The Walla Walla Loop - Brief Breaks - CycleBlaze

March 11, 2015 to March 17, 2015

The Walla Walla Loop

March, 2015

This was a six day loop to Walla Walla, beginning and ending in Hermiston, about a four our drive east of Portland.  We drove over the night before, stayed at a motel, and left the car there until we returned.

Here's the GPS map for the whole route, including day rides.

Day 1: Kennewick one way (54 miles)

 We pulled in at the motel in Hermiston a bit before 10 last night, after a long drive up from Salem broken by a fine meal at Brian's Pourhouse in Hood River.  As usual, the drive through the Columbia Gorge was spectacular, until the light finally gave out somewhere around The Dalles.  The Gorge is always different, always wonderful; tonight we were especially struck by a stretch near Cascade Locks where a slender, long tongue of fog lapped just above the river in the fading light.

This morning we awoke to a spectacular, almost summery day.  With a 10 mph southwest wind forecast, we looked forward to perfect conditions for our ride north to Kennewick.  First though we had to deal with the startling discovery that I had failed to pack cycling shorts.  I was envisioning biking with rolled up, chamoisless long pants until we were relieved to find an excellent bike store only two miles away, and right on route to boot.  Better luck than I deserved, for sure.  As some sort of punishment for my carelessness, as I pedal I'm entertained by a constant squeak as the new shorts rub against the saddle - for the first several miles of today's ride I was puzzling over what was rubbing on my bike, until I realized it was me.

The Cannondales are restive and ready; they haven't been out on a proper tour in 5 years, and have grown resentful of our Bike Fridays.
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Pit stop to pick up new bike shorts, Hermiston. Much better than the long street pants I packed, but they squeak.
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The ride north from Hermiston follows the Umatilla River for about 5 miles on the Old Highway.   From Umatilla we crossed the Columbia into Washington on the Interstate Bridge.  With a separate cycle/pedestrian lane, it is one of the safest river crossings.  On the Washington side, we continued north on Plymouth Road as it very gradually climbed away from the river, eventually cresting at a bit under 2000'.  It is a very quiet, pencil-straight route through barren but lovely country.  Far to the west we can see the peaks of Mount Adams and Rainier just clearing the distant ridges.

I haven't ridden a road like Plymouth for some time, and had forgotten some of the delights there can be - so quiet that there are no sounds but the wind, the warble of meadowlarks, the occasional semi, and my squeaky cycling shorts; so straight and open that once when I let Rachael escape into the distance, she was cycling away into a mirage.  

Road hazard along the Umatilla
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Leaving Hermiston
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Crossing the Columbia
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Rolling our way up from the Columbia on Plymouth Road
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the world to ourselves, Plymouth Road
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At the high point for the day, we stopped for a picnic lunch on a small rise above Locust Grove Road, enjoying our peanut butter sandwich and fruit feast on top of the world, miles from anywhere and anyone.  After that we continued east on Locust Grove as it cut through a series of small ridges and dropped to the Columbia.  We flew eastward, blown along by a pure, brisk tailwind.  Reaching the river at Finley, we turned north and followed the river through the outskirts of Kennewick, reaching our room in midafternoon.

Lunch stop, Locust Grove Road
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Eastward bound, Locust Grove Road
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Kennewick from Locust Grove Road
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Checking in at the motel was just wierd - the receptionist was surprised, on looking up my reservation, to see that I was a cyclist and wanted only one room.  We went through several rounds of confusion until she realized that there were three reservations for Scott Anderson, and the other two were for members of a jumbo truck rally.  I don't fit the profile for jumbo truckers, apparently.

We ended the day puttering around Clover Island, a sandbar that's been given new life by recent renovations - a new lighthouse, some public artworks, and walkways along the river.  

It was a great first day of this short tour.  As always, I was struck by how quickly we are transported into another world and immersed in adventure.  There can't be a better way of traveling than this, I think.  For today at least - but we'll have an attitude check when we hit Walla Walla, where rains are forecast for the weekend.

The Clover Island Lighthouse
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Day's end, Clover Island
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Day 2: Walla Walla (58 miles)

It was fairly cool this morning so we took our time getting out the door and on the road.  At 9:30 when we set out it was 45, partly sunny, and warming fast.  With a 10 mph wind from the northwest blowing in our favor, we looked forward to a good ride down to Walla Walla.

It took about 8 miles and two major river crossings to leave Tri-Cities and its suburbs - first we crossed the graceful Cable Bridge to Pasco, and later the highway 12 bridge over the Snake.  It was easy, safe cycling though, leaving us impressed with how easy it had been to trans-navigate the Tri-cities.  I've been in many smaller or similarly sized places that were awful to bike through.

The Cable Bridge linking Kennewick and Pasco is the oldest cable stay bridge in the country.
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Tree City, USA
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Crossing the Snake on Highway 12. We were pleasantly surprised at how bike-accessable all of the bridges on this loop have been.
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After crossing the Snake we turned west onto minor highway 124 and followed a taut line eastward for about 25 miles through fairly featureless country.   It's the main route through these parts, but on this morning at least traffic volumes were low, there's a steady and smooth 30" shoulder, and the drivers gave us a respectful berth as they passed.

Our favorite moment of the day came along this stretch, as we stood transfixed watching a newborn still glistening calf struggle to its feet for apparently the first time.  After several false starts, it managed to stay afoot on shaky legs, endured a good cleansing licking from mom, and then stumbled it's way to the back end for breakfast.  Great show.

Eastbound on Route 124
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In apple country
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Those first shaky steps
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Vinyards blanket the slopes down to the Snake
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At midday we finally left the highway and turned south onto Touchet Road, and were immediately alone in the world again.  For the next 20 miles it seemed that we hardly saw a car.  We stopped for lunch on the grass by the side of the road, staring at the emptiness around us, and then continued south to Luckenbill Road where we enjoyed a beautiful ride as we traversed the Touchet River valley.  It is a great time to be here - not too warm, no pesky bugs, and lovely hills just beginning to show the colors of spring.

Our lunch stop along Touchet Road
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Along beautiful Luckenbill Road
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Pioneer homestead beside the Touchet River, Luckenbill Road
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Leaving the Touchet watershed, Luckenbill Road
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Dropping toward Walla Walla on Sudbury Road
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The beer truck, Sudbury Road
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We arrived in Walla Walla around 4, and were surprised to find that the annual Guitar Festival was this weekend, and the main venue for the evening was at a tasting room a few blocks away.  We went out for a quick meal and then moved on to an evening of craning over the balcony to look down on the performers and dancers below.  

The Liberty Theater (now the Macy's department store), Walla Walla
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Day 3: Waisburg/Prescott loop (63 miles)

We have fretted over this weekend's weather forecasts for a few days now, wondering how serious the predicted rains would be.  Today's conditions weren't bad at all - it rained last night, and tonight it is storming in earnest; but in between we were dealt about eight hours of overcast but mostly dry skies.

We started our ride as soon as the rains tapered to a slight drizzle.  Our main destination for the day was Waitsburg, 20 miles to the northeast.  From there we planned out a range of alternatives for the ride back, leaving our options open until we saw which way the weather would break.  

The country north of Walla Walla has many fine cycling routes to choose from, and several ways to reach Waitsburg.  we chose Middle Waitsburg Road and enjoyed another very quiet, scenic ride through more colorful rolling hills.  We're quickly becoming very fond of cycling in this region.  This route climbs gradually but steadily for 10 miles or so before finally cresting and then dropping more steeply to the Touchet River and Waitsburg.  It was cool and lightly misting for much of the way, but not unpleasant.  At the summit we were overtaken by a cycling group and one guy asked about my girlfriend, remarking on what powerful legs she had.  I cautioned him to back off, pointing out that she was already taken.

We're not the only fools biking in the rain today
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The descent to Waitsburg
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At the Waitsburg oasis
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The Nothing New lodging is open
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Whoop-em up
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Get your worms
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Colorful little Waitsburg is a delight to explore - its historic district is listed on the Historic Register.  We wandered around for awhile before heading west on 124 toward Prescott, unsure of the weather and uncertain of how far we would go before turning south.  Before long though it became clear that Rachael had gotten chilled standing around in Waitsburg while I indulged myself with the camera, so we decided to aim for Prescott and hope for a store or cafe there where she could warm up again.  Happily, Prescott does have a small convenience store; and a cup of coffee and a hot pocket later she was revived and ready for the ride home.

With the weather steadily improving, we decided to continue on west to Harvey Sharp Road before turning south; and then pedaled peacefully through 20 miles of solitude before reaching Walla Walla.  This was the longest of the options we had consired for today, and at 63 miles the longest day we've ridden so far this season.

Feeling deserving, we splurged this evening and rewarded ourselves with a fine meal at Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen.  Rachael enjoyed her pasta with beans, shrimp and pancetta; and I thought my order of hanger steak with green olives, slivered almonds and fingerling potatoes was the best meal I've had for weeks.  After dinner, we found the day had one more delight in store for us - an open air concert behind one of the downtown wine bars.  We never did hear who this act was, but they were wonderful - engaging music, and engaging performers.

The Touchet
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Along Harvey Sharp Road, with the Blue Mountains in the distance
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The 'Windows on the Past' mural on the reconstructed IOOF facade, Walla Walla
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Dancehall Days, from PDX of all places. We'll have to look them up when we get home - they were awesome.
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Day 4:  South county loop (55 miles)

A significant weather formation is passing across the northwest, bringing the first real rain the region has seen for weeks - but for today at least it skirted just north of Walla  Walla, leaving the town and country to the south cool and gray but generally dry.  We made the most of the situation by mapping out a complex route that took in some of the best roads south of town, followed by the gradual climb to the end of the pavement on Mill Creek Road.  From the top we then enjoyed a fast 15 mile descent back to town.  It was a very pretty ride but we were both a bit chilled and ready for a hot shower by the end of it.

This brought to a close our three night stand in Walla Walla.  We would have been happy to find a bit more sun and warmth but we knew we were pushing the season a bit when we came this early in the spring.   The rides were all great and we really enjoyed the town itself - downtown has a good, diverse set of eateries and we enjoyed live music all three nights.  I'm sure we will look for an excuse to come back this way again someday.

Foothills of the Blue Mountains
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Heading for the hills, Cottonwood Road
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Along Hood Road
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Along Hood Road
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Along Birch Creek
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Kiwanis Camp, on Mill Creek Road. End of the pavement, end of Washington.
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Fair warning
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'Carnival', Whitman College
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Day 5: Pendleton (60 miles)

I think we must have chosen the best cycling route between Walla Walla to Pendleton.  By adding about 10 miles to the most obvious and route down highway 11 we stayed on the back roads, passed through a few colorful communities time has left behind, and enjoyed an almost traffic-free ride.  

The forecast for today was dry but cold and overcast, so we were encouraged this morning to find a fair amount of blue in the sky.  Most of the morning was actually fairly sunny and the temperature warmed to the high 50's by midday.   With a mild tailwind breeIng us along we enjoyed very comfortable cycling conditions.

The first miles of the day were flat, taking us through vast vinyards and apple orchards along the stateline and around Milton-Freewater.  The ride became much more scenic once we left the basin and gradually climbed the long ridge that separates the Walla Walla valley and the Cayuse watershed.  I loved this stretch of the ride, generally following an old train line and dry creek bed up Little Dry Creek and Steen Roads.

We pulled up at Weston for a look around at its well faded historic core and then rolled along the top of the ridge to nearby Athena where we stopped for a light lunch.  I was touched by overhearing the conversation there between a fellow diner and the owners and regulars.  This man spent his early childhood in Athena, and they were matching up names discovering who they knew in common, finally discovering that they recalled each other as well.

Windy Ridge
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Lower Dry Creek Road, near Milton-Freewater
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Old grain elevator on Steen Road, near Weston
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Map check
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The Winn Homestead barn, Steen Road
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At the Longbranch, Weston
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Shoe tree, west of Weston
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In Athena
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Lunch stop at the Sugar Shack, Athena
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After lunch we continued rolling northward along the ridge top before eventually dropping quickly down the last few miles to the Umatilla.  After following along the south bank of the river for a few miles, our road climbed up a bit and then followed a straight, fast shot westward over a delightful series of rollers that carried us to the outskirts of town.

Over the crest, Pambrun Rod
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Descending Spring Hollow Road to the Umatilla River
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Along the Umatilla
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Day 6: Hermiston (34 miles)

Our last leg for this stage was a shorty - an easy cruise along the Umatilla again, along Reith Road.  It's funny - for all the mapgazing I do, it wasn't until I got home again that I realized we were following the Umatilla for three days of this stage.  I'd pictured it flowing in from the south for some reason.  It was a good day for a short ride though - it was cold and raining this morning and didn't let up until around 1, so we holed up in town and waited it out.

The ride itself is gorgeous, and one I hope to repeat someday.  Beautiful landscape, dramatic cliffs, zero traffic from the outskirts of Portland to Echo.  It would make a great out and back.  It made a fitting closer for what as been a terrific loop, and left us Umatilla.

The Umatilla Bluffs
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The Cunningham Sheep Company
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The Umatilla
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Rieth Road, along the Umatilla
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Umatilla wall art
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Under the weather
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Approaching Hermiston: to the real world
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Homeward bound
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Today's ride: 324 miles (521 km)
Total: 324 miles (521 km)

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