The Bickleton Loop - Brief Breaks - CycleBlaze

March 26, 2015 to March 30, 2015

The Bickleton Loop

March, 2015

This was a five day loop in southeast Washington, beginning and ending in Bickleton.  The route includes overnights in Hermiston and Kennewick, so it overlaps the Walla Walla loop we took earlier this month.  

There's not much to Bickleton, a hamlet straddling the ridge between Goldendale and the Yakima Valley.  It's big claim to fame is its self-proclaimed declaration as the bluebird capital of the world.  There's not much anywhere nearby, either - just sagebrush, ranches and windmills.  Great cycling country.

GPS route

Day 1: To Hermiston (69 miles)

This short tour began with an early morning drive to Bickleton, an isolated village high up in the hills between Goldendale and the Yakima Valley.  I've long wanted to cycle the road through Bickleton, the self-named Bluebird Capitol of the World, but to fashion a loop for the tour we are beginning and ending there and will only cycle the eastern half of this remote rural highway.

The drive itself was beautiful, as is usually the case in the Columbia Gorge.  There's almost  always something exceptional - this time it was the moment when we broke through the fog on the climb from the river to the plateau around Goldendale.  Suddenly we were surrounded by green and a forest of windmills rose out of the clouds.

Breaking out of the fog
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Some fogmills
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In Bickleton we parked the car on the street beside the small museum.  Almost immediately a pickup pulled up, the driver emerged and laconically started grilling us about our plans.  We asked if there would be any problem leaving the car for a few days, and he said it would be fine as long as I forked over a buck.  Always a sap, I reached for my wallet and he broke into a grin.  Small town humor.  Nice guy though - we had a friendly chat and he surprised me by saying that the tavern ran a B&B.  Had I known, we might have overnighted here.

We began our ride by heading south from town into a vast array of wind farms that ran to the horizon both east and west.  For the next 25 miles we followed a string of lonesome roads that gradually dropped 2500' to the Columbia.  The entire ride through these hills was beautiful, with the surroundings varying from wind farms, grain fields and ranches, exposed and eroded ravines, and eventually the vast new vinyards of the Horse Heaven Hills.  This is remarkably quiet country - I may have lost track but I'm pretty sure we biked a solid hour without encountering a single car.

In one of my favorite moments on this stretch, I triggered a small cattle stampede - perhaps 50 head saw my cycle along and ran for the roadside fence to stare at me, presumably hoping I was the breakfast delivery.  After watching for a few seconds they turned and stampeded off into the hills - they were barely around long enough for me to pull the camera out.

In Bickleton, the Bluebird Capitol of the World
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South of Bickleton - windmills as far as the eye can see
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Along Hale Road
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Big disappointment - I forgot the hay.
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Vestige from another era
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Wine country, Horse Heaven Hills
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The descent to Alder Creek
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Eventually we arrived at Highway 14, the Washington route that follows the Columbia.  Further to the west this is a precarious road to cycle on, with its many blind curves and heavier traffic load.  Here though, it's just fine - mostly a straight shot with little traffic and a wide, smooth shoulder.  With a mild tailwind, we had a fast and enjoyable ride all the way to I-82 and the bridge to Oregon.

Highway 14 had the occasional semi but an abundant shoulder
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Lunch stop, Whitcomb Island
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The mighty Columbia, west of Umatilla
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Day 2: To Kennewick, a different way (55 miles)

Weather conditions were ideal today - cool when we set out from Hermiston, but cloudless and essentially windless.  For today's ride we chose the low route north, following the river upstream all the way to Tri-Cities.  We started with a pleasant, fast shot eastward through the outskirts of the town, soon merging after 8 miles with Highway 730, the road that hugs the south bank of the Columbia as it bends northward toward Washington.  Shortly after joining the highway we left it again for a brief exploration of scenic Hat Rock State Park.

East of Hermiston
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Hat Rock
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Locust, Hat Rock State Park
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Last year's seed pods
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The next 20 miles of the ride were spectacular, with the highway plastered into the narrow slot between Lake Wallula (the reservoir on the Columbia impounded by McNary Dam) and a dramatic wall of basalt cliffs.  At times the road was a bit uncomfortable though - traffic volume is low, but what there is consists mostly of semis; and at times the shoulder narrowed to nearly nothing beneath some of the cliffs.  The drivers were considerate and nearly always gave us room, but I wouldn't like to ride this road in windy conditions or with bad visibility.  As lovely as the ride was today, if we come this way again I think we'll take the high road we followed two weeks ago instead.

Once we crossed into Washington, road conditions improved considerably.  We left the chip seal behind and enjoyed an adequate and consistent shoulder the rest of the way.  We stopped for lunch a bit before the end of the cliffs, climbing up onto a bench above the river for one of the most spectacular lunch spots I can recall, overlooking the lake to the adjacent cliffs.

In the Columbia Gorge on Highway 730, near the Washington border
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Highway 730 is a bit tense at spots - the shoulder all but disappears beneath some of the cliffs. I wouldn't want to be here on a windy day.
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Looking across Lake Wallula, the reservoir behind McNary Dam
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5 star lunch stop overlooking Lake Wallula
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The basalt cliffs along Lake Wallula are spectacular
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When in Passo stop at Viera's
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Another sundown on Clover Island
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Day 3: To Sunnyside (56 miles)

Last night a storm front passed through the region, bringing a few hours of light rain and leaving in its wake a strong westerly wind.  For the rest of the night we were wakened off and on by the wailing and whistling of the fierce, steady blow. Today the forecast is for 20-25 mph winds throughout the morning, with gusts to 45 mph, expected to abate somewhat in the afternoon.  We left our motel with more than a bit of trepidation over what lay ahead for us.

For a change, the forecast was accurate.  Cycling our way out of town was a bit challenging, but fortunately we rode either on cycle paths, sidewalks or wide shoulders that left us plenty of room to wobble along into the destabilizing headwinds.  Once we got out of town and off the valley floor a bit though things got more serious, and for the next two hours we wrestled our bikes through 30 mph head and crosswinds, struggling to stay on the road and maintain a 6 mph average.  The roar of the winds was nearly constant; and when it died down from time to time, we could hear our spokes whine.  To the north, large plumes of dust or sand blew up and over the face of the ridge.  We had had quite had enough when the road finally bent to the north and things improved, and with great relief we stopped in at a grill for a second breakfast.  Not bad at all - 25 miles in a bit under four hours!

The Blue Bridge joins Kennewick and Pasco
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This morning's harsh news - flag to the left, Andersons to the right
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How strong does the wind have to be to generate dust storms like these?
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Over lunch conditions improved greatly, and we enjoyed a much nicer ride for the rest of the day as we followed the OEI (Old Inland Empire) highway to Prosser and then the Yakima Valley Bikeroute to day's end in Sunnyside.  The ride from Benton City to Prosser was beautiful - the valley is pinched a bit in this stretch by a wall of crumbling cliffs and the road rises above the valley floor to give some fine views.

The Yakima River, west of Benton City
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The Yakima Valley
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Crumbling basalt along the Yakima
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CBRR Engine 2087, on the outskirts of Prosser
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Spring is early in the northwest this year
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The line-up
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Along the Old Inland Empire Highway
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Day 4: To Yakima (54 miles)

Today we took the long, lonesome road to Yakima: cycling north from Sunnyside we crossed the Rattlesnake Hills, the low ridge that forms the northern border of the lower Yakima Valley; and once over we turned westward through ultra-desolate Black Rock Valley until it drops back down into fertile Moxee Valley and on to Yakima.

The ride north from Sunnyside began with four flat, straight miles through vinyards and orchards.  This stretch of the Yakima Valley is about its widest point, with about 15 miles of arable bottomland between Rattlesnake Hills to the north and Horse Heaven Hills to the south. 

Eventually breaking out of the crop lands, the road slowly climbs up the ridge, giving fine views south across the valley and west to Mount Adams and Rainier.  The ridge is virtually treeless, covered predominantly by grasses and sage.  This early in the season there is a lot of green in the hills still.  It is a lovely, quiet ride all the way to the summit.

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Leaving Sunnyside behind
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Mount Adams from the south slope of the Rattlesnake Hills
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Climbing into the Rattlesnake Hills
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In the Rattlesnake Hills
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Cresting the summit
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Some spring color in the Rattlesnake Hills
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Once over the crest, the route drops somewhat into the barren upland Black Rock Valley where it ends at a T-junction with highway 42, the route to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.  Turning westward, over the next fifteen miles or so we passed very few signs of civilization other than the road itself - a small diner at the junction; a long abandoned homestead; and a few ranches nestled into the base of the ridge.  We faced a mild, perhaps 10 mph headwind for the rest of the day's ride, but after yesterday's travails it felt like nothing.

Cycling through desolate Black Rock Valley
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In Black Rock Valley
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We stopped for lunch at the crest of the road just before the descent into Moxee Valley, sitting in the weeds beneath the first orchard we came to.  After that we dropped back into the agricultural basin again, enjoying mountain views to the west.  Skirting Moxee, we enjoyed a last rolling climb up to Terrace Heights before the final fast glide to the city.

In Moxee Valley
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In Moxee Valley
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Day 5: To Bickleton (76 miles)

Today's outing was another great one, but by our standards at least it was a very long ride.  It's been at least several years since we broke 75 miles on a tour's day ride.  By day's end I was feeling more my age than usual and ready to see the finish line.

We got an early start, and the air was cool and crisp when we wheeled out of Yakima - perhaps still in the low 40's.  I succeeded in plotting out a good route out of town, and for the next 40+ miles we enjoyed a pretty cruise downriver through the Yakima Valley.  The first stretch followed the north/east bank of the river south through city suburbs until we escaped town and entered the surrounding belt of crop lands that gird the city.  Once outside of the residential areas we began passing through what would prove to be the predominant landscape for the next 30 miles - vast expanses of hop plantations intermixed with blossoming apple orchards andy vinyards.

After about 10 miles we reached the southern edge of the basin and followed the river through the deep, narrow cleft that separates Ahtanum Ridge from the Rattlesnake Hills.  From there our route turned eastward, first on the Yakima Valley Highway and then on aptly named Emerald Road, close beneath the base of the ridge.  This was a very pretty ride, with vistas over the river valley and occasional great views back west to Mount Adams.

Nearing Mabton we stopped to enjoy one of my favorite moments of the tour - a crew stringing cord into the hop trellises to support the coming season's crop.  They were really masters of their craft, and clearly seemed to be enjoying their work as they bobbed and wove their way down the row to the tune of mariachi music.  In their wake walked the lowly ground crew, securing the dangling strands to the ground.

An elegant estate, south Yakima
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Mount Adams and the Yakima, near Union Gap
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Apple orchard, along the Yakima Valley Highway
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Stringing the hop trellises. These guys were real experts, slinging cord into the trellises like rodeo ropers. They looked like they were enjoying themselves - it's a job I can imagine growing into. Is there a name for this work?
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After fifty miles we stopped for lunch in Mabton and then took on the final climb for this tour - the long, gradual ascent into Horse Heaven Hills to Bickleton.  The climb begins fairly steeply, angling up the face of the ridge before taking a sharp eastward bend and following the crest as it continues climbing for another thousand feet.  This ridge felt very similar to the Rattlesnake and Yakima Ridges to the north - similar contour, dry, and treeless.  Later, in researching these hills a bit, I learned that they collectively are known as the Yakima Fold Belt - a series of parallel anticlinal ridges and synclinal valleys formed by the Columbia basalt flows.

Stringing the hop trellises. These guys were real experts, slinging cord into the trellises like rodeo ropers. They looked like they were enjoying themselves - it's a job I can imagine growing into. Is there a name for this work?
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Just some junk, Mabton-Bickleton Road
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The road finally levels off just a few miles from Bickleton, and suddenly we were again overlooking the vast wind farms to the south that we started out in a few days ago.  As we approached town I was delighted to see a mating pair of western bluebirds flit across the road; and in the next two miles I saw seven more, in addition to the first swallow of the season.  It looks like we have arrived at The Bluebird Capitol of the World precisely when the sing migration is unfolding.  What more perfect timing than that?

Bickleton
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Imposter: a violet green swallow poses as a bluebird
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We have arrived.
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The Bluebird Inn, built in 1882, claims to be the oldest tavern in Washington State. It's closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but hopefully we'll be back someday to see the interior and maybe stay over - they allegedly run a B&B next door at the Hens Nest.
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Among other things, this was a great trip for roadside birding.  Just cycling along, I compiled a pretty decent list, including several species I haven't encountered for awhile.  Here's my list:
   Red tailed hawk
   Kestrel
   Common crow
   Raven
   Common merganser
   Common coot
   Mallard
   Pintail
   Canvasback
   Bufflehead
   Greater scaup
   Western grebe
   Great blue heron
   Canada goose
   Killdeer
   Belted kingfisher
   Western meadowlark
   Horned lark
   Great horned owl
   Mourning dove 
   Rock dove 
   Flicker
   Red winged blackbird
   Brewers blackbird
   Starling
   California quail
   Pileated woodpecker
   English sparrow
   Western bluebird
   Violet green swallow.



Today's ride: 310 miles (499 km)
Total: 634 miles (1,020 km)

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