Last fall when Jim and I rode up Pyramid Peak, at 8,350 feet arguably the highest point open to mountain bikers in Washington State (Angel’s Staircase and Tiffany Peak are close competitors), Jim kept looking one ridge over and muttering to himself.
“Dude, we’ve got to do Grouse Pass,” he said.
It was out of the question that day. We’d already climbed more than a mile in elevation gain, we were fried, it was getting cold, we would easily run out of light if we attempted another saddle.
But the thing about Jim is, he doesn’t forget a promise. Especially one to himself. The open meadows and chiseled peaks of Grouse Pass stayed etched in his frontal lobes. So when we got an opening over Labor Day weekend for some high-country epics, Grouse Pass was No. 1 on our list.
Getting up to the trailhead from Seattle is a major chore. You have to drive I-90 or Stevens Pass almost to Wenatchee, then follow 97 up the west side of the Columbia almost to Entiat, turning on 51 (the Ardenvoir exit) and rambling another 35 miles into the east side of the Wenatchee National Forest. It’s a 4 to 4 1/2 hour haul — it just doesn’t seem that short.
The payoff is that you’re in really remote, really wild, really breathtaking mountain country when you finally crawl up Road 5606 to the South Pyramid Creek trailhead. (Don’t forget your Forest Service parking pass — several cars had flapping paper under their windshields by ride’s end).
I’ve not had great luck riding up Pyramid, twice getting snowed out and the third time babbling about dehydration and heat stroke. That’s the Entiat for you — nothing but extremes. At least, until this time.
Jim and I immediately noticed the primo condition of the trail. Instead of the usual cake flour, the trail was packed and tacky. Some pretty serious rain had obviously fallen, either the night or day before. A lot of the lower trail was damp — not muddy, but nowhere near dusty. 4,500 feet of climbing with actual traction — hey, we’ll take it!
The other thing was the weather — crisp, cool, puffy clouds overhead. I’m guessing low to mid 70s. No snow, no heat — no problem!
You follow Trail 1439 (all designations are on Green Trails map for Lucerne, No. 114) across multiple creek crossings, some with bridges, most without. Where we couldn’t ride through, the water was just high enough to require the usual Twister moves, stretching to reach exposed stones with hopes our shoe didn’t slip. In between it was pretty much solid climbing, although nearly all rideable till the upper junction with the Pyramid Peak Trail No. 1433.
At this point we ran into our first bipeds, three young hikers from Seattle on their way up to the peak. One knew enough about mountain bikes to grill us on our carbon Ibis Mojos. Because Jim and I ride the same bike (mine has gold Martas while his has the reds), we’ve called ourselves Team Mojo. But it occurred to me after talking with our hiker friend that we should rename ourselves the Carbon Copies. Jim noted that the kids, while they might understand the phrase, would have no clue as to its origin. “We’re old,” I said, “but not that old. They didn’t have real carbon paper when we were young either!”
Anyway, we continued on up toward the pass. We crossed over a slight rise and were summarily dumped into a gobsmacking wildflowered meadow — quiet, serene, wondrous. We took a lunch break, shot some photos (I was using my iPhone all the way for video, an experiment that kinda worked and kinda didn’t) and started the slog toward the saddle. Once we were above the meadow we began hearing eerie, sharp, loud, punctuated whistles — the striking call of the marmot, aka whistling pig.
We stopped to listen and then saw one — a dark little guy with gray and black fur. Then another. And another. A fourth … what was this, pigs on parade? They might’ve been juveniles, because as Jim noted their coloring was different from the light brown of a typical marmot. They also weren’t fat and wide like baseball fans, which most mature marmots are.
Marmots are wonderful creatures. They pretty much take their time and live a gentle, serene life, digging burrows under big rocks on which they sun themselves and snooze. Marmots move slowly and never seem bothered. Just watching one lowers your blood pressure.
But they do tend to be a bit shy, so you have to be patient to catch a glimpse. That said, we ran into marmots at two other junctures in the ride. I’ve never encountered so many in one place; I guess our timing was right.
On the climb we kept stopping at every switchback to take in the views. By the time you top out across from Pugh Ridge, you’re just a couple of miles from Glacier Peak Wilderness. The granite outcroppings are spectacular, mystical and moving. You think about time, about nature, about evolution . . . about how big and important humans consider themselves, and how insignificant they really are. It’s a different kind of experience than most mountain biking today.
I’d noted eight vehicles at the trailhead, but only one with a bike rack. That didn’t use to be the case — you could pretty much count on running into other bikers on a ride this time of year in this region. But Whistler, Galbraith, the NorthShore and DIY trail building have sucked the riders away from classic cross-country epics. As much as I love a trail like Mullet or Ladies Only or Kill Me Thrill Me, none of them can transport your consciousness the way a classic all-day XC escape can. A whole generation of riders is missing mountain biking the way God intended it to be.
From the top you can take Pugh Ridge Trail (No. 1438) down, but I don’t know why you’d want to. You’re selling yourself short, literally. The ride down is less than half the distance of the bigger loop, and you lose too much elevation too quickly.
The one drawback to following the ridge to the North Fork Entiat Trail (No. 1437) is more climbing, and it’s ugly. The trail is almost impassable at some points — Jim and I did some rock-clearing on one stubbled section — and there’s a lot of pushing. We ran into a couple with two teenage girls on an overnighter backpack, and they confirmed there’d been a bit of rain the night before.
Once you finally reach the junction, though, you’ve got 8-plus miles of glorious downhill — along the babbling river, across gorgeous meadows, up and down over loopy swoopy risers. It was grand to do drops and jumps that weren’t man-made, and dodge obstacles that were not constructed by hand. By the time we got back to the trailhead, sprinkles were falling. More intrepid hikers were heading out for overnights; we thought of them the next morning when the skies opened up with pouring down rain. Our weekend of riding — we had Chikamin Ridge and Mad Lake and Klone Peak yet to do — was aborted. But after seven hours of magic in the Entiat, with flashbacks of grandiose peaks, ripping downhills and funny little meadow waddlers fresh in our minds, disappointment was something we could live with.