40.4 mi / 8.9 mph / 3341 ft. climbing
Home: Winchester Lake State Park
We had passed through Clarkston, spent three nights in neighboring Lewiston, in an AirBNB blocks away from Lewis & Clark College, we have passed many historical markers noting the passage of the Lewis & Clark Expedition through these lands, and for the past couple days we have been on Adventure Cycling’s Lewis & Clark Route. So Lewis & Clark are like a thing around here.
But east from Lewiston, Adventure Cycling presents two options: ride gradually up the Clearwater River on US-12, or ascend 2000 feet to the Camas Prairie (and then descend back to the river). Not because one follows Lewis’s route and the other Clark’s, or their way west vs. their return east; after all, those dudes wisely had no interest in climbing a 2000 ft. hill for no reason. But in 2023, the reason is traffic. Other cyclists report it to be a bit of a nightmare battling the trucks on shoulderless jersey-barriered US-12 to Orofino.
So, let’s be impractical, inefficient, and impetuous, and climb a giant hill. While the traffic was the main motivator for that choice, it wasn’t the only one. Temperatures were forecasted to be remarkably cooler up in the highlands vs. the river valley, there was a nice-looking campground at the top, and finally, we would ascend via the Old Winchester Grade, a prototypical Western mountain-climb, something Rett has very little experience with, so tackling this one would hopefully give us confidence when we need to cross the Continental Divide or other big Western mountain passes.
Rett’s confidence is still riding so high that even knowing what was on the menu for the day, she still had seriously considered adding 4 miles by backtracking to Walmart to get more Doraditas for her breakfast-desserts. Only when I told her that getting back over the Snake River bridge required a lot of nasty finagling did she decide to skip it.
But maybe it wouldn’t have been too bad, because the major arteries of Lewiston that we passed by were oddly devoid of cars. Rett reminded me that it was Sunday, and quite early, so that explained a lot of it, but it also seems like residential Lewiston (filled with a lot of small Neil-and-Rett-sized houses) is just a pretty quiet place.
We got on a trail threading between US-12 and the Clearwater River, and it was nice at first, but in retrospect we should have just taken the wide US-12 shoulder (especially given the low traffic). The trail started getting wide bone-shaking longitudinal cracks (maybe it was a preserved remnant of an old highway?) and eventually merged with the shoulder of US-12 anyway, except the guardrail was on our left separating us from traffic. But that meant all the junk that comes off cars (glass, bits of tire wire, trash) absolutely coated this “bike trail”. Normally the constant wind of the passing traffic pushes it off the shoulder, but this “trail” was exactly where it got pushed to. When we got through it we stopped and checked all our tires for anything embedded in the rubber, and luckily they seemed clean.
The first half of the day was low-grade river-ascending, first the Clearwater and then Lapwai Creek along US-95. Around 10am, Rett’s energy-level dropped noticeably, and she seemed suddenly exhausted after being her strong normal self early in the morning. This was sort of a big concern, because, um, we were about to do one of the hardest climbs she’s ever done. We got some M&Ms in her, and then stopped shortly after for a 10:30am lunch (we were up at 5:30am, so it’s actually not that early of a lunch).
Luckily food and rest seemed to be the solution: on the rest of the way to Culdesac she was back to her normal energy level. And then we turned off US-95 on to the Old Winchester Grade to begin the climb.
The key to Western mountain roads is that they engineer them almost like railroads, to keep the grade relatively-constant and manageable. So we knew it would average about 5% the whole way up. And Rett has done 13% grades for brief pushes with her loaded bike. But she hasn’t done 5% for the 2+ hours it would take to get to the top of this one. I think I was actually more nervous than she was though, and it turns out she was the one who was right: she conquering it with skill, confidence and energy, and I would say she even enjoyed it!
It certainly helped that it was an absolutely world-class climb, perhaps the best I’ve ever done. Unlike many such climbs, where you’d be in a narrow valley, or surrounded by trees, the Winchester Grade snakes up the shoulder of a relatively-treeless hillside, so the views are constant, endless, and gorgeous. The road surface was high-quality the whole way (though there were definitely a lot of unprotected dropoffs at the edge!) But for traffic, we saw perhaps 10 vehicles during the entire 2+ hours we were climbing. So stopping for the photos every new turn called for was easy, and stopping to rest was easy, and, for Rett starting again (one of my biggest concerns), was relatively easy. Especially because the lack-of-traffic meant she could use the banked curves of the road to pick a less-uphill (or even downhill) angle to restart on. There were also plenty of Ponderosa pines dotting the landscape and road edges, providing shade under which to stop. 75% of the way up, I saw that the temperature was 71 degrees, while back in Lewiston (not even 20 miles away as the crow flies) it was 88F!
Yes, we definitely made the right choice to diverge from Lewis & Clark’s path! Not only did it make me feel warm to share this new incredible experience between the both of us, it definitely proved to be a great test for the future, and the recovery Rett made from being barely able to push the pedals down on a flat road to powering to the top of this climb just adds more confidence for both of us.
And the campground was as good as advertised too, but more on that tomorrow!