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Ancient Pathways – the Cariboo Trail

Paddlers on the famous Bowron Lakes in British Columbia, Canada often make a trip to visit nearby Barkerville which figured prominently in the 1861 Cariboo gold rush. My visit to the area in 1972 made me aware of the historic nature of the area and when I moved, much later, to the

The Cariboo Trail

desert of central Washington state I noticed a few of the historic markers which marked the Cariboo Trail.

There was more than one Cariboo Trail but the one that begins near Vancouver, B.C. is more correctly referred to as the Cariboo Road. A tributary to that road began in Walula, Washington near Walla Walla and ran up to Moses Lake and then along what are now known as the Sun Lakes up to Coulee City and thence north into the Okanogan and onwards to Canada. There are remnants of this trail scattered along the way and it’s been an interesting project for me to look for these remnants and hike and/or mountain bike them.

Memorial Day weekend of 2011 found my wife, Susan, and I driving northwest from our home in Moses Lake towards Sun Lake State Park north of Soap Lake, WA. The park has a few nice bike trails and some nice lakes for kayaking and canoing but more interesting to us right now is that it hosts what is purportedly a piece of the Cariboo Trail which is accessible and ridable; more or less.

The park itself is nestled at the northern end of Park Lake which is one of a chain of lakes in the area and offers fishing, boating, camping, hiking and biking activities in a shady oasis in

Wildflowers along the Cariboo Trail.

the desert. The access to the piece of the Cariboo Trail is north of the main areas of the park just before the parking area at Deep Lake. Sue and I parked at the map kiosk and unloaded our mountain bikes and crosssed the road to the trailhead and rode the loose gravel through the sagebrush that forms a short loop that most people probably think is the entire trail. But about 2/3 of the way into the loop a rough track goes up a small hill. It’s covered with basalt fragments and lined with sage. This is the Cariboo Trail; just as a mule drover might have seen it in 1861.

Sue leans against one of the smaller boulders along the Cariboo Trail

Boulders the size of houses lie next to the Trail which has to jog to the left or right to avoid them. They’re part of the basalt canyon walls which have become detached and tumbled down onto the canyon floor. There’s no way to know whether they were there in 1861 or not. But they make a nice place to rest. The view behind Sue gives you some idea of the surrounding desert landscape.

I had thought that teamsters had driven loaded wagons pulled by oxen or mules up this trail but an hour or two on the Internet later that day showed me that they had loaded up pack mules and then led them – up to 80 of them at a time – up that Trail. There would have been no way to get a wagon up that canyon, that’s for sure.

We rode up a steep hill and as the Trail swooped to the right we looked up to see a canyon opening up into the rimrock ahead of us. Traversing that canyon, from right to left, was a narrow path leading up a 70-foot pile of screen; that path is the Trail and we would have to

That's me inside the circle

ride it or push out bikes up it… or turn around and go home. My wife opted to stay where she was and took the camera to document my ride back down that slope. I was pretty sure I would be walking up it.

Sure enough, I rode my bike, for a ways but once I stopped it was too steep and rough to get moving again. The bike I’m on is a $199 Mongoose Deception 29er bought from a local WalMart store last November as a way to discover whether I liked the new 29er mountain bikes. Naysayers had predicted that a bicycle this cheap wouldn’t last 50 miles. But I’ve ridden it a couple of hundred so far with no trouble. But I’d be pushing it up this slope. Even pushing wasn’t easy as the narrow path was strewn with basalt rocks the size of basketballs and almost everywhere I put my foot the rocks under it moved. The bike tire continually bumped up solidly against a rock and I had to lift it over an obstruction several times.

Finally, at the top, I turned around and realized I’d have only about 100 yards of riding before I hit a seriously nasty patch that was impossible to take the bike through; at least for me. I was hoping that Sue, now way below me steadying the digital camera on her bike seat, would be able to take a picture that could show me. The camera was on full 3x zoom but I would be lost among the boulders. I held both brake levers tight and carefully mounted the bike, steadied myself, and started to roll. Even with both brakes on the bike gathered momentum and I squeezed the levers harder to keep my speed under control.

I managed to stop just before the nasty patch, got off the bike and walked it back down to where the trail became safe to ride again. When I caught up to Sue she had managed to get a couple photos. You can see me and my WalMart bike inside the black circle.

After a long swig of water from my backpack we turned our bikes toward our car. It only took a few minutes to reach it and we loaded up and drove back into the main park to find a nice picnic table in the shade.  As I watched the young girls in bikinis headed to the beach I was pretty sure that the guys who had led those pack mules up the Cariboo Trail probably would never have been able to imagine hundreds of cute young females swimming just a few yards off the path.

They probably wouldn’t have gotten any farther if the girls had been there in 1861!


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