The arid landscape of central Washington isn’t especially spectacular, yet its muted features, orchard lands, watersheds and communities offer much to enjoy, including a top notch destination cycling event called the Chelan Century Challenge.
Lake Chelan lies in a scalloped bowl of buff-colored hillsides sculpted by the languid Columbia River. Sparse ponderosa pines outline the spines of this rugged terrain and clumps of purple vetch bend in the wind along roadsides. Little towns exist in this region. They are agricultural and tourism communities, situated among acres of apple and cherry orchards which are quickly being replaced by crops of rambling vacation homes. Along the picturesque city streets and country roads stand schools, grocery stores, fruit sorting warehouses, bunkhouses, gift shops, coffee houses, salons, and realtor offices. Landscapers haul trailers of fertilizer and topsoil and lawn mowers to the next client’s home, groups of teenaged hip-hoppers gather at the park to listen to rap music and watch each other shoot hoops, vacationing Seattleites amble in and out of shops, and migrant workers husband the tender green fruits in the fields.
In June, I saw these scenes go by in slow motion from the saddle of my road bike during the 2011 Chelan Century Challenge. A group of dedicated Rotary Club members host and manage the ride to raise money for charity. My sisters, my mom, and I met one of these friendly folks on the morning after the ride. When we met her, this woman, elegant and stylish, was working in her downtown gallery where locally thrown pottery, wood carvings, woven scarves, and beaded jewelry decked the walls. Later, we met another volunteer in the kitchen store and she offered us fudge samples while telling us she and her husband had been flaggers at one of the intersections.
The Chelan Century opened at 7:00 a.m. with very little pomp, just an enthusiastic MC declaring to all us early risers that we could be on our way. I rode with partners for the day, two of my sisters, Saree and Paige. As we set out, our bikes were stocked with full water bottles, energy gels, and sandwiches and the brilliant sunshine warmed the air.
We began our tour of the lake region with a steady uphill through cool pine forests. Sandy soil supported a fringe of undergrowth and birds gawked at us as we pedaled upward. Riders were everywhere, strung out along the hills, chatting, pacing, pedaling around each other. The hills eventually topped out on a high shelf where vacation homes enjoyed expansive views to the lake below. My sisters and I called out encouragement to one another and took turns leading, then drafting. The descent through the neighborhoods brought us into the town of Manson, then on to the park and the end of our first loop.
The second loop started out as before, with an exit through the main gate of the park, then took an immediate turn up a busy city street, into neighborhoods, and then toward the Columbia River. We climbed steadily out of the populated tourist lakeshore destinations and into the high country where rocky outcrops punctured the fields and barbed wire enclosed pastures. We rode for miles along narrow back roads, passed by occasional pickups. We took a turn and suddenly, were plummeting down a steep incline toward the Columbia River. At a high overlook, Saree mandated a photo stop and we took turns clicking pictures of each other with the water reflecting the bright sun behind us. Then we drank more water and continued the fast descent to the river’s edge. At the bottom, we formed a pace line and pedaled in unison ten miles on to an aid station.
By one o’clock we were at the base of the fabled McNeil Canyon climb. There, a suspension bridge crossed the Columbia and cyclists populated the narrow shoulders coming and going. The three of us tackled the hill with determination, leaning our heads down and pedaling. It was to be the most grueling seven miles I’ve ever ridden, with constant climbing and several 12% grades. I stopped along a guard rail and Saree passed me with a nod. I carried on. I passed Paige. Then she passed me. We crept along the grade all the way to the top. The view from the top was vast—the country spread out like rippling waves of fabric. There, we ate, drank, rested, stretched, then pointed our skinny front tires downward and released the brakes. I went first – and careened down, pulling my brakes when my eyes began watering so much I couldn’t see the road. We rendezvoused at the base of the hill, in the parking lot of a fruit packing plant. Six miles to go to the end of the second loop.
The Team above the Columbia River
We pressed on, up the grade on the other side of the Columbia. Then, back through the commercial district of Chelan and into the park entrance. It was 5:00 p.m., seventy miles and ten hours after we’d started our tour. After resting and decompressing from the most recent pulls, all three of us decided to call it a day. We sat in the park, letting the sun restore us, drinking water and more water, listening to other cyclists chatter. Later that evening, after eating dinner and celebrating our finish with our family members, we sat in the hot tub and watched the sky grow dark over the lake. A chill floated through the air and we sank down deeper into the bath, the ridgeline above us dark against the dusky night sky.
View from the hot tub, Lake Chelan
The Chelan Century Challenge website has great maps of the route. Following are the route’s distances and elevation gains.
1st Loop, Manson: (29.9 miles, 2,351’ elevation gain)
2nd Loop, McNeil Canyon: (40.8 miles, 3,082’ elevation gain)
3rd Loop, Navarre Coulee: (31.5 miles, 2,628’ elevation gain)
All can be forgiven when the sun shines. It was 75 degrees and clear for our ride.
Chelan chapter of Rotary International
Places to Stay:
There is no shortage of lodging options. Our extended family of 8 found a beautiful rental house on the lake with five bedrooms and four bathrooms located about fourteen miles from the start line for a very reasonable cost (when split among our four families). Check with Chelan Vacation Rentals. Bed and breakfasts and hotels are also plentiful in Chelan and Manson.
Other Outdoor Activities:
Boating, swimming, site-seeing, sun-tanning, walking. If you choose boating, be aware that, at least in the southern end of Lake Chelan, motorized boats are not restricted, so if you are paddling, you’ll need to get fairly far away from the south end of the lake for quiet.