Bickleton is a tiny, unincorporated town high on a plateau 3,300 feet above
sea level ands 20 miles north of the Columbia River in south-central Washington
State. The population hovers around 100 people, most of whom are involved in
the predominant industries of Klickitat County: wheat farming and cattle
ranching. The town includes a tavern, a school, a church, and, for about three
days out of the year, a historic carousel.
Bickleton is named for Charles N. Bickle, who came to the area in 1879 to
establish a trading post. But while the town bears Bickle's name, it owes its
fame to a couple named Brinkerhoff. And to the Brinkerhoff's love of bluebirds.
Around 1960, Jeff and Elva Brinkerhoff of Richland, Wash., took a picnic out to
the Bickleton Plateau to view the wildflowers. The Brinkerhoffs were surprised
and charmed to find a large population of bluebirds on the plateau, both
Mountain Bluebirds, which have white breasts, and Eastern and Western
Bluebirds, which are orange-breasted. Jeff nailed a can to a fencepost in hopes
of making a home for some of the colorful birds. His conversations with
Bickleton residents led to the installation of more bluebird dwellings by the
Brinkerhoffs and the locals.
The Brinkerhoffs were amateur birdwatchers and knew that bluebirds were
fairly rare in eastern Washington. While the weather in the region is well
suited to maintaining bluebird populations, intensive farming over many decades
had cleared away much of the materials required for bluebird habitat. Who knew
that a tin can nailed to a fencepost could be the start of a long-term
relationship of bluebirds to the Bickleton Plateau?
The next spring, the Brinkerhoffs returned with more birdhouses they had
made over the winter. The first birdhouses were already inhabited and the
residents of Bickleton were eager to assist with encouraging the birds.
Throughout the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, the Brinkerhoffs built and mounted
hundreds of bluebird houses in and around Bickleton. Bickletonians did their
part, too, forming a "bluebird brigade," involving church groups,
families, Scouts, and darned near everyone in town.
Some sources call Bickleton the "Bluebird Capital of the Pacific Northwest,"
others the "Bluebird Capitol of the World." Whichever moniker you prefer,
Bickleton is definitely home to a lot of bluebirds.
What You'll Find Today
In many ways, Bickleton today is the same as it was before the Brinkerhoffs
"discovered" the bluebirds and, indeed, the way it was before Bickle
opened his trading post. A high desert plateau at the edge of the timbered
Cascade Mountains, it soars above the mighty Columbia River, affording views of
Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson, and even the Blue Mountains of Northeastern Oregon. It
has hot summers and cold, snowy winters. You'll find range cattle, wheat
fields, and miles of fences. On many of those fences, you'll find birdhouses.
Birdhouses also grace trees, telephone poles, and the sides of buildings.
Bickletonians and fans of bluebirds throughout southeastern Washington build,
mount, and maintain the birdhouses, including an annual cleaning each fall. And
the efforts have paid off. Each spring bluebirds return by the thousands.
Tourists come, too, but it's never a throng. Bickleton doesn't have a lot of
big-city services, and it's pretty remote. But those who make the drive to the
tiny town on the plateau are treated to the sight and sound of the bluebirds as
they seek their insect diet, hovering gracefully and chirping out their calls.
Other Things To Do
Bickleton is home to a beautiful Presbyterian church that provides a nice photo
opportunity. It's also home to a restored 1905 Herschell-Spillman carousel, one
of only three carousels of this type still in operation. Alas, the carousel is
in a long process of restoration and is mothballed most of the year. But it
operates on Bickleton's Pioneer Picnic and Rodeo weekend, which falls on June
12-14 this year (2009). If you're fortunate to arrive that weekend, a mere 50
cents gets you a ride.
More popular by far than the church or the carousel, however, is the
Bluebird Inn. This charming tavern/café has the distinction of being the oldest
inn in Washington State. The antique 1903 Brunswick pool table is still in use.
And, I might add, they grill a mean burger for a fair price.
Bickleton is about three hours from Portland, Ore., and about 3.5 hours from
Seattle, Wash. The nearest town of any size is Goldendale, 50 miles to the west
via the Bickleton Highway.
From Portland, go about 100 miles east on Interstate 84, take U.S. Highway 97
north across the Columbia River into Washington state. Shortly after crossing,
turn right (east) onto State Highway 14. After 33 miles, turn left onto East
Road/Roosevelt Grade Road and continue 23 miles to Bickleton.
From Seattle, take Interstate 90 east toward Spokane. Just after passing
Ellensburg (about 110 miles from Seattle), take the Interstate 82 East exit
toward Yakima. After 50 miles on I-82, take State Highway 22 East. Continue on
Hwy 22 to the town of Mabton. In Mabton, turn right onto Main, which becomes
Glade Road, then becomes the Mabton Highway, then becomes Goldendale/Bickleton
Road, taking you into Bickleton.
Sally O'Neal is a native of Washington State, where she lives, writes, and
explores the backroads for her weekly "Trailside" column.