Remembering Naches Pass

Posted by: Jan Heine Category: Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues, Rides

Remembering Naches Pass

Recently, I cleaned out old files on our computers, and came across this treasure trove of unpublished photos from Bicycle Quarterly‘s “Secret Pass” adventure. It took me back three years, when Hahn and I headed into the Cascade Mountains to test the MAP 650B Randonneur.
Like all of Mitch’s bikes, his latest machine was stunningly beautiful – and its ride matched its appearance. We left in the middle of the night, and by the time the sun came up, we already were on old logging roads that parallel Highway 410 on the way to Mount Rainier. It was time to let out some air and adjust the tires to gravel pressure.
After a good breakfast in Greenwater, we left civilization behind as we climbed toward Naches Pass. Hahn was riding his first 650B randonneur bike, and we both carried our camping gear in low-rider panniers. It was the first time we tried the now-common idea of a high-performance bike with front low-riders, rather than full touring bikes with stiff frames that feel “dead” and don’t “plane” for us.
Even though we were only heading out for two days, we were giddy with a sense of adventure. Back then, nobody we knew had cycled across Naches Pass. We could see roads on the map, but we had no idea what they’d look like…
We were surprised to find a boardwalk as we approached the pass. With our wide, supple tires, riding on the wooden planks was easy. Patches of snow lined the trail – remnants of the first autumn snowfall at this high elevation.
The boardwalk gave way to a bumpy, muddy trail, and Hahn learned the hard way about the importance of generous fender clearances. Where the MAP had passed without problems, his fenders clogged up with mud, and his wheels no longer turned. Several times, he removed the wheels and scraped out the mud.
Naches Pass is on a beautiful highland. The sandier gravel no longer clung to the tires, and the riding was smooth. The dense forest opened into meadows, and the sparser tree coverage that was prescient of what we’d find east of the Cascades. We were elated: We had found Naches Pass!
As we started descending, we entered a maze of logging roads. Only educated guesswork (and luck!) kept us from getting completely lost. We were relieved when we reached the valley. The sun had already set as we approached Cliffdell, but even in the twilight, the autumn leaves were stunning.
We slept well despite our rudimentary camping gear. In the morning, our sleeping bags were covered in frost. This enticed us to pack up quickly and head into the next leg of our adventure: the search for the “secret passes” that separate the valleys of the Naches and Yakima Rivers. We felt like explorers on an important mission: A good route across these mountains would be as useful to cycling in the Cascades as the “inside passage” was to commerce during the 19th century.
Our search started well. Based on a tip from a local at the campground where we had spent the night, we found the road out of the Naches River Valley. The climb  was spectacular.
The dark basalt cliffs provided a beautiful backdrop for the green pine and yellow aspen trees. We warmed up quickly as we rode up the steep, long gravel road.
A few hours later, our prospects looked less good: Our road simply petered out. We rode across boulder fields and roadless grasslands as we searched for roads. The beautiful scenery kept us happy even when it wasn’t clear whether we’d find our way or not.
We finally found something that resembled a road. In the mud, we saw the tracks of deer, but no human footprints or vehicle tracks. It was fun to make the first tire tracks here. Most importantly, the “road” seemed to lead in the right direction.
We were lucky, as the road brought us to the tiny hamlet of Wenas. Our hope to find food there – we had run out of supplies – was futile. Wenas consists of four or five houses, and there wasn’t a person to be seen, much less a store.
From Wenas, we climbed Ellensburg Pass. Even on this “main road” (above), we encountered almost no traffic and wonderful riding. After cresting the pass and a screaming descent, we made it to Ellensburg in time for an early dinner. More gravel riding returned us to Seattle late that night.
The passage across the “secret passes” had proved elusive, but what a grand adventure it had been! And perhaps, somewhere in those mountains, there still may be a passable gravel road. And so the search for the “lost pass” continues…
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