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AEV Jeeps on the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route

Posted in Events on February 28, 2016
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Photographers: Dean OsbourneMadeline Wood

Ever skipped right to the middle of a book? That’s kind of what we’re doing here with a team of adventurers in AEV-modified Jeeps. Welcome to Day Five of a journey over the WABDR or, more accurately, the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route. Over its span of roughly 600 miles the WABDR runs nearly parallel to the spine of the magnificent Cascade Mountain Range and travels from the border of Oregon to the border of Canada. By this point in the journey the team had driven over 450 miles of the WABDR and had witnessed some of Washington’s most rugged and beautiful landscapes. It had been an epic adventure and the team had shown great resilience as it coped with 100-mile days of dirt driving, massive temperature fluctuations and the ever-present concern over quickly encroaching wildfires. But even a resilient team needs a break and on this day it was time to start looking for a campsite for some much-needed rest and relaxation.

The plan for Day Five had been to push past the northern Washington town of Conconolly and get high on Lone Frank Pass where we could find a remote and scenic place to camp for the last night on the WABDR. Upon arriving at the pass, the setting proved absolutely beautiful with jagged mountain peaks and thick evergreen forests, but to our disappointment, no campsites could be found. So on we pushed for many more miles, and finally, with the sun burning low in the sky, we passed the historic Skull & Crossbones Cabin, and there, on the left, was a faint, overgrown spur-trail scratched into the side of a mountain. From our Jeeps we could just see the trail faintly snaking up toward a distant ridgeline. The question on our minds was, could we climb this trail and would it provide that special campsite we were hoping for?

An hour later, we had tackled the 1/2-mile up the narrow, off-camber spur-trail, cleared away three downed trees, and finally arrive at what we all agreed was among the most amazing campsites any of us had ever seen. At 6,400 feet atop Skull & Crossbones Ridge was a 360-degree panorama featuring the vast Loomis State Forest and Pasayten Wilderness. The view was absolutely stunning, and the laborious climb we’d made with our Jeeps only served to make us feel even more privileged to see it. As we fanned out and settled in to our campsite, it was hard to imagine a more perfect location for our last night on the WABDR, and we think it’s fair to say that no one in our group needed reminding of why we all own Jeeps.

With dinner prepared and chilled beverages in hand, we relaxed and enjoyed the final glow of the setting sun. As our conversation turned to our week on the WABDR, we reflected on the sense of accomplishment we felt in having driven it. Everyone agreed that even though the WABDR had not been a technical driving challenge like one finds on the Rubicon Trail, it had nonetheless been a demanding drive thanks to its rugged, twisting dirt roads, long distances, and the hours of focus it required of each driver. The WABDR had also offered a variety of other interesting team challenges ranging from supply management and route navigation to coping with more personal challenges like fatigue. Mastering these challenges and doing so within the arena of Washington’s magnificent backcountry made crossing the WABDR a very rewarding and inspiring experience. Evidence of this inspiration was on full display as there on Skull & Crossbones Ridge, beneath a canopy of stars, we eagerly plotted our next adventure. For more info on the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route, visit backcountrydiscoveryroutes.com.

Heading northeast from Stevenson, Oregon, and the Columbia River, the WABDR traverses the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains. The western slopes benefit from considerable rainfall, which means the forests are lush and green.

The Cascade Mountains are part of the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire, which includes a notable collection of volcanoes such as Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Adams. Cliffs such as this one are the result of ancient lava flows from these volcanoes.

Our campsite at Lions Rock will go down as one of the finest of the trip. Skirted by a massive cliff on one side and forest on the other, it offered seclusion and a panorama of the eastern Cascades. Paul Stapell’s Habitat Tent provided a room with a view.

Dean Osborne has an uncanny knack for capturing stunning images via time-lapse photography. At his peril, he traipsed about the jagged cliffs of Lions Rock in the dark to come back with this beautiful image of the Milky Way over Ellensburg, Washington.

We don’t know too many off-roaders who can look at a road like this and not want to see where it goes. For 30 years we’ve followed such roads, and they’ve rewarded us with experiences that are among the most cherished of our lives.

Eastern Washington contains countless miles of green forests, yet wildfires have unfortunately ravaged many sections. Our convoy is shown here passing through the ghostly remains of last year’s fire in the Loup Loup State Forest.

Packing a Jeep is a very personal thing, as we all have our own ideas concerning how it should be done. However, as Ken Beahm demonstrates here, cargo should always be strapped or bolted down for safety.

Steve Drewniany passes through an area of the Okanagan National Forest where weathered gray tree trunks stand as testament to yet another fire. Fortunately, saplings and vast carpets of wildflowers suggested that regeneration was well underway.

Much of the WABDR is on well-marked roads and trails, yet careful attention to paper maps and GPS is required to prevent getting lost. Our team relied on three navigators, each using different GPS mapping applications. This redundancy proved very helpful.

Despite its current appearance, the Skull & Crossbones Cabin looked as if it had originally been a well-made structure. Considering the remote country that surrounds it, in its prime this cabin was probably a prized retreat from the wilds and the weather.

During a break in the driving action, Ken Beahm let his son, Van, slip in behind the wheel to get a better idea of what it looks like from the cockpit of a Jeep Wrangler. At the age of 7, Van is already well on his way to becoming a Jeep addict. Poor kid.

Though our team made use of both ground tents and rooftop tents, by the end of our trip most everyone agreed that rooftop tents are the way to go on trails like the WABDR. Just level the Jeep, pop open the tent, and enjoy a comfortable, raised sleeping retreat.

Our campsite atop Skull & Crossbones Ridge provided a front-row seat for a remarkable sunset. As we took it all in, we were reminded that as much as we love the driving aspect of off-road exploration, we love the discovery of destinations like this just as much.

Despite the peaceful evening we enjoyed on Skull & Crossbones Ridge, a peaceful morning was not to be had. Dean Osborne’s dramatic photo captures a lighting bolt that was part of the violent thunderstorm that drove us from the ridge at 5:30 a.m.

Though pavement was sometimes a welcome relief along the WABDR, on this day it was bittersweet to see it looming in the distance as we knew it meant the conclusion of the WABDR was only a short distance away.

After six days and 600 miles from the Oregon border, it felt like we’d been through a time warp as we posed on the Canadian border. We’d seen and done so much along the WABDR that Day One of the journey seemed a month removed from Day Six. What an amazing experience.

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