Exploring Washington’s Backcountry Discovery Route

Chris Erickson

Concrete purgatory

I have friends who love nothing more than weeks-long pavement-bound road trips. I wish I were one of them. Meeting new people and exploring the unknown is right up my alley, but asphalt doesn’t do it for me. Perhaps I spent too many motion-sick days puking my way to Yakima in the back of our family’s Caprice wagon, all the while failing to appreciate long stretches of nothing punctuated by sun-blasted rest stops with prison block urinals. The smell of vinyl seats, vomit, and strawberry ice cream is an open-road purgatory I’m quite happy to leave in the rearview mirror.

Seeking sideroads

Closed roads, on the other hand, have my number. Narrow? Sign me up. Gated? Even better. Impassable? Yes, please. Every passing sideroad prompts me to mutter, “Where does that go?” Seriously, where?

Those answers will take my lifetime and more to discover, and I’m up to the task. It’s always better with friends, so I asked two—a neuroscientist and a carbon fiber innovator—to help me uncover a week’s worth of Cascadian sideroads. To round it out, we each brought a daughter with the full intent of putting them behind the wheel on Washington’s sketchiest roads.

The plan: three dads, three daughters, and two rigs—a Jeep Wrangler and a Toyota Tundra—rambling across ridgelines, valley floors, and everything between. All in, we traveled 800+ mostly off-road miles over five days.
The plan: three dads, three daughters, and two rigs—a Jeep Wrangler and a Toyota Tundra—rambling across ridgelines, valley floors, and everything between. All in, we traveled 800+ mostly off-road miles over five days.
The WABDR

Washington’s Background Discovery Route spans the state, from the Bridge of the Gods on the Columbia River to the Night Hawk Canadian border crossing. It covers 575 miles on the Cascades’ eastern slopes, all but a few of which are gravel, dirt, and rock. It isn’t one distinct path, but a series of interconnecting forest and utility roads that take you through spectacular and often punishing terrain.

While the land is mainly federally- and state-managed, Background Discovery Routes is a volunteer-powered non-profit that plans and promotes the routes. Elevations along the trail routinely rise above 6,000 ft, giving way to epic views, but at the price of a small travel window. Considering a snowpack that generally subsides between July and October, we carved out five days in early August to make the trek.

Saturday

We’d recently spent a week on Mt. Adams, so day one’s Gifford Pinchot route got kicked to the curb. Instead, we started at Bethel Ridge, just beyond Rimrock Lake. It was simply incredible. Steep climbs, deeply rutted roads, bare ridgelines, and views to die for. 

Sunday

Umtanum Ridge’s savage rocks had their way with us. The shocks on Jake’s Toyota Tundra TRD completely blew out. As oil painted the trail, we limped into Ellensburg—on a Sunday afternoon. Nothing was open. After leaving messages with every mechanic in town, we bypassed the trail and found Wenatchee by pavement, where we’d have more options. 

From our day one campsite on Cleman Mountain, we could gaze southwest and find Mt. Adams peeking up beyond the ranges we’d traveled over. Throughout the trip, 360° vistas let us look back at where we’d been, and debate where the trail would take us next.
From our day one campsite on Cleman Mountain, we could gaze southwest and find Mt. Adams peeking up beyond the ranges we’d traveled over. Throughout the trip, 360° vistas let us look back at where we’d been, and debate where the trail would take us next.
Monday

While Jake and Reesey upgraded their suspension, Jeff, Malia, Anne, and I worked our way back through the section of trail we’d missed between Ellensburg and Wenatchee. Minds were blown. Thousand-mile views and mysterious sidequests brought us to the type of scenery and surprising solitude we’d previously only experienced hiking the backcountry. After reconnecting with our Toyo crew, we climbed Chumstick Mountain and camped on a hidden ridge.

Tuesday

We made our way through the Entiat Mountains and down to the charming town of Ardenvoir before climbing 4,000 ft, traversing Slide Ridge and dropping into Lake Chelan. From there, we followed the Methow River toward Winthrop, climbed up into Hart’s Pass, and made camp at the supremely enchanting Meadows Campground.

Wednesday

Highway 20—my favorite stretch of paved road in Washington—delivered us west through the Cascades. From there it was a straight shot to Seattle, and finally to Portland.

Lay of the land

Traffic, if you can call it that, tends to flow from south to north, through a wide range of terrain. Gravel is offroad’s universal blood type, and there’s plenty of it. Still, punishing rock, slippy slidey ash, and deeply rutted clay make a strong showing. Every terrain corresponds to a differing track character—hardscapes that extend well beyond the trail.

Even within a short stretch of road, traversing from one hillside to another reveals diverse but interconnected landscapes. Windward slopes are lush and green; rain shadows are arid desert-scapes. July and August meadows blush as blooming wildflowers shower down western slopes. Mountain sagebrush connects treeless landscapes at every elevation while evergreens gradate from pine to fir as the road ticks north.

Ghost forests—the argent and sable husks left by fires—are encountered frequently. Photos don’t do them justice—in realtime, they’re magical. One part death, one part birth, light pours through charred trees in staccato flashes of faraway lands.

It bears repeating. I’m a sucker for side roads, and the WABDR delivered. By design, the route covers a lot of ground—an entire state’s worth—much of which we hadn’t experienced before. Predictably, our best moments were during sidequests that took us from the main trail to new worlds.

We encountered a feisty black bear, numerous tombstones, mountain gardeners (literally—ladies in gardening garb tending to slopeside flora), and Gizmo, the mayor of Gold Creek. Along the way, we marked our map, and these discoveries will become basecamps for next summer’s adventures.

There’s something about elevation that brings things into focus. Is it the visceral proximity to a quick and sudden death? The sense of smallness in vastness? A metaphorical view of connected things? Or, perhaps, it’s simply the thin air.
There’s something about elevation that brings things into focus. Is it the visceral proximity to a quick and sudden death? The sense of smallness in vastness? A metaphorical view of connected things? Or, perhaps, it’s simply the thin air.
Speaking of death

Shelf roads are the best place to learn the art of the manual transmission—said no one ever. Still, with a deeply-seated spirit of adventure, we doubled down, buckled up, and put our daughters behind the wheel in every terrain. At the quite capable ages of 16 and 13—yes, 13—they crushed it. As the trip wore on, so did conversations about Jeeps, Subarus and Suzuki Samurais. While the trip is in the rearview mirror, eyes are forward and 4×4 chatter continues, alongside plans to tackle the trail sans adults.

As we ventured from our homes out into the unknown, increasingly giving up control and taking the backseat, the symbolism wasn’t lost on three fathers with quickly aging crews.

A gnarly little side road near the Upper Naneum Meadow led us to a rocky outcrop with sweeping views. The Lion King soundtrack could be heard in the wind, and we made a blood oath to return.
A gnarly little side road near the Upper Naneum Meadow led us to a rocky outcrop with sweeping views. The Lion King soundtrack could be heard in the wind, and we made a blood oath to return.

On trips like these, I don’t hope for things to go perfectly. When they do, I end up feeling like we didn't push it hard enough. That said, preparation is the difference between a speedbump and a trainwreck. We left prepared for drama, and we found it.

Pht pht pht

As we descended into the Nile Valley, a driver’s side whirring revealed itself as a two-inch gash in the Wrangler’s rear tire. No sweat. We were almost happy to put some wear on the spare.

Lesson: two jacks are better than one.

Low and slow

Jake’s suspension ills almost sent him home. Megaprops to Les Schwab for the quick turn and hustle.

Lesson: full-size pickups carry a lot of weight. Beefy suspension is a must.

Go Mavericks

I feel bad about this one. Jeff’s clothing, toiletries, and personal effects—including his copy of Moby Dick and a book of Norse poetry (seriously)—were torn from the roof rack on a double black diamond trail somewhere on Crystal Ridge. He spent the rest of the trip wearing his daughter’s cross country hoodie to stay warm.

Double lesson: 1) don’t strap personal gear to the roof, and 2) take a hard look at my reading list.

Let go of precious

As we passed Fox Peak, our Gobi rack snapped and chiseled its way into the Jeep’s A-pillar. The rack is an easy fix, but the body damage will cost a fortune to fix.

Lesson: it isn’t a show pony. Fill it with Bondo, paint it black, and date the trauma with an oil pen.

Once home to a fire lookout, Chumstick Mountain provides incredible views of the Entiats. Completely unprotected, the wind was too savage to pitch tents. After following the ridge another 45 minutes, we punched through an overgrown trail that opened up to a hidden gem, where we made camp on day three.
Once home to a fire lookout, Chumstick Mountain provides incredible views of the Entiats. Completely unprotected, the wind was too savage to pitch tents. After following the ridge another 45 minutes, we punched through an overgrown trail that opened up to a hidden gem, where we made camp on day three.
Car camping FTW

As experienced campers and backpackers, we’ve pitched tents in hundreds of camp-worthy locations. But, very few rival the grandeur we experienced on this stretch of the North Cascades.

Two evenings were spent on impossibly rocky, windswept ridges. Roof tents would have been welcome, but in their absence, we tetris’d our bodies into whatever shapes the land dictated. As uncomfortable as it was—and it was—the mountain-top experience immeasurably compensated.

Our final day concluded at Meadows Campground in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Between it and nearby Hart’s Pass Campground, we found (what many others have confirmed) the most charming bathroom-adjacent campsites in the state. Nestled in a Tolkien-worthy meadow of wildflowers, we reflected on the trip, and life, with a perspective often found at the end of mysterious side roads.

Make it yours

As you plan your own WABDR adventure, the Backcountry Discovery Route website is a great place to start. Additionally, Adventure Taco and Trails Offroad share excellent day-to-day accounts that I found helpful. With the right gear and a bit of planning, anyone with an adventurous spirit can crush it.

Proper rigs & gear

Far and away, the most crucial factor is the right vehicle. While run-of-the-mill SUVs and Subarus can handle 80% of the terrain, the remaining 20% is pretty savage. To me, that’s what makes it fun. It’s also why I drive a Wrangler. Pack some basic tools, warm and cool clothing, extra water/oil, and of course, bug spray.

Food & fuel

Planning food and gas stops was laughably easy. We filled up on both each time we encountered a small town, and neither ever ran low. Pro tip: save yourself some trouble and use their bathrooms as well.

Navigation

I always take to the wilderness with a mix of paper and digital maps. Butler Maps sells a well-designed foldable WABDR map that we referenced frequently. Likewise, the onX Offroad App is a must-have. It was our go-to trail reference. Finally, we brought a Garmin handheld GPS as a back-up. It provides excellent fidelity, but the user interface falls short when compared to onX.

Do it together

Adventures are usually best when shared. Safer as well. Two or three vehicles will give you the best mix of safety, fun, and travel speed.

The highest driveable point in Washington, Slate Peak stands 7,448 ft above sea level. The Pacific Crest Trail passes within a stone’s throw to the south, while the 531,000-acre Pasayten Wilderness stretches north to the Canadian border.
The highest driveable point in Washington, Slate Peak stands 7,448 ft above sea level. The Pacific Crest Trail passes within a stone’s throw to the south, while the 531,000-acre Pasayten Wilderness stretches north to the Canadian border.
Happy trails

With Oregon and Washington Discovery routes in the bag, we have our eyes set on Idaho, Utah, and California BDRs. While we’re planning our next move, let us know if you have questions about launching your own WABDR epic.

See you out there.