Cycling the North Cascades Highway

"We just climbed that." The incredible view from near the top of the eastern Washington Pass climb

By this time of year, I’ve usually cycled the North Cascades Hwy (WA State Hwy 20) out-and-back to Mazama at least twice. Unfortunately asthma has delayed my usual hit list of ambitious summertime rides. It’s usually too hot in July to do a long ride with minimal water and shade, but last weekend high temps were only in the mid-80s so it was a go: A friend and I did the 100-miler from Colonial Creek to Mazama and back. Conditions were spectacular.

The Early Winter Spires are both inspiring and intimidating as the cyclist approaches Washington Pass from the east, which is behind the cliff to the right and about 2 miles from this location.

From my perspective there are four things that make the North Cascades Highway a great ride:
–Long, challenging climbs
–The high speed descent down the east side of Washington Pass
–The spectacular alpine setting, especially around Washington Pass
–Tasty snacks at the Mazama Store

The west side to Rainy and Washington Passes is a long steady mostly uphill grind. Some folks grind faster than others: Strava leaderboard for Rainy Pass.

The east side is a difficult climb: ~3,500′ in 18 miles. It’s a pretty consistent 6-8% the last 9 miles. It is sun-baked the entire way. To avoid withering on the way up, stop at Cutthroat Creek to cool off. Strava leaderboard for Mazama Store to Washington Pass.

There are a number of common variations. Since they are all out-and-back you can turn around at any time. Decision factors include weather, length of day, and of course your endurance and fitness:

North Cascades Highway Cycling Routes

Marblemount to Mazama Store: 150 miles RT
This version gets you some extra mileage–if you really want it–on a busy road with relatively “meh” scenery. The roadway is flat (and usually windy) between Marblemount and Newhalem. The Redmond Cycling Club (RCC) does this version as an overnight club event. Safe parking might be dicey. I did it with the RCC and they arranged parking at a local business. I’ve also dropped off some friends who started their ride in Marblemount and I started in Newhalem. If you do this as a one-day–unless you are a top-notch climber–plan on doing it close to the summer solstice so you have plenty of daylight. Headlamps would be a good idea in case your adventure lasts into darkness. As of summer 2018, the Shell station in Marblemount had tasty breakfast sandwiches, and last weekend they steamed some milk for our drip coffees.

Spectacular early-season conditions at Washington Pass with Martha Walsh.

Newhalem to Mazama Store: 120 miles RT
Park in the gravel lot adjacent to the park on the north side of Hwy 20. There is a well-maintained bathroom in Newhalem across from the store. The climbing starts immediately after leaving Newhalem. Additional obstacles on this version include a wet drippy tunnel (there is a button to turn on a flashing “bikes in tunnel” light), and a metal grate bridge.

Martha Walsh approaches Rainy Pass from the west during an early-season ride in May of 2014.

Colonial Creek to Mazama Store: 100 miles RT
This is probably the most popular version of the route. It has nice round numbers: exactly 100 miles and 10,000′ of climbing. Park in the dirt parking lot on the north side of Hwy 20 across from the entrance to the Colonial Creek Campground. There is an outhouse in the woods adjacent to the parking lot. The parking lot can be full on summer weekends. The climbing starts almost immediately with ~2 miles of 8%.

Newhalem to Washington Pass: 85 miles RT
This could be a late-season short day option, or an option that avoids the difficult climb back up the east side of Washington Pass. Plenty of climbing, but the slightly shorter distance makes it more doable on a shorter day.

Colonial Creek to Washington Pass: 65 miles RT
This is a great option if you are short on time, concerned about the weather (hot or cold), or are just looking for a shorter ride.

The Early Winter Spires and Liberty Bell from the Washington Pass Overlook.
The Early Winter Spires and Liberty Bell from the Washington Pass Overlook.

Mazama to Washington Pass: 36 miles Rt
This is a short but challenging version that *only* climbs Washington Pass from the east, and is a great option is you are spending time in the Methow Valley.

Pro Tips

This is a mountain road. It’s a long drive to get there and back. Therefore, to have the best experience, keep track of the weather ahead of time and postpone your trip if conditions are less than ideal. If there is a chance of rain or snow, or if the temps are going to be below 40 or above 90 I’d cancel. There can be headwinds in both directions. There is usually a strong headwind mixed with crazy crosswinds in the final ~10-15 miles back to Colonial Creek.

Westbound at Rainy Pass: Mick Walsh, Garth Ferber, and Martha Walsh endured a smokey ride in October of 2012.

Even when temps are warm the descents can be chilly. Last weekend for example, even with afternoon temps in the 80s, the morning was cool and we wore arm warmers and wind vests. Knickers are usually a good idea in the fall. Sunscreen is a good idea, although most folks tend to sweat it off during the long climbs. Long-fingered gloves are usually handy year-round. Stash clothing you don’t think you’ll need for the east side of Washington Pass in the trees on the north side of Hwy 20.

High Performance Cycling teammates at Rainy Pass during an early season ride in May of 2013.

If temps are on the warm side you might consider riding with a hydration pack. During one particularly muggy July outing I drank 9 liters of water and felt dehydrated at the end. There is water at the Rainy Pass/Lake Ann/Maple Pass traihead on the west side, and at Klipchuck Campground on the east side. Since the climb up the east side is so hard, I usually stash a coke in the snow or shade at Washington Pass and drink it on the return trip. The combination of caffeine and sugar provide a great mental reset for the final miles of the ride.

Tip: Stash a drink and any extra gear in the trees and snow (if there is any) on the north side of Washington Pass.
Tip: Stash a drink and any extra gear in the trees and snow (if there is any) on the north side of Washington Pass.

All versions of this ride, and especially the versions that climb up the east side of Washington Pass, are advanced and require that you are in shape. Put the North Cascades Highway on your to-do list early in the season, and train for it to ensure you have a great experience. And…bring a couple of friends! Such a long day is best enjoyed with a couple of cycling buddies.

"We just climbed that." The incredible view from near the top of the eastern Washington Pass climb
“We just climbed that.” The incredible view from near the top of the eastern Washington Pass climb
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