The Historic Sunset Highway
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The Colockum Road started as an Indian Trail between the Kittitas Valley near Ellensburg and the Columbia River near Wenatchee. In the 1870's cattlemen used the trail to drive stock over the Wenatchee Mountains connecting with the Caribou Trail and the gold fields of British Columbia.
The trail was steep and dangerous. Residents of Wenatchee and Ellensburg upgraded it to a rough road in 1883. The trail was used as a stagecoach and freight wagon road. In 1892 the route was shortened by a steamer that met the stage at Rock Island that would ply the Columbia to Wenatchee and back. A year later in 1893 the road began to see a decline in volume because of the Great Northern Railroad. The steamers ended about 1915 and the Colockum Road finally met it's end in 1922 when Blewett Pass replaced Colockum. Today the Colockum road is a very popular off road vehicle destination as can be seen in the you tube videos.
In 1915 the new Sunset Highway originally went from Ellensburg to Wenatchee by first going east to Vantage and across the Columbia River by ferry. Then north to Quincy and west back across the Columbia. After all that you then had to continue north to Wenatchee. This route was long and with 2 ferry rides Colockum road was starting to look like a better route to Wenatchee from Ellensburg.
The Colockum road was strongly considered for becoming the Ellensburg - Wenatchee section but due to the roughness and steep grades, Blewett Pass was selected in 1922 to become a part of the Sunset Highway.
Colockum Pass through the Wenatchee Mountains marked a half- way spot for cattle and people—halfway between The Dalles, Oregon, and British Columbia gold mining camps, and halfway between the developing towns of Ellensburg and Wenatchee.
Colockum Pass Road was the preferred route through the high country for more than fifty years. Hardy pioneers could cross these mountains in thirteen hours on foot or five hours on horseback. A few brave souls drove cars over the pass in the early 1900s, but the rocky, rutted road never quite caught on for anything but cattle.
Today, Colockum Pass Road traces the historic route of stage- coaches, wagons, and cattle drives. From the north end, a seven- hour hike leads to the halfway site over high country with wide vistas.
The road is marked on maps and posts with a green dot, which means it is open to vehicles, but on a sunny Sunday in August only six trucks, two motorcycles, three off-road vehicles, and one Subaru disturbed the silence.
The fur trader Alexander Ross rode this way on horseback in the summer of 1814, headed for Colockum Pass. He was hoping to buy horses from the Yakama at a glorious summer gathering in the Kittitas Valley called Che-lo-han, which settlers transcribed as "Colockum."
Ross had left his post in Okanagan country, accompanied by an American clerk, two French Canadian boatmen, a baby, and two Native American wives, who came along to help in driving the horses, for Ross had discovered that "women in these parts" were as expert as men on horseback. After losing bedding and provisions in the rapids of the Columbia River, they camped at the mouth of the Wenatchee River.
If the party had continued canoeing on the Columbia, they would have found more rapids. If they had walked along the west side of the river, sharp canyons and deep gorges would have blocked their way. Also jutting out into the river was Cape Horn, a precipitous 2,000-foot basalt cliff. So the group headed overland toward Colockum Pass, climbing the ridges between creek canyons.
Begin your hike, as Ross did, at the foot of the mountains on the Wenatchee side, at the end of the paved road. An early settler here made a dessert wine like the Spanish Malaga, giving the area its name. The old road ascends a ridge between Colockum and Tarpiscan creeks, the first miles through Ponderosa pine.
Seventy years after Ross, cattle grazed on every hill and down every canyon. Ranches and homesteads spread out along this route: Haley and Reed ranches on the north end of the road, Stone and King just north of the pass, and Smythe, Cooke, Stewart, and Peterson on the Ellensburg side.
Spring and fall roundups, when the cattle were collected, sorted, and branded, became community events. Ellensburg and Wenatchee prospered from this ranching, and Kittitas Valley settlers constructed this road in 1880 to connect the towns.
From the beginning it was a crude affair, and travelers had to cut trees, grade the hillsides with plows, lower wagons with rope, and tie trees on behind the wagons to act as a drag.
"For miles the ruddy rocky wagon road twisted up the side of the mountain," recalled one family that used the road in 1887. Their two young children, ages six months and two years, were carried or walked a great part of the way. Gradually, rocks were thrown out of the roadway or piled along the side to form banks that still define the road in places.
The territorial government made the road official in 1888, signing an agreement with E. A. Haley to repair and improve the road and put it "in condition of a good mountain wagon road." "No part of said road was to be less than ten feet in width, with suitable and convenient meeting places," which explains the wide roadway. Haley built with grades as easy as practical, which makes the climb gradual but steady.
After the first hour, the road finds open country, with nearly 360-degree views and sportsmen's camps along the side. After a junction with North Fork Tarpiscan Creek Road and Colockum Road continues past a location marker. Sun glints off the Columbia River; Crescent Bar lies on its east flank, across the river from West Bar and, above it, Cape Horn, neither of which is visible.
The road climbs toward a game reserve on a large cattle ranch run by the Coffin family. Three brothers—Arthur, Lester, and Stanley Coffin—first bought a ranch at West Bar, then expanded to 100,000 acres along this road, where they amassed herds of 3,000 cattle, 160 horses, and 60,000 ewes and lambs.
During the summer grazing season, the brothers stayed in a log cabin built with a shake roof and square nails. In the fall, the Coffins moved the cattle down to West Bar, negotiating the cliffs of Cape Horn one cow at a time. From the bar the cattle were ferried across the Columbia River to range on the east side.
The boundary of the Arthur Coffin Game Reserve signals the top of the ridge. Beyond two intermittent streams that form Tarpiscan Creek is a plaque on a rock honoring Arthur Coffin.
The old cabin here was burned down by vandals. A larger log cabin built in 1913 had four spring beds, which folded up against opposite walls in the daytime. The mountain home of Lester Coffin is in the game reserve, which is fenced and marked "No trespassing." The largest herds roaming the high country now are not horses or cattle or sheep but elk, which we watched, at a respectful distance.
On the steepest part of the road, just north of the headwaters of Tarpiscan Creek, was Dead Man's Hill. Miners carried heavy freight over this route. One wagon was carrying a load of dynamite, which blew up, sending the wagon into a canyon and the driver into a tree. The road has been rerouted in this area, and Dead Man's Hill does not appear on today's topographical maps.
Beyond the Coffin plaque is the halfway station that provided a change of horses for the stagecoaches carrying passengers and mail.
The only stagecoach robbery in central Washington occurred on this route in 1891. A man wearing a gray cutaway coat, pinstripe pants, and a white cowboy hat and carrying a shotgun stepped out from behind a tree as the stagecoach headed down toward Ellensburg from the pass.
He demanded the mail sacks and the lone passenger's wallet. Although a posse was formed, the bandit was never caught. The men who robbed Ben Snipes's bank in Roslyn also escaped to this area.
Colockum Pass itself is unmarked, it lies a bit south of the half-way station. Alexander Ross headed south from this pass, down canyons, toward the Kittitas Valley (the Valley of White Chalk).
As the valley came into view, spread out before Ross was a sight he would never forget: a huge Indian camp, "of which we could see its beginning but not the end. This mammoth camp," he said, "could not have contained less than 3,000 men (exclusive of women and children) and treble that number of horses." This was Che-lo-han, the annual gathering of Northwest Indians.
The camp stretched from the present small town of Kittitas, at the eastern end of the valley, north and northwest to the creeks and canyons that lead over the mountains the way Ross had come. "It was a grand and imposing sight in the wilderness, covering more than 6 miles in every direction", Ross wrote in his journal.
An inscription at the Yakama Nation Museum describes the same grand gathering of many tribes:
Down from the West came the Coastal People, In their packs, dried salt sea clams, and colored shells. Out of the East came the High Plateau people, Driving before them horses for the trade.
From the North came the Mountain People, Dressed in skins of beaver and of bear. From the south, up the winding river canyon, Came the Yakama People, with woven blankets and baskets for exchange. From all directions into Kittitas they came, And camped together on the fertile plain.
"Councils, root-gathering, hunting, horseracing, foot-racing, gambling, singing, dancing, drumming, yelling, and a thousand other things which I cannot mention were going on," wrote Ross. "All was motion and commotion. The din of men, the noise of women, the screaming of children, the trampling of horses, and howling of dogs was more than could be described."
Ross and his party were met with hostility. The two wives feared being enslaved and found it prudent to leave in the middle of the night, with the baby. Avoiding the main trail, they set out "with- out food, guide, or protection" due north across the mountains and waited for the men at the mouth of the Wenatchee River.
To make their escape, the women had stolen two horses, ridden them all night, and turned them loose at daylight, continuing on foot. Over four days they rode eighteen miles, walked fifty-four, and paddled sixty-six. After several days, Ross secured horses but not before giving up his knife and the belt around his waist in trade. His party reunited with the women, who had a canoe ready to ferry them across the Columbia River.
It is also possible to reach Colockum Pass from the Ellensburg side, either in a hardy vehicle with high clearance or as a long hike (thirteen miles one way), with opportunities for wandering ridges, following streams, and finding springs and meadows.
At 6.3 miles the traces of an old road can be found to the left, which makes a good hike to a view of Cooke Canyon, Mount Rainier, and the Kittitas Valley. Spread out below is the terrain Ross saw, but there will be no Che-lo-han at the foot of the mountains. The land now is a quiet network of country roads, ranches, and farms stretching out from the hub of Ellensburg.
Colockum Pass Road remained the favored route over the mountains until the early 1900s. In 1910 John A. Gellatly of Wenatchee and his wife, four children, and a nanny drove a Thomas Flyer over the pass on a trip to southern Oregon. Gellatly described the road as very steep and rugged. Because of his car's simple clutch system, "at the first steep grade, we were in for trouble."
On steep grades, fifteen-year-old Lester stood on the running board and scooped dirt between the two discs of the clutch to keep them from slipping. The rest of the family walked. Because of such trouble, the road never became a highway. Instead the state built a road over Blewett Pass, which was later replaced by Highway 97, and Colockum Pass Road faded into the travel standards of "a good mountain road."
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