This is the best of rides. This is the worst of rides. Apologies to Dickens, but after pre-riding the summer 600k I can tell you that I believed each of those statements wholeheartedly at different points this past weekend. It’s really a hard ride and it’s sometimes hard in ways that most brevets are not. At the same time, it is extremely scenic, beautiful, and grand.
Getting out of Seattle to the south looks complicated on the cue sheet but uses the standard route that’s familiar to locals. The Green River trail gives the first taste of gravel and leads to the familiar control at Black Diamond Bakery. The Green River Gorge is not far away, and is the first of many incredibly scenic viewpoints.
The dues of not-so-interesting roads with substantial traffic are paid on the way to Enumclaw. After that, it’s mostly the Ramrod route. Orville Road is the best section of the route to Eatonville. We were getting hot as we climbed the last mile into town and stocked up at the control.
We were careful on the narrow and busy Alder Cutoff Road, then felt more comfortable on the wider shoulder of Highway 7 and 706. Because of long lines at the entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, the route turns right at Kernahan road/NF 52 and follows Skate Creek Road to use the “back entrance” to Longmire 9.5 miles later. There’s a gate at the Park boundary, but it’s fine to just walk around it and continue to Longmire. Fill up your water bottles at Longmire. If it’s even close to hot you might want an extra bottle to hold water for squirting on yourself. The climb is not super steep, but the sun is intense and the grade is unrelenting. We were all amazed at how thrashed we felt when we reached Paradise. We ate heartily because the availability of food is uncertain from Paradise until the overnight control in Naches, almost 90 miles away.
The descent on Stevens Canyon road goes by quickly. We figured we had more than paid for the miles of descending that went by easily. If you expect the climb up Backbone Ridge, it goes pretty quickly. If you expect to coast all the way to Highway 123, it’s much longer.
The last few sweeping switchbacks before Grove of the Patriarchs are some of the best road in the Northwest. The last water for 40 miles is at the Grove of the Patriarchs trailhead, so we made sure to top off our bottles there.
Sunset on the descent from Chinook Pass. Photo by Steve Frey
After our experience climbing to Paradise, we were worried about the long, steeper climb to Cayuse and Chinook Passes. The sun, luckily was low enough that the road was almost entirely shaded. It made a huge difference. For me, the best part of this climb is looking back down the valley and seeing how far I have climbed. The smells of the forest and views of Mount Rainier go well with a steady climbing effort. Mercifully, the grade drops substantially on the last mile of the climb to Chinook Pass.
After crossing under the huge log NPS boundary marker you have passed the true crux of the first day. The road descends steeply for many miles, and then rolls along the river, losing elevation and making it easy to maintain good speed. The Cliffdell general store/grocery closes too early (9 pm) for many randonneurs to stock up there. Food might be available later at a few lodge restaurants and roadhouses along the road from Cliffdell to Naches. The road continues its descent as the forest gives way to open sagebrush. We rolled easily on this section, helped by a slight but consistent tailwind. We talked about how difficult it would be to ride in the opposite direction.
There will be solid food at the overnight control in Naches.
We left Naches at 4:00am and immediately started climbing into the sparsely-populated hills. A few sections had me reaching to shift and finding I was already in my smallest gear. It sure was beautiful though. Big rounded hills, some farm buildings, a few roosters crowing, and a gradually brightening sky. Maybe it was the novelty of riding it for the first time, but the 10 miles of North Wenas Road were my favorite of the ride.
Then the pavement ends. The sign says, “Rough road 9.5 miles” and the sign speaks truth. It’s rocky and often washboard –there is no smooth line to be found. The best you can do is grind along avoiding the biggest holes and rocks. It’s hard on hands and hard on butts. There is a particularly steep section or two where there would be no shame (and almost no time lost) in walking. Really pretty country though. Finally the crest becomes obvious and the descending starts. The road seemed slightly smoother on the descent, but it was still rough enough that I managed to pinch flat a 42mm tire. Along the way we saw several deer, and a herd of more than 20 elk, so keep an eye out until you reach Ellensburg.
Mark fixing a pinch flat near Ellensburg Pass. Photo by Steve Frey.
We felt that our breakfast in Ellensburg was well deserved. After a refreshing break we set off for Cle Elum, riding another road for the first time, Highway 10. The road climbs right to the base of a wind turbine farm, so this is a good time to remind yourself that effort doesn’t always equal speed. Beautiful road though, rolling above the river.
Cle Elum isn’t even 30 miles from Ellensburg, but we stopped again for food and water. The Iron Horse Trail isn’t hard to find if you know that the brown signs that never use the word “Trail” actually lead to the trail.
Unfortunately, the Iron Horse from Cle Elum to Easton is a dusty, wind-swept, grind. Something about the East Side seems to make the trails and roads rougher. The trail is too rough to draft effectively, and whatever trees there were didn’t shelter us from the wind. Again, the surface takes a toll on hands and butts. It also requires your attention and punishes you when attention drifts. We were very glad to reach Easton where the trees get bigger and all aspects of the trail improve. There is about 600 feet of climbing between Cle Elum and Hyak, and it’s basically imperceptible. At Hyak we got water and put on our cold-weather gear to ride through the tunnel. We were glad we did as the inside of the tunnel is strikingly cold and damp.
Once through the tunnel you get more than 26 miles of much smoother, mostly shaded, west-side gravel trail. We know it was more than 26 miles because some folks looking for unofficial personal-best times had just run a marathon down the trail ahead of us. We didn’t see any of them until the finish, but we saw their mile-markers.
The control QFC in North Bend has a deli and Starbucks. We used both. Then it was a short pavement ride to the trailhead for the Snoqualmie Valley Trail. Be careful on the steep, loose footpath. It’s only a short bit, but by this point we weren’t at our best.
About 4.5 miles past Carnation, the Snoqualmie Valley Trail has some construction. There was a big, self-contradicting sign that seemed to say there would be some short closures when work was being done. Press on, as we did.
The climb out of the valley on Woodinville Duvall road isn’t a highlight of this ride, but there’s enough shoulder outside the fog line to be usable and you have to get out of the valley one way or another. By this point we were counting kilometers. After reaching the Burke Gilman Trail, we rode side by side and debated the merits of an immediate shower or an immediate cold beer.
Here’s my mental tally as we rode the last miles: we felt heat-stress, cramps, sleepiness, muscle fatigue, hunger, thirst, hand pain, butt pain, neck pain, nausea, and general discomfort. On the other hand, we saw volcanoes, glaciers, rivers, rain forests, dry pine forests, shrub-steppe, and sub-alpine environments. We saw an orange moon rise over the ridge. We rode in the silent pre-dawn darkness and saw the pink light on the hills. We had a big 600k experience.
UPDATE and Questions Answered:
SIR site is back online, find ride description, parking information, and registration here: http://seattlerando.org/sir_content/sum600.htm
Q: Is that steep bump in the ride profile just past 300miles the pass summit?
A: The two biggest bumps you see in the profile are Paradise at about mile 125 and Chinook pass at about 160 miles. Yes, they’re about as challenging as they look in the profile. Chinook pass is the steeper of the two, though we found it easier because it came later in the day when the sun was behind the hills and it had cooled a little. The climb to Paradise is very exposed which adds to the challenge if it’s a hot day. [Editor’s note — The spike at 487 km is actually a tunnel, see first comment below.]
Q: How was traffic from longmire to paradise?
A: We did the climb to Paradise at peak traffic time. There were a lot of cars on the road, but we found that inside the park everyone is moving pretty slowly and they were generally very respectful of cyclists. Traffic there really wasn’t a problem at all. [Editor’s note — The ride is scheduled for Labor Day Weekend, 9/3-4, so traffic may be somewhat increased.]
The RwGPS route has been updated with a few minor route revisions and is posted here: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/14276651
The Cue Sheet has also been updated and is available here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1kmEDHMQ5va6O4Fd7IV_loW81XWVgUQQr957M5YN3U8U
– Steve Frey