Wednesday, 29 of April of 2015

Mountain Loop Highway

I’ve had a much slower than average year of riding, which is why the blog has been so quiet.  The snow pack in the mountains surrounding Seattle still hasn’t melted out, so a lot of my favorite terrain isn’t available for riding.  I’ve also been spending more time in my kayak than on my bicycle.  If you are local, riding routes suitable for this blog, and interested in helping me with articles for the blog please let me know.

The Mountain Loop Highway is about 50 miles north of Seattle and is a really nice loop through the foothills of the Cascades.  The loop itself is about 100 miles, with less than 25 miles of anything that could be called highway, 14 miles of dirt, and the remainder is made up of lightly trafficked nice asphalt.  It can be done as a day ride, but it passes so many excellent campgrounds that it is kind of a shame not to make it into a two day ride.  Last Thursday 4 friends and I did exactly that, riding the route as a sub-24-hour overnight.  Going on two weekdays (Thursday and Friday) allowed us to avoid the higher weekend traffic in this recreational corridor.  It is close enough to Seattle that none of us had to take Thursday off, we just had to leave work a couple of hours early.

I had proposed making this trip more worthy of the “rough stuff” moniker by trying out a new route that would cut out Granite Falls and go over the mountains in the center of the loop instead of around them.  An hour into our ride we had to change plans, it turns out that there is an often unmapped and impassible Navy Base right in the middle of our proposed route.  We used my GPS to find an alternative, and I think it turned out to be a nice route going along some farms and then the Stillagaumish River.

Riding along farms between Trafton and Granite Falls

Riding from Granite Falls to Verlot as the sun fades behind the mountains

The swimming hole at Wiley Group Site

We reached Granite Falls as the sun was setting and rode up to Verlot (the boundary of the National Forest) as darkness fell over us.  Once in Verlot it was good and dark, but just after Verlot there are many NF campgrounds and ad-hoc campsites on the side of the road.  We found a nice but unused group camp site and setup there for the night.

The climb from Verlot up to Barlow Pass is really enjoyable.  This is not a mountain pass that any cyclist should be nervous about, the grade is rarely steep and the scenery is very pleasant.  It is also pretty low at 2361 feet.  At the top of the pass the road goes from pavement to gravel and shoots down along the river with some great views.  Even though the pass isn’t that high the 1700 feet descent down to Darrington goes by quickly.  As Jimmy put it the day was “all smiles”.

A nice marsh on the descent from Barlow Pass

Lee descending from Barlow Pass

You have to stop and turn around to catch this waterfall, but it is worth it.

The road turned back to pavement closer to Darrington. Riding on a weekday kept the traffic light and made it safe to ride side by side. Photo by Jessica.

We reached Darrington (40 miles later) at about lunch time and after a quick lunch our group split into two.  Some of us went back to the car, others went up to the Suiattle River for another couple of nights of camping.  The Mountain Loop highway could easily be turned into the centerpiece of a very nice multiday camping trip starting in Seattle, going to Arlington, around the Mountain Loop, up to Suiattle, and then back via Whidbey Island.  That route would give one mountains, ocean, scenery, great camping, and all on mostly low traffic roads.  It also makes a nice way to start a cross-state ride that would go over the North Cascades Highway.

There are good views on SR530 going back towards Arlington too. This was the only section with much traffic, but there was a good shoulder most of the way.

Day 1 Map (43 miles)
Day 2 Map (62 miles)

That's me (Alex). Jessica took the photo. Packing reasonably light always makes riding more enjoyable.


Mixed Surface Riding in Rain: N. Oregon Coast

I’m a lucky guy in a lot of ways. Recently my good luck included being able to spend some time on the Oregon coast, bringing along my daily commuting bike (née mountain bike), and getting in a few hours for riding while my kidlets were otherwise occupied.

A few hours isn’t much in terms of some Rough Stuff rides, usually the seem to involve doing some driving to the rough as well as some extended exploration. While it’s fair to say that our drive from Seattle to the Oregon coast counts for driving it was really great to roll my bike out of the garage, on to the streets and then into the woods without anything else in between.

I was near Nehalem, Oregon, 20 or so miles south of Canon Beach, along the 101 Highway. 101’s well known for tours — relatively friendly roads and great views of the beach. Turns out the coast is also well known for dairy farming and logging, meaning lots of nice valley rides with turn offs into logging land. With this in mind, I took 101 south into Nehalem downtown, turned left up the Northfork Nehalem River road and kept my eye out for promising logging roads on my left (uphill, out of the valley). Here’s a rough map of where I went on day 2.
Rough Map

My first ride was pretty much unscripted. Part way up the Northfork road, I stopped to take a photo of some cows, and found myself staring at the Nehalem Quarry road up ahead. Let’s see what’s at the top, and so off I headed. The Quarry road is paved to start, and predictably heads up to a quarry yard after just a few miles. Seen one Quarry yard, seen them all, so I didn’t stay long. A clearing was visible to the north, and at the end was a gravel road that I headed up. Rough, winding and steep it was a full on logging road that wandered through the coast forest with occasional side trips through clear cuts. The road was ‘fractured’ in places, with parts of it sliding downhill from the rest. The biggest fissure was actually a 4 foot side sink hole I’d hate to have plunged into coming back down hill.

As I went up, the clouds came in closer and squeeged themselves dry on the hills I was climbing. Mindful of the time and the increasingly foul weather I turned back southwards at the top of the road in a unmerciful clearcut, after getting the remainder of my rain gear out of my bag. The trip down and back was the trip up in reverse, just slightly faster and quite a bit damper.

I took advantage of some time in the evening to plan my next route: Up the north fork river road to the Fish Hatchery, then looping back along some logging road. The road out to the Fish Hatchery is 2 lane the whole way (both the North Fork road and Highway 53) is 2 lane, but traffic was very sparse and careful when passing. I took a short side trip to the hatchery to see the fry and take a look at the river. The actual turn off into logging land is about 3 miles eastward along highway 53, and bears this sign on the gate.
Sign on the gate

The roads in this area seemed more mature than those above the quarry, more like a gravel road you’d expect to drive a car on, at least for most of the roads. It’s clear that some of the roadways are new, and not all of them are mapped making it a bit difficult to determine which intersection you’re at without looking very carefully at your map. I blame this, and the failing batteries of my GPS, for taking a wrong turn farther up into the forest. Fortunately I ran across some powerlines running back down to the river, and used the overgrown track there to navigate back to the road I was trying to be on (Carol Drive). These roads were much tamer, leading through a backwoods gated community of lovely houses nestled in the valley. Home again, home again lickety split.
River Overlook

A word about my bike — she’s a mountain bike at heart (Surly 1×1) running fixed. I set her up with 650b wheels and tires (Grand Bois Hetres) and a front basket and modified fork some time ago. She’s a great rain bike for my daily commute, and I wasn’t sure how she’d fare once back in the woods, especially with the slick Hetres. Amazingly well is what I found out. I did loose traction on the rear tire one or twice, and probably a small-block style mountian bike tire would have been better but it’s hard to imagine another tire giving me better overall performance across pavement, gravel (regular sized) and the Great Gnarly Gravel I ran into. On longer, dedicated rough stuff rides maybe I’ll be lucky enough to switch. Maybe I’ll bring a better camera too.


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Drunken Charlie Lake

The blog has been quiet all winter, but not forgotten.  The best areas for rough stuff cycling are covered in snow all winter long, but that doesn’t mean that every destination is.

This last weekend Andre, Jimmy, Roscoe (Jimmy’s dog), and I stretched our legs by looking for Drunken Charlie Lake in the Marckworth Forest.  I’ve searched for this lake before and failed with Mark and Kent, but it was okay because we found a great waterfall instead.  This time I was equipped with a GPS and did want to find it.

The Marckworth Forest is a large industrial forest just east of Seattle.  It is mostly behind locked gates, but is open for day use to cyclists and hikers.  Since it is a working forest there isn’t too much information available on the recreational opportunities within.  There are endless logging roads (active and out of use) to explore and little bits of singletrack here and there.  The high points in the forest are usually under 2000′, which makes it a good place go year round for Seattle cyclists.  The views and scenery aren’t as good as what one can find farther up into the mountains in the summer however.

This ride is about 15 miles long and has about 1500′ of climbing (only the last couple of miles of which are steep).  It’s a great early season ride that will help you get excited about the upcoming summer.

Map and GPX.

The roads and intersections in Marckworth Forest mostly look like this. Good surface condition and unmarked intersections. A good map or GPS is helpful.

If you get to this clear cut you've missed Drunken Charlie Lake. On a clear day it looks like there may be some views available from around here.

This marker gets you onto the short trail from the road to the lake. How did we miss this in the past?

It's a pretty nice alpine lake and could be a decent place for swimming in the summer. It was is the mid-40s we were there, so we stayed out of the water.

I recently built up this mountain bike, so I rode it instead of my normal adventure touring bike named Gifford. These shorter rides (~15 miles total) are a good place to test out gear.

We couldn't visit a lake called "Drunken Charlie" and not have a beer. Jimmy was nice enough to bring along a couple of cans of my favorite bike camping beer.

On the way back down we took the side detour to this waterfall. There is a good place here to nap overnight if one is so inclined. The waterfall isn't that high, but an impressive volume of water comes tumbling over it.

Jimmy and Roscoe come running down the descent. This ride is all climbing on the way in and all descent on the way out.

Side roads like this could go somewhere really interesting, or could just take you to an old logging area that is a 1/4 mile down the road. We didn't have time to explore this one today.

As a reminder, this is a semi-open blog.  If you live in the Northwest and have routes or ride reports to contribute please contact me about getting an account on the blog.  A couple of other ride reports should be coming soon, and I’m going to do a little series on finding routes and picking gear for these rides.

Andre posted a great local camping option on Green Mountain to the Bike Overnights blog.  This is a good one for a first S24O.


Colville Nat’l Forest: S Boulder-Deadman Loop

A few weeks ago Patrick, Jon, and I took a ride in the Colville National Forest and slept under the stars on the Kettle River. I kept thinking back on my favorite piece of that ride, which was S. Boulder Creek Road, and I wanted to figure out a loop where I could run the lengthof that road and pop back out on the Kettle River at Barstow.

Here’s the loop I figured out. We rode this loop counter-clock-wise, which is the way I’d do it again.

Yesterday, Patrick and I rode it. Wedging the ride into our busy lives required leaving Spokane at 6 am, driving for 2 hours, doing the ride, then driving back. I was home by 5 pm.

For me, it’s just about a perfect day ride. Patrick was tired and feeling a bit sick so he wasn’t raving about it like I was when we finished.

The elevation profile provides a good description of the nature of the ride.

Though the profile makes it look steep, check out the mileage: the climb is about 27 miles, so it’s moderate. It’s the perfect kind of climb in my mind: steady, moderate, smooth forest roads with great scenery. You can get into a good rhythm and just zen your way up the hill.

There were a couple sweeping big views, but mostly, this ride is through the forest and doesn’t have any huge-see-forever-views.

Except for about 8 miles of S. Boulder Creek road, which is closed to cars, the entirety of the route is well-used forest roads. There were a number of hunters and firewood gatherers up there.  There’s enough use to keep the roads clear but not torn up.

The majority of the descent was smooth with mostly gentle curves. Lots of good sections where you can build up speed and see the long run outs ahead.

If you go:

  • Bring a GPS and follow the track to make it easy. Especially on the descent, where there are more established roads that will slow you down if you’re not following a track.
  • Bring proper clothes. You go from about 1500 feet to 5400 feet. We were lucky not to get rained on, but it was chilly, and you’re climbing into the cold. So make sure you are happy with your sweating climbing vs cold descenting layering system
  • Bring a filter. There’s lots of water on the climb up until about the last 5 miles or so.
  • Huge fatty tires are not required for this loop. Next time I ride it, I may ride my cyclocross bike. There’s no technical stuff. The hardest part is the last 6 miles of the descent where the road is graded, graveled, and washboardy — you don’t want to approach corners too hot on this section.

This loop is a great backbone for exploring the area. I plan on spending a lot of time up there next summer. That gives me all winter to obsess over maps.

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Stampede and Tacoma Pass Loop


photo gallery

Trip Report

I’ve had this loop mapped out for about a year, and was finally able to ride it this weekend with my friends Andrew, Mark, and Rory.  I’ve been wanting to find a ~50 mile loop with some high passes and good views that is pretty close to Seattle, and this one delivers.  The weather forecast was close to perfect, with clear skies and a high in the mid-60s.

The route is so easy that it can be summed up to a few numbers: 54, 52, 41.  Those are the uncreative names that the Forest Service has given to the roads in this area.  You can also give it a couple of names: Iron Horse Trail, Stampede Pass, Lester, Tacoma Pass, and back to the Iron Horse Trail.

The 4 of us met at my house at 7:30, loaded up the car, and headed east on I90.  Some unfortunate highway traffic gave us a good excuse to park and start the ride at Hyak instead of Crystal Springs Campground.  The 9 flat miles were a nice warmup before starting the steep but fairly short climb up Stampede Pass.  The climb wasn’t too remarkable as it weaves under the powerlines and gives occasional views of the I90 corridor.  This part of the road is used pretty heavily and has some big washboard.  As we approached the top we almost instantly moved from clear blue skies into thick fog that was rolling over the top of the pass.  The ride down Stampede Pass felt very different from the climb as traffic died down and the tight switchbacks and steep descent provided for some exciting riding.  The descent goes on for longer than the climb because the west side of Stampede Pass is about 1000′ lower than the I90 corridor that we started from.

The bottom of Stampede Pass is a fairly busy place for being pretty remote.  Hunting season was starting soon, so trucks and RVs and campers were moving in with lots of provisions.  A ranger was out making sure that everyone was following the rules and behaving properly.  Roads head in many directions, some open to the public and some leading into closed watersheds.  The ghost town of Lester is beyond one of those gates and you are allowed to walk into it, but not bike.  It makes a nice diversion if you have the extra time.

We rode down a corridor of yellow trees and turned left onto FR52.  We were immediately presented with a fork in the road and took the little used option to the right (our Garmin GPS indicated that they both lead back to the same place).  Our fork dead ended at an old washout, but it made for a nice lunch spot next to a creek and by a railroad trestle.  Rory went to explore beyond the washout to see if we could link back to the main road while the rest of us enjoyed a leisurely lunch.  It turns out that he was a mere 20 feet or so from finding the shortcut to the road, but when you are bushwacking it can be hard to see thingseven when they are that close.  We went back down our little spur and got back onto FR52.

FR52 one of the highlights of the day for me.  This part of the forest has fewer users and we saw almost no traffic (a closed road sign and easily passed washout helped a bit with that too).  The roads were in good condition and the turning color of the trees provided a nice backdrop.  The fog had lifted over lunch and we just had pure blue skies above us.  The road is pretty flat for a few miles, then started to climb back up to Tacoma Pass.  On the climb up we ran into a couple of guys on motorcycles and one or two cars, but had most of it to ourselves.  The valley that we climbed through was wide enough for great views, but narrow enough to feel quite and isolated.  We took our time going up to Tacoma Pass, partially because I was feeling slow and partially because the views were so great that we all enjoyed the breaks.

Just after Tacoma Pass FR52 intersects FR41.  Going left follows a ridgeline and another small pass that connects back to FR54 and Stampede Pass.  Going right gives a long descent down to Easton, where we could take the Iron Horse Trail back to Hyak (adding about 15 miles to the route).  We chose to go left, and that was the correct choice.  For a little more climbing we got some great views looking north into the I90 corridor and a couple of nice views south looking at Mt Rainier.  I love riding on ridgelines were you can look across and see the road that you’ll be riding on next.  FR41 provided plenty of that.

Just as the traffic started to pick up again we found ourselves at the intersection to FR54, the Stampede Pass road.  The descent down went very quickly and then we had the relaxing 9 miles flat miles back to Hyak and the car.

By 5:30 we were back in Seattle with the car unloaded and going our own ways.  This was a great 10 hour way to say goodbye to summer and welcome in autumn.

If you’d like to go

Getting there is easy.  The Hyak trailhead for Iron Horse State Park is located just past Snoqualmie Pass on I90.  There is plenty of parking at this free trailhead.  The drive takes about an hour from downtown Seattle.

A GPX file for loading the route onto your GPS is located here: GPX

The route map is here: route map

I’d suggest bringing a water filter.  There are no sources of potable water on the ride, but many streams and creeks. 

The route is about 50 miles and has a little over 5000′ of climbing.  Plan on most of a day to complete the loop.  You can make the ride almost 20 miles shorter by parking at Crystal Springs Campground (exit 62 of I90), but that doesn’t remove any of the climbing.


Welcome to Rough Stuff Cycling Northwest

For the last few years my friends and I have been enjoying a less common style of cycling, long day rides or overnight camping in National Forests and other public lands.  The dirt roads there tend to lead to better views and have lower traffic compared to most road riding destinations, and allow for longer days with less technical riding than the popular mountain bike routes.  A 50-100 mile day crossing two or three mountain passes and riding along ridge lines with nice views is energizing for me in a way that no other cycling is.

The name Rough Stuff Cycling is borrowed from the Rough Stuff Fellowship in the UK.  I like the term and seem to enjoy the same type of riding that they advocate.

I’ve been documenting these rides on my personal blog for years.  This summer I realized that it would be nice to have friends and acquitances sharing their routes too, and to collect all of them into one space.  That is why this blog was born.

I want to open this blog up to contributors around the Northwest US (I think we’ll define that as OR, WA, BC, ID, MT) to share their favorite routes and trip reports, reviews of gear useful for such riding, and anything else related to this small niche of cycling.  I’m going to kick it off with a couple of recent and favorite trip reports, and fill in extra “primer” type information over the next winter.

If you have any comments or suggestions on the direction for this blog I’d love to hear them.

-Alex Wetmore