Rock Island Grade & Douglas Creek Loop
By Ray Birks
Looking for a ride with lots of mileage and stunning scenery? Long, straight country roads bordered by fields of wheat? Beautiful canyons rimmed with basalt complete with swimming holes? This loop packs all that and more along with views of the Columbia River, Waterville Plateau, Douglas Creek and Palisades. To describe this ride it’s best to break it up into easily digestible chunks. You’ll experience the Rock Island Grade Road climb, the ascent onto the plateau, Titchenal Canyon descent, random wheatfield roads, Douglas Creek which runs down Slack Canyon, Palisades Road and the inglorious Highway 28.
We rode this on mountain bikes but it could easily be ridden on a cyclocross bike as the roads are hard packed dirt, nice gravel or paved. There was only one technical section on Slack Canyon that needed extra attention and a few creek crossings that can all be ridden. It’s also a great overnight bikepacking route with a multitude of free campsites and plentiful water on BLM land in Slack Canyon.
Directions: To get started make your way to Rock Island Grade Road just across the highway from the dam and park in the large pull out on the right. Start the climb of Rock Island Grade Rd. which winds up the hillside through two big switchbacks to gain the plateau. While this is not a lung buster, it is a consistently moderate climb for about three miles. Occasionally sneak a peek over your shoulder at the ever expanding views of the Columbia River Valley and the mountains to the south.
From there the wheatfields start to appear and the climb continues on easy dirt and gravel roads in a less strenuous fashion for the next 13 miles. As you get nearer to the top of the climb you’ll pass Duffy Creek, which Andy Dappen wrote about here. Continue on the main road past the trailhead until you reach the junction with Titchenal Canyon Rd. You’ll know you’re close when you see a large white building and a few smaller cabins in the distance. To the left is Indian Camp Rd., which takes you to Badger Mt. Your turn goes right and follows and easy descent down Titchenal Canyon.
This canyon goes by in a blur and after a few minutes and miles the dirt changes to some nicely paved backroads. Continue straight on M. Rd. SW for a short bit until you hit Road 4 SW. Turn right and enjoy the gentle downhill to the junction with 3 Road SW and the super tiny town of Alstown. You’ll see a grain storage building in Alstown, the only building in Alstown, which is where Douglas Creek officially starts. A recent trip down the old railroad grade and associated history can be read here. More adventurous travellers could ride down to the bottom of this trail and meet up with Slack Canyon, but it’s a bit arduous and probably overgrown.
We’ll go left here and follow 3 Road SW as it changes to gravel, swoops up and then heads due east on easy, packed gravel roads through the wheatfieds. The riding for the next 7 miles is up and down, but never too up nor down. Enjoy the solitude and the road quality. After 4 miles on 3 Road SW you’ll intersect with H Road SW/Slack Canyon. Turn right and after another 3.5 miles you’ll begin the long 8 mile descent down the Douglas Creek drainage.
Shortly you’ll pass the kiosk and lower trailhead for Douglas Creek. Continue dropping down and depending on the time of year, you’ll encounter a handful of river crossings, probably a few snakes (rattly and non-rattly), remnants of the old railroad grade, outstanding terrestrial views and, at the bottom, some good old fashioned swimming holes. 4x4s used to be able to drive all the way down Slack Canyon but it’s now impassable to cars and trucks at the southern end.
Eventually the canyon ends and you’ll drop down into Palisades where you’ll get on Palisades Rd. for ten uneventful paved miles back to Highway 28. The worst part of the trip is the moderately harrowing ride on the thankfully large shoulder of Highway 28 back to your rig. Take the right turn, say your prayers, and get ready for the wind rush of semis and apple trucks doing 65+ over your left shoulder.
All in all you’ll put in just about 54 miles, 14 of which is paved, and climb and descend close to 5,000 feet of vertical. When we rode it on mountain bikes we were just shy of five hours but we battled a headwind for the climb up the plateau, Palisades Rd. and Highway 28. A fit rider could do this loop in close to four hours.
Trip Reporter: Ray Birks June 2019.
Leave It Better Than You found It. This should be every user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, pull noxious weeds along your route, throw branches over unwanted spur trails…
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