Matt Rose on a newly constructed bridge and trail at Squilchuck State Park.

Squilchuck’s Identity Crisis

by Andy Dappen

The trouble with Squilchuck State Park is that it has lacked an identity. Most state parks have a defining feature that draws visitors — cliffs to climb, lakes to swim, rivers to fish, bays to boat, geologic wonders to probe, ocean beaches to comb, fields to play sports, canyons to walk, or spectacular viewpoints to reach.

Squilchuck is a wallflower by comparison. It has pleasant though not spectacular trails to walk. It offers pleasant but less than spectacular camping. It has sledding and tubing in the winter – when there is enough snow, which there often isn’t. It has a pleasant old lodge to enjoy, but a lodge does not a state park make.

All of this, as well as its off-the-beaten-track location seven miles up the Squilchuck Road explain why visitations to this pleasant but less-than-spectacular park have languished and why it was mothballed in 2009 when State Park budget cuts had some parks closing for good, others being mothballed until the return of flusher times, and all parks being forced to operate on a fraction of what they formerly enjoyed.

What Squilchuck needed to get released from the eddies of obscurity and back in the mainstream  was exactly what Matt Rose, an avid mountain biker who lived adjacent to the park, went to work giving it.

Rose was not your average mountain biker. He was also an active trail builder who had partnered with the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust to build many of the new trails we locals now enjoy in the Sage Hills and around the Horse Lake Reserve. Rose imagined Squilchuck as a mountain biking hub – a place that would have skill parks with balance features, jumps, and pump tracks. He envisioned nested trails within the park that would service riders of different abilities so parents could ride something quite tame while their kids got a little insane.

The concept has worked wonders elsewhere. Duthie Hill, a King County park on rather nondescript forest land in Issaquah Washington has seen over 75,000 visitors per year once it had the same sort of face lift Rose has in mind and turned itself into a mountain biking destination with skills park and interesting trails servicing riders of all abilities. Mountain biking trails also define the Methow Valley in summer and drive its economy.

Meanwhile Oakridge, Oregon was a town that was going extinct in the early 1990s when its two mills closed. In much the same way that Leavenworth re-invented itself as a Bavarian Village, Oakridge successfully promoted itself as mountain biking capital and built an extensive trail network catering to mountain bikers in the surrounding national forest. Today Oakridge sees $2.35 million to $4.9 million in direct spending from these visitors each year.

Evening and weekend usage of the park has already seen a big jump. Once the trails and skills park are built-out, expect a much bigger leap still.

With such examples in mind, Rose thought Squilchuck could not only be a final destination like Duthie Hill Park in Issaquah, it could be the center of a huge trail network. From Squilchuck abandoned roads already climb to the Mission Ridge Ski Area and could connect with trails the ski area has expressed interest in building on. Like the property it acquired in 2014 sitting immediately east of the ski area. From Squilchuck abandoned roads already climb diagonally into the Stemilt Basin where a non-motorized trail proposed as part of the Naneum Ridge Recreation Plan will connect to Ellensburg. From Squilchuck a combination of existing dirt roads, existing trails, and trails yet to be built could connect to Beehive Reservoir, Devils Gulch and Twin Peaks.

“In the big scheme of things, Squilchuck could easily be a place where mountain bikers could go from here to infinity,” says Rose. “That’s the kind of opportunity that gets riders excited and draws them here.”

In other words that’s the kind of opportunity that creates an identity.

With all this in mind, Rose created a plan and, partnering with the local chapter of the  Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, the same group that made Duthie Hill Park happen in King County, approached the local branch of State Parks with a vision that would make Squilchuck relevant.

From Rose’s point of view working with State Parks has had its bumps and has been anything but a rocket ride. Still, in the world of state agencies and large bureaucracies, rapid progress has been made in implementing Rose’s vision. The skills park is currently under construction. Phase 1 with its different balance features, a rock garden, and its jumps of various sizes is completed. Phase 2, offering a pump track for kids and a dual-slalom directional pump track where friends can race each other, is underway and will be finished next summer. And Phase 3, which will have big gap jumps for expert riders, is still a few seasons in the offing.

Besides the skills park, new mountain biking trails (which will also attract trail runners) are being built throughout the wooded acreage of the park. These are being made to high standard with sweeping turns, bermed corners, and interesting trail features (aesthetic bridges, cribbed corners, and jumps that can be used or ignored). To date about 1.75 miles of new trail, tailored for beginners has been built. In the year ahead another 5.25 miles of trail will be built for intermediate and advanced riders. Some of these trails will be adjacent or link to the five miles of trail already found within the park. This will create a tight cluster of trails to keep riders of all abilities engaged. Regular visitors can warm up on one the trails in the park and then venture out of the park to ride any number of nearby trails or roads in the Stemilt Basin, Naneum Ridge, Mission Ridge or Devils Gulch.

Already the facelift to Squilchuck is paying dividends. Although the work is only a quarter done, people are coming. Travis Hornby, the vice president of the Central Washington Chapter of Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance and the person who is spearheading the building of the Skills Park while Rose spearheads the building of new trails, says, “Several evenings a week there will be 20 cars in the parking lot after work. We’ve got groups of women coming up to ride together, Boy Scouts coming up as a troop activity, and lots of riders coming up with a friend to check out what we’re doing. Weekends are busier still.”

Hornby says before all this new work at Squilchuck began, there might be three or four cars in the parking lot any given night. And while Squilchuck is still a long way from seeing the visits of Duthie Hill Park, he is confident about the area’s future. “When the Skills Park and trails are all built-out, the visitations are going to multiply several times over.”

If Hornby is right, State Parks would be wise to use Squilchuck as a case study. Clearly if mountain biking can raise this phoenix from the ashes, its reason to believe that other struggling parks can find new identities that will make them relevant again.

See part 2 of this story – the part with details and a map of Squilchuck.

This article was posted on 08/23/2015.

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