Driving through Vantage, Washington doesn’t inspire visions of biking adventures. Interstate 90 slams straight though this shrub infested wasteland, full of wind turbines and cow patties. The Columbia River offers only a momentary break from the monotony of brown, mostly treeless views. Petrified wood and the basalt columns of Frenchman Coulee make up the only claim to fame for this tiny town. But this place has a lot more to it than what is framed in a speeding car window. So when a friend invited us on a “bad ass” bike packing trip in a “remote and strikingly beautiful” area just outside of Vantage, we signed up.
The plan was to do a 4 day/3 night point-to-point ride through the Quilomene/Whiskey Dick Wildlife Recreation Area or “the Q” as we called it. This 21,000 hectare chunk of desert outback was once laid claim by homesteaders more than 50 years ago. Abandoned roads criss-cross the hilly land, a few open to vehicles on a limited basis while most only see wildlife and some hiker traffic.
According to our friend, Ward, who’s been exploring the Q since the late ’80s, only a handful of folks aspire to ride the weathered tracks in this rugged country. The campsites are primitive; water sources limited; and the route-finding challenging with little to no signage or maps available. A love for adventure riding is the cost of membership in this exclusive “Quilomene Club” and we were going to pay our dues.
The smooth, rolling dirt road at the start of our first day’s route was fools gold. Most of the Q is full of baseball sized rocks. Loose slab and gravel. Soft sand and deep grass. Steep technical climbs and descents. Fat bikes were the popular choice in our group of five, the wide tires making it easier to surf the chunder and spin through the soft stuff. This was our first bike packing trip on our Framed Minnesota 3.0 XWTs and they proved to be worthy on the terrain.
Riding down to our first night’s camp at Brushy Creek, we began to feel the bigness of the Q. Those hills seen from the car window are cut deep by tight meandering valleys. The roads wrap themselves for miles against the hillsides, daring us to race down their lumpy backs without tottering over the steep banks. Even the quiet is big, the only sounds being the birds chirping at our arrival and the celebratory tsssts for a great first day’s ride.
We camped amongst the remnants of an old homestead. A partial rock foundation. A rusty cooking pot. Rolls of barbed wire that once fenced in livestock. The occasional apricot tree that survived a recent forest fire. How hard it must have been for the original homesteaders to live on this land in the scorching hot summers and the freezing cold winters.
Unlike the homesteaders, we could be choosy as to the best time to roam the Q. We went over the Easter long weekend, hitting the perfect spring weather window for a multi-day trip. The warm, sunny days had the desert screaming with colour. Bright green brunch grass. Purple lupines. Yellow balsam root. Pink clover. Blue violets. Red willow. And the winds that power the nearby turbine farms were never more than a gentle breeze.
We had been warned that the Q can be incredibly brutal and amazing at the same time. Wind and rain bring out the ugly side of the Q. The winds roar down the valleys tearing out tents and making it impossible to cook dinner. The rain turns the roads into gooey, drivetrain clogging mud, pushing your limit for hike-a-bike-ability. If you know rain is coming, don’t go; if it starts raining, leave.
We got the amazing experience. The weather was warm and sunny for riding. The nights were still freezing this early in the year but nothing a belly of hot food, a campfire and a down bag couldn?t fix. We saw the resident herd of elk and experienced the bighorn sheep morning rush hour traffic through our camp. We had full moon lighting at night and a sand dune to play on during the day (the big dune located on the Columbia River across from the Gorge Ampitheatre). And we had all of this to ourselves for most of the weekend, only coming across four other people for brief moments.
Now I did say earlier that we had to pay our dues to become members of the Q Club. This came in the form of our legs protesting loudly from being too overloaded with gear. It really became apparent on our third day that our bikes and packs were far heavier than anyone else in the group as we groaned our way up the Q’s Ridge Road, more commonly known as the Army Road (the only legalized vehicle route to the bottom of the Q at our dune campsite).
When we reached the nine kilometre mark on the Army Road, we called it quits, relatively speaking. We still had to find our way up the remaining nine kilometres of the mostly shaly Army Road where our van was parked 3,000 ft above where we had camped that morning.
While our three friends enjoyed a final moonlit Q night along the Columbia River, we hoovered down a Mexican dinner and slept like the dead at a campsite near Vantage where we met our friends next morning to say goodbye.
Joining the Quilomene Club was worth every rock we rolled over and every pound we pushed up hill. Its big views and rugged beauty are worth exploring; just bring the right frame of mind, a good group of friends and be prepared to be challenged.
Tips for exploring the Q
The Quilomene/Whiskey Dick Wildlife Recreation Area is a vast area to explore. Stop by the visitor centre at the Wild Horse Windfarm for a map or contact Ward via the Washington forum on MTBR.com. Spring and fall are the best times to explore the Q. Bring water filtration devices with you and watch out for poison ivy, snakes and prickly plants.