Most local road and racing cyclists ride the paved roads of the Palouse frequently. The Palouse Highway, Highway 27, Hangman, Spangle Creek and Valley Chapel roads are all well-known routes for road biking. What’s not so obvious about the Palouse, is that if you are willing to veer off the beaten path a bit, you will be rewarded with some great climbs, beautiful vistas and challenging routes. It seems that for every paved road on the Palouse, there are three or four dirt, gravel or summer roads that offer endless potential for quiet and picturesque rides.
Although you can ride most of the dirt roads on a standard road bike with 25mm tires, you’ll be more comfortable and will probably enjoy longer rides if you put some fatter tires on your bike. I like to ride the Palouse on a road-ish bike with at least 28mm tires, but I prefer 32-35mm. If you are used to long, fast rides on a mountain bike, then 1.25” semi-slicks would probably work pretty good for most of the dirt roads on the Palouse.
The thing I like about exploring the dirt roads of the Palouse is that you can pretty much create the exact ride you want without a lot of planning and you can change the ride mid-stream. There are just so many little roads out there.
If you want a hard ride with steep climbs and a great view and you can only be out for an hour or so? Check out Big Rock Road off of Windmill. Want a longer ride with rollers, some good climbs, an old graveyard, and lunch at the midpoint? Take Elder heading east from Valley Chapel, hook up with Jackson Road to Rockford and lunch at Fred Neck’s. Come back on Highway 27 or find another set of dirt roads to wind you back into town.
The wide-open and rolling hills of the Palouse invite picnics and lollygagging. But the Palouse is not just rolling wheat fields. There are rocky cliffs, hidden creeks, and some unique topography features that may surprise you. For example, go south on the Palouse Highway and then go right onto Dunn Road. Bring a map and keep following Dunn until you pop out at Elder. Bring a picnic to eat on the old bridge that crosses a small creek on the closed road section.
Speaking of food: it’s never far away when your on the Palouse. As you leave town, it’s hard to beat Shiloh’s Crushed Chickpea and Goat Cheese wrap at the Rocket on 43rd Avenue. Ask them to wrap this in plastic for you, and it makes an easy-to-carry meal that is supremely satisfying. There’s a little salty-yummy surprise from the Kalamata olives and capers that make this wrap a perfect and high-value (only $4!) snack. In Spangle, the Harvester is well-known around the Inland Empire for its great home-cooked goodness. Rockford has Fred Neck’s and Harvest Moon. Harvest Moon won my heart with their hash browns, which are fresh-grated and plentiful. If you are leaving or coming back on Highway 27, you’ve got the High Nooner on Pines serving up pretty good sandwiches, and of course, Mike’s Donuts just down the road on Sprague.
The Palouse is a favorite spot for organized rides. The Spokane Bike Club makes numerous excursions south every year. And local race teams host countless training rides for their cyclists on the Palouse.
But it’s the dirt that has made the Midnight Century a favorite for a growing group of participants over the last three years. David Blaine, the original organizer and brainchild behind the Midnight Century, organized the ride specifically to expose the participants to hard climbs, closed roads, and the beautiful solitude that only the Palouse can offer right out the back door of Spokane. You can find this route online at Bikely.com or at MapMyRide.com. If this milquetoast winter continues, consider taking the Midnight Century route and making it into a long day ride. It’s a perfect introduction to the dirt roads of the Palouse, and it includes that great stretch of Dunn Road I mentioned earlier.
It looks like 2010 will see the debut of a Palouse race. According to Mike Sirrot, one of the Spokane Rocket Velo race organizers, “the Ronde Van Palouse is a road race held in the spirit of the Spring Classics,” also referred to as a Robaix. According to local bike-rack-maker and blogger (26inchslicks.blogspot.com), Pat Sprute, “Robaix is the new cyclocross.” A Robaix-style race typically contains a lot of rough, cobbled, and dirt surface. Although only four miles of the 23 mile route is on dirt roads, the constant rollers and often unrelenting wind on the Palouse will make for a challenging race. As of press time, the date for the Ronde Van Palouse is April 10th.
For more information on the Ronde Van Palouse, see SpokaneRocketVelo.com.
John Speare grew up and lives in Spokane. He rides his bike everywhere. Check out his blog at http://cyclingspokane.blogspot.com.