Steptoe Butte - Northwest passages: riding out the storm - CycleBlaze

May 15, 2020

Steptoe Butte

Roughly 20 years ago I went down to the waterfront to browse through Portland’s Saturday Market.  I’m not at all a shopper or market browser, and this must have been one of the only times I’ve visited the market.  Thinking back now, I think it was winter of 2002, the year we moved to Portland; and I must have been browsing for a gag white elephant exchange gift for the office Christmas party.

I remember this event because I browsed through the booth of a photographer and came across an arresting series of photographs of rolling, velvet green hills.  I was so taken by them that I was tempted to buy one for the wall of our new condo.  Where is that, I asked the photographer, expecting to hear it was some exotic destination.  Steptoe Butte, in SE Washington, I was told.  Up in the Palouse.

Ever since, Steptoe Butte has been on my hit list.  It’s amazing that it’s taken me almost two decades to finally get up here.  I’ve drawn up plans for a short solo tour up through the Palouse a dozen times over the years since then, but somehow never managed to fit it in.

Today’s the day.  We’re going up.  The weather is overcast this morning, but it’s supposed to break up and turn partly cloudy by midday.   just the sort of day we’ve been saving this ride for.  I like the idea of a partly cloudy day, with cloud shadows cast across the hills.  We hop in the car and drive the roughly thirty miles to Oakesdale, our base for the ride today.  As we drive, we see the broad ridge capped by Tekoa Mountain ahead, its crown buried in dense white clouds.  Not the most promising outlook, and we wonder whether the forecast was wrong.  Maybe this will end up just being a nice ride in the country instead.

Oakesdale is another appealing small town left behind when its rail line shut down. Roughly the size of Tekoa, it has a pleasing collection of vintage buildings with character.
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In Oakesdale. These former rail towns - Palouse, Tekoa and Saint John are other examples - that are lucky enough to be off the main highways are the best.
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I can’t quite make out the name any more, but it looks like it could have been the old newspaper office or print shop.
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The sky lightens up a bit when we near Oakesdale, but it’s still fully overcast and pretty cool.  Well layered up, we bike into the face of a chilly headwind as we ride southwest out of town on Oakesdale Road, the first segment of the route.  We aren’t really quite committed to the ride yet, actually.  We’re going to give it a few miles to see how cold it feels.

Our mission, should we choose to accept, is to make a complete counterclockwise  loop of the Butte and then climb it toward the end on our return north to Oakesdale.  Hopefully by the time we get there we’ll see some clearing in the skies.

Biking southwest on Oakesdale Road, into the wind. Cold now, but we’ll appreciate it later when we’re blown back to the car.
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On Oakesdale Road. The sky is just beginning to break up a bit, with scattered small blue windows letting a bit of sunshine in.
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Looking south from Oakesdale Road to Steptoe Butte. One of the attractive things about today’s ride is that we’ll get to view it from every angle. I like those twin barns on the right too, but this isn’t really a barn shot.
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A few miles before Oakesdale Road ends at US 195, we pass a remarkably textured band of low hills. The sky is generous enough to let through a bit more light at just the right moment.
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Andrea BrownWhat a great shot.
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1 week ago
Jen GrumbyMethinks more than low.

Are these hills also loess low? Or lowloess?

If you dig deep enough you might find a Giant Palouse Earthworm!
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1 week ago
On Oakesdale Road.
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Ten miles into the ride we come to the end of Oakesdale Road, at its junction with US 95.  By now we’re committed to the ride.  The sun is breaking through here and there, it’s warming up a bit.  Just what we hoped for.  For the next eight miles we bike straight south on the highway, enjoying a surprisingly fine ride.  The shoulder is wide, the traffic is moderate, the views are wonderful.  Much better than I imagined when plotting this ride.

At the minimal town of Steptoe we leave the highway and stop for lunch before turning back northeast, toward the Butte and away from the wind.

Steptoe Butte, from US 95.
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The Cashup grain elevator. I’m not sure when it was built, but I found an article from 1918 in the Chicago Farm Implement News announcing plans to build an elevator at Cashup.
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Steptoe Butte seen from the west, on US 95.
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Along US 95.
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Lunch on the schoolyard steps, Steptoe.
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It’s a joy to bike northeast from Steptoe.  We have a nice wind at our backs, there’s a fair amount of sun on the road, the views are gorgeous of the land against the dramatic sky.  We really sail the next eight miles to the base of the Butte.

As we bike though, conditions change and the sky darkens significantly.  Off to the west it looks like there are bands of rain hitting the hills, and they’re coming our way.  By the time I make it to the turnoff to the Butte and the base of the climb, I no longer trust this weather.  It’s a four mile climb to the top, and who knows how bad conditions might be when we get up there and on the way back down.  And if it’s dark and wet, how much will we enjoy its famous views anyway?  I decide to talk this over with Rocky when we get to the turnoff, thinking we should just head for the car post haste, keep dry, and come back again on a drier day.

On Scholz Road, east of Steptoe. Looking beautiful out. Perfect timing!
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Steptoe Butte pokes its head up above the rolling loess hills.
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We’re on Hume Road now, heading straight north toward the Butte. It’s great for photos, but the sky looks darker with every mile. It’s looking loess likely that we’ll be seeing the top today.
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Yikes!
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Jen GrumbySpooky .. but so perfect for a captivating and dramatic photo!
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1 week ago
Looking northeast, away from the weather, the sky looks a bit less menacing. I think that ridge in the distance is Tekoa Mountain.
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Gorgeous, but forbidding.
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Unfortunately, as always I’ve fallen behind Rachael when I stop with the camera.  When I reach the turnoff she’s not there.  She must have just started climbing.  We’re out of cell phone range, so there’s no option but to follow after her and hope for the best.

The best doesn’t come, but neither does the worst.  I stay dry on the climb up, and the climb goes faster than I expected.  The grade is steady and not bad, and the wind is surprisingly modest.  I’d expected it to become fairly fierce as I gained elevation, but it never does.  Maybe I’m biking in the calm before the storm.

I don’t bother stopping for photographs on the way up, because it’s too dark anyway and I’m focused on getting up as soon as possible and getting us down off the peak before all hell breaks loose.  As I bike I watch for an overtaking car can flag down to have them catch Rachael and tell her to turn back, but none come.

I reach the top just before the rain arrives.  Just long enough to gaze around in amazement and take a few photos, before we both hurriedly dash for the shelter of the thankfully open and unoccupied outhouse.

So close, but still so far off. It’s a four mile, 1,200’ climb to the top. The road makes a double counterclockwise spiral around the formation. You can see it angling across the front face, about half way up.
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Phenomenal. It’s amazing looking at the sky, the land, and the patches of rain.
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Atop Steptoe Butte, Looking northeast toward Oakesdale and Tekoa Mountain.
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Any old port in a storm.
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Our situation feels grim as we cower in the shelter of the outhouse.  We’re still twelve miles from Oakesdale, with a wet four mile descent in our future.  It’s a complex sky though, and I’m hoping that the rain will pass quickly and we’ll get a window to make our dash in.  Ten minutes later the rain damps off and we make our move.   With the wind and weather going our direction, with luck we might just bike into Oakesdale dry.

It happens.  We get our window, complete with just enough clearing to be able to appreciate the phenomenal landscape surrounding us.  The next twelve miles are incredible.  All the way down-mountain I’m giving thanks for Rachael’s persistence.  If it had been up to me we wouldn’t be up here, but thanks to her we’re experiencing a ride we’ll never forget.

That’s our direction. Oakesdale and Tekoa Mountain are out there somewhere.
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Looking southwest from the top of the mountain, the sky looks much more promising. This window is blowing our way, and will accompany us all the way to Oakesdale. If I could have taken a bit more time, I would have stopped to look more closely at the fantastic display of lupine and balsamroot.
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I was amazed when I took photos from this descent off the camera. They all look like watercolors.
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The view north.
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Toward Tekoa Mountain, quickly becoming visible again. Hard to believe this is a photograph, not a painting.
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Another view from the descent.
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What an astonishing landscape! A green Sahara Desert. And what good fortune to see it in conditions like these. So much more compelling than under a uniform blue sky.
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I think that’s Oakesdale off toward the left. Look at that blue sky ahead of us!
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Just in time! Barn shot of the day.
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Jen GrumbyA very nicely positioned barn!

Just enough of it hiding to make me wonder about all of the stories it could tell .. about its builders, inhabitants, and the surrounding landscape.
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1 week ago
Tekoa Mountain.
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Video sound track: Stormy Weather, by Etta James

I took a different photo of the splendid Oakesdale flour mill this morning when it was gray and gloomy, but I held out hope that we’d see it in a better light when we returned.
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Bruce LellmanWhat a great building!!
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1 week ago
In Oakesdale.
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Ride stats today: 39 miles, 2,000’

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Jen GrumbyI'm glad we're not the only ones to take shelter in a bathroom.

At least you didn't have to spend the night there!

Wish you could find that photographer from Saturday Market and show him these photos.
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1 week ago
Suzanne GibsonGreat video! The wide angle of the GoPro is fantastic for this landscape and sky!
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1 week ago
Rachael AndersonTo Suzanne GibsonThanks. I didn’t think I was going to be able to record the descent because it was raining when I started down but it soon stopped.
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1 week ago