Spirit Lake Highway to Johnston Ridge


Compared to other “classic” rides in the Cascades, the out and back along the Spirit Lake Highway from Toutle to the Johnston Ridge Observatory (aka the “Tour de Blast” route) probably doesn’t get as much love as it deserves.

In its favor, this route has:

* Relatively less traffic than routes around Mt. Rainier, the North Cascades Hwy, or Hwy 542 to Artist Point.
* Spectacular views of Mt. St. Helens and the blast zone
* Ample water stops
* Long climbs

…And is a relatively short ~2+ hour drive from Seattle.

Although only ~85 miles, this route probably has more “epics” associated with it than any other Cascades ride I know of. The Tour de Blast, which until this year was scheduled in the Spring, has had predictably unpredictable weather, and there are stories of riders having to be sagged off the route due to snow or cold rain. I did Tour de Blast a number of years ago and the weather was perfect–for me. I made quick work of the course and got back to the start area just in time to watch dark thunderstorm clouds dump heavy rain on the majority of riders still on the route.

To address this problem, it looks like Tour de Blast is now scheduled for the third weekend in September, which still might be iffy weather-wise. Presumably there are restrictions about when event rides can be held on that road.

Rolling out of Toutle was cool and misty.

But, since there are adequate water stops along the way, I’d recommend considering doing this as an unsupported ride when there is a good weather window. During the 4th of July weekend I joined High Performance Cycling teammate Mark Clausen for a day of climbing on this spectacular route.

Although some folks start this ride at Seaquest State Park, a start at Toutle Lake High School, which is about 10 miles east of I-5, is preferred. There is nothing particularly interesting about the cycling between Seaquest and downtown Toutle, and a start in Toutle minimizes the headwind slog.

We got rolling around 9 AM, and the marine layer had not yet burned off. It was foggy and misty for the first ~20 miles or so, and we finally got above the clouds at about 2500′ elevation. If you need water or a potty break, the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center is conveniently located at about 16 miles from Toutle. The first climb tops out at the Elk Rock Lookout, about 27 miles in. From Elk Rock, in the distance, you can see that the road continues via an intimidating climb from somewhere out of view below.

This route is all about the climbing.

From Elk Rock you get to enjoy a fun fast curvy ~8 mile descent (mostly) to Coldwater Lake. The climb from Coldwater Lake to the Johnston Ridge Observatory is 6 miles of steady 4-6% climbing, with some steeper bits as you approach the top. While one may be tempted to focus on the various miseries associated with the ascent, abundant roadside wildflowers can help to keep your happy face on. Once you reach Johnston Observatory there is a large patio area where you can recover from the climbs while gazing at the gas plumes emanating from Mt. St. Helens and pondering humanity within the context of the geologic time scale.

Indian Paintbrush: Abundant roadside wildflowers during the summer season.

The return trip starts with a fast descent off Johnston Ridge, then a difficult climb back up to Elk Rock. Sections of this final climb can be quite warm, so it’s a good idea to make sure you leave Johnston with enough water to get you at least to Hoffstadt Bluffs. From Elk Rock it’s mostly downhill (with a few rollers) all the way back to Toutle. But there is a catch: The headwind. Headwinds tend to make me angry, and I’m usually able to translate that anger into pressure on the pedals, but there were a few times on the return trip when I wished we had a few more riders in the paceline.

The final climb to Elk Rock has a spectacular view of Mt. St. Helens.

If you’ve never done this ride, or only done it under “epic” conditions, it’s well worth adding to your hit list and getting it done during a great summertime weather window.

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