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Fear and Loathing on the Swale Canyon 80

April 02, 2024

Fear and Loathing on the Swale Canyon 80

Embark on another thrilling gravel adventure with Chris Bagg as your guide. In his latest blog post, Chris takes us through the twists and turns of Swale Canyon, sharing insights, tips, and tales from the trail. Don't miss out on this exhilarating ride!

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When you’ve lived in Portland, Oregon for fifteen years, October sunshine in the Columbia Gorge can take on a lucid, slippery quality, a “you won’t get more of this” desperation that cranks up the intensity of every reflected sunbeam to an almost unendurable level. As I rolled away from the simultaneously swanky and bohemian Society Hotel in Bingen, Washington (that’s pronounced “binge-in”), I wanted to lower my sunglasses to protect my Portland-sensitive eyes and also toss them in the river. The eastern, low angle light shattered on the water’s surface, and not the first time that day I wondered if I were hallucinating.

I came out to the Gorge to ride the Swale Canyon 80, which sounds more like a desert rally race, like the Gambler 500 or the Mint 400 of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. How would Thompson have handled this assignment? Dump a liter of LSD into the spa’s filtration system? Troll liberals in the hotel’s gymnasium? Huff ether in the lobby’s picaresque library? I doubt he would have made it out to actually ride the route, which is a shame, because the SC80 produces, for those willing to tackle its challenges, a kind of altered state itself, one in which you experience so many different kinds of riding you’d be forgiven for thinking you had gone on two or three rides instead of one. If our last piece on Japanese Hollow revealed that ride’s neverending novelty, Swale Canyon, like Mr. Thompson, doesn’t know how to hold back: it is a bender of a gravel ride that will leave you drunk on its excesses. 

The Rollout

I heartily suggest The Society Hotel as a jumping off point if you’re planning on making a trip for this ride. Heck, if you want a Gorge weekend to remember, stay at The Society and ride Japanese Hollow on Saturday and SC80 on Sunday, but make sure you stay through Monday morning so you can get two more soaks in their excellent spa. You can either leave right from Bingen, but be forewarned that it will add about 20 miles to your ride, turning the 80 into around 100. Admirable, but maybe best left for the second time you attempt this ride. I drove to Lyle Trailhead in, well, Lyle, WA, and parked there, prepping for my ride as another group of cyclists dressed, ate, and prepared their bikes for a long day out. The first section of road rolls from Lyle to Smithville and Dallesport, on the Washington side of the Columbia River. This section is, well, mostly highway, along Route 14. Traffic can be fast, but the shoulder here is significant, and this stretch lends a nice warmup to the day. Snap pictures of the Columbia, drenched in early morning sunlight (this far east and you’re usually out of the rain that clouds areas to the west), eat and drink and get yourself ready for the day.

Climbing the Bluff…and Climbing Some More

East of Dallesport, you’ll cross the road and turn left into Columbia Hills Historical State Park. If you need a bathroom, you can score one here, and the trail turns…up. Over the next eight miles you will climb 2000 feet, at an average gradient of almost 5%, all on dirt doubletrack and glorious, well-buffed singletrack. You ascend the walls of the Columbia Gorge, swinging back and forth as you work your way up to a set of powerlines that stretch along the bluff’s crest. Turning back to look at the river, you’re reminded that the Columbia, even at its present mightiness, is only a trickle of its former self. When you stand on the top of the bluff you stand on what used to be the shore, back in those heady post-Ice Age days. Don’t stand too long, though, because you’re only about halfway up the climb. You leave the singletrack, pass through a section of broken fenceline, and exit onto what is generously described as a road. A few signs warn you, however, that you are passing onto unimproved terrain and that you’re on your own. The rest of the climb is bumpy and arrhythmic, and the road seems to keep turning and turning, revealing not the top but another stretch of climbing. When you do achieve the top, a forlorn and lonely radio tower watches you pass it by. You realize, at this moment, that what you’ve been climbing isn’t the side of a plateau but a thin ridge that separates the Columbia from the rest of Washington like a levee: below you, to the north, is a huge farmland valley, cross-stitched with roads. Mt. Adams hunkers in the distance like a bored recess monitor. You pass the radio tower and begin descending a long, loose grade that sweeps back and forth gently, your reward for the last eight miles of climbing.

A Tale of Two Valleys

Once you’re at the bottom, you get your rare taste of flat terrain for the next few hours, but even that change separates into two different moods. The first you feel like a fly on a balloon, as if floating off into all of that sky were a distinct possibility. Traffic is light here, and it’s a good place to make sure you’re still eating and drinking. The road is paved here, but only for a few miles, and soon you turn off the road onto the Klickitat Trail, a 12-mile ribbon of gravel and dirt and old rail bridges converted into rideable surfaces. If the preceding valley felt agoraphobic in its bigness, the Klickitat is intimate: you never see more than a few hundred meters out in front of you, the chasm’s walls rising up on either side. This section can be bumpy, wet, and gnarly—more than once I stopped to check if a big hit had burped my tires. You’ll roll past a few surprising encampments and thousands of oak trees, experiencing Swale Canyon. You’re in the heart of the ride, now, and we encourage you to enjoy it; things are about to get challenging again.

Another Massive Climb

We hope you have saved something for this stage of the trip and kept up with your hydration, because if you don’t and it’s a hot day, you may start hallucinating for other, more dangerous reasons. Exiting Swale Canyon and leaving the Klickitat Trail, you cross a bridge spanning the Klickitat River, turn right onto Highway 142, and then turn left onto…a steep climb. You’ll ascend over the course of the next 15 miles, but the first four-and-a-half are the toughest, hitting you with 13% sections and an average of 5%. This is another paved section, but after about three miles you return to the chunky dirt this area unfurls beneath your tires. At this point in the day I was beginning to tire and wishing I had brought my hydration pack with me—there are no places to refill bottles unless you’ve brought a filter, which I suggest. Despite the fatigue, this may be the most rewarding section of the ride, as you begin to roller coaster up and down across the bluff you climbed from the other direction hours ago. There is plenty of shade, and you may begin to see other humans: I passed a pair of target shooters and a friendly group in a van covered with U of O stickers—maybe they recognized a fellow Oregonian adrift in Washington. Finally the trees thin and you realize you are perched on the edge of huge ravine, the river you crossed miles ago far below you, sweeping back and forth in a chaotic snarl. Your final treat of the trip is a fast, switchbacking descent down Fischer Hill Road, a great opportunity to test your skills while tired, whooping all the way. Fischer spits you back onto Route 142, where all you have left is a sweet, easy, paved descent back to Lyle or, if you’ve taken the bigger option, Bingen. If you’ve opted for the latter we hope the gods of the Gorge grant you an east wind, because riding ten miles into a Columbia headwind will turn this glorious hallucination into a definitively bad trip.

The Deets

Distance: 70-80 miles, depending on which version you use on Ride with GPS. 90-100 if you start from The Society Hotel in Bingen.

Ride Link: Click Here

Tires: AT LEAST 40mm with some chunk to them: Boken Doublecross would have been great, but you can manage this on a set of normal Boken 40s.

Lodging: Treat yourself and stay at The Society Hotel. You can go full swank and book a cabin, or have a very economical stay in one of their bunks.