Highway 20, the North Cascades Highway, opened for the season Thursday May 8. As the date approached, cycling friends were buzzing with anticipation about the first good opportunity to do the 100-mile out and back across Rainy and Washington Passes to Mazama.
High Performance Cycling teammates initially targeted Sunday May 11, but the weather forecast was unfavorable, and a formal team ride got postponed. Then an invite came from Martha Walsh about Tuesday May 13. After a bit of schedule rearrangement Tuesday was a go: The forecast was for partly cloudy skies and warm temperatures. Unfortunately the weather didn’t quite meet expectations when we started, but conditions improved as the day progressed.
Martha is one of two “matriarchs” of Seattle’s bike racing scene and plays an active role in creating opportunities for women to learn about cycling and try racing. She practices what she preaches: As a personal challenge she is in the midst of seeing how many consecutive days she can ride her bike. Our 100-miler was day 506. Her year-to-date mileage is 5,483.
There are numerous ways to do the out and back to Mazama. This variation starts at the Colonial Creek Campground (folks typically park at the turnout on the north side of Hwy 20 across from the campground entrance) and ends at the Mazama Country Store. This round trip is almost a perfect 100 miles and a stout 9,500′ of climbing.
The climbing commences immediately after leaving the parking lot, and it’s 5 uphill miles before the legs get a chance to rest. After an all-too-brief ~4 mile downhill the climbing resumes unabated for ~19 miles to Rainy Pass. Opinions vary on the quality of the road surface; this time around my legs felt strained by the uncomfortable sticky sensations of chip seal nearly all of the way to Rainy Pass.
At the turnaround point at the Mazama Country Store, riders typically get refreshed with a tasty sandwich and a coffee drink. Although it’s tempting to hang out in the tranquil warmth of the Methow Valley, the climb from Mazama to Washington Pass is tough and you don’t want to linger too long lest the legs get stale. That return trip up the east side of Washington Pass climbs a solid ~3,000′ in ~18 miles. Ouch.
On the return trip from Washington Pass it’s mostly downhill with a short climb back up Rainy Pass, and then another brief climb to the Diablo Overlook. As we descended, Martha employed great group riding etiquette (even if it was just a group of two) by pointing out potholes and fractures in the road, and she reminded me about a section of road that has off-camber slumps that could catch a cyclist off-guard.
On the approach to Diablo Lake we were confronted with the other “bonus” that can happen on this ride, which is a headwind (or swirling crosswinds). After a day of climbing it feels downright ungratifying to have to pedal downhill to finish the ride.
Martha loves cycling uphill in the Cascades, and the trek across Highway 20 is one of her favorites:
“It’s far enough away from Seattle that it is a very special trip. The road is closed roughly half the year, and the weather has to be just right. I’m planning a trip to other national parks in the west later this year, and all I could think of while riding through the North Cascades was ‘why?'”
I’ve done this ride quite a number of times, and in my opinion the best time to go is from now until when the snow melts: The snow keeps the temperatures relatively mild and provides a brilliant contrast against the massive cliffs and blue sky. Pro tip: Stash a coke in the snow at the top of Washington Pass for the return trip and the final 32 miles will be blissful, even if you are battling cross-winds.
A midsummer transit can be very hot, especially the climb from Mazama to Washington Pass; during one mid-July adventure I drank 9 liters!
Autumn is a distant second choice compared to spring and early summer: The temperatures are usually cool and the trees on the east side can be spectacular.
If you’ve never tried this Washington State classic, put it on your hit list!