Washington BDR 4×4 Trail Review and Section Breakdown – What to Expect

Section four

Washington Backcountry Discovery Route, a 575-mile off-road trail taking you from the Oregon Border to the Canadian Border. Here is what I learned!

Backcountry Discovery Routes is a non-profit, advocacy group dedicated to mapping out off-highway routes throughout the United States. While it is aimed at adventure bikes and dual sports, 4×4 vehicles are also able to traverse these routes. As of writing this, they have 12 states with routes through them, all of which have free GPX routes available for download.

Quick Info:

  • Trail Name: Washington Backcountry Discover Route
  • BDR Sections: six sections ranging from 67 miles to 122 miles
  • Total Distance: 575 miles
  • Difficulty (1-10): 4-7 (depending on experience and weather conditions)
  • Drivetrain: 4×4, AWD vehicle with high clearance
  • Approx. Travel Time: 5-7 days
  • Type of Trail: Mostly maintained Forest Road, a lot of is narrow and offers limited passing. This is a two-way trail.
  • Where to download the map: Get Maps Here!
  • Governing Authority: The BDR travels through Private land, BLM land, National Forest Land, and Wildlife Reserves.
  • Typical Operating Season: Open May/June – Closed October/November (dependent on snow levels)
  • Fuel Stops: There are fuel stops between each section
  • Camping & Fire Permits: Many options for campground camping as well as dispersed campsites.

Living in Washington State, I have known about the BDR for a while but have never had the time to dedicate 5 to 7 days to complete it in one shot. Well, I finally got that opportunity, and I learned a lot along the way. I wanted to take the time to share my thoughts in hopes that they may help you in your journey along any one of the backcountry discovery routes available to you.

The information in this article will be applicable to all the routes although I will be using my experience with the Washington BDR. There will also be Washington BDR-specific information for anyone wanting to take this on themselves.

Before You Set Off

Section one forest road

Head on over to ridebdr.com and download the gpx file for the route you intend to take on. Once downloaded you can import it into whatever map application that you use. If you use Gaia GPS, you can import it directly into that app from the ride bdr website. Once you have it in your chosen application, it is time to start reviewing it and there are a few things you need to look out for.

First, each route will have notes on the route. These will include things like fuel stops, trail obstacles, viewpoints, and campsites. Familiarize yourself with the route and make notes of your own. Map out what fuel stops you need to stop at and what you may want to see along the way. Now is a good time to think about the pacing of your trip and map out potential campsites.

Typically, the BDR routes are spaced out in 70-120-mile intervals, at least for the Washington route. The transition from one section to the next typically occurs in small towns where you can refuel and replenish any supplies if needed. That said, there may be a section where this is not possible. I took a 4-gallon rotopax on my journey and ended up needing to use it. It is smart to carry extra fuel, if possible.

While you are looking over the notes of the map, you will want to pay close attention to notes on any obstacles on the route.  There may be stuff that you are going to want to avoid in which case, there is typically a bypass for it. An example of this is “The Jungle” in section four of the Washington BDR. This is an extremely tight section of trail that can damage your vehicle or cause a lot of pinstripes on the paint. I chose to take the bypass for this section of the trail.

There will not always be a bypass available. So, pay attention to these obstacles and determine whether it is something that you feel capable and equipped to take. You may need to leave that section of the BDR you are on and rejoin later. For example, section three of the Washington BDR has something called the “Beehive Washout”. This is a washout towards the end of section three that is extremely narrow and off-camber, and right on a steep hillside. It is a challenging and very uneasy obstacle to navigate. There is no other way around this so once you’ve gotten to this point, there is only one way out.

One last note before we get into a section-by-section recap of the Washington State BDR. While the route is primarily off-road, there is some pavement driving as well. Particularly as you go from one section to the next. Be sure you have a good method for airing down and airing up. Airing down will be your friend as these trails can be rough. You will also spend many hours and up to 100 miles at a time off-road. Lower your PSI for a more comfortable ride. I use MorrFlate TenSix PSI Pro with the Quad hose kit which makes this process so fast and painless. Important as you will be using it a lot.

Section One

Section one at camp

Google Map of Section One

Section one of the Washington State Backcountry Discovery Route starts at the Bridge of the Gods in Stevenson Washington and ends in Packwood. It is 119 miles of driving through the beautiful Gifford Pinchot National Forest where you will see creeks, rivers, lakes, and endless evergreens. Keep your eyes peeled, because occasionally, you will get a glimpse of Mt. Adams which sits just to the east of this section.

Section one is heavily wooded. The most wooded of the entire BDR in fact. The roads are very well maintained, but there are still sections of washboards and larger rocks in the roadway. Airing down will make your journey much more enjoyable. While the views may not be as grand as the rest of the BDR given this fact, there is still plenty to see along the way.

The Ape Caves is a must for everyone who takes on section one. It is the third longest lava tube in North America at 2.5 miles long and offers two hikes, One easy and one moderate, to visitors that come through. The cave is at a constant 42 degrees year round so bring some warm clothes for this hike. You will also need a light. A cell phone light will not be enough here.

If you do not want to take quite the detour off the route that the ape cave requires, you also have the option of the Gulver Ice Caves just about a mile off the route. This is a much smaller ice cave at just 650 feet in length. Given that it is so much shorter, in the warmer months the ice can melt entirely, so if that is what you are looking for, the Ape Caves are the better bet.

Another stop I recommend you make is at the Chain of Lakes. This is a beautiful and relatively remote portion of section one and is a great spot to stop for a meal, or even for the night. The lake is calm and peaceful, with ducks swimming in the lake making the only ripples on it. That is unless you choose to drop a canoe in at the boat launch on the lake.

There is also the high lakes trail that runs right past the chain of lakes. This is a 9.4-mile trail starting about 3 miles to the west of Chain of Lakes, at Olallie Lake Campground. If you take the trail to the east for about four miles, it will take you to Horseshoe Lake. Spoiler, you can also drive there, but I am sure the hike is great!

In the first 80 miles of the trail, there are so many dispersed camping options both immediately off the road or on one of the many trails that branch off of it. After that, they become a little harder to find and more spaced out. There are plenty of campgrounds in this area, however, most of which are first come first serve, and when I went through, very empty.

Your best bet for true dispersed camping is in the middle of section one of one of the many trails that branch off the main route. In my experience, section one was a lot to tackle in one day, which means making it to section two in one day might be a little tight and won’t allow you to do much exploring. If I were to do this route again, I would camp in the chain of lakes area.

Section Two

Google Map of Section Two

Section two picks up where section one ends which is in Packwood. This route is 122 miles of very rough and rocking roads. Section two is known for its views surrounding it as most of the trail is right around or above 5,000 feet of elevation. Section two is in stark contrast to section one. There are trees, but they are not as dense as section one. The biggest change is the lack of low-lying vegetation. This land is fairly baron which means you can see a lot more as you drive through it.

Bethal Ridge is what this section is most known for. It sits at 6,000 feet of elevation and has incredible views of Mt. Adams and Rimrock Lake to the South of the ridge. Bethal Ridge is the first viewpoint or stop that you will likely make on this section.

The accent up to Bethal Ridge is quite steep. You will turn off the paved road and back onto dirt at 2600 of elevation and within 10 miles of the trail, you will hit the highest elevation of the trail at 6,174 ft. The roads on this accent are well established and maintained, although they are very thick with rock, making progress a little slow.

Speaking of slow progress, almost all of Section Two is rocky, rough, and slow-moving. Even aired down, this was a very uncomfortable section for me. In fact, it worked a couple of bolts loose on my roof rack by the end of the trail. I have had another friend who broke his bed rack completely, so take it easy on this section as there are certainly consequences for rushing it.

There are two bypasses on this section. One is very early on in the trail and the other is at the very end. The first bypasses Bethal Ridge. While you will not be able to see Mt. Adams and Rimrock Lake on the bypass, it does have great views of the Cascade mountain range, specifically Nelson Ridge. Either way, you are in for incredible sites.

The second bypass at the end of section two is simply to bypass more of the same rocky and rough roads that you have put up with for the last 80 miles. There is nothing really challenging on the main route, nor is there anything to see, so I chose to take the bypass, give my back a break, and enjoy the last few miles of section two.

There are some dispersed sites at the end of section 2, but you are far better off finding something in the first half of the trail. That said, I was able to find a pretty cool clearing at the top of the hill with great views of the rolling hills that surrounded me. The Coyotes kept me company all night as well.

Section Three

Google Map of Section Three

Section three is the shortest section at just 76 miles and runs from Ellensburg to Wenatchee and stretches across the very eastern edge of the Cascade Mountain Range. This is a far more maintained section of the BDR, with one notable exception, with even the first 18 miles of it being paved. Even once you switch to dirt though, it is pretty smooth sailing.

At the beginning of section three, there are so many options for dispersed camping, most of which with a view of the valley west of Cashmere and Mt. Rainier. Lions Rock, a 6500 ft peak, is towards the beginning of the trail and has dispersed sites all over the ridge line. This is not far off the main route and is absolutely worth the detour.

Compared to section two, this is a much easier ride. The roads are well-maintained, and I don’t actually recall any washboards, which is quite a relief. Definitely still air down for this section as there are certainly some rougher sections, but nowhere near the same extent as the prior section.

The roads get pretty narrow in the middle and towards the end of the trail. As this is primarily a motorcycle route, take it easy around the corners, especially if they are blind, and be cautious of riders. I encountered quite a few bicyclists as well in this section.

From most of section three, you can catch glimpses of the Enchantments. The enchantments are a hiker paradise and gaining access to them is extremely hard as passes are on a lottery system. But you will be able to admire their beauty from a distance, and without having to hike. Mountain ranges this rough and jagged are a site to behold, even in the stunning Pacific Northwest.

Take in the enchantments as much as you can and allow them to calm you. You will need it as the most aggressive obstacle of the entire BDR is on this route. Towards the end of the route, you have what is called the Beehive Washout. This obstacle is on a very steep hill, is off camber towards the ledge, and is very narrow. Something that you really notice in a vehicle as wide as the Bronco.

With proper tire placement and taking it slow, you will be just fine on this obstacle. It has been gradually built up over the last couple of years and the road it very stable. Although I did this solo, I don’t think that is the best idea. I would recommend having a spotter, if possible, especially if you are not a super confident driver.

The rest of section three is easygoing and will take you right to Wenatchee and Cashmere. Both are great towns to resupply if needed and fill up on fuel. And you will definitely need fuel, as section four is back into triple-digit distances.

Section Four

Washington BDR Section four in a Bronco

Google Map of Section Four

Starting in Cashmere and ending at the beautiful Lake Chelan, section four is 103 miles of incredible views. You will maintain views of the Enchantments for most of this section and end this section in a nearly desert landscape with rugged hills and mountain tops everywhere you look. This section is a very tiring section of the BDR however.

Most of this section is on single-lane shelf roads with really no room for vehicles going in the opposite direction to pass. Your attention is very much on the road and the scenery when the road opens up again. But I can say that after driving this section for 10 or so hours, I was exhausted due to the sheer focus that this section required.

Take your time through this section. Firstly, to stay safe and make sure you don’t burn out, but second, because this section is absolutely stunning. Because you spend the majority of it on shelf roads, roads that range from 3,000 to 6,000 feet in elevation, the views are breathtaking. Stop whenever you can. Rest, recover, and take in the nature surrounding you. After all, that’s why we do this. Right?

Other than being on a shelf road for the majority of this section, there is really nothing to report as far as obstacles are concerned. It is a rougher section, but not as bad as section two so stay aired down for this one, take it slow when the road gets rough, and it should be a relaxing ride.

Towards the end of the trail, there is a portion called “The Jungle” which is a very overgrown and tight section of the trail. There is a bypass for this which will take you on more shelf roads with stunning views, but if you choose to take on the Jungle, know that you will not get to the other side without quite a few new “storylines”, or pinstriping on the side of your rig.

For camping, you are spoiled for choices in section four. From start to finish, there were options everywhere. We stayed at the beginning of this section at about 5,000 feet with views of the northern Cascade Range and the valley that separated us. In the morning, there was a thick layer of fog that rolled in, making you feel even higher in elevation.

Towards the end of the trail, you start to catch glimpses of Lake Chelan, the third deepest lake in the United States. This lake is 50 miles long and 2 miles wide at its widest point. Given its size you are sure to find a campsite with a view of its beauty.

Section Five

Section 5 white rocks

Google Map of Section Five

At 102 miles in length, section five is another long haul stretching from Chelan to the small town of Conconully, a town so small that it has only one gas pump. Not station, PUMP!

Section five is very similar to section four in terms of road conditions and views. While you will no longer be able to see the Enchantments, you will get a view of Lake Chelan for a good 30 or so miles into the trail. Every time I thought I had seen it for the last time, I would gain elevation and get another chance to see it again.

There were a couple of things that really stood out to me in this section of the BDR. First, when I went through, there was still evidence that a wildfire had ripped through in the last couple of years. There was a weird beauty to this obvious destruction. It was amazing to see the new growth in the form of young trees and flowers bringing life back into this area.

The other was an alpine-feeling section with white rock towering above you. While I don’t think this was above the tree line, therefore not technically in the alpine, the trees were sparse. They sat peppered at random around the white rock formations and cliffs. The removal of color in this area was obvious. It was almost as if it was in greyscale.

In the second half of the trail, you will start to encounter some of the most intense dust I have ever experienced. There are stretches that are very soft and deep silt which you will want to take with speed. This speed means the dust will be that much worse. After going through one of the above-described sections, I stopped to reset my camera. The dust cloud that I just created swarmed my vehicle and I remained there for the next 5 minutes until I could finally see enough to drive again.

Now, this was a very dry part of the year, but keep this in mind when entering this section, especially if you are in a convoy. Chase lights will not help if it is as thick as what I went through, so make sure you have communication with the other vehicles, and take these parts one at a time.

In this section, I also encountered a lot of logging vehicles. Seems to be very common at the end of section five and the beginning of section six. This again will change year to year, but it is something that you will want to be aware of. Heavy machinery can complicate getting through these narrow roads.

Section Six

Washington BDR complete - Bronco at the Canadian Border

Google Map of Section Six

When I put wheels on section six, there was a little bit of relief. While it has been an epic journey, it has been exhausting and I was ready to complete it. Luckily, section 6 is a short section at just 66 miles long, taking you from Conconully to the Nighthawk Border crossing at the US and Canadian Border. Maybe it was that it was the end of a long trip, but this ended up being my favorite section.

Section six starts in a very dense forest, similar to section one. You will pass by many dispersed campsites and campgrounds in the first 10 miles of the trail. Most of which are creek-side spots. While they do not offer grand views of the surrounding area, you will fall asleep to the faint babbles of the creek just a few yards from your campsite.

Elevation is gained quickly in this section starting at 2,338 feet and hitting its highest point at 6,773 feet by mile 15. This is also about the time when the vegetation starts to thin out and open up so you can see the views from this higher elevation.

25 miles into the trail, you will come across Skull and Crossbones Road. While there are certainly stunning sites to take in around here, what excited me was an alternate route to ascend this hill. You can follow the prescribed path which has multiple switchbacks on this hillside. Or, you can go straight up it. I chose the latter and it did not disappoint. It was a nice dose of adrenaline in an otherwise pretty chill portion of the trail.

Shortly after that, you will come across an old structure used by cattle herders. This would make for a super cool camp spot, but at the very least, a cool thing to stop and take a look at. It was really fascinating to see this old construction and how many decades of weather have affected it. While some of the structure had rotted and began to collapse, one of the doors or gates to it, actually still worked!

The next landmark you will come across is Rattlesnake Draw. This last bit of dirt on the entire BDR is quite decent, losing 3,800 feet in just 8 miles, giving you an average decent angle of a bit of five degrees. But for all of that decent, you get a beautiful view of the valley below with the Sinlahekin Creek snaking its way through it.

Once you have completed this decent, aired up, and hit pavement again, you will have 14 miles until you reach the United States and Canadian border in Nighthawk. Over this short trip you will pass by Palmer Lake, a beautiful and quiet lake if you need or want to take a little break and take in the nature in this area. Also seemed like it was a good spot for fishing if you wanted to try your hand at that.

After leaving Palmer Lake, you will continue to drive along the Similkameen River until you make your final turn of the journey onto Similkameen Road, a long, straight road that will take you right to the border which marks the end of the Washington State Backcountry Discovery Route.

Gear That Helped Me

MORRFlate

On a trip like this, putting in at least 10-hour drives a day and hundreds of miles of rough terrain, there are some things that you should do to make your life a little easier and the trip more enjoyable.

A good air compressor is vital. This route takes you on and off the pavement, sometimes multiple times a day. I use the MORRFlate TenSix PSI Pro with the Quad hose kit which has drastically cut down the time I spend airing down and back up. You want to spend your time on the trail, not messing with tire pressures and this is the best solution right now.

Be sure to carry a tool kit with everything you will need for basic repairs. You and your vehicle will be tossed around and jarred for a good portion of this route. It is not uncommon for bolts to work their way loose, or have something fail completely. As I stated in section two, I had a couple of bolts work their way loose and a good friend had his rack fail completely.

Take a portable fridge. Having a portable fridge on a trip as long as this one is an absolute game-changer. You don’t have to worry about getting ice every time you are in town and none of your food will end up soggy. I use the Iceco APL55, which you can find more information here, on all of my trips.

Take plenty of water and have food that is easy to prepare. Depending on when you go, it can get very hot along this route. Sections two and three can certainly hit temps in the triple digits. And your days will be long so you may not want to cook an elaborate meal for lunch and dinner. I took a mixture of already prepared meals and meals from scratch and at the end of a long day, it was so nice to reach for something that was ready to go.

What I Would Do Differently

Bring a Friend

Take more time for this route. Like I said I completed the Washington BDR in 6 days. I felt like I was very rushed in the time and had little to no time to explore the areas I passed through anymore. Even just one more day would have made a trip a little more relaxing.

Take the journey with someone. I took this on solo with the exception of section four. While I feel very accomplished having done this alone, it would have been far more enjoyable to share this experience with someone else.

Bring microfiber towels. Almost the entire route when I went through was very dry. It will likely be the same for you as you will want to wait for the snow to melt before taking this on. Because of that, the dust was really bad and while I tried to keep it out of the Bronco, that didn’t always work out. I was able to stop in the second half and get one, which made the remainder of the trip so much better.

Bring spare parts. You don’t have to get too crazy here. It is very unlikely that you will snap a tie rod for instance. But basic stuff like a new air filter and a quart of oil would be wise to have on hand, especially given how dusty it will likely be. I noticed a significant loss in fuel economy due to how clogged my air filter became.

Final Thoughts

Section three water runoff

For me, this journey took 6 days. It was 575 miles of primarily off-road driving that took me from the Oregon Border to the Canadian Border. During this time, I saw everything that Washington has to offer, from the dense forest in sections one and six, the high elevation alpine in section five, and the more desert landscape of section two.

This route will test you and your fortitude as it is inherently challenging for you both physically and mentally. Pushing an average of 100 miles a day on dirt roads is not easy. The constant bumps, rocks, and ruts wear on you. Even with airing down and with a suspension as good as the HOSS 2.0, it is still a rough ride that beats you up on a daily basis.

The amount of attention this route requires will mentally exhaust you by the end of the day. And you will do that every day, for 6-7 days for 10-12 hours each day. With constant narrow shelf roads in the second half, single lane roads with vehicles coming the opposite direction and blind corners everywhere, you are constantly assessing what is around the corner and keeping an eye out for other travelers while trying to take in the views as well.

All of the difficulty that I described is what makes this trip as rewarding as it is. A smile was permanently fixed to my face for hours after and I rode this high for the rest of the day. I felt like I had accomplished something that few others have and there is an element of pride in that.

If you’re not in Washington, visit ridebdr.com and see if they have a route in your state. There are currently 20 routes available on the site ranging from full BDR routes running South to North but also routes running east to west as well. If they do not have a route in your state or near you at all, check back periodically as they are always working to add more routes.

Get out there, get lost, and enjoy the adventure!

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Frank Krawczyk
Frank Krawczyk
4 months ago

Great review of the Washington BDR! I enjoyed your combination of videos, written descriptions, drone footage, and great tips. I also live in Washington and would like to travel the route. Thank you for putting this together!

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