Ellensburg, WA to Vantage, WA

30.9 mi / 12.2 mph / 1233 ft. climbing
Home: Wanapum State Park hiker/biker campsite

The strong wind that picked up near sunset last night continued all night long, and the noise of it blowing and flapping the tent’s rainfly made the noise of the also-all-night sprinkler a bit irrelevant. In contrast to the 45F temperatures we had greeting us the last two mornings, we were up to 57F this morning, but the wind meant it was still chilly.

A prairie dog-ass-acting marmot! Living under the buildings at the Kittitas County Event Center. Yeah, we’re sure in a different biome!

Due to the free-form camping area, lack of picnic table, and yesterday afternoon’s need for me to quickly empty my bags to make a grocery run, we’d been incredibly disorganized in setting up camp, just tossing stuff wherever throughout the lawn. That led to a lost sock for Rett, with our best guess being that it got blown away from where it had been left on the grass last night. I get how annoying it can be to lose something relatively-difficult to replace like that, and so I was glad that Rett fought her annoyance well and was able to leave it for dead and get on the road.

So yeah, the road, even though the trail ran right next to our site. University Way turned into the Vantage Highway, with traffic dwindling as quickly as the buildings did. So no rude-awakening after days riding no-motorized-traffic trails. We had a long multi-stage climb to complete before we would descend to the Columbia River. As we ascended, we were surprised to see the rounded white form of Mount Rainier behind us, tall enough to loom over its not-inconsequential siblings in the Cascade Range that we had crossed.

Mount Rainier from 70 miles away: big enough to be seen from an environment completely alien from the one in which it sits.

Near the top, in the middle of nowhere, a couple in a white Tesla Model X (significantly less-common than pickup trucks out here) had pulled over in a turnout and waved us down. They offered water or any other assistance we might need, but despite the full sun, the dry air was comfortable, so all we took from them was nice conversation. We were shocked to learn that they (or anyone!) lived down this turnoff, which to us looked like a road taking you from the middle of nowhere to the outskirts of nowhere, on a 20 acre plot kept largely native sagebrushed. It’s always interesting to learn new places to live, and they extolled the four-season beauty and dryness relative to their former Seattle/Bellingham homes. At first the electric car seemed like an unlikely vehicle for people living on the outskirts of nowhere, but after thinking about it for a minute, it’s actually the perfect vehicle if you’ve made the decision to live 20 miles from the nearest grocery store (and down the traffic-free highway it’s a simple 20-minute drive for them, much less remote than it felt to our two-hours-of-riding legs).

A reward of Rainier cherries at the top of the hill, at the entrance to the Puget Sound Energy Solar/Wind Plant (Puget Sound is even further away than Mount Rainier!)

I knew that finding shade from now on would be difficult, since trees are non-existent in this near-desert environment, so I’d pre-mapped out a a possibility at the Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park, which seemed to have some sort of building in the aerial views. It turned out to be an unbelievably perfect lunch spot. The building appeared to be an elegant old house, built partly into the hillside, with walls of huge, heavy stones. The open-air-but-roofed front section was like a carport that we could wheel our bikes into, and down one side hallway was a bench where we could sit, make, and eat our PB&J sandwiches in the cool shade surrounded by cool stone just steps away from blasting sun. The small information display inside informed us that the building was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (of course!), and clearly designed and architected by someone with intimate knowledge of desert dwellings. For the thousandth time, thank you FDR and all of you who had to suffer through the Depression. I wish you could know how valued your beautiful work remains nearly 100 years later!

The “carport” at the Ginkgo Petrified Forest
Making sandwiches in the cool stone air.

It was so hot outside the shelter that I did a brief loop of the Petrified Forest trail on my own. And honestly, Rett didn’t miss too much, as the stone tree trunks poking out of the hillside all have steel cages built around them, limiting the ability to get intimate with their extreme age. The bigger value of seeing these hints of stone logs was in driving home the mind-blowing reality of what the display inside told us: this hillside is absolutely filled with buried stone trees! And not just evergreen trees, but walnuts, maples, and of course, ginkgos! In a place that currently has zero trees! Thankfully a load of smart people have developed a cogent, rational explanation for this (these trees grew millions of years ago, before the Cascade Mountain range rose and blocked the moist Pacific air from reaching Eastern Washington), otherwise the “intelligent design” people would have had to come up with an even crazier story.

A ~16 million year old spruce turned to stone.

Continuing down the hill, Rett got blown to an emergency stop when a small dust-devil sideswiped us. Luckily the Vantage Highway is almost devoid of cars (which makes me wonder why they did a complete super-nice highway rebuild in the super-recent past), but we’re sure glad the state spent tens of millions of dollars to make a super-smooth, nicely-shouldered road for us and the 5 drivers a day who use it!

The Vantage Highway diving down to the Columbia.

We picked up some supplies at the gas station in the small town of Vantage, and then continued south of I-90 to the State Park deep on the Columbia River. We were happy to go inside the air-conditioned park office to register, and Rett got us a couple of push-pop ice creams. The two designated hiker/biker sites were near an under-repair bath house, so the ranger was nice enough to put us in the (nicer, empty) host site for the same $12. A bit of laying in the shade of the irrigated trees and marveling at how quickly our wet clothes dry out here, and then we finally decided to head down to the Columbia for a swim (remembering the mantra of a Canadian bike tourer who had a rule to never pass up a swimming opportunity). It was cold and refreshing, but it swept away my cycling sweat-and-bald-spot protector that I usually wear under my helmet. But our sleeping bag spat forth Rett’s missing sock when we set up the tent, so, fair trade?

Rett emerging from our first-ever entry into the (very edge of) the wide, mighty, Columbia River).
The I-90 bridge across the Columbia River (we’re so glad the state provided a new option last year!)

While sitting back at our site, an RV began backing into our empty parking pad. Site-assignment mixup, we assumed, but then quickly learned that Brad and Mickey’s had seen us (on the road? We weren’t exactly clear…), and specifically sought us out to chat. They’re bike tourers too, and more-importantly, WarmShowers hosts, and they were essentially bringing their Mobile WarmShowers Experience to us! In addition to the good conversation and local knowledge, they did an incredible job of magically producing exactly what we needed from their RV to fill out the weak gas station ‘groceries’ that had been our only option (fresh strawberries! Broccoli! Wine! Trader Joe’s Ice Cream Sandwiches!) What a treat! While I tend to be apprehensive about over-imposing on the generosity of WarmShowers hosts, we’re more than happy to accept that generosity if it comes to us unasked!

A makeshift hiker/biker site (the host site) at Wanapum State Park.

As the sun went down on us, I thought it was funny how we had done three nights of camping before this with no other campers around (quite a rarity for us), yet they had all been quite noisy nights (with water, traffic, and wind, respectively). Now, in this campground nearly filled with RVs, it ironically would be our first quiet night. But then, the evening wind started up again….



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3 responses to “Ellensburg, WA to Vantage, WA”

  1. Nels and Charli Sorenson Avatar
    Nels and Charli Sorenson

    It was so nice to chat with you briefly on the Vantage hwy at the Sage Hills entrance. Glad to see you found that nice spot for lunch and had a nice campsite at the park. Hope it didn’t get too windy that night but I’m afraid that last sentence looks ominous…

    Really enjoying your blog, you have a nice gift for narrative writing. We’ll be following you on your journeys.
    Nels and Charli

    1. neil Avatar

      Thanks for following along (and again for waiting ahead that day!) And I would say that you have a nice gift for narrative *reading*…. 😉

  2. Sophie Harms Avatar
    Sophie Harms

    The journey isn’t the destination, it’s the people you meet along the way. Hats off to the very rational stone trees, I’d like to see that!

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