Tempted to travel, chafing from being cooped up, but wary of mass transit? Your vacation solution is a car-bike combination. Slip in the camping gear and create a low-contact holiday. Best of all, many excellent road cycling destinations exist within a day’s drive of Greater Seattle.
Here are five Washington locales that will set your wheels spinning.
New and expanding trails have popped up over the last few years, but the most promising is the Olympic Discovery Trail. Its location, destinations and increasingly connected segments show glimmers of a gem.
“Every bit of the ODT truly has some amazing beauty to it,” says Jeff Bohman, president of the Peninsula Trails Coalition. “Whether it’s the rural agricultural landscape in the Dungeness Valley or the waterfront trail east of Port Angeles or the Spruce Railroad Trail or the railroad grade through the dense forest canopy west of Lake Crescent” — he takes a breath and sums it up — “there’s just some magical things to see most anywhere.”
My pulse quickens on the Spruce, and not because it’s challenging. The nearly flat rail-trail skirts the north side of Lake Crescent, which stretches like a slug along Highway 101 west of Port Angeles. The 9-mile trail, just finished last fall, allows you to skip a dicey shoulder ride along 101 on the lake’s south shore. In its place is a stunning pedal along the water, with a couple of short but essential tunnels and even an over-the-water bridge.
The ODT starts at Port Townsend but is missing a crucial leg at Discovery Bay, east of Sequim, and includes some highway riding at its western end to Forks. The route reaches the Pacific at La Push, and by 2024 it will be a continuous trail from Forks to the ocean, forming the western end of ODT as well as the terminus of the cross-country Great American Rail Trail, says Bohman.
Just riding the ODT could occupy a lovely week. But adventurous cyclists could pedal south from Forks on a Peninsula highway loop, down to Kalaloch, Lake Quinault and Ocean Shores, returning east to Puget Sound via Aberdeen and Shelton. It’s longer than you expect, and you will grow weary of trees.
I will never forget the sight of orcas cutting the waves off San Juan Island, seen from my hiker-biker campsite in San Juan County Park above the island’s western shore. The ferry-served islands in the San Juans regularly deliver indelible memories. But traveling to Lopez, Orcas and San Juan islands comes with a caveat: summer crowds. Expect the low-traffic island roads to be replete with other cyclists and the lodging to be competitive. Score a place at Friday Harbor, though, and your vacation is assured.
From San Juan’s main town, take two or three days to cover that island, then ferry-hop free for day rides on the others. Lopez delivers the friendliest terrain for occasional cyclists. Orcas offers challenging road riding around its horseshoe shape, culminating in a pulse-pounding climb up Mount Constitution.
But the popular archipelago is not the only cycling island on the map. Consider Whidbey. With 55 miles of road stretching its length, it is the fourth-longest (and fourth-largest) island in the contiguous U.S., so cyclists can find multiple days of diversions along its lanky shape.
The north is anchored by Deception Pass State Park, busy and breathtaking, with easy access to Anacortes and the Skagit Valley. In the center, historical army forts and farmland around Coupeville offer more sedate sights, and you’ll pass through the island’s biggest town, U.S. Navy-centric Oak Harbor. A ferry to Port Townsend greatly expands the cycling possibilities. Finally, you can explore the hilly side roads of South Whidbey, down to the camera-ready New Englandish village of Langley and the ferry to Mukilteo.
Get to the islands and you can’t go wrong.
The towns of Twisp, Winthrop and Mazama hug the Methow River. Busy Highway 20 swoops down from the North Cascades and heads to the wide-open Okanogan, but you can largely avoid the highway shoulder for more relaxing side roads and still have much riverfront riding.
The Cinnamon Twisp Bakery defines that town, while the well-appointed Mazama Store bookends it, and the small-town delights continue after cycling at the Old Schoolhouse Brewery in Winthrop. The place is certainly no secret to summer recreators, so book lodging well in advance.
The area offers a big climb, which takes you up Highway 20 to Washington Pass. It’s easiest to start at Mazama, which is in the foothills. Be prepared for a relentless grade with stunning views as your distraction. Bring plenty of water, as the ride up can be hot. Bring layers, as it can get cold and windy at the top. Refill with refreshments at the Washington Pass Observation Site, 15 sky-high miles from Mazama, before enjoying the incredible roll back down. Make sure your brakes are up to the challenge.
On the road to the Methow, which is quite a long day’s drive, other cycling diversions exist. Wenatchee has a dozen miles of trail through town and along the river, and the wine country around the bottom end of Lake Chelan rewards both the eyes and the palate.
The Farmland Delight
Bicycling on the roads through farmland offers rural delights: towering rows of hops in pungent flower, colorful fields of peppers and tomatoes, or wind eddying through a sea of golden wheat. Such sights inspire picnicking in the Washington agricultural regions of Yakima and Walla Walla.
Around Yakima, the offerings are as varied as the salad bar and deli case. The town sits at the center of the paved 20-mile Yakima Greenway trail along the Naches and Yakima rivers. To the southeast, the valley is replete with fields of hops, while northwest toward Naches and Tieton, poke through those unique burgs and discover another winery around each turn. Tie up your bikes at the Cowiche Canyon Trail and take a stroll along the tree-lined creek in this shallow canyon.
For a long canyon ride, join the cars on the old highway through the Yakima River Canyon, which runs from Selah to Ellensburg. The 25-mile road along the river’s edge is winding and scenic, but bike-friendly shoulders are missing in some spots.
Farther south and east, down Highway 12 beyond the Tri-Cities, more viticulture awaits at Walla Walla. From the picture-perfect town center, you can cycle north or south on loop rides to nodding rows of grape vines or waving wheat fields. A short town ride takes you to the Whitman Mission National Historic Site. The Blue Mountains to the east offer plenty of climbing. The Oregon border is just 6 miles south, and a trip to Milton-Freewater uncorks more scenic wine country.
The Inland Empire
“Spoke” is right in its name, but hub would be an apt description of the Inland Empire’s biggest city. Strike out in any direction from Spokane’s Riverfront Park.
Follow the Centennial Trail northwest about, well, 9 miles to Nine Mile Falls. All trail, with river views. To the southwest the Fish Lake Trail comprises a 36-mile round trip to Cheney.
Go north if hankering for a climb, up to Mount Spokane, which offers 4,000 feet of hot climbing to reach its observation peak at 5,800 feet. Start at Mead for a 45-mile loop.
East takes you — also on the Centennial Trail — along the Spokane Valley to Idaho. It’s about a 72-mile round trip to Coeur d’Alene, almost entirely on trail, which traces the river’s rambling and rolling route to the big lake.
The Safety Talk
As with any outdoor activity, a bit of planning and awareness combine for the most pleasant trip. The Recreate Responsibly movement offers guidance like giving people space on trails, especially important until the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us.
But they also point out the probability of summer wildfires, and advise knowing fire restrictions, taking steps not to start a fire, and keeping current on where wildfires are burning.
Seattleites might forget, but much of Washington has actual summer weather, sunny and hot. Be prepared with sun protection and hydration.
Finally, know how to fix a flat tire, because these things happen, maybe when you’re miles from a bike shop.
Wherever the compass points, striking out into Washington’s varied terrain delivers cycling routes that are within reach and destination-worthy.