then prepared to head back. Stefan proposed a longer way home, and I seriously considered it - but I decided a straighter route would be better, because the heat was horrible and I realized I was about to be wiped out. The heat was, indeed, horrific, and 503 from Battle Ground to 205 is ICKY - four lanes of traffic, and not at all scenic. But we made it home by 5. My dog, Albi, had gotten very hot while we were gone, and the dog sitter had turned the air conditioner on; it not only benefited Albi, it was wonderful to walk into a cool house. 

I've now ridden 3500 on the KLR since buying it in the Fall of 2011, and more than 14,400 miles on motorcycles since starting to ride in 2009.

Here are all the photos from our trip.

You can read about our other trips in 2012, and upcoming trips, here.

Also see: Return to the broads abroad home page

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