Desert Trails

Roads, rails-to-trails, mtb trails, single track, double track, pump tracks, BMX tracks
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Desert Trails

Postby wa_desert_rat » Thu Jul 04, 2013 9:57 am

Looking through the mountain bike magazines over the past couple of years it seems to me that a great deal - if not most - trail riding is now done on prepared trails. With the advent of MTB destination resorts - which seems to me to be best represented by Whistler in B.C., Canada - just finding a trail and riding it may soon become a lost art.

I’m not saying that it’s not good to ride on built-trails, I’m just pointing out that since the majority of the population in the USA live in or within commuting distance of a big city, the bicycle parks are often the only taste of trail riding MTB’ers can get without driving a couple of hours.

And that’s too bad because out-back trail riding is often the most exciting and challenging type of mountain cycling.

Since I don’t live in what is often referred to as a “major population center” (my town has 20,000 residents with maybe another 20,000 living within 30 miles) we don’t have a cadre of riders willing to build trails. In fact, we don’t have a cadre of riders... period. In the past 5 years of riding out-back trails I have NEVER met another mountain bike rider on any trail I’ve been on. I’ve met a few people on horseback and a guy hiking in to fish a lake but no one - EVER - on a bike that didn’t come with me.

This contrasts with my experiences riding “special-built” MTB trails which, while limited (most of them are a long ways away) can be most memorable for the encounters (often high-speed encounters) with other cyclists.

Desert and mountain tails are abundant in the western states of the USA partly because of all the public land managed by Federal agencies like the Forest Service, the BLM, and the state-operated versions. (Notice that I didn’t mention the National Park Service; mostly because the National Parks are notoriously unfriendly to mountain bikes unless they’re ridden on the roads. There are exceptions - like the North Rim trail in Grand Canyon NP but they’re rare.)

Many of the Forest Service roads are multiple use which usually means Jeeps, ATVs and motorcycles. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has a number of locations where mountain bikes only have to share with equestrians and hikers or only share a portion of the trails with motorized vehicles.

The BLM trails are often unimproved. By that I don’t just mean that they don’t get graded or new gravel; I mean that they are often invisible. In the desert it’s not uncommon to simply run out of trail to the point where you have to walk around and find it again! Sometimes you can see a trail marker ahead of you but there is no indication of the trail to get you there! This is a challenge and part of the fun of mountain bike riding in the desert.

An example of "find the trail" at BLM's Lakeside Ranch near Odessa, WA
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Single Track_a.jpg
Another example of "find the trail" is this off-camber track west of the Lakeview Ranch main buildings.
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BLM areas often come complete with free camping areas with toilets (usually pit toilets but contained within nice buildings) as well as corrals for horses and water (although it can often be labeled “not potable” which means not fit for human consumption). Forest Service areas also commonly have camp grounds - often very big and very well maintained camp grounds with toilets, drinking water, and highway access. But you can also often camp for free under a tree just off a Forest Service road. This can be quite popular and some of the frequented camping sites show signs of heavy use. No toilets means that you can find some interesting “surprises” behind some bushes and trees.

The major Forest Service trails and roads have been almost entirely taken over by motorized vehicles in the past few years. While many of these can be ridden easily on a mountain bike others are so beat up that just walking them can be frustrating. They can be steep, muddy, deeply rutted, rocky and strewn with large tree roots; giving a new definition to the term “technical”. Even on the ridable sections you face ATVs, motorcycles and Jeeps driving at what can only be called “breakneck” speeds.

Nevertheless, if you search carefully you can find the unsung gems out there. Within about a 40 mile radius of my location in central WA state (almost exactly halfway between Seattle and Spokane) there are several. Here are just two:

Ancient Lakes is a series of trails that follows one of the many “wedding cake” layers in the basalt cliffs along the Columbia River just west of Quincy, Washington and north of the I-90 bridge at Vantage. No motorized vehicles are allowed at all so cyclists share only with equestrians and hikers (and the occasional rattlesnake and coyote). Much of this trail is double-track with lots of rocks, sand, thorns, sagebrush, and sunshine. Because of winter snowfall and spring rains the trails usually dry out to good riding condition in early May but a fatbike might be able to ride it year-round. There is parking and maybe free camping but you will need an appropriate parking or access pass (either Fish & Game or Discover Pass; no one seems to know). Many links and images if you Google it. Here is one: ... akes-trail

Lakeview Ranch, located on the now-dry Pacific Lake about 20 miles north of Odessa, WA is a former cattle ranch that has been turned over to the BLM. There are several trails in the area but the main one is a 20-mile double-track which starts just up the hill north of the main ranch buildings and leads back to Odessa. About 2/3 of this trail is shared with motorized vehicles and all of it is shared with equestrians and cyclists. This is a remarkable trail and the final 1/3 leads you down from a plain through narrow and rocky arroyos into wide valleys bordered by rimrock walls. An series of lakes (Pacific Lake, Bob’s Lakes) and a waterfall are now all dried up; the water from springs that helped feed the stream that kept them full having been sucked dry by irrigators watering their wheat crops. (There is a program under way to replenish the aquifer using water from the Columbia River Irrigation Project and if this is successful the lakes may once again come to life; people were water skiing and fishing in Pacific Lake just a decade ago and the boat launch and associated docks are still there.) Camping is free at Lakeview Ranch with non-potable water, shade trees, a pit toilet and a porta-potti, and corrals for horses. Here is the BLM web page for Lakeview Ranch along with a link to a map: ... siteid=275

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The family ranch house at Lake View Ranch now owned by the BLM evokes a feeling of how early pioneers in the west lived.
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Wildlife refuges are often great places to cycle in the desert and they can come with some incredible surprises. Just west of Moses Lake, WA and only about 5 miles south of Interstate 90 is an area of wetlands right in the middle of desert sage that is home to a variety of wildlife including coyotes, deer, herons and eagles. Accessed either by an "official" road going south from the southern frontage road east of the "Hiawatha" exit on I-90 or by a small track going south from an abandoned building and fenced-in area at "Road C" along that same frontage road but nearer to Hiawatha. The Road C option is a few miles of double track leading to the amazing wetlands. Truly an oasis in the desert.

Overgrown Doubletrack leading West_a.JPG
Typical overgrown Jeep trail in the desert gets little use and can lead to interesting adventures.
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Wetlands only 7 miles south of I-90 and a few miles west of Moses Lake, WA with egrets and herons.
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There are many more if you search. Again, the sparse population of mountain bike riders means that you will be along in the desert and possibly out of cell range if you ride these trails. But the solitude and quiet of the desert trails is good for you.

Just don’t dab your foot onto a rattlesnake. :P

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Re: Desert Trails

Postby BADDANDY » Fri Jul 05, 2013 6:09 am

We are definately blessed here in WA that we have such a diverse selection of trails, all free. I can ride all year round from rails to trails, to single track on the coast to mountains to desert. I just have to pick a place where the weather is conductive to riding in the winter, and where I want to ride in the summer. Olympic Peninsula, Mt St Helens, Black Diamond, Snoqualmie, Ancient Lakes, Pack Forest and on and on.
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Re: Desert Trails

Postby newroam2 » Sun Mar 09, 2014 12:31 pm

On the topic of Washington state: My dad lives in/near the Olympic Peninsula in a little diamond of a beach town in Grey's Harbor County. When I was visiting last summer, I didn't take my bike, but we took long walks in the nearby hills and along the rivers (just across the street from home) to out-of-the-way areas we set up for shooting practice. I suspect it would be wise to listen for shots and look for neon vests, and wear one yourself in some of these areas. Not that a cyclist is in danger of coming between the gun and the target, which were only a few yards apart and in clear view... but there may be hunters. The logging roads and double track trails plus hiking/horseback trails were perfect for mountain bike cycling. We drove into the Nat'l Forest for a salacious view of at least 10 waterfalls just off the road with tantalizing peeks of foliated trails of all kinds everywhere I looked, some wider than others. I was salivating over the beauty of the big trees because the entire forest is gorgeous, not just the protected part, and the western portion of the state is just covered with forest, right up to the shores of the sandy beach. I looked for a bike on Craig's List, but had to end my visit before I found a good one. Such a scenic state! Meanwhile, here where I live in the Inland Empire it is a serious desert. It's the contrast between the pleasant weather of the forests (of local mountains) and what we have on the valley floor that keeps me mobile! Perhaps your Washington desert isn't as deathly d. r. y.! Gasp. I hate it sometimes. I'd like to see a cactus.
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Re: Desert Trails

Postby wa_desert_rat » Mon Mar 10, 2014 10:38 am

Washington State certainly has a nice variety; as do Oregon and California... and BC if you are headed (or headquartered) north of the border. We hear a lot about Whistler but there are wilderness trails just north of me (in what is known as the Okanogan) that are delicious for exploring.

And not all these places are for experts by any means. This is another attraction to desert trails (and ocean trails). You can often take your kids along to give them the experience of riding outside their customary places.

About 37 miles north of Pasco, Washington (which lies at the confluence of the Snake River and the Columbia River) you can find the Scooteney Reservoir. An irrigation reservoir that holds water for the thousands of farms in the irrigation projects of the area, Scooteney also holds a gem of a campground at pretty much rock-bottom pricing. $15 a night for a paved campsite with a panoramic view of the water just a short walk to a special fishing pier, for instance. No hookups at all (but water faucets nearby with potable water and a nice dump station near the entrance to the camping area). Boat launches, docks, swimming areas, grassy picnic spots in the shadow of 40-year-old trees make this a popular spot on weekends but still enough out of the way so that the residents of Spokane and Seattle really don't know about it.

Surrounding the reservoir there are miles of relatively flat Jeep trails that are closed to vehicles (mostly) but not to hikers and cyclists. Some lead to delicious little lakes and ponds and others circle the main reservoir under basalt cliffs. They are all perfect riding for kids. Last year we took an 11-year-old "granddaughter" (not ours but she might as well be) with us and she had a great time on her new mountain bike learning how to ride trails.

These little gems combining campgrounds with great cycling trails are all over WA east of the Cascade Mountains (and in the Cascades, too). They are perfect family escapes on a budget. And since the desert of central WA is prime winegrape country, you can often spend some time sampling the wines at local vintners.

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