Easy to Extreme: 3 Northwest Cycling Tours

Photo © Aaron Theisen

By Aaron Theisen

The saddle of a bike offers one of the best vantage points from which to experience the breadth of Northwest scenery, and the roll of 700cm wheels perfectly matches the pace of vacation mode. Three classic Northwest rides are each worthy of anchoring a memorable two-wheeled weekend, whether it’s a Cascades tour where old-growth trees and alpine wildflowers garland a tight, twisting two-lane blacktop, a cruise through the Palouse of eastern Washington, where the road hugs the rolling contours of the landscape; or a family-friendly rail-to-trail ride through north Idaho’s panhandle.

McKenzie Pass Scenic Bikeway, Oregon

Difficulty level: Extreme (alpine route; long uphill grades with significant elevation gain)

Recommended bicycle type: road bike

One of 11 officially designated scenic bikeways in Oregon, the 36.5-mile McKenzie Pass Scenic Bikeway traverses park-like ponderosa forests on the east side of the Cascade crest to cedar and maple on the wetter west side, with the moonscape of McKenzie Pass in the middle. With scenery galore, little traffic and plenty of side trips to waterfalls and hot springs, this is central Oregon’s premier bike ride.

Oregon Route 242, which comprises the bikeway, connects the town of Sisters to the McKenzie River. The road is open only during the summer and fall, as snow levels permit. Autumn brings pleasant riding temperatures, but locals also recommend early summer, when plows have cleared the road but it is not yet open to vehicles.

You could begin the route in Bend, but, for a shorter ascent, most riders begin in Sisters. A good place to rest up before (and after) your ride is Five Pine Lodge, rightfully renowned as one of the top lodging establishments in the nation (fivepinelodge.com).

Roll west on Oregon Route 242. The two-lane road climbs through fragrant pine forest, at first gradually and then granny-gear steep. But the pain lasts only a handful of miles, and when the route levels, the vista at Windy Point will steal what breath you have left. Mt. Washington hovers over a spectral landscape of snags and volcanic rock near the high point.

At McKenzie Pass, take a break to climb the steps up circular Dee Wright Observatory, constructed entirely of lava rock. The view stretches along the volcanic spine of the Cascades and east toward Central Oregon’s Smith Rock.

Descend through hard-braking turns among a verdant forest of cedar and hemlock to the route’s end at the intersection with Highway 126.

Ambitious riders reverse course for a 73-mile round-trip. The remainder arrange a shuttle; Bend’s Cog Wild (cogwild.com) can help.

Either way, soak sore quads at Belknap Hot Springs (belknaphotsprings.com), near the intersection of Route 242 and Highway 126, or in the Jacuzzi tubs back at Five Pine Lodge in Sisters. For more information, go to visitcentraloregon.com and oregon.gov/oprd/BIKE.

The Palouse Lentil Loop, Washington

Difficulty level: Moderate (rolling hills)

Recommended bicycle type: road bike

The Palouse of eastern Washington and northern Idaho is the region’s breadbasket and one the nation’s premier dryland farming regions. Its 4,000 square miles of wind-sculpted hills unfold under an endless sea of wheat and legumes. Winding roads, well-paved and light on traffic, link tiny farming communities, allowing for a multitude of route options. A ride near sunset, the low-angle sun highlighting the endless scalloped slopes, will show why cyclists and shutterbugs revere the region.

A few words about the wind: the same gales that deposited the rich volcanic soil in great waves continue to blow; longtime riders will assert that, no matter which direction you ride, there’s always a headwind. Get on the bike near sunrise or sunset for calmer winds and cooler temperatures.

Introduce yourself to the region on a 25-mile loop that begins in the quaint town of Palouse (visitpalouse.com), a dozen miles north of Pullman (pullmanchamber.com). Ride south on Highway 27, a wide two-laner that tends to be quiet except on Cougar game days. (Side trip: Three miles in, turn right on Clear Creek Road, take a left on Fugate Road and look for the entrance to Kamiak Butte County Park on the left. The pine- and fir-forested Kamiak Butte looms ahead. The park preserves one of the last remnants of intact natural Palouse landscape and is worth a detour.) Continue for a rolling ride past expanses of alfalfa to the intersection of Highway 272. A short, stiff climb precedes 10 brisk miles back to Palouse.

For overnight accommodations, stay in Pullman or check out the Churchyard Inn (churchyardinn.com), a former Benedictine convent 32 miles away in Uniontown (uniontown.us).

Route of the Hiawatha, Idaho

Difficulty level: Easy (flat or downhill)

Recommended bicycle type: mountain
bike or sturdy hybrid

The stretch of Milwaukee Road railroad through the Bitterroot Range of north Idaho and western Montana once wowed rail passengers during the Golden Age of train travel. Today, bicyclists can ride the rails on one of the crown jewels of the rails-to-trails system. Named for the line’s signature rail car, which sped passengers in splendor from Chicago to Seattle, the Route of the Hiawatha cruises over 15 miles of level and downhill railroad grade, through nine tunnels, over seven towering trestles and past numerous waterfalls. Expect to meet travelers from around the world in addition to locals who return year after year.

The operating dates of the route depend on snow levels, but it is usually open Memorial Day to the end of September. Book well in advance for peak summer weekends. You can purchase tickets and reserve rental gear online (ridethehiawatha.com). If you bring your own bike, be sure to bring a light; trail marshals will not let riders on the route without one.

The route has several trailheads, but most cyclists begin at the East Portal Trailhead near the Taft Tunnel, which burrows almost two miles under the Bitterroots in complete darkness. The tunnel stays a damp 35-40 degrees all summer, so riders may want to don a windbreaker in addition to a headlight.

Emerge into the sunlight as the trail begins to descend the contours of the Bitterroot Mountains. Interpretive signs along the route document the Great Burn, the catastrophic wildfires of 1910 that burned more than three million acres. For more history, a short side trail at 10.5 miles accesses the historic mining towns of Falcon and Grand Forks, remnants of the storied history of the Silver Valley, once one of the richest mining districts in the world.

Most riders complete the descent in two to four hours. Although some chug the 15 miles back to the East Portal Trailhead, an optional return shuttle ensures you won’t run out of steam. Keep an eye on the shuttle schedule and arrive early; it’s a long ride back to the top if you miss the last one of the day.

Silver Mountain Resort in Kellogg (silvermt.com), 25 minutes west of Lookout Pass, offers condo-style accommodations at its Morning Star Lodge that particularly suit family trips. For more information about visiting north Idaho, go to visitnorthidaho.com.