My name is Richard Wright and you’re reading the 3rd installment of my dirt road tour of the Western United States during the summer of 2013 in my 2006 Dodge Ram 2500 diesel truck equipped with a Carli Dominator 3” Suspension System, a Torsion Sway Bar, Control Arms, and a set of badly chunked, 35 inch Toyo MTs. In preparation for the long and arduous journey, I installed an electronically locking front differential to compliment the limited slip rear end, fabricated rock sliders for body protection and plate steel bumpers with a 12000lb winch.
This third installment catches up where I left off in Jackson, WY near Grand Teton National Park. During this final stretch of the trip, I explored the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks. I then traversed the Canadian Rockies and headed south from Seattle through Washington and Oregon by way of the Cascade Mountain range, followed by covering the most under-appreciated sections of the California Coastline.
Jackson, WY turned out to be just the sort of place I had hoped it to be. After a long and dusty ride, I saddled up to the bar of a local brewery and relished the idea that, for the first time in a while, I’d get to enjoy a real bed for the night. I didn’t foresee the hotel being part of the journey, but it was necessary as it provided me a shipping address to have my new camera delivered. The next day was spent exploring the park at Grand Teton and doing some hiking. It was a beautiful day punctuated with dramatic clouds making for excellent camera fodder. The Tetons are a ruggedly beautiful range; their contrast against the sky and Jenny Lake commands your attention. Early the next morning, I set out for a short hike to get my blood flowing before jumping back into the driver’s seat heading for Yellowstone.
The scenery and the geological features native to Yellowstone are unparalleled. I spent two days exploring, hiking, and swimming in an attempt to discover all that the park had to offer. I hit all the major attractions – Old Faithful, Upper and Lower Geyser Basins, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone Upper and Lower Falls, and Mammoth Hot Springs among many others. Some of the most peaceful and beautiful views in the park were in Lamar Valley, off the beaten track. There were a few accessible dirt tracks in the park; however, getting stuck behind sedans diluted the experience.
Upon my exit of the park to the west, I once again found the wilderness to be my own as I escaped the throngs of tourists. I picked my way through the Red Rocks Wildlife refuge and began kicking up a dust storm in my newfound solitude. I slowed to enjoy the scenery as I passed huge flocks of migratory birds floating on nearby lakes and observed small herds of deer and elk in picturesque meadows.
I stopped for a bite to eat in Lima before crossing Hwy 15 to enter the Big Sheep Creek area where I found a place to camp. After catching some shut eye, the morning light revealed my breathtaking surroundings. I found myself grateful to the man who recommended the detour. Surrounded by foothills, I continued along the dirt road as it became a two track following the route of an old wagon freight trail – Old Bannack Road. The only other brave soul making his way across the open country was a fellow on his bicycle who, after graciously accepting a cold beer, told me of his travels. I rolled on and headed to Wisdom, MT to see the “Big Hole”. The vast ranch land valley was surrounded by snow-capped peaks. After lunch, I headed south to return to Lemhi Pass—where Lewis and Clarke had crossed the Continental Divide. The dirt route affords some iconic views and offers a unique location for mental reflection. After a cleansing soak in the hot springs outside Salmon, ID I found what I thought to be a quiet place to camp for the night. Ironically, it happened to be within earshot of the local dirt track raceway. If you can’t beat em’, join em’! I slipped away to spectate until the noise died down.
The next day, I wound my way north through the Bitterroot Mountains toward Missoula and happened across the Darby Lumberjack Days festival. I detoured after deciding to become part of the spectacle rather than pursue my planned route off Hwy 93 toward Elk City. That night, I picked up my brother in Missoula, MT; we shot north toward Kalispell and Glacier National Park.
The first day in Glacier was spent gallivanting around the tourist track—taking the Going-To-The-Sun-Road, hiking aimlessly, attempting to swim in the frigid glacial melt stream that fed St. Mary Lake and Lake McDonald, and acclimating to the sense of awe inspired by our surroundings. We camped west of the park along a dirt road and spent the second day exploring the route to Bowman Lake and another that ended at Whitefish Lake, south of the park. This was the first time my brother experienced “All that is Carli Dominator,” in his own words. He was quite taken aback by the capabilities of the Dodge and my confidence in the truck while searching for the suspension’s limit.
The next day, July 23, we were due to meet up with my family in Calgary, Alberta. They flew in to catch a ride and accompany me through the Canadian Rockies. Given the count of 5 adults, luggage and supplies commensurate to isolated camping; accommodations were tight to say the least. Luggage was shifted to the roof rack and we were off!
The family and I spent 4 days reveling in the beauty of Banff, Jasper, Lake Louise, the ice fields, and everywhere between in an attempt to capture all the Canadian Rockies had to offer. Many years ago, when my father was a college student, he worked as a tour guide in this area for a summer. He surprised us with the notes from years past and gave us the same tour he gave to patrons in the days when he had all his hair. He told us of the original exploration of the area and he was finally able to share the magic of the ice capped peaks and vivid cyan colored lakes with the family.
After dropping the family off at the Calgary airport, my brother and I headed west through the Rockies toward Whistler, Vancouver and British Columbia. We stuck to main roads until passing through Kamloops and Lillooet. We’d made it to Pemberton and hadn’t yet found ourselves lost or eaten by bears so we decided it fit to slow down and do some exploring. We made a few stops as we passed alongside Duffey Lake. We were glad to have stopped at Joffre Lakes Provincial Park for a hike as we’d discovered a hidden gem. The emerald lakes were crowned by glaciated peaks; the sight was captivating. I was compelled to pause and quietly observe the surreal, unadulterated beauty. Further down the road, toward Pemberton, BC we discovered a dirt road headed east, adjacent to the north side of the massive Lillooet Lake. This area was populated so speeds were limited on the washboard road. The lake was awash with glacial silt, shimmering shades of emerald green with the changing light. As we neared Whistler, we opted to explore a couple dirt roads shooting off along rivers; one rewarded our curiosity as it followed a jagged river valley with spectacular views. We spent some time enjoying the summertime atmosphere in Whistler, and then found a place to camp outside Squamish—home to a fantastic railroad museum if you ever find yourself there with time to spare.
The next day, we packed up and made our way south to Vancouver. From there, we took the ferry to Nanaimo (Vancouver Island) and spent the morning exploring the locale. After so much time spent in the wilderness, we weren’t prepared to spend time in the city of Victoria; thus we opted to jump on the Washington State Ferry to Anacortes and try to make it to Deception Pass for sunset. We lucked out on the ferry and the Dodge allotted the front position giving us the best seats in the house to the passage ahead.
We spent the 4 hours of the afternoon atop the truck eating snacks and drinking gin & tonics while floating through the San Juan Islands—some of the most scenic country we’ve encountered. We rushed to Deception Pass and I was rewarded with the opportunity to show my younger brother the amazing structure and surroundings with the last glimpse of the sun on the horizon. We camped that night up a lonely road on a mountain nearby and then eagerly headed south to see my parents knowing that meant a hot shower and home cooked meal.
I spent the next several days in and around home near Tacoma, WA with friends and family. I decided to revisit a favorite old spot, Surprise Lake in the Carbon River watershed near Carbonado, WA. I headed up to the mountains as soon as I had gathered up a group of friends and family. The lake was as beautiful as I remembered and the road leading up the mountain was as fun as ever. Back home, it all felt surreal. The pictures and stories could not do justice to the landscapes I had passed, the experiences I had gained, and the interactions with people along the way. I also realized that preparing for this blog would alter the way I record my travels in the future—the memories flowed freely from the notes, chronology, and landmarks of my journal.
My family had a few days vacation planned around Lake Chelan, WA so I headed east with them, their boat in tow along the way. After a few days on the lake, I packed my bags and headed south along the Cascade Range. This portion of the journey would take me along the Backcountry Discovery Routes through Washington and Oregon. From the south side of Lake Chelan, I traveled on forest roads following the ridges skirting steep river valleys to Cashmere. This was a part of Washington I had never before explored. The views of the Cascades were breathtaking. I passed from the forest-covered Basalt Ridges into the sparse but boundless grasslands as I descended to the east. Here, the planned route was closed so I began to follow an old abandoned two track trail toward the nearest town. I made it down to a disked path alongside a farmer’s fence and continued toward town until I experienced the first mechanical failure of the trip—a sheared Tie Rod End. Where the truck broke, I made my camp and decided the fix was my first order of business in the morning.
The next day, with a pot of coffee in my belly, a new TRE installed, and a highly accurate dirt-backed, tape measured alignment performed, the Dodge and I made our way to Ellensburg, WA and began another ascent into the Cascades. I returned to the basalt outcroppings and timber lined ridges as I navigated the forest roads that carried me around Naches to Hwy 12 and to Packwood, WA. From Packwood, I headed toward one of my favorite campsites near Mt. Saint Helens. This is the one place I shall not name in this tail as this camp site is near-sacred to me. I will however share the photograph of the view:
If you are travelling in this area, do not miss the hike through the Ape Cave lava tube, nor the Mt. Saint Helens viewpoint at the Windy Ridge Vista. The raw power of nature is rarely made as evident as it is in the geological alteration resulting from the aftermath of the eruption accompanied by the rebirthed ecosystem that has since inhabited the landscape. I spent the next day revisiting these favorite spots, then traveled east and met up with some very interesting folks at Horseshoe Lake, just north of Mt. Adams. My new Dutch friends had spent the last 18 months traveling north; their journey began in Argentina. Their weapon of choice was a Volvo 6x6 overland conversion that started life as a retired, surplus ambulance. The vehicle made a journey across the Atlantic in a container once the build was completed in the Netherlands.
From Horeshoe Lake, I headed south, taking a forest road between Mt. Adams and Mt. Saint Helens toward Mt. Hood. These roads are extremely unpredictable, overgrown forest roads, but those brave enough to venture are rewarded with unique sights hidden beneath the forest canopy and picturesque mountain views through brief clearings. There is a main graded dirt road; however, what is an adventure without the unexpected; without taking the road less traveled? My DeLorme atlas and Trimble Outdoors Navigator helped me pick my way through. The Carli Dominator kit did the rest soaking up every massive pothole along the way and keeping the truck from becoming a pile of scrap wrapped around a tree.
Once I made it to White Salmon, WA, I stuck to the highway as I headed south for a couple hours until reaching Sisters, Oregon. South, from outside Sisters, I followed a series of forest roads that I compiled by studying Forest Service maps that afternoon after finding my original route to be a single-track trail. The dirt road transits the majority of the distance between Sisters and Crater Lake boasting scenic views of Mt. Hood, the Sisters and Mt. Bachelor. The series of dirt roads started flat and fast, then transitioned into a quick roller coaster route through the pines. The second stage passes through the Crane Prairie Reservoir, past the Little Cultus Lake, then runs between and alongside both Irish and Taylor Lakes—the premier boondock campsite location to wrap up the day.
The next morning started in what appeared to be a post-apocalyptic burned forest through which I traveled to Waldo Lake. This connected to the Central Oregon Cascade Route starting from the south end of Crescent Lake and followed a fast paced, rutted and pot hole covered track to Summit Lake. After a cleansing swim, I hopped back into the truck to follow the forest roads south toward Diamond Lake in pursuit of my daily adrenaline fix. I then made a pass around the deep, blue waters of Crater Lake and checked another National Park off my list. I had to hustle from here as I was due to pick up Anthony, an old friend, at the Medford airport that evening. No hurry, however, would force me to bypass the Rogue River Trail and the Natural Bridge. After the pickup in Medford, we made our way down Hwy 199 toward Crescent City and found a nice hidden turnout to use as a campsite. We needed rest as the next day would be a full one.
We set out of Crescent City headed south on Hwy 1 toward the Redwood National and State Parks and the Lost Coast. After a bit of traipsing through the giant Redwoods, we became serious about the task at hand and pressed on! We passed through Ferndale into the isolated beauty of the Lost Coast—for the remainder of the day. It was as though we passed through a time warp as we beheld the pre-development, unmolested California coastline. The Lost Coast Loop is a well-defined, albeit under-utilized, scenic route but we chose a road less traveled. Near the hamlet of Honeydew, there is an extremely technical, high risk (provided you cannot help but yield to your need for speed) forest road that carries you south along the coastline, up and down ravines, then along the coastal ridgeline.
Anthony—my passenger—is another Cal Poly Mechanical Engineer with an educational background in chassis design and suspension performance analysis. Further, he is a part of the track-day scene and is familiar with off-road shenanigans. He couldn’t help but comment on his impression of the Carli Dominator system’s ability to keep the truck planted and predictable—“the amount of punishment it can absorb while controlling chassis dynamics is phenomenal”.
The next destination was Usal Beach. This forgotten stretch of sand hosts one of the most remarkable combinations of forest, meadow and Pacific Coast I have ever seen. All three times I have had the pleasure of exploring the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, I have encountered herds of elk, enjoyed brilliant sunsets tranquil enough to assist the beer in calming my adrenaline saturated nerves, only to be lulled to sleep by the sound of crashing waves. Usal Beach is not one to be missed.
The next day we cruised at what felt to be a leisurely pace down Pacific Coast Highway while taking in the scenery. This proved to be a welcomed departure from the heightened focus and careful attention required on the Lost Coast’s forlorn forest roads. Late in the afternoon, we arrived in San Francisco and reconnected with some old friends. After a couple days of debauchery, hot showers and meals eaten with real utensils, I dropped Anthony at home in Santa Cruz and I hit the road once more, headed south. This time my aim was Big Sur and the forest roads in Los Padres National Forest. Once again, I was immersed in the natural glory unique to the Pacific Coastline. After stops at the usual Big Sur destinations, I reached my forest road intersection—Naciamento Ferguson Road. At the summit of this stretch of asphalt, there is an intersection with the Coast Ridge Trail. The main trail that parallels the coastline to the south is a fast, well-graded forest road that offers fantastic sightlines and disastrous consequences if you are hauling ass and get off line. The side roads that descend either side of the ridge either dead-end to the west at magnificent vistas or they descend to the east and into Fort Hunter Ligget. The dispersed camping at Alder Creek offers the most sheltered camp but the best view is at the end of Los Burros Spur Rd. It’s imperative to walk the last steep descent to help evaluate if the conditions are suitable to ascend after you break camp. This camp offers my favorite panoramic view of the California coastline; even cloud cover can’t mask its beauty. If you decide to camp in Alder Creek, be certain to ascend the hilltop along the Spur Road to catch the sunset.
The Coast Ridge Trail descends and returns to Hwy 1. I followed Pacific Coast Highway through the scenic San Simeon-Cayucos corridor and brought my 11,000 some mile journey to a close and returned to work in San Luis Obispo.
A journey of this length and scope doesn’t only create memories that will last a lifetime; this journey molded and cultivated my sense of adventure. The brief time I was able to spend in each of these places seared iconic images into my mind, created an insatiable wanderlust to further explore the beauty, the grandeur, and the fragility of the natural world, and will ultimately compel me to return to many of these unforgettable places.
Click HERE to read the the second installment of this cross-continental journey.
Click HERE to read the the first installment of this cross-continental journey.