Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The day we had the North Cascades Highway to ourselves

The plan to ride the North Cascades Highway (WA State Route-20) car-free was in the works weeks ahead of wheels to the pavement time. The highway is typically closed to traffic from November to May/June due to snow in the high mountain passes. About a week before it opens to motorized traffic, they complete snow clearing, which paves the way for a cyclist's dream--a quiet, vehicle-free, smooth path through some of Washington's most dramatic landscapes. Checking WSDOT's website for weekly updates, I started monitoring in March for when the snow clearing would be complete. Because this year was an unseasonably light snow year, the highway was scheduled to open as early as the first weekend of April. Determined to take advantage of this car-free opportunity, we headed north the last weekend of March, despite a bleak weather forecast of intermittent rain.

The rain started about halfway through our 2.5 hour drive to the start of the road closure. I was hopeful the clouds would "get it out of their system" and the skies would be clear and sunny by the time we arrived; however, I was wrong. In fact, it could be argued that it rained even harder right as we parked and started getting our gear together. I think both of us were hesitant to ask what the other one wanted to do because even after making the long trek up to the starting point, it was hard to convince ourselves that it was going to be the joyous ride we'd imagined given the state of the weather. With that, we didn't say much and just put on an extra layer of rain coats, rain pants (Craig forgot his), and shoe covers and hoped for the best.

For those interested in the ride details and logistics (how far, how fast, how high), check them out here.

Rain gear is so fashionable.

Lucky for us, the temperature stayed quite warm throughout the day; I actually felt cozy tucked away from the elements in my rain gear. Although it sprinkled off and on throughout the entire day, within the first 30 minutes of climbing, the steady rainfall significantly subsided.

View down into a gorge flowing into the Skagit River

The North Cascades is a place so beautiful that it leaves you dumbfounded and unable to find any other words to describe the landscape other than "big" and "green." The highway parallels Granite Creek for most the route on the west side of the mountain range filling our ears with the constant sound of rushing water as we made our ascent. Waterfalls cascaded down the basalt cliffs lining the road. Some of the falls could be traced zigzagging up the mountain face all the way to the crest. Low clouds rolled past throughout the afternoon, but they would often part giving short glimpses to the jagged crown of peaks surrounding us.

Craig approaching one of the many waterfalls along the route.

One of several barriers

Switching layers was a common practice

Me basking in the few minutes of sunshine we had!

Bikes on the road

We finally find deep snow!

Craig finds that road bike tires are not ideal for biking across snow and ice.

We reach Rainy Pass (~4855 ft)!

We finally reached the end of the line at Rainy Pass at 25 miles in. Here the road crews stopped plowing leaving a ~4.5 foot wall of snow blocking the way. We hung out here for  little while, finished out lunches, and then quickly saddled up for the ride down due another round of impending rain clouds hanging overhead. 

Initially, we were excited by the idea of bombing down the pass that we had worked to ascend. However, we quickly realized that the slope just wasn't great enough to allow us to gain much speed at all. In fact, with the headwind blowing up the mountainside, we often had to pedal even going downhill.

Rainy Pass was the end of the line. There was no way we were getting through this snow pack.

A look at what we would have endured had we pushed forward on the road.

The bikes posing.

Making our way back down.

Making our way back down.

I'm hopeful to make this ride a yearly tradition now that I know how freaking awesome it is and know more about the logistics. I am also giddy at the idea of coming back out to ride the pass in its entirety later this summer when the sky is clear, giving the all access show of the "American Alps," most of which was shrouded by clouds during this visit.

Profile of the ride

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Vashon-Maury Island Cycling

Taking advantage of another gorgeous spring weekend, Craig and I saddled up on the bikes and took a ferry across the sound to Vashon Island. We've ridden this island before, but the last time we were here it was spitting rain and much colder.  This time around we also decided to tack on Maury Island, which is actually just an extension of Vashon rather than its own island. Details of the trip are listed here for those interested.

Ferry arriving

loading up on the ferry

Since cycling around the islands in Washington's Sound, Vashon stands out as my favorite. It's rural with mostly modest homes with small farms rather than the luxury estates common on the other islands. Favoring of this island was strengthened during our recent trip with the add-on of Maury Island. Vashon's small sister island offered fantastic views of Rainier and featured ample water-side riding time.

Mt. Rainier (viewed through my sunglasses) makes the tugboat look cute and tiny.

 More views of Mt. Rainier across the Sound

Me and Mt. Rainier

Craig gets in on the Rainier shot too

 Vashon Island's idea of a "gym"