Over the past few years I have been lucky enough to ride each September in the mountains of Europe; I love climbing the serpentine one-lane roads in the Alps, Pyrenees, Dolomites. Part of the reason is simply we don't have them in North America. Ya, we have mountains, but, as I explained to a Frenchman once while riding in the Pyrenees when asked "don't you have mountains like these" gesturing at the craggy summits between the Tourmalet and the Col d'Aspin. "Yes," I said, "but we don't pave every squiggly little goat path crossing over their tops."
Well, this weekend I road one of the few places in North America that can hint at those roads - the climbs in Mt. Rainier National Park. There are four that can be nicely knitted together to form a great day in the saddle and a wonderful "stretch of the legs": Cayuse Pass 4,694 feet (1,430 m), Chinook Pass 5,430 (1,655 m), Sunrise summit 6,400 feet (1,950 m), it is the highest point in the park that is accessible by road bike and Paradise pass 5,400 feet (1,600 m) on the south slope. I needed some long climbs in my legs in prep for the upcoming Everest Challenge, down in the central Sierra Nevada mountains. While Rainier's summits and passes won't be collapsing my lungs at 4-6,000 feet, the climbs are plenty long - Stevens Canyon entrance to Paradise is a leggy 23 miles and 2,500 feet of vertical.
It was perfect weather on the mountain for cycling/climbing, low 70's and as you can see from the photo above taken at the summit of Chinook Pass, looking across Tipsoo Lake to the dome of Mt Rainier (14,410 ft), it's days like this that make all those base miles in the cold spring rain worth it.
The beauty of this ride in August and September is while its hot in the valleys if it's at all decent on the mountain it is great cycling/climbing temperature. And just like its Europe cousins, this little four pass route leaves you either climbing or descending - forget about anything flat - the only thing absent are the pain au chocolates.
We generally have our grand depart from Stevens Canyon via Hwy 12 east from I-5 (from Portland about 2.5-3 hrs drive). Just before the National Park entrance are a few wide pull-offs to park, or at the Ohanapecosh campground day use parking - you still have to pay $5 to enter the park with a bike, but saves paying $15 for the car.
From Stevens Canyon it's south to Sunrise summit via Cayuse Pass, with a right detour up the extra 800 feet to Chinook Pass and spectacular views across the canyon to Mt Rainier and south to the jagged spine of Goat Rocks Wilderness. It's a great little extension and you really get a "top-of-the-world" feeling. The return back to Cayuse again congers memories of Alpian Col descents, including little 18 inch high stone guard rails "protecting" you from the several hundred foot plummets should you over shoot a corner.
The descent continues to the entrance of Sunrise where you flash your park receipt (or pay for the first time) and after a couple miles through the forest along the closest thing to a flat road on this ride, you cross over the White River and begin in earnest the wonderful zigzagging climb to Sunrise visitor center (water available) at over 6,400 feet. This is a great climb! It's an up and back, with a descent that's worth a bit of caution on weekend - lots of Detroitasauruses that rarely see hills apparently.
From there it was back up over Cayuse Pass, another 1,200 ft of climbing, and the 10+ miles drop back to the Park entrance at Stevens Canyon (water available) and the ascent to Paradise. Usually this is a wonderful climb, late day sun, and open southern vistas the entire last 10-12 miles, but among other things this day I forgot to eat regularly and was having serious energy issues - not a good climb for that. After Box Canyon half way up the climb a headwind added insult to low energy and I was out of the saddle every few minutes and doing everything to maintain 10 mph.
Despite the desperate call to the "engine room" for more power (apparently no one was home) on that final climb it was a spectacular day and ride like few you will find on this "side of the pond".
For maps, pictures and more details on this ride check out September's Ride of the Month over on Bicycling Northwest. Also, if you want the official Mt Rainier event ride version check out RAMROD.