Gifford Pinchot National Forest
Last weekend I met up with my good friend Corey from Portland to explore some of the gravel backroads of the Gifford Pinchot. The drive from Tacoma was a little over 2 hours and from Portland was very close to the same. We planned to meet at the North Fork Campground just southeast of Randle, Washington on the Cispus River. We had reserved a camping spot months earlier and we were excited to get off the pavement and out of the city for a few days for whiskey drinking, gravel riding, car-camping and all around good times. The campsite was quiet on the Thursday afternoon as we set up however we anticipated it would fill up on Friday afternoon and Saturday as many of the sites had signs indicating reservations had been made.
Located in Southwest Washington State, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest covers 1,368,300 acres. It includes the Mt. St. Helens National Monument and the Cowlitz Valley Ranger District, which is where we spent most of our time exploring. The forest was named after Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the National Forest Service in 1905.
Day 1 – Camp Setup and short ride on FS 23
We set up camp and went out for a short spin on Forest Service Road 23 and FS 21, and turned around at Adam’s Fork about an hour up the road. The road was paved all the way with a slight incline on the way out following the elevation of the Cispus River to our South.
We had heard that FS 23 would be closed due to a series of washouts and we wanted to see just how bad they were. No more than 5 minutes into our ride we camp upon the first washout. The goat path along the edge provided about an 18″ wide path that was easily navigable by pushing the bike. A group of motorbikes handled the path with more professionalism, zooming by us on one of our crossings, neither phased by the size of the trail nor interested in putting a foot down to stabilize themselves.
Riding up FS23 and FS21 along the Cispus River, we caught our first views of Mt Adams off to the Southeast.
Returning to camp, we tested our bikes on a dirt path. Many of the dirt paths were labeled as “moto trails” but we assumed we would be able to hear them coming so we didn’t worry about it.
The Cispus River runs a few hundred feet from our campsite so it made sense to have a post-ride soak in the freezing glacier melt.
Day 2 – North Fork Camp, FS 22 to Chambers Lake
Corey purchased the US Forest Service Gifford Pinchot National Forest map on his way through Randle and it proved to be a great asset for route planning. Even though we had both mapped out several options on MayMyRide and Strava before we left home, we abandoned those routes in favor of exploring the roads as we came to them with the help of a Garmin 1000 and this map tucked in his handlebar bag.
Our breakfasts did not disappoint. We had toasted bagels with smoked salmon, cream cheese, red onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, capers and coffee on one morning.
Our second day we decided to head out on FS22, on the North side of the campground. It was a beautiful gravel climb all the way to Chambers Lake / Berry Patch (~20 miles).
Mt. Adams made an appearance mid-ride…this view is from FS22 while we were hustling for huckleberries.
We packed our swim trunks for this ride hoping Chambers Lake would be a great spot for a mid-ride swim.
We were not disappointed. Although Chambers Lake was frigid, it proved to be a refreshing spot to take a swim and top off our water bottles with purified water.
DAY 3 – NORTH FORK CAMP, FS 23 TO TAKHLAKH LAKE AND BABYSHOE PASS
The ride up to Takhlakh Lake is another tough gravel climb. The roads on the upper sections of FS23 were loose gravel and very steep (8%-10%). We wanted to see if we could get closer to Mt Adams and take in some good views while we were getting our mid-ride swim again.
Mt Adams…nothing more to say.
Day 4 – The Queen Stage: Randle to Mt St Helens Windy Ridge Lookout
The Queen Stage would be a ride up Mt St Helens via road 26, apparently closed because of washouts. Having had previous experience with washouts we decided we would still give it a go and see what we came up against.
Cady Chintis joined us on the Queen Stage and from the last stretch of Hwy 99, we caught views of Mt Rainier and Mt Hood.
Spirit Lake near the top of Mt St Helens was raised by 200′ when the volcano erupted on May 18, 1980. Today the lake has a 1-1/2 mile tunnel underneath it that drains the water into the Turtle River. The Army Corps of Engineers installed this with a tunneling machine called “the Mole” in order to alleviate a catastrophic flood downstream if the lake ever got too high on its own.
Post-ride recovery drinks were necessary.
Coming back to Randle we were all exhausted from the full weekend of riding. We said our goodbyes and vowed to come back to this place in the years to come. The Gifford Pinchot is so close to Portland and Seattle/Tacoma and has such great riding it’ll be a treat to continue exploring on our next trip.