Are you sure these roads connect? A bikepacking adventure across the Olympic Peninsula
Guest Blog by Jeremy Whitman; Photos by Todd 'Fishbowl' Meier
What do you do in early April when your home region is snow-covered above 4,000 feet and your boss is rolling into town looking for adventure? You take a chance and reach out to a friendly gent who once approached you at a Salsa Cycles demo with the idea of stringing together gravel roads across the Olympic Peninsula.
Mark Schorn knows the secret stashes of the Olympics as well as anyone. Over the course of our conversations, it becomes clear to me just how much Mark enjoys taking out a map and talking about its blank, green spots at length. Recognizing this passion, I quickly leave the route planning to him. In exchange, I offer to outfit him for the trip with a Salsa Cutthroat kitted out with Salsa bikepacking bags.
Skimming over maps, telling me about this place and that road and how rustic this side of Washington is, it is obvious that Mark isn’t new to touring. He’s been conjuring up this trip for years, with a simple goal: select a path across the Olympic Peninsula that offers a true feel of what used to exist—and still exists—in western Washington. We touch base a few more times and I can tell that Mark’s excitement is peaking the closer we come to the departure date.
Washington state is a new landscape to me. I’ve made a few trips to the state’s highlight places over the years, but still have so much to explore. So when my boss plans a visit for the early spring, it feels like a great opportunity to get familiar with another part of my new home and show my boss a good time before we travel the state visiting shops. Since snow still blankets everything above 4,000 feet, this ride Mark has dreamed up should be perfect.
Joining us for this journey is long-time friend Todd “Fishbowl” Meier, a stellar photographer and seasoned explorer whose presence adds to even the best adventure—especially when he can capture it on camera. Todd helped get me into the cycling scene in Boise, got me to race road bikes for a few years, and was a companion on many trips to race cyclocross in the Pacific Northwest. The rad thing about bringing Todd along is that he hasn’t taken the dive into bikepacking, and I know this ride is going to set the hook deep.
Bikes loaded, we start our journey at La Push, in the northwest tip of the peninsula and the United States. We are blessed with clear skies, which isn’t always the case this time of year on the Olympic Peninsula. Mark and his wife, Lynn, take us on small side trip down an abandoned road in the Elwha Canyon, which holds everything you would take in during a visit to Olympic National Park. Just saying “the Elwha” to some conjures up the enchanted forests of yester-year. With old man’s beard moss hanging and sword ferns growing out of the temperate rainforests, this is truly a land of the lost. The Elwha was once home to an amazing salmon habitat but a dam built at the turn of the century destroyed the salmon run. The legend has it that you could walk across the river on the backs of salmon. When the dam was removed in 2007, the salmon came back, reversing their path to extinction and adding their magic back to the Elwha.
The pavement disappears a few thousand feet into the canyon. The removal of the dam has energized the river, which has washed the road out. We journey forward, bearing witness to nature reclaiming what humans carved out of it in last century’s logging boom. If this is what I’m going to be exposed to over the next three days, bring it on—I’m ready to soak it all in.
Our three-day journey east starts the next morning. Lynn stresses that we touch the cold waters of the Pacific and we all do so as sunlight hits the beach. Our route follows quiet country roads with plenty of beauty to be found. Mark’s goal in plotting the route was to keep us off the highway at all costs, which often puts us on the vast network of logging roads throughout the Olympics. The key part of the adventure will be navigating our way through this network, as scarce road information means that we will be pioneers in discovering road conditions as we travel them. Pleasant surprises guide our journey, as most of the roads are in good shape—the few steep pitches greeting us with beautiful views and speedy descents.
After about 20 miles of logging roads, a hidden gem known as the ODT (Olympic Discovery Trail) comes under our tires. This paved ribbon guides us around one of the most spectacular views of the trip, Crescent Lake. The pavement fades to crushed gravel around the east end of the lake, then the trail narrows and the rugged mystique of the Olympics engulfs us.
As we part with Crescent Lake along a trail no wider than our tires, we ride into a land of lush, green vegetation. Ferns stand 6 feet tall, massive old growth trees boast trunks larger than the arm span of our four travelers, and everything is carpeted in thick moss. We stop and rest for a few to take in the beauty and get some history from Mark.
This is the beginning of the Olympic Adventure Route (OAR) an alternative to the paved ODT. The OAR is 24 miles of sweet singletrack, built with the help of a Clallam County prison work force and local volunteers. We spend the next five miles on singletrack with views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Vancouver Island, with Canada as a backdrop—the ideal way to finish day one. We roll off the trail and down into the small town of Joyce, where we spend the night in a yurt.
My philosophy on bikepacking adventures is to always soak up the small-town vibes along the way. In Joyce, there’s no better place to do that than the local diner, the Blackberry Cafe. Folks in small towns seem to embrace life in a different way than those of us who live in larger towns and cities. Our waitress, Roxanne, greets us with a smile and is interested in what we are doing—we might be dressed a little differently than the other customers. I marvel at her carefree interaction with the locals as she invites everyone she speaks with to enjoy some cake tomorrow morning to celebrate her father’s 88th birthday.
Stomachs full, we venture back up the road we descended last night. No matter the grind, we know that our morning is going to start with 20 miles of the stellar OAR trail. We find some rhythm on the trail, but it is often broken by opportunities to stop and soak in the beauty. Todd was all about it (“Each corner offers something better than what I just shot,” he said). As the trail skirts the Olympic Range, we pass through different ecosystems and eventually our forest adventure comes to an end.
We hop back onto the ODT and ride toward the town of Port Angeles. Riding into a larger town feels strange—not in a bad way, just different. We stop for a quick lunch and continue along the ODT, which is key to keeping us from riding on the highway. It’s not just any bike path—it alternates between hugging the ocean and rolling through gorgeous rural landscapes. A few hours of pedaling later, we reach our evening’s resting place on Sequim Bay.
Day three starts with one of the best gas station stops imaginable. The four of us tackle breakfast burritos and fill our bags with delicious goodies. We have a long day ahead to reach the Bainbridge Island ferry. A quiet bike path cruise starts the morning before we climb up Hwy 20 toward Port Townsend. This is the busiest road we’ve been on since the start of our trip but is a small concession for the quiet backcountry, timberland and car-less gravel roads that make up the majority of our route.
As we pedal through a replanted monoculture forest, we see the Hood Canal Bridge off in the distance. Most who seek adventure in the Olympics use this bridge as their gateway. Our crew rolls to a stop at an overlook where Mark points out our coastal route ahead. Arriving at the bridge, we are greeted with a wide bike lane and an easy crossing.
We stop to grab a bite in Mark’s hometown of Port Gamble. Over lunch, Mark tells Todd and Peter about the work he and his wife have done to secure access to 3,600 forested acres filled with trails that he built by hand more than 20 years ago. I sense a great opportunity to sneak in a last section of singletrack and let Mark show us his labor of love. A large grin rolls onto Mark’s face after I float the idea. Mark guides us through a network amazing trails, stopping along the way so he can share their history and details. After an hour of navigation in what is known as the “Port Gamble Block,” we roll onto a country road and low-traffic surface roads until we reach the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal.
We’re all bummed about the end of the journey and keep to ourselves in quiet contemplation as we wind through the hilly landscape of Bainbridge Island. We roll to a final stop at the ferry terminal, where our road literally dead ends at the water’s edge. Seeing Seattle on the opposite shore is a clear indication that our journey through nature’s past, present and future has come to a close.
Bikepacking across the Olympic Peninsula takes effort, but the true perseverance award goes to Mark for his “connect-the-dots” navigation and never giving up on his dream. If you ride this route, prepare to feel like a pioneer as the mystical forests of the Olympics, much like the Elwha River salmon run, seem to regenerate before your very eyes.
ABOUT THE GUEST BLOGGER: JEREMY WHITMAN
Finally landed in the right career, I’m am currently the outside sales representative for QBP in Washington and Northern Idaho. I am now providing the stoke, and getting shop employees as excited as I was about cycling when I began life in a bike shop at age 15. When I not helping bike shops thrive I’m out exploring central Washington with my family, or finding ways to grab that extra night under the stars.
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