The valley between Wenatchee and Leavenworth, Wash., is known for its fruit orchards. Apple, pear, and cherry trees line the county roads. In the springtime, blossomed branches reach out from tidy orchard rows.
You can glimpse the orchards from U.S. Highway 2, the most direct route between the two cities. But the most scenic way winds along 48 miles of county roads, up and down hills and across the Wenatchee River.
“This becomes real pretty, as we crest this summit and drop down. We’re getting even closer to the Leavenworth mountains,” said Marilyn Hedges as we make it to the top of the tallest hill on North Road, a main county road in Peshastin, Wash.
To local cyclists the route is known as the Fruit Loop, so named for the numerous orchards along the way. Some of those cyclists are working to have the route designated as a scenic bikeway. That would make the route safer for two-wheeled travelers, thanks to the placement of signs at turning points, spots with narrow shoulders, blind curves and other areas that are dicey for cyclists.
“There are people that are out on the highway. Gosh, there’s a 40- to 50-mph speed differential between the cyclists and the motorists,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of these frontage roads, but (the route) is kind of complicated unless you have some kind of a map or signage.”
According to data from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission dating back to 2001, one cyclist was killed in 2004 on U.S. Highway 2 between Wenatchee and Leavenworth. Local cyclists can name two cyclists injured in crashes there recently.
Several fruit orchard owners in the area are resisting the idea of a designated bikeway. They say cyclists aren't compatible with their way of making a livelihood. What if cyclists decide they don't like the way growers spray their trees to ward off pests? Will an impatient cyclist make the perilous decision to pass slow-moving farm equipment?
“To invite more people invites more lawsuits,” said Doug Clarke, one of those bicycle-wary growers.
Clarke owns several pear, apple, and cherry orchards that line Peshastin's North Road. He’s worked the land with his dad since 1982.
This time of year Clarke’s orchards are quiet. He jokes he only works 45 hours a week in the winter. But the times most crucial to his growing operation are also the times most popular with cyclists.
“It’s been a slow, gradual effect, but from about Friday at noon to Sunday evening, we cannot spray because we are afraid of lawsuits. A lot of jobs we are not able to do in that two-and-a-half day period, such as even mowing the orchard – afraid of something hitting a bicyclist,” Clarke said.
None of the cycling advocates or orchardists interviewed for this story could recall a lawsuit in the Wenatchee Valley from cyclists who have been sprayed by pesticide as they rode by orchards. An editorial in The Wenatchee World said it wasn't aware of such a legal dispute, either.
This fight is not new to this area of Central Washington.
The Apple Capital Recreation Loop Trail circles along and over the Columbia River. Even on a brisk January afternoon the trail is used by runners, cyclists, parents pushing strollers and couples walking dogs.
Trail advocates wanted to extend the 10.5-mile loop because of its success. The new section was dubbed the Rocky Reach extension. The additional five-mile paved path would end just beyond the Rocky Reach Dam.
A group of orchardists along the route fought the extension. The case eventually made its way to the Washington Supreme Court.
The orchardists lost and construction on the Rocky Reach Trail began. Trail advocates last week secured funding for the final phase of the project.
In other parts of the Northwest agriculture and two-wheeled recreation have coexisted without such conflict.
Oregon has designated 11 rural scenic bikeways. The longest travels through Willamette Valley farmland. Area farmers have not complained about increased bike traffic, said Alex Phillips. She manages the scenic bikeway program for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
Orchardists in the Wentachee Valley say cyclists will impede their ability to move farm equipment on the roads and to harvest their fruit.
As a cyclist, Phillips said she happens upon farm tractors and equipment often while riding the 132 miles through the Willamette Valley.
“The farm equipment complaint, we don’t hear that from the farmers, we hear that from other motorists,” Phillips said. “That has been my experience, too, biking on the roads. I don’t have a conflict with the slow moving farm equipment.”
An economic report found that cyclists have a “significant impact” on Oregon’s tourism industry, spending $400 million in 2012. That’s about 4.4 percent of the tourist money spent in the state.
Wenatchee cyclists hope to increase the area’s agricultural tourism with a designated bikeway. Tourism is already an important economic driver for the two cities, with a ski resort near Wentachee and yearly Oktoberfest and Christmas tree lighting festivals in Leavenworth as two main examples.
The Fruit Loop winds through several small towns, past Cashmere’s Aplets and Cotlets factory, Dryden’s grocery store, and Peshastin’s Icicle Ridge Winery. Local chambers of commerce support the idea, as do several wineries. The groups hope the route could promote more agricultural tourism in the area.
“The idea is to work with agriculture to educate people that you are traveling through an agricultural area. You need to respect that aspect. But we could also work with them to promote agriculture,” said cyclist Dolly Buckingham.
Orchardist Don Clarke is skeptical that agricultural tourism would work in North Central Washington. He said, more likely, cyclists would pick a cherry here and a cherry there from his orchard. And that could add up to damage his property.
Other growers in Oregon have complained about cyclists using their fields as makeshift restrooms, particularly on the more populated Tualatin Valley Scenic Bikeway, located in the fringes of the Portland metro area. Alex Phillips said the county's visitor association is working to possibly build an additional restroom along the new trail.
Chelan County Commissioners in December delayed a decision about posting signing along the Wenatchee Valley's Fruit Loop route. They asked both groups to sit down and talk about their concerns.
“I don’t know the importance of having the county designate this as an official route. Because, quite frankly, anybody can walk, or drive, or ride a bicycle, or drive a tractor on any of the existing county roads as it is,” said commissioner Ron Walters.
Local cyclist Bob Parlette has been advocating for two decades for Wenatchee’s trail system.
A lawyer by profession, Parlette also owns a cherry and pear orchard outside of town. He’s built his own cross-country skiing track through his cherry orchard.
“My primary objective is to avoid any contentious issue,” Parlette said. “It has really saddened me that the agricultural industry –- at least some in that industry –- have been looking at this thing from a negative perspective as opposed to, ‘How can we all work together where everybody benefits?’”
Both sides agree that more cyclists will come, whether the route is designated. A few websites are already publishing the map.
Ultimately, Parlette said, he would like to see a dedicated bike trail, separate from the county roads.
“The trail might not happen in my lifetime,” 72-year-old Parlette said. “But I think it will happen in the next 20 or 30 years.”