Misadventures Riding the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route

Dual Sport Off Road Motorcycles

Earlier this month I attempted the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route sections 4, 5 and 6.  You will learn more about why I say “attempted” as you read along.  The Washington Backcountry Discovery Route (WABDR) is 575 miles of (mostly) off-road riding that goes from the Oregon/Washington border to the Washington/Canadian border.  

Read how I planned and what I packed. And if it is your first time planning a similar ride, I hope you will learn from my mistakes.  In this post, I will journal our experiences on this motorcycle adventure, my expectations before the trip and my confrontation with reality after day one of our journey.  

Meeting Our Group the Night Before

I am riding sections 4, 5 and 6 of the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route with my hubby, brother, and sister-in-law. Section 4 covers backroads from Cashmere to Chelan. Section 5 is Chelan to Conconully, and Section 6 is Conconully to the border crossing at Nighthawk. These three sections total to approximately 273 miles. We plan to spend one day riding per section.

My hubby and I rode over from Seattle Tuesday night after work to meet my brother and his wife in the town of Leavenworth, Washington. We reserved a campsite and planned to get dinner with them before getting some rest for our ride on Section 4  the next day. We had a great evening hanging out in Leavenworth, and everyone’s spirits are high and our hearts full of adventure.

Day 1: Section 4 of the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route

Our campsite in Leavenworth.

I was up around 6:30 a.m. No one else is awake, so I walk up the road to get coffee. Typically when we go camping, I make coffee at camp, but today’s campsite is conveniently located down the street from Starbucks. The campsite is still quiet when I return, and no one else is up yet.  I read, and I journal, I drink more coffee and finally decide to wake up my husband. It is now almost 7:45 a.m., and the rest of the group is finally getting up.

This is the first in a series of lessons where my expectations meet reality and lack of planning.  I should have discussed with the group, the night before, what time we all thought we should leave. Then set the alarm and made sure everyone was up and getting ready on time.  However, I assumed that the day’s ride would only take 4 or 5 hours, so I wasn’t panicked. That was lesson two in setting expectations.

We decided (against our better judgment) to go into town for breakfast. By the time we got into town for breakfast, it was already after 10:00 a.m.  I knew we should have just eaten at camp or stopped at a place along the route, but again, I thought today’s ride wouldn’t be that long.

So long story short, we don’t end up starting the ride until almost noon!  Yeah, that was a big mistake!  

In the Beginning, There Was a Puddle

In the few days preceding our ride, the area had received heavy rain and flash flooding.  So shortly after starting the off-road portion of Section 4, we run into the mother of all mud puddles.  Think crater filled with water and mud. Then after you cross said crater, you must traverse along a thin stretch of dirt like a tightrope walker to avoid getting stuck in the large muddy ruts on each side.  The grooves were so deep in places that if I were to get stuck in them, my panniers would hit the sides of the rut.

Hubby is in the lead, and he makes it through the mud puddle (crater) and safely to the other side.  I, however, stopped at the edge of the mud crater– that was a mistake. And then I let that pit get in my head and psych me out — another mistake.  My brother gets out of his 4Runner to give me some pointers on crossing the puddle. He offers to ride it for me, but I say no, I need to do this myself.  So I proceed to descend into the muddy pit only to shortly thereafter lay the bike over.  

off road rider thru puddle with woman covered in mud

Puddle Wins 1-0

My husband said he heard “glub, glub, glub” on the communication system.  Yes, that was me and my helmet immersed in muddy puddle water. I ask my brother to get my bike up quick. The last thing I want is for it to take in water.  So he gets in and soaks his feet and legs to help me get my bike up. He’s a good big brother. I’m unhappy at this point and frustrated with myself for letting this puddle get the best of me.  And I am also not happy about just starting the ride and being soaking wet!

But, I get back on my bike, and now I am staring down the deep ruts on either side, willing myself to look forward to where I want to go and not at those deep ruts where I don’t want to go!  (There’s probably a life metaphor in there somewhere.) My brother once again helps me, as I’ve slid into a rut, and after he helps me out, I make it safely across to where my hubby is waiting.  

Oh, and a quick note about our communication devices. We purchased Sena SMH10s for this ride, and we loved having comms! It was invaluable to be able to communicate directions and needs while riding.  Additionally, besides the mud puddle, we also road in heavy rain on our way back to Seattle and the comms seemed unaffected.  I highly recommend you consider a communication system when doing a group ride.

Off Road Motorcyclist with Dual Sport
Me a little muddier than when I started, but still having fun!

If A Tree Falls In the Forest

And now the irony of it all, no one thought to take any pictures of the muddy crater, the huge ruts, me dripping wet, nothing.  So I ask you: If you ride off-road and take a plunge in a huge mud puddle, but no one captured it on camera, did it even happen?

Little did we realize, but the puddle was just a taste of what this day would hold. There were more deep grooves and washouts, rocky ascents and descents, road closures and detours all culminating in a dark and rocky ride down to the town of Chelan.

Chumstick Mountain Summit to Ardenvoir

Chumstick Mountain Viewpoint on off road trail
Enjoying the view at Chumstick Mountain Summit

We make it to the summit of Chumstick Mountain, elevation 5,810 feet and take a break and enjoy the views.  Our spirits are high, and we’ve had a great time riding thus far.  Each puddle I’ve encountered since “the” puddle has been easily crossed or avoided, and we’ve been gaining confidence and experience. I’ve heard “whoops” and “wahoos” over the comms and enough corny jokes to last a lifetime.  This is what the journey is about.

As we enjoy our break, we notice afire in the distance, and we hope that we won’t need to ride through it. We don’t and are happy about that. We eat a snack and continue our ride to the next waypoint in the town of Ardenvoir.

As we are about to hit pavement for our ride into Ardenvoir, a “road closed” sign is blocking our path.  We followed the detour signs, and it felt like we were backtracking in the direction we had already come. After the initial detour, we came to another fork in the road with another detour sign. According to the map, the detour would not take us where we wanted to go, so we continued straight to stay on NF-5801. It was around 1 to 1 1/2 hours later that we arrived in the town of Ardenvoir. 

The gas station is closed, because, you know, it’s Wednesday.  So we decide to keep going. It is now about 5:30 p.m. as we start our ascent of over 4,000 feet to reach McKenzie Ridge. After that, we will ride down Slide Ridge and hopefully reach Lake Chelan before dark.

McKenzie Ridge Meets Misguided Expectations

Lake Chelan Views from McKenzie Ridge
Views of Lake Chelan from McKenzie Ridge

Oh, the optimism and the naivete I held at that moment. I was sure we could make it to Lake Chelan before dark.

As we reached McKenzie Ridge, we saw beautiful views of Lake Chelan. And it filled us with hope. We could see our destination, and it felt closer than it actually was.

The lake calls to us as we begin our descent down Slide Ridge, telling us, we were close. We were not close enough. Soon daylight turned into dusk and dusk to darkness.

Riding in the Dark

View of Lake Chelan at Dusk from the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route
My brother took this photo of Lake Chelan from his 4Runner on our way down Slide Ridge.

We continue our ride down the mountain in the dark, passing primitive campsites along the way. I call out to my hubby, who was in the lead, “we can camp here.” He continues riding, his reply, “I just want off this mountain.”

We are exhausted and sore and riding down that rocky road full of ruts took every ounce of concentration and strength. On top of that, my husband’s rear brakes overheated and were no longer working. This meant he had to use a combination of riding his clutch and applying soft front brake pressure in the steep areas. 

I, on the other hand, had not taken the time to clean my visor from my initial fall in the mud puddle. So I was riding with my visor up, all the while praying that those bats that kept flying across my path would not fly into my helmet.  Standing up in the rough parts now took every ounce of strength I could muster.

We skip the optional “jungle” on section 4 and take the easier alternate route down.

I thoroughly regretted my foolish assumptions at this point. Assuming things would take less time and assuming our skill levels were higher. I was feeling bad that I had pressured my hubby into continuing the ride from Ardenvoir when he had doubts about it — and desperately wanting to get off the mountain safely.  Off-road motorcycle riding at night was not part of the plan.

Pavement Oh Sweet Pavement How I Missed You

We rolled into our campsite at Lake Chelan State Park around 10:30 p.m. After over 10 hours of riding, we were never so happy to see pavement as we were that night. I didn’t know if I’d be able to walk the next day. I was completely spent.

Riding is a workout, and riding off-road is both physically and mentally demanding.  Choosing your lines and hours and hours of standing and sitting (think of doing squats for an entire day) and being pounded by rough and rocky road conditions. Even my brother and sister-in-law in the Toyota were feeling it. 

I realized that day that I was not in the physical shape, I needed to be in, and I overestimated my stamina and ability. I should have planned to camp on the mountain and split section 4 into two days rather than one. We are beginners, not seasoned adventure riders.  What I want to be and what I was at that moment were two very different things.

We set up camp in the dark, my brother quickly grills up some hot dogs, and we crawl into our sleeping bags.

Day 2: Section 5 of the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route

Lake Chelan State Park Campsite
Our campsite at Lake Chelan. Oh and the neighborhood duck.

We get up around 7:00 a.m. this morning. I can move, and I can walk, so I’m thankful for that.  My quads are really feeling the workout from yesterday. My brother fixes some pancakes and eggs on his grill, while I get the coffee going.  We eat and then pack up camp before taking a quick stroll down to the lake.

It’s after ten, and we’re finally leaving camp.  However right after leaving, we discover the communication devices aren’t working correctly and neither is the GPS.  We fuel up and re-sync the comms again. The GPS signal keeps dropping.  We continue driving in the direction of Section 5, and my sister-in-law tells me thru the comms that it keeps saying, “GPS signal lost.” 

Then it said re-routing when it connected again. So we turn off where the GPS instructs us, and soon we hit gravel roads. We stop again to re-sync the comms as my brother can hear me, but I can’t hear him.  GPS is still acting up, but we’re just going to try to follow the line on the map.

The Road Less Traveled

Star Wars Obi-wan Kenobi

The ride starts with a grated gravel road and then turns into a fun climb up dirt roads. The stress of the previous night is behind us as we enjoy riding along this new path. There’s nothing quite like standing on your bike, wind in your hair, and a little dirt under your tires.

Soon we hit a section of road that looks like no one has ridden on it for a very long time.  We climb up a rocky section with ruts on either side only to reach an overgrown jungle of a road where we decide to stop and regroup. 

This does not feel like the right path.  While I get out the paper map (something I should have done at camp before leaving), my brother decides to walk the trail a bit further. Soon he comes back and says, “uh I don’t think we’re going any further.”

Let me tell you right here, if my brother has doubts, then it is absolutely a no-go for me.  He has years of off-road riding experience and is known to do some crazy stuff, so I listen when I hear any tiny whisper of doubt coming out of his mouth.

Off Road Motorcycle Trail in Washington

Something tells me this is not the road we are looking for. You can’t see from the picture, but on the left, there is a drop-off. The Toyota has “just” enough space to get by the tree on the right, but its tires would have to ride the edge that is already sloughing off. Not worth the risk. Not to mention the road doesn’t improve beyond this point.

I look at the map, and I say “we’re here and you see this road, way over across the mountain, yeah that’s the road we’re supposed to be on!”  The GPS re-routed us to link up to the original road, unfortunately, the path we’re on, isn’t used by anyone other than cows, so it’s a no-go for us.

We come to the unfortunate conclusion that we must now turn around and go back to the highway to start again. We will discuss what to do once we make it back down.

Tough Decisions

Sculpture at Wells Dam on Hwy 97 in Washington
Taking a lunch break at Wells Dam on our way to Omak.

We’ve finally returned to the highway where we missed the correct turn off for Section 5 of the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route. It is around 2:30 p.m., and we are still tired from the previous day’s ride.  Due to our time limitations, current physical state, and desire to be safe; we decide to skip Section 5 and instead ride up to Omak via the highway. 

We aren’t happy about the decision, but we know it is the right one for us at this time. It is too late in the day to complete section 5, and we did not plan enough days to allow for an extra day of camping and riding.

So we ride to Omak where we’ll spend the night and get our gear ready for the final section of the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route, Section 6.

Day 3: Section 6 of the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route

Three Off Road Dual Sport Riders near Conconully Washington

We stop on Section 6 near Conconully, to fix our gear and have a little fun.

My brother and his wife are riding his KLR today. Since we will not be camping, he doesn’t need to bring the Toyota.  In the future, he’ll purchase panniers so he can camp off his motorcycle too.

We eat breakfast and fuel up.  Then start the ride around 9:30. We don’t need our GPS or maps today as my brother has covered practically every road in the mountains surrounding the Omak area. He knows today’s route forward and backward.  I mean he knows where the dips are and where the mud pits are. If anyone needs a guide to ride in the Okanogan Valley, he’s your guy.

We ride up to Conconully to the start of Section 6. It’s getting cold, and we all stop to zip up the vents on our clothing and add any layers for the cooler temps.  Then we keep going. Soon we reach the top of Lone Frank Pass, elevation 6,667 feet. It’s a bit windy up here, but there are beautiful views of the mountains and fire-damaged forests below. 

Lone Frank Pass Forest Roads for Off Road WABDR route

Looking down the road at Lone Frank Pass.

Skull and Crossbones Road

Continuing on we soon reach the turn off for the Skull and Crossbones road.  It sounds ominous, but it’s not so bad. We stop at the Skull and Crossbones cabin, which collapsed during the previous winter, it is still a nice stop for a photo opp.  Then we continue our journey. Not too far after the Skull and Crossbones cabin, my brother tells us that we will ride through a mud pit.

The bikes got a bit squirrely riding through this slick section of the road, and after I make it through safely, I say “wow, why does it smell like manure?”  My brother then lets us know that the “mud” isn’t just mud… We were all grateful none of us took a plunge in the “mud.”

Skull and Crossbone Cabin on WABDR

What’s left of the Skull and Crossbones Cabin.

The Final Stretch

The Skull and Crossbones Road eventually connects to a little bit of pavement before returning to a gravel road.  My brother takes us on a slight detour to see the local “Christmas tree” near Tiffany Springs. We look at the “ornaments” before returning to our route. 

We come up behind a herd of cows running down the road in front of us.  Although I am not afraid of a cow, I do know they are still animals, and with that comes some unpredictability.  My brother coaches me to pick one side of the road and continue at a steady pace. He said I would be “herding the cows,” and they will move to one side.  He was right, as I stayed to the right, they moved to the left and allowed me to pass safely.

Soon we can see the town of Loomis below us as well as part of Palmer Lake. It is a fun and easy ride back down to the pavement. 

Palmer Lake from above

A view of Palmer Lake.

After returning to the paved roads below, we make a left and continue our ride around the beautiful Palmer Lake. There are a lot of neighborhood deer in the Palmer Lake area, so watch out if you ride that section.  It’s a short ride around the lake, and soon we are pulling into the old mining town of Nighthawk. We stop to take a few pictures on the town bridge. 

The river in the town of Nighthawk Washington

Looking over the river in the town of Nighthawk.

We continue down the road before making a left turn for the Canadian border crossing and also the end of Section 6 and the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route. We take a snack break before driving down into the town of Oroville and ultimately making our way back to Omak for the night. It is the end of one journey, but there are many more to come.

Canadian border with dual sport motorcyclist

The Nighthawk Washington/Canadian border and the end of the WABDR.

Setting Realistic Expectations

I overestimated how simple the ride would be and underestimated the time it would take to complete each section.  I imagined we’d roll into camp late afternoon, relax,  chat about the day’s ride, eat dinner and get a good night’s rest. And I was so wrong. I should have assumed it would take us longer, that it would be harder and that we would be far more tired each day than I could have imagined.

My assumptions about the ride and us as riders were faulty. I made mistakes. However, I’ve learned from them.  I am a more experienced rider now than I was before we started riding the WABDR. I will plan better for trips like this in the future.  And I will set better expectations and better communicate to my group the miles for each day and what time I’d like to leave each morning, etc.  

That said, we have a great time!  We had laughs, we got dirty, and we saw beautiful scenery–we had an adventure! The best way to turn a misadventure into an adventure is your attitude.  Always keep a positive attitude, and you’ll always have adventures.

Lessons Learned On the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route

Beautiful Mountain views in Washington state
What a beautiful journey it is!

If you are new to off-road motorcycle riding or riding an adventure motorcycle off-road, then give yourself extra time.  Extra time to rest, recover and to enjoy the trip and the scenery. Riding is about the journey, not the destination.

  • Assume the ride will take longer. 
  • Set the time you want to leave by each morning and do your best to stick to it.
  • Review the map and route the morning of the ride.
  • Allow extra time for fun, relaxing, and resting.
  • Prepare physically for the ride, months in advance, if possible.
  • Add an extra day or two for detours, emergencies, and other setbacks.
  • When it stops being fun, take a break, and camp for the night if needed. Then start fresh in the morning.
  • Take more photos.  Get a helmet cam. Document the experience.  Most people who don’t ride won’t understand what you mean when you say a “steep rocky descent.” Or when you say “big ruts” or “a huge puddle.”
  • Drink more water along the way.
This trip has been a fun learning experience. I am a more experienced rider now and I faced my fears and pushed myself further than I thought I could.  I don’t regret the rough stuff, and I am proud of myself for what I accomplished and look forward to completing the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route in its entirety one day soon.
 
My motto: Find your limit and then push past it just a little. Repeat for life.
We survived this ride and we're still planning another one.

More Info on the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route

If you want to learn more about the WABDR, you can stream the official Washington Backcountry Discovery Route video on Amazon.com.

Touratech USA has YouTube videos on each section of the WABDR for free. And you can also purchase the map of the WA Backcountry Discovery Route online from Touratech USA.

In addition to Washington’s Backcountry Discovery Route, there are nine other states with completed backcountry routes and more in development.  So make sure to check out all the available routes and see if there is one near you.

Let the adventure begin!

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