Rainy and Washington Passes

I spent this past weekend camping in the best of all places: the North Cascades. While I camped on the shores of lovely Diablo Lake (a medium-sized glacial lake surrounded by high, snow-capped peaks just east of the Cascade Crest), my bike stayed locked in my car until Sunday when I had a chance to bring it to the high country for a ride.

This was the warmest and clearest weather we’ve enjoyed all year, with the temperature reaching into the 90s Fahrenheit, although during the course of this ride I got hit with several blasts of 45 degree air. It would happen whenever I’d go through the shade of a grove of trees, or by a waterfall, and it was a relief every time.

My pocket-sized camera died about a month ago on a rock climbing trip, and I haven’t replaced it yet (hence the lack of trip reports). For this ride, I took my SLR camera, which was a bit unnerving (it will hurt a lot if I crash). But it turned out well, and this was a fantastic ride.

The North Cascades Highway

The approach to Rainy Pass, with an almost empty road.

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Darrington to Rockport

Like Friday before it, Saturday was a fine day in the Pacific Northwest, and unlike its predecessor, it wasn’t filled by work. So I took my bike to Darrington, and rode it to Rockport. This was an out-and-back from the Mountain Loop “highway” to the North Cascades Highway.

White Horse Mountain, standing over Darrington, WA

Heavily glaciated White Horse Mountain over “downtown” Darrington, WA.

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Rainy Pass

This is a ride I did last July (7/8/2012), and apparently never got around to writing about, probably because the photos wound up not being as spectacular as the ones from other rides. 😦 Yesterday was a sunny day, with a clear blue sky and glorious views of the surrounding mountain ranges, and as I’ve been sitting in front of a computer most of the day for work, my mind has wandered toward the high country. Also, I miss summertime.

Last year I spent four days camping in the North Cascades at Diablo Lake (Colonial Creek Campground) and used the time to enjoy two great road rides. One of these was a short and sweet climb over Rainy Pass.

Snowy peaks above SF 20

Snowy, craggy peaks above the North Cascades Highway, heading east.

Rainy is one of the two passes along SR-20, move lovingly known as the (gorgeous) North Cascades Highway. The road mostly follows valleys, but must cross two ridges, first over Rainy Pass and then Washington Pass, before it descends into the Methow Valley.

Snowy peaks above SF 20

Rainy Pass on a hot day, with July snow.

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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 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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A very-early-spring ride in the American Alps

Last weekend, I took my bike to the North Cascades, for a scenic ride, and a reconnaissance mission to see whether it was time for a camping trip to Diablo Lake.  It was a great ride, anyway.  😉

The North Cascades Highway, also known as State Route 20, is closed at mile 134, just east of the Ross Lake Trailhead.  Every winter, DOT close the road because of avalanche danger.  What all this means is that SR 20 is a quiet, dead-end road;  during my ride, I saw perhaps a dozen cars, a few motorcycles, and no other bikes.  This won’t be the case in July.

I parked at the Goodell Creek Campground, just west of Newhalem.  While the place isn’t terribly interesting, it has lots of parking, and you can leave your car here while you go enjoy the scenery.  There are dozens of legit places to leave your car … this is the one that wound up being right for me.  This sent me through the little town of Newhalem and through the Gorge, before reaching lakes and mountains.

A tunnel on SR 20

A small waterfall next to the road


Diablo Lake ... and my bike

End of the road (for now)

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