The advent of August brought with it a fantastic opportunity for some gravel grinding and adventure deep in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. On this day, I would join my friend Amos for 44 miles of biking on mixed surfaces and more than 4,000 feet of elevation gain — a tough day with a great reward in the middle.
Ever since I moved back to Lewis County in 2014, I’ve spent a lot of time at two of Washington’s three big volcanoes. Mount St. Helens is one of my favorite places in the world, Mount Rainier is beautiful beyond comparison, and Mount Adams — well, Mount Adams is the forgotten child of the three siblings.
With no visitor’s center or easy road access from a highway, Mount Adams quietly looms over surrounding forests, fields and meadows in relative silence. It’s the perfect area to enjoy some peace and solitude, with tourists and sightseers opting to see something a bit more “accessible.”
This trip would prove how arduous the journey is, yet incredibly rewarding to stand in the shadow of Mount Adams — and to do so by bike sweetened the experience.
The journey called for 44 miles done in a loop, with just over 4,000 feet of total elevation gain. Difficult but doable, but the beginning part of the ride was a shock to the system. The first five miles brought us up nearly 800 feet of elevation gain on Forest Road 21, which if we followed through to the end would drop us into Packwood. But we would turn right and hit some pavement about 8 miles into the ride.
After turning right on FR 2160, we made our way southward on FR 56 and promptly turned left onto FR 2329. The gravel wasn’t bad, but we were coming up on a very spirited ascent. Before we tackled it, though, we grabbed a quick bite and washed it down with some water before punching up the hill.
Punching up Forest Road 2329 was not for the faint of heart. A road with only enough width for one car plus a couple feet made for some interesting times when vehicles passed. Just about everyone was friendly and waved back when I waved hello and thank you for their consideration.
However, even as tough as FR 2329 was, Amos and I were able to make some conversation about some topics relevant to life — and I realized I’ve come a long way. Just two years ago, I had to stop three times to catch my breath while riding up a similar grade on an equally heavy bike.
We averaged about 6-7 mph up the climb (I readily admit Amos could have smoked me by just motoring up the road if he wanted to), and before we knew it we were up at a road intersection. This was another perfect opportunity to stop, take a drink, grab another quick bite to keep the calories and carbs coming, and just enjoy the quiet sounds of wind through the trees for a couple of moments.
Now the worst part of our ride would hit us soon as we continued on FR 2329 through an interesting-looking fir forest. We began to notice that each time we would ascend and begin sweating, flies and bees wanted to become our friends (or maybe more than friends). We would respectfully decline their overtures before more would join the fray and buzz all around us as we tried to concentrate on our climbs.
And there were plenty of climbs — just this section of FR 2329 alone outside of Takhlakh brought us up and down some really punchy rollers, totaling about 800 more feet of elevation gain before it flattened out near Keenes Horse Camp for a bit.
Even though Takhlakh Lake was our destination, we saw so many beautiful sights on the way. The forest itself to me is a place of grand peace and serenity — and to see flowing rivers, babbling brooks, and adventurous animals running to and fro brought a lift to the spirits.
On one section up a brisk ramp of FR 2329, several small waterfalls fed a roadside stream that meandered its way toward the Cispus River.
After a few more tough and technical climbs in which sections of the road had ruts from winter snowmelt, or rocks jutting out from the roadbed below, we descended down a steep section of the road and passed a couple of cars coming the other way. One of the drivers remarked to me that his car didn’t belong out there (understatement of the century), but he looked like he was doing okay. We were suffering just as much, so we found a momentary kinship in our shared struggles to get through this road.
The descent brought us down to one of the most pristine areas in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest: Takh Takh Meadow. Less than two miles from Takhlakh Lake, this meadow is a small prairie that seems to extend outward a long way, breaking up the forest scenery and providing a feeling of openness in the seeming middle of nowhere.
We continued our descent to Takhlakh Lake, and Amos told me he had never been there before. With the weather conditions a balmy 70 degrees, and a slight wind from the south, what perfect conditions for a first-time visit.
As for me, it was my third time up here, and every trip I’ve taken to this place has been done on the seat of a bicycle.
Takhlakh Lake is home to a campground that offers one of the most pristine views in the Northwest. Again, it’s overlooked by many because of the rugged nature of the area surrounding it.
I kind of like it that way.
We spent a few minutes taking in the sights before hopping back on our bikes and initiating a descent down FR 23, the main road in this section of forest. We hopped on rather quickly as we knew our water supply was diminishing and our muscles would get sore if we just sat around. We struck a good balance between enjoying the moment and recognizing the necessity of continuing on.
The descent down Forest Road 23 is long and winding, and the first portion of it requires ultimate care due to the condition of the gravel. Potholes and washboarded areas loom, and we kept our descent at 15-18 mph to stay safe. After six miles of descending on gravel, the road surface switched to pavement and we descended a lot faster. Amos hit a top speed of 40 while I hit 36, all the while looking over the surface of the road for potential hazards.
We exhausted our water supply at the bottom of the grade, a perfect time to do so as we had one final ascent. Turning back onto FR 21 from FR 23, we had to climb about 650 feet over 5 miles to get back to the car. With 4-6 percent grades at maximum, this was doable although by this time my legs were screaming at me to stop the torture.
After a great sports-based conversation, we found ourselves back at the FR 56 intersection and the pullout area where we left the vehicle. The final ascent was nothing to scoff at, but again I remembered how difficult it was for me on a similarly heavy bike when I first tried it in 2018.
Not only was this ride great to do to enjoy some mountain and forest scenery, which we have in abundance in the PNW, but it was a great barometer to measure where I’ve come from and where I’m going from here.
This month I am shooting for a goal of 1,000 miles in the saddle, and it won’t be easy. Starting that quest with a ride like this is a great way to get into a good mental state and get ready for the grind.
I heartily recommend riding the gravel roads of the Gifford Pinchot, especially the route we did today. It’s good climbing practice, and a great route on which to test equipment for multi-day rides in mountainous terrain.
Here’s my Strava track from the ride today: