Falls Creek Road: Up and out of the Methow Valley

This is something I should have posted in the summer, and never got around to. In fact, I did this ride in early July; it’s on my mind because winter has once again found the Pacific Northwest, and I’ve been reminiscing about warmer, sunnier times while planning snow shoe trips. And I realized I’d never written about this ride from Winthrop.

Winthrop is a small town in northern Washington, and depends heavily on tourism. It has a cowboy facade, much like Leavenworth has a Bavarian character. Situated near North Cascades National Park, Winthrop attracts the outdoor crowd. Skiing and mountain biking are popular here, but I’d heard a lot of buzz about road riding in the Methow Valley, and, on a short vacation for the 4th of July, I decided to go find out for myself.

The edge of town

Looking west toward the North Cascades and the edge of town, at Methow Cycle & Sport. This ride departs SR 20 here for Chewuch Road.

I parked at “the red barn” next to Methow Cycle & Sport, left my car, and rode into town for lunch. The kind folks at the bike shop told me I’d be able to leave my car there without it being towed or stolen. They were right!

Entering Okanogan National Forest

Leaving civilization behind and coming into the Okanogan Highlands near the Pasayten wilderness. Like the last adventure, this is a hot and dusty place, parched by the sun, fed by the occasional creek.

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Mount Rainier: Cayuse and Chinook Passes, and Wildlife!

I got up early on Saturday and drove my bike toward Mount Rainier, parked on a forest service dirt road, and then rode into the national park, coming out the other end.  I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’ve ridden a bike inside a national park (North Cascades Nat’l Park is ends at the road, divided into two pieces), which was a little bit of extra fun.

Cayuse Pass has been open for a while, but Chinook is still closed – they’re hoping to have it opened this week.  But the road itself is bare.  You can ride all the way to Yakima, if the spirit moves you.

I rode a little beyond Chinook Pass, by Tipsoo Lake and the Pacific Crest Trail, then turned back.  (My turn-around point was at the trailhead for the Sheep Lake and Sourdough Gap trail, which looks like it’s been getting snowshoe use.  Beautiful place in the summer.)  Coming back down, the road that had been closed off with a sign and a few cones, at Cayuse Pass, was now chained off with a sign about avalanche blasting east of the pass!

On the way up, I passed a group of backcountry skiers, grinning ear-to-ear, who pointed the mountain goat out.

This came to 40.6 miles round trip, with 3,700 feet elevation gain. Cayuse Pass sits at 4,675 feet, and Chinook Pass is 5,430 feet.

Welcome to Mount Rainier

Entering the national park on Route 410. To the left are some maps.

The Mountain

The White River flowing from Mount Rainier, with a lenticular cloud forming over the summit. “When Mount Rainier wears a hat, bad weather follows.” Sure enough, the rains came a few hours later.

Road Closed at Cayuse Pass

Cayuse Pass, at 4,675 feet above sea level. I couldn’t get a picture of my bike in front of the sign saying as much, because it was buried under the snow. The closed road leads to Chinook Pass.

At Cayuse Pass, SR-410 makes a sharp turn, heading toward Yakima, and meets SR-123 which continues south through the park. The road up is closed. There were a lot of cars here, and people congratulating themselves on their trip, skis and bikes still at hand. I stopped briefly to make sure this really was my destination, Cayuse Pass. The people I met were animated and jovial, and encouraged me with news that the road is free of snow all the way up. I had secretly hoped to climb both passes, but didn’t think it would be possible that day.

Wildlife on Mount Rainier

A mountain goat, giving me the evil eye. Both of us appreciated the road closure for the lack of traffic.

Snow, and more snow

Entering the hairpin turn section below Chinook Pass, cliffs and tree tops stick out here and there above the snow line.

Near Chinook Pass

Part of a switchback to the left, and mountains surrounding Rainier to the right. The clouds are graying, as the weather starts to turn foul.

Below Chinook Pass

One of the sweeping turns below Chinook Pass. There are no words to describe just how much fun these hairpin curves are at speed.

Proud of having finished the climb

My bike, just below (and to the east of) Chinook Pass, and about to descend. A water purifier hangs from the rails of my saddle.

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Mount Baker in Miserable Weather

I got complacent. Lately I’ve been riding on the other side, on the edge of the desert, where summer is getting into full swing. Winter is only starting to loosen its grip on Mount Baker.

When I left the house, the weather forecast said it would be partly sunny on the mountain; it was gray, but cracks were starting to appear in the sky, letting sunlight through. I had a bad feeling, but hoped for the best. Things hadn’t improved by the time I got there.

Apprehensively, I stopped at a pull-out on the Mount Baker Highway (SR-542), parked, and put the wheels on the bike, about ten miles down the road from Maple Falls. I’d wanted to do a longer ride than this, but it seemed prudent.

The climb was interesting, and got a bit eerie; the deeper I got into the mountain, the thicker the cloud cover. My immediate surroundings were normal, but anything beyond 100 yards was shrouded in fog. Unfortunately, that fog let loose a downpour. Higher on the mountain, the rain turned to falling snow.

I got thoroughly soaked;  my rear wheel kicked up water from the road and spit it at my legs, there was no shelter from the rain, and my wind breaker eventually started to soak though.  I thought about turning back, a few times, and should have.  The climb kept me warm, but the temperature at the top was well below freezing (in the high 20s F), and the descent was steep enough that I didn’t have to pedal once for 15 miles, giving me no heat.  Wearing older gloves with missing finger tips, my digits went numb (which, oddly, didn’t stop them from hurting).  I started to worry about hypothermia;  I stopped a few times to blow warm air on my fingers, exposed to the rain and not moving, which isn’t a good way to raise a person’s core temperature.  Climbing to generate a bit of heat didn’t make sense, as I’d lose it quickly and have more ground to descend.

And there was one final complication.  Carbon fiber rims don’t brake very well when they’re wet.  In fact, they barely work at all.  The hairpin turns were a little more exciting than I’d hoped for, but still fun.  At least this got me back to the car sooner, where I had a heater and a dry set of clothes.

My bike, in front of the north (?) fork of the Nooksack

My bike in front of the Nooksack River, with snow lingering on the ridge. Those are leg warmers hanging below my saddle, and I’ve never been so happy to have them!

Snow, cliffs, and very steep hill

This was typical of the switchback section. Unfortunately, there were no real views that day, thanks to the weather.

Clouds touching down on the Nooksack valley

Strands of rain clouds reach down and deliver especially thick rainfall on the Nooksack Valley.

Snow blowing by a hungry ptarmigan

A hungry ptarmigan kept me company for part of the ascent, but it was skittish and kept its distance.

Several feet of snow piled up

Snow piled up several feet high near the road, approaching Heather Meadows; this is almost as far as they plow.

Snowy granite cliffs

Snowy hillside and cliffs form a wall beside the ski area at Heather Meadows. This was as far as I was able to ride; beyond here the road is buried under feet of snow.

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Little Ones!

Spring is  in the air!  I saw this on a ride Thursday afternoon:

Baby geese, hiding under their mothers' wing

Goslings, hiding under their mothers' wing in South Lake Union Park, Seattle.

It wasn’t a coincidence; I had rode to South Lake Union Park out of all the destinations in the city, to see the goslings.  SLU is a very nice park, and years in the making – I’ll tell you more about it some time.


On Saturday, I took my bike to Icicle Creek.  I’m working on a ride report, and hope to have something published this evening with amazing scenery and a place for locals to ride.