Sunday, September 3, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Jaunts

Savor Scenery On Back Road Into Mount Adams Country

It's the kind of road you dream of when you're stuck in the rush-hour snarl on Seattle's freeways. . . .

Not a car in sight. No buildings. Just miles of forest, roadside streams and some heart-stopping views of Mount Adams, the second highest peak in the state.

Welcome to the U.S. Forest Service's Road 23, 50 miles of old-fashioned country driving in south-central Washington.

Best yet, this is no potholed, unpaved logging road. Road 23 is paved for all but a dozen miles. And it shaves about an hour off the driving time from Seattle (down to about 4 1/2 hours) for those heading to the rich huckleberry fields and hiking trails of 12,276-foot Mount Adams (whose height is surpassed only by the 14,411-foot Mount Rainier).

Drivers looking for adventure also can use Road 23 to get to the Columbia Gorge, instead of the usual route south along Interstate 5 then east along the Columbia River. Drive with care

Road 23 runs north-south between Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams, cutting through the heart of the sprawling Gifford Pinchot National Forest. But wait. Before you put pedal to the metal and hit Road 23 - which begins near the timber town of Randle, Lewis County, and continues south to the rural community of Trout Lake, Klickitat County - consider:

-- While most of Road 23 is paved, it's nothing like a state highway. It's essentially a logging road that's been paved and upgraded, and is not engineered to anything like state highway standards. For stretches in its northern half it's only one lane wide, with turnouts so oncoming cars can be passed. There are sharp curves, blind corners and some steep grades. Logging trucks thunder along it at times, and snow closes the road in winter.

-- There are no gas stations and no services of any kind along the road. Just forestland. If your car breaks down it could take hours to get help. (Even on a midsummer Saturday when I drove the road on my way to the south side of Mount Adams, I saw only about a dozen other cars.)

-- A bewildering maze of logging roads intersects Road 23, although the primary route is well-marked with signs. But don't venture on it without a detailed map, such as the Gifford Pinchot National Forest Service map or those in the "Washington Atlas and Gazeteer."

-- Road 23 climbs to about 4,500 feet at Baby Shoe Pass where the dozen-mile gravel stretch is centered. It's a washboarded roadway where prudent drivers will go only about 15 mph.

-- Since it's not built to state highway standards, drivers shouldn't exceed 35 mph on the road, even though an eight-mile stretch near Trout Lake is two-lane and newly paved, complete with lane markers.

Despite its limitations, Road 23 is increasingly popular with campers, hikers, hunters and fishermen since it's much easier to drive than the standard, unpaved Forest Service roads. Campgrounds and small lakes are scattered along it, and it's a main access route to the Mount Adams Wilderness Area.

But the influx of people has brought problems - and an increase in car accidents - on Road 23 and similar national-forest roads.

"We have tremendous problem with people driving too fast. It's a very curvy road. But people think they're on a highway," said Tom Erkert of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Road 23 and other paved roads that snake through the Gifford Pinchot are a legacy of the forest's big logging days and the influx of recreational users who have flocked to the Mount St. Helens area since its 1980 eruption.

Among the forest's other paved routes:

-- The Forest Service's Road 90 runs east from Cougar, on the southwest side of of Mount St. Helens, to intersect with Road 23; it's a main east-west route within the forest and is two-lane and paved all the way.

-- Forest Service Road 25, running north-south along the east side of Mount St. Helens, is paved and two-lane. It's popular with those who want to explore Windy Ridge and other sights on the east side of Mount St. Helens - so popular that it can get up to 2,500 vehicles a day at the summer peak season, according to Erkert. ----------------------------------------------------------------- IF YOU GO

A trip down Road 23

Here are some places to turn for more information if you want to take back roads to Mount Adams country and the Columbia Gorge:

-- The Outdoor Recreation Information Center in downtown Seattle offers detailed road maps and publications on the national parks and national forests of Washington. It's run by the Forest Service and the National Park Service. Forest maps, including the Gifford Pinchot National Forest map, can be purchased for $3. Information: 220-7450. Outdoor recreation stores also sell detailed maps.

-- For more information on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, phone the forest headquarters in Vancouver, Wash., (360) 750-5000. For Mount Adams information, contact the Mount Adams Ranger District in Trout Lake, (509) 395-3400.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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