Mountain Biking the Kettle Crest – NE Washington

Like many other bikers in the Inland Northwest, I am hooked on mountain biking. The high adrenaline, heavy consequence riding found at bike parks are sometimes portrayed as the image of this sport, but my love for riding doesn’t end there.

In mid-summer, when the sun has moved on from melting snow to giving sun burns, our local trails start to disintegrate from lack of moisture. For more aggressive riding, the loose trails are less than confidence inspiring, and I start to itch for a different escape—one with cooler temps, big views, and separation from the constant summer buzz in town. For me, that place is the Kettle Crest.

Every Kettle Crest trip should start early. Not just because of the mileage ahead, or to beat the heat, but because there are few things better than an early morning in the forest. It’s painful at first, but that feeling is quickly replaced with the smells of fresh air mixed with the pine, larch, and cedar trees surrounding you.

If you plan correctly, you are also gripping a steamy cup of coffee fresh off the camp stove while you watch the moon fall into the tree line until sun rays begin to filter through. As I soak in the fresh smells and soft sounds, I prepare for the challenge ahead.

Photo of rider by Skye Schillhammer.
Singletrack and sage. // Photo: Skye Schillhammer

The Kettle Crest makes you work for the reward. There is no chair lift and no road to the top—just singletrack that cares very little about the pain in your quads.

The ascent to Copper Butte, the highest point along the Crest, takes you up, over, and through a mixture of thick woods, burnt forest, and rocky ridgelines. The ever-changing surroundings keep the mind intrigued through every pedal stroke. The old burn sites are filled with craggy trees eerily charred from past wildfires.

Continuing the climb takes you above the burn and into the alpine. Meadows and rock outcrops replace forest as your vision refocuses to the immense view. It’s here that another kind of enjoyment really sets in.

I didn’t push through cramping muscles with sweat in my eyes for merely an extreme adrenaline rush. I did it for the views and for the immersion into the landscape.

If I were at the top of a bike park trail, I would be gripping my handlebars with excitement, anticipation, and a bit of fear for the jumps, berms and rocks that lay ahead. At the top of the Kettle Crest, I spend almost as much time gripping my camera as I do my handlebars. Even while descending I can barely keep my eyes on the trail, and find myself gazing off in every direction like my head is on a swivel.

Photo of rider by Skye Schillhammer.
Deep in the woods. // Photo: Skye Schillhammer

From alpine ridgeline to under the canopy, the ride is more like a glide. You seamlessly move over the terrain, without a struggle for traction or speed. There are no berms to be roosted or skids to be laid, but this descent doesn’t need any of that to be fun and exciting.

Like all good things, it comes to an end far too soon. Luckily, waiting for you at the bottom is a cold creek, and if you planned it right, there are some cold beverages nestled in the water. It’s this quintessential ending to a ride that has you already planning your next trip to the Kettle Crest.

Originally published as “Wheels in the Wild of the Kettle Crest” in the August 2017 issue.

Skye Schillhammer is a professional mountain biker, photographer, and Out There frequent contributor.

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