Mike McQuaide offers five high-country rides for crazed cyclists with the climbing gene.
Ah, those summer bike rides.
The freedom of pedaling aimlessly, meandering over pancake-flat roads and paved pathways, stopping every so often for a latte, or a scone, or to send a friend an amusing video message of you on your bike.
For some, however, summer bike rides conjure something altogether different. To them, it means heading for the hills, scaling the heights of mountain roads so high they’re clear of snow for only a few months each year. Up, up, up to the heavens: to Paradise, to Artist Point, to Sunrise, and other ethereally named alpine eminences.
But they do it with a smile. (And/or a grimace, which is sort of a smile.) These folks dig the climbs.
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“Climbing on a bike is simply the best part of cycling for me,” says Seattle’s Tom Meloy, who rides some 10,000 miles each year, including over half a million feet of climbing. A coach at Cycle University (cycleu.com), he writes an informative bike blog (tomsbicycleblog.blogspot.com) that often details his climbing exploits.
“There is something about the sheer exhilaration of spiraling higher and higher, similar to the feeling of hiking up a mountain on foot, that gives me a sense of calm and serenity. I must just have the climbing gene.”
If you, or someone you know, possesses the climbing gene, here are five favorite high-country bike routes — which become even better after Labor Day, as traffic thins and temperatures moderate:
Highway 542 (Mount Baker Highway)
Popular in the winter for its world-renowned ski area, the Mount Baker Highway is popular in summers with road cyclists. Especially those who love spectacular alpine vistas and consider a relentless 10.5-mile-long uphill push (3,000-foot elevation gain) a good time.
“Five-forty two (Highway 542, the Mount Baker Highway) is a top-notch place to climb,” said Bellingham’s Tammy Bennett after a recent Artist Point ascent. She used to do the ride once a year, but now, along with husband, Brad, and a cadre of climbing friends, she does the route several times a summer.
“The last couple of switchbacks force you to make an inner decision because you can see where you’re going — up and more up — and it will either discourage you or set you on fire.”
As soon as the long climb begins, the trees open and you’re lured upward by spectacular views of Mount Shuksan, which only get better and bigger with each turn of the pedals. In fact, if one is feeling good, the second half of the climb — from the Mount Baker Ski Area’s White Salmon Day Lodge (you’ll know it by the roadside raven sculptures) — seems to fly by. That’s because you’re distracted by the ever-expanding views of the Nooksack Ridge, myriad North Cascades, and those coffee-table-book shots of Picture Lake in front of Mount Shuksan.
Then again, the second half is also incredibly hard, what with the steep, hairpin turns and switchbacks, not to mention the accumulation of fatigue and altitude so late in the ride. (Such is the ambivalent relationship many climbing enthusiasts have with climbing; it’s a painfully evil rollicking good time. Know what I mean?)
If You Go
Distance: 49 miles round-trip from Glacier to Artist Point and back. Elevation gain: 4,850 feet. High point: 4,990 feet. Getting to starting point: From Bellingham, follow Highway 542 (Mount Baker Highway) for 33 miles to Glacier. Turn right just past the post office and park at the public restrooms and parking lot about 25 yards ahead. Services: Though there are aromatic pit toilets at Artist Point, there are no other services. The town of Glacier offers places to eat.
Mount Rainier National Park
No huge surprise that the Northwest’s most epic mountain offers some of the most epic hill-climbing rides in Washington. (Paradise, on the south side, is another; as are Cayuse-Chinook passes to the east.)
Among Sunrise’s calling cards: At 6,400 feet, it’s at the end of the highest paved road in the state and thus leads to a wonderland of wildflower meadows at the foot of Mount Rainier’s Emmons Glacier. The 14-mile road climbs about 2,800 feet, but the last 2.5 miles from Sunrise Point to the end are just about flat, even slightly downhill in spots. Thus, as you approach Sunrise and evermore massive Rainier, you’re able to gather a good bit of speed and, given that the toughest part is behind you, you feel invincible. Like you can pedal right up the Emmons Glacier and summit the mountain! (Don’t try it.)
Also amazing: Sunrise Point, where the road flattens for that final stretch, offers an incredible 360-degree mountain panorama. On clear days you can see everything from Mount Rainier to the west, Mount Baker to the north (130 miles away!), Mount Stuart in the Enchantments to the east and Mount Adams to the south.
If You Go
Distance: 28 miles round-trip from Mount Rainier National Park’s White River entrance and back. Elevation gain: 2,900 feet. High point: 6,400 feet. Cost: $15 to park a vehicle at the White River entrance (no additional charge for bikes); if you park outside park entrance, there’s still a $5 fee for bikes to enter the park. Getting to starting point: From Enumclaw, head east (and south) on Highway 410 for 38 miles to Mount Rainier National Park’s White River entrance. Services: At Sunrise, the day lodge offers restrooms, food, a picnic area and a ranger station.
Olympic National Park
This is the big one — the longest, most relentless, elevation-gobbling, gravity-fighting ride of the group. From just above sea level to a mile high in less than 19 miles. Yikes!
“It’s the climb that most closely replicates the big climbs of Europe,” says Meloy, who’s conquered such European classics as the Galibier, the Tourmalet and Alpe d’Huez.
“For me, that makes Hurricane Ridge the best climb in Washington. It’s a long climb with a great panoramic-view payoff at the top.”
True, that. At the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, the sea-of-peaks effect spreads mountains and valleys, hills and dales in all directions as far the eye can. It takes your breath away.
So does the 19-mile climb, which offers neither lead-in nor warm-up. It gets busy quick, climbing from the first pedal stroke, and, in fact, the first 4.5 miles are the steepest of the whole ride. On the ride up, several pullout areas offer airplane-wing views of the northern Olympic Peninsula edging into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with Vancouver Island beyond.
If You Go
Distance: 37.5 miles Elevation gain: 5,100 feet. High point: 5,195 feet. Cost: $5 for bikes to enter Olympic National Park; $15 to park a vehicle inside Olympic National Park. Getting to starting point: Take Highway 101 to Port Angeles and turn south onto Race Street. Two blocks ahead is Erickson Playfield and Civic Field, which offer parking. Follow Race Street south for about a mile and turn right onto Heart o’ the Hills Road, just past the Olympic National Park Visitor Center. Or, you can park in the visitor center parking lot and cut two miles off your round trip. Services: Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center offers restrooms, food, a picnic area and a ranger station.
Mount Rainier National Park
Because it can be approached from both east and west, Paradise — that otherworldly mile-high spot on Mount Rainier’s south side — is really two climbs in one. Either way, it’s truly spectacular.
From the west, the Nisqually-Longmire side, the climb is slightly shorter than the east side approach from Stevens Canyon-Ohanapecosh, but the western approach is usually more crowded with vehicles. This is the direction that the annual RAMROD ride (Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Day) takes.
“Riding up from the east is so much better,” Meloy says. “There are almost no cars in sight and the views of Rainier are much more dramatic.”
Personally, I’ve only ridden through the park west to east and found the crazy-fun descent through Stevens Canyons to the Stevens Canyon entrance to be my all-time favorite. Though the three-mile Backbone Ridge ascent, pretty much in the middle, is a bit rude.
Either way, take a moment to scan Paradise Valley, just below Paradise. On a recent ride, I spotted a mama bear and two cubs playing across the meadow.
If You Go
Distance: Nisqually entrance to Paradise and back: 42.4 miles; Ohanapecosh Visitor Center to Paradise and back: 49.2 miles. Elevation gain: Nisqually-Paradise and back: 3,540 feet; Ohanapecosh-Paradise and back: 4,780 feet. High point: 5,400 feet. Cost: $5 for bikes to enter Mount Rainier National Park; $15 to park a vehicle inside the park. Getting to starting point: To ride to Paradise from the west, head south to Ashford and follow Highway 706 east to the park’s Nisqually entrance. To ride from the east side, follow Highway 410 east and south from Enumclaw for 41 miles to Cayuse Pass. Continue straight on Highway 123 for 11 miles to the Stevens Canyon entrance. Park here ($15 park fee) or three miles ahead at the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center (free). Services: The Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center at Paradise offers restrooms, food, a picnic area, ranger station and crowds.
Highway 20 (North Cascades Highway)
Like Paradise, Washington Pass — the high point, both literally and figuratively, of the North Cascades Highway — has both a west- and east side approach. From the west, it’s often climbed as part of longish point-to-point rides from somewhere on the west side to Mazama, Winthrop or even cross-state. From the east, riders do out-and-backs (which are really up-and-downs) from Mazama and Winthrop.
Riders from both sides are drawn by the same things: the stunning vista of high, sweeping valleys and jagged east side peaks, the Liberty Bell massif with its 1,200-foot rock face, and, of course, the screaming 20-mile descent into the Methow Valley from 5,477-foot-high Washington Pass.
From the west, the road to Washington Pass is a long, gradual, not-too-steep climb that stiffens for a couple miles before reaching Rainy Pass (elevation 4,855 feet). It then descends for a mile-and-a-half before offering up the steepest section — 900 feet in 3.4 miles — culminating in Washington Pass.
From the east, the climb is steeper and more consistent. But the emerging and ever-expanding views of Liberty Bell are sure to turn your pain-face frown upside down.
If You Go
Distance: Varies, because there are numerous places to start. Here are some options. From the west: Colonial Campground to Washington Pass and back: 64 miles. Newhalem to Winthrop (one-way): 73 miles. From the east: Mazama to Washington Pass and back: 36 miles. Elevation gain: Colonial Campground to Washington Pass and back: 3,850 feet. Newhalem to Winthrop (one-way): 6,425 feet. Mazama to Washington Pass and back: 3,250 feet. High point: 5,477 feet. Getting to starting point: Head east on Highway 20 to Newhalem, Colonial Campground or Mazama, depending on your start and finish points. Services: Picnic area with restrooms at Rainy Pass.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “Day Hike! Central Cascades” (Sasquatch Books). He is currently working on a guide to the best road rides in Washington State (Mountaineers Books). E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.