by Ray Birks

The Hansen Creek Railroad Trestle a short distance from Carter Creek Campground.

It’s hard when you’re selfish like I am and you have kids. To find time to do what you love and make sure you spend more than enough time with your kids, or vice versa. But like most things in life you find your way toward compromise which allows you to do what you want to do (I tend to lean toward “need to do”) and also raise healthy, decent, kind, outdoor-loving, respectable, mostly worry-free kids.

I love to go bikepacking, strapping all that I need on my bike and heading off into the wild. Cycling along on dirt roads or singletrack, old railroad grades and sometimes even the occasional paved road. As my son has gotten older and learned to ride a bike, I began to wonder when I’d be able to take him out on adventures with me. More importantly, I was curious if he would appreciate it and want to continue to do it with me. Or would I have to cajole and coerce him like trying to force a square axle into a round dropout? The selfish part of me thought that he wouldn’t like it and the time I was spending trying to get him to go with me could be better spent on adventures that I considered successful.

The successful setup at Ponderosa Campground.

But the wisdom I always land on as a parent is that success doesn’t lay in the destination but the journey, even if the journey is short and doesn’t quite meet my preconceived expectations. Once he was confident riding his bike I thought about ways to introduce him to a simple bikepacking adventure. I didn’t want to burden him with a lot of gear that might slow him down or cause him to be unbalanced, but wanted him to have some skin in the game and carry some gear while I carried the bulk. I started looking for a trailer that I could load up with all of the stuff we’d need for an overnight outing. I found one on Craigslist and bought it for the family as a Christmas present knowing full well it’d be a few months before it got any action. Occasionally I’d see it in the garage, collecting dust, but reminding me to fill it full of gear and collect some dirt instead.

One of the short Thorp Tunnels between Ponderosa Campground and the Thorp trailhead.

My son was open to the idea of going on his first adventure and I wanted to pick something that would hold his interest but wouldn’t tax him physically or mentally and cause him to not want to go again. I’ve ridden up and down the Palouse to Cascades Trail many times so I knew there were multiple campsites and easy riding available, but also nice views, rivers and old train tunnels. For our inaugural trip we settled on a route that would take us from Thorp to the Ponderosa Campground, about 11 miles west. The trail along this stretch is a flat and wide old railroad bed, half of it runs along the Yakima River and you get to go through two short tunnels, which for an eleven-year old boy, is adventure gold.

We packed up and drove to the trailhead, stopping for encouragement snacks to get our motors going. The parking lot was nearly empty as we adjusted our seats, attached the trailer and tucked our last remaining supplies into the crannies and nooks. We headed out and soon encountered a constant headwind that accompanied us the whole way. The wind slowing us down made me worry if my son would persevere or if the moans and groans would soon begin, forcing me to pull out my motivational bag of tricks on our very first endeavor. But we talked and laughed, rode, stopped for breaks and eventually made it to the campground with just enough light to spare. I was one proud dad. After setting up the tent and eating dinner we settled in for the night. We watched a documentary about penguins on his iPad, tried to stay up late enough to see some stars but eventually drifted off to sleep. Him with tired legs and me with a tired brain from coordinating logistics, making sure not to forget the tent poles and coaxing him through eleven upwind miles.

Trestle on the Willapa Hills Trail.

The next morning we cruised back to the car and he was generally excited for his accomplishment, already looking forward to planning another adventure via bike. He loved the tunnels. He delighted in throwing rocks into the river. I found out later he really just enjoyed getting to hang out with his dad. He said he saw a different side of me while we were biking than he saw at home. At one point we passed an old barn he wanted to stop at but my time sensitive brain wanted to push on to the car. He finally pulled out a dad line, uttering “when are we going to get the opportunity to be here again?” He knew how to push my buttons. So we stopped and explored an old house and shed, wondering about an old mattress and wood stove. We looked for snakes and peered through holes in the ceiling and it made me glad he made me stop because after reflecting on the trip, it turned into one of the highlights. Simple joys with family and friends.

This got me thinking about what our motivations are for bikepacking and I learned that we share some of the same motivations that have brought us together with a common bond. He enjoys riding his bike with friends, often choosing to ride to school instead of walking. He also likes food and we’ve labeled him the family foodie. I wouldn’t call him picky, but he does prefer a well-made hamburger over something from a fast-food joint. So I make sure that we have something tasty to eat along the way or packed into my frame bag. Whereas I’m okay with a bar and a banana, I’ve learned that motivation for him sometimes comes in different packages, that often say Jimmy John’s on the label. We’re motivated by spending time together and being outside. I’m motivated less by seeing him ride his bike and more by watching him explore the outdoors and use his body to propel him through life, making memories and gaining confidence.

Entering one of the Thorp tunnels.

Some of my motivation is getting him outside and away from screens but we do bring his iPad along for a late night movie once camp has been set up. On a recent trip I was surprised that when we got to camp he didn’t linger around looking for something to do but was out exploring the campsite and scavenging for sticks that he could pound into the ground with a mallet. He needs those outdoor experiences to shape him and give him confidence and I need them to pass along the experiences my dad gave to me.

For me on these early trips the key component has been the trailer because I can pack some of the creature comforts that I don’t take on other trips when everything is packed into my frame bags. We always bring the big tent, which could easily sleep five people, because it fits into the trailer nicely and it affords us a lot of extra room at night. It’s fun to have the big tent and not be cramped and breathing on each other all night. His sleeping bag goes in the trailer along with all of our clothes and extra things to make our camping life better, like a full-sized lantern and the aforementioned mallet for pounding stakes. The trailer holds lots of water, food, and other random gear I happen to find as I’m rushing to throw stuff in the car. My son likes a full-size pillow, not the camping pillow that I use, so that is usually the last thing packed. All in all, I get a good workout pulling a fully loaded bike and trailer and we both get to reap the rewards.

Pounding sticks at Carter Creek Campground.

Choosing a location can often make or break your early adventures with kids so I’ve listed a few below with a description of what makes them worthwhile. These range in distance from only a few miles to around 20 miles round trip and all have some novel landmark or built-in adventure to get kids excited and keep them motivated.

State Parks – These are nice because they usually have more amenities than other sites, like electricity, bathrooms and showers, and can be reserved ahead of time. One item of note is that all Washington State parks are required to find a spot for hiker and bikers even if they are full.

  • Lincoln Rock State Park – This is a great destination because it’s all paved along the loop extension. There’s swimming, playground equipment, big fields, showers, water and electricity. You can also rent a cabin if you want to ride bikes but don’t want to haul all of the gear. From Wenatchee, it’s about a ten-mile ride on the trail but you can shorten it by parking at any number of spots along the loop.
  • Confluence State Park – Another spot we frequent because it’s close to town, accessible via the loop trail

    The 2.5-mile-long Snoqualmie Tunnel.

    and doesn’t take too much effort to get there. It has sites with water and electricity as well as showers and bathrooms. From downtown Wenatchee it’s about 4-5 miles of pedaling to get there, plus you can also easily ride to this park from home.

  • Lake Easton State Park – Another great camping option along the Palouse to Cascades Trail which can be accessed either from the west or the east, depending on how long you want to ride to get there. It also has a hamburger joint with milkshakes and a restaurant/gas station on the other side of the highway for supplies. From Cle Elum it’s about fifteen easy miles on a nicely maintained railroad grade or you can park at a few different trailheads or park-and-rides further west to shorten the journey. If you start from the west at Hyak at Snoqualmie Summit it’s seventeen miles, trending downhill.
  • Willapa Hills Trail to Rainbow Falls State Park – This one is not local but this old railroad grade outside of Chehalis follows an easy gravel path for 10+ miles to a nice state park. You can start at the easternmost Chehalis trailhead, which includes a new section of trail and a bridge or drive four miles west to the Adna trailhead and park closer to the state park. This park boasts freshwater fishing, old growth forests, bird watching, river swimming and 40 campsites including three hiker/biker sites.

First Come, First Served Campgrounds – These are a bit trickier because you’re not 100% sure you’re going to get a spot but are usually less crowded and feel more adventurous to get to.

  • Ponderosa Campground ($12/night) – This campground has three first-come first-served sites and a vault toilet and is a little over 10 miles from the Palouse to Cascades Trail trailhead right behind the Thorp fruit stand. It includes river views, a beautiful canyon and two short tunnels, one of which is just long enough to warrant having some sort of bike light or headlamp. You could make the trip shorter by starting in Cle Elum but the trail is a bit rougher west of the campground. It’s not awful but noticeably chunkier. 

    About to eat dinner at Lincoln Rock State Park.

  • Carter Creek ($12/night) – This campground is about six miles west of the Snoqualmie Tunnel. If you park at the Hyak parking lot (Discover Pass required) you can pedal through the 2.5-mile long tunnel, pop out the other side and have a nice easy downhill jaunt to Carter Creek. There are seven sites here with a creek that runs through the middle of them along with a bathroom. Additionally, there are a few campgrounds east of the Hyak parking lot along Keechelus lake, Cold Creek (3.5 miles) and Roaring Creek (13.5 miles) that are easy destinations as well.
  • San Juan Islands – Another one that is not on the eastern side of the mountains but is very worthwhile and could span a few nights, is to ride onto the ferry at Anacortes and then have your pick of Islands depending on how far you want to ride. Plus, you get the benefit of a ferry ride which is always fun, especially when you don’t have to wait in line with all of the cars.
    • Shaw Island has a county campground that is a few short miles from the ferry terminal as does Lopez Island, with Odlin Park just up and over the first hill. Both of these have grocery stores at the ferry dock and downtown Lopez Island is about three miles from the park. 

      Willapa Hills Trail outside Chehalis.

    • San Juan Island has a county park but it’s a healthier distance from the ferry (10 miles) on roads that can be busy and don’t have a great shoulder. But that park has human-powered sites available that you can only use if you’ve biked, hiked or kayaked there.

Heartier riders could go to Orcas Island and ride the paved road all the way to Moran State Park, passing through Eastsound along the way for supplies.

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