NW Cyclist: 10 Classic rides in the Northwest

By Amy Poffenbarger

Photo at right: Jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring mountain bike riding at Crystal Mountain with Mount Rainier visible at nearly every turn. Photo courtesy of Crystal Mountain Resort

Living here for decades, co-authoring a book on mountain biking and jumping on my bike every chance I get doesn’t quite make me an expert on bicycling in the Northwest. However, I know just enough to get into trouble by offering up my list of “can’t miss” Classic Rides of the Northwest. How does this list compare to yours?

Mountain Biking

Crystal Mountain, Wash.

Ridgeline on the Northway Trail about 2,700 foot elevation on the Crystal Mountain Loop. Photo by Robin O’Neill

In the Mountain Biking category, you can’t go wrong with a day at Crystal Mountain. A ski resort in winter, Crystal makes “green” or “double black-diamond” riders happy at the end of a summer mountain biking day. After your ride, be sure to take the gondola ride to the state’s highest restaurant, Summit House, and a 7,000-foot view of three volcanoes on cloudless days.

The ride I like to do is a conglomeration of rides listed on their website (www.crystalmountainresort.com) and is 14.5 miles long. Starting at the parking lot off of Forest Service Road 510, turn left onto Crystal Mountain Road (FS7190) and right onto FS 184. Follow this for two miles to the Silver Creek Trail #1192, eventually passing the abandoned Silver Creek Mine. At 4.5 miles, pass trails leading to the hiker-only Pacific Crest Trail, and continue toward the ski resort. Pass Henskin Lake. Arrive at Trail 1163 and continue on this trail for nearly seven miles until you arrive back at the parking lot.

Methow Valley, Wash.

The legendary 24-mile ride to Starvation Mountain near Twisp near the Methow Valley is especially worthy. Only moderately technical, it starts at Lightning Creek and climbs to Starvation Mountain at 7,000 feet. Pedal ’round Blue Buck Ridge and roll back to Blue Buck Creek and the trailhead.

To access the trailhead from Twisp, take State Route 20 east toward Okanogan and turn left on Okanogan County Road 1637. The trailhead is just past the Beaver Creek Campground and Forest Service Road 4225, turning right. The trail begins at the back of the informal campground. Due to its high elevation, the trail is usually open May to October.

Columbia River Gorge, Ore.

The Columbia River Gorge region’s Trail #400 has been called a mountain biker’s red carpet. This ride is 13 miles out and back. It begins with a steep climb and wonderful single track surrounded by spectacular terrain. Start at the Wahclella Falls Trailhead, (Bonneville Dam exit #40) 40 miles east of Portland off of Interstate 84 in the Columbia River Gorge. Take a right-hand turn off the exit onto Tanner Creek and look for the paved parking area.

Whistler, B.C.

You must be dead if you can’t find something to ride at the Whistler Mountain Bike Park. There are 5,000 feet of lift-serviced mountain biking trails and an indoor Air Dome—an 8,400 square foot covered playground for kids of all ages on their bikes, featuring a monster foam pit, wooden ramps and jump progression from two to 26 feet quarter pipes.
Lots of options. You’re not dead yet!

Gnarly single-track riding at Brundage Mountain Resort. Photo courtesy of BMR.

McCall, Idaho

There’s no shortage of lift-serviced mountain biking in the Pacific Northwest, and Idaho is no different. Skip the uphill grind and enjoy a lift in a high-speed chair to the 7,640-foot summit to catch the gravitational thrill of downhill mountain biking. You’ll be treated to 20 miles of hand-built single track at Brundage Ski Resort, eight miles outside of McCall on Route 55. Uphill riding is prohibited!

Road Bike Riding

When dirt just won’t cut it, the Pacific Northwest’s rolling hills, adventurous climbs, mind-tingling downhills and scenery make this region a hub for cyclists who prefer to pedal pavement.

Cattle Point Road on San Juan Island. Cattle Point Lighthouse in background. Photo courtesy of San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau

The San Juan Islands

Lonely Planet recently named the San Juan Islands to its “Worlds’ Top 10 Cycling Routes.” There really isn’t another area like this in the country. With several islands to choose from, Lopez Island is the most flat and considered best for beginning cyclists. San Juan Island has rolling hills, but Orcas Island has the steepest climbs, including up to the 2,408 foot high Mt. Constitution, where you can ride dirt trails from Sept. 15–May 15.

Chuckanut Mountain, Bellingham

For a 20-mile ride on one of western Washington’s most scenic roads, take a trip on Chuckanut Drive between Burlington and Bellingham.

You can start the route off Exit 231 in Burlington and enjoy the curvy route which runs north along the seaside with great views of the San Juans.

Several shops, restaurants and bed and breakfasts wait in Fairhaven, a quaint village in Bellingham’s south side.

For a longer tour, tackle the 62-mile roundtripper via Chuckanut Drive between Bellingham and Padilla Bay on the Skagit Flats.

RAPSody in view —Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

Ride Around Puget Sound (RAPSody)

While most Northwest riders are familiar with the STP (Seattle to Portland two-day ride) and the RSVP from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., a less familiar but equally appealing ride is the RAPSody—Ride Around Puget Sound—165 miles in two days that starts and ends at Tacoma Community College. This year’s ride is Aug. 25–26 and is hosted by five local bike clubs in support of the Bicycle Alliance of Washington.

The ride covers the scenic back roads of five counties through Tacoma, Gig Harbor, Southworth, Port Orchard, Shelton, Olympia, Lacey, Fort Lewis, Steilacoom, University Place, and lots of other little Washington towns while supporting statewide bicycle advocacy and education.

Chinook Pass – Rainier East

Chinook Pass, designated by the U.S. government as the Chinook Scenic Byway, is the east entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, located on Washington SR 410 between Enumclaw and Naches. It’s a 5,430-foot-high pass, about five miles east of the Cayuse Pass summit and makes for one incredible thigh-burning, eye-poppingly beautiful
bike ride.

Mount Rainier is in your sightline at nearly every turn. As you leave Rainier’s dense forests, the landscape transforms into basalt cliffs of the Columbia Plateau. Lots of folks do this ride as a shuttle. It’s only open in the summer and fall—when the colors and views are spectacular—and closed in the winter.

Carson Hot Springs, Columbia River Gorge

Here’s a ride you can start in Washington and finish in Oregon, with a relaxing soak and massage in-between. This is really two bike rides, known to many in Portland as the Carson Hot Springs Challenge and the Carson Return Challenge.

The first ride heads east along SR 14 on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge to Carson Hot Springs. Once there, pamper your body with a mineral water soak, massage, maybe even spend the night. The Carson Return will bring you back along the Oregon side of the river along Highway 84. It’s a great ride with spectacular scenery and a bit of luxury, making it a bucket-list must for roadies.

Ready to ride?

The challenge is yours. Take a pick of your bucket best and let us know what you think. If you have a better ride to share, let us know that, too. The goal is to get out there and have a great time. Don’t keep the best rides to yourself. Please share!

Cruising Lopez Island – a must for any Northwest cyclist. Photo courtesy of San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau



Crystal Mountain: http://staycrystal.com/activities_summer.htm



Methow Valley: www.mvsta.com

Columbia River Gorge: http://www.columbiariverhighway.com/hiking/gorge_trail_400_ainsworth.htm

Whistler, B.C.: http://www.whistlerbike.com/index.htm

Brundage Mountain, McCall, Idaho: http://www.brundage.com/the-mountain/summer-activities/mountain-biking/


San Juan Islands: http://www.visitsanjuans.com/

Chuckanut Mountain, Bellingham: http://www.bikely.com/maps/bike-path/Chuckanut-Drive-from-downtown-Bellingham-WA


Ride Around Puget Sound (RAPsody): http://www.rapsodybikeride.com/

Chinook Pass – Rainier East: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Traffic/Passes/Chinook/

Carson Hot Springs, Columbia River Gorge: http://www.crgva.org/

Amy Poffenbarger, author of Mountain Biking Washington, has been exploring the Pacific Northwest and writing about it for over 15 years.