I’ve never been so fortunate to ride in the Swiss, Italian or French Alps, but had I not known where I was, I could’ve easily mistaken the gorgeous scenery on the Native Planet Classic for the most historical and/or beautiful climbs on the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia. So, for the second year in a row, I was blessed with a fabulous riding experience in the Native Planet Classic set amid the most rugged mountain range in the Lower 48. And while there may be one other equivalently epic alpine century+ ride in Washington State (i.e., RAMROD), this newer ride excels in the superior quality of the roads, the relatively light traffic, and by providing an unmistakable embedded-in-the-wilderness feel.
Upon riding the Classic, the excellent route planning becomes quickly apparent. Approaching Washington Pass from the E. insures a warm, dry start from the faux-Wild-West resort and outdoor adventure town of Winthrop. And the gradual climb up the Methow River valley past the ranches and meadows in the cool, quiet morning light makes for a great warm-up. A few miles before the first rest stop at Mazama, the route takes riders off the main highway onto an even quieter scenic side-road among the trees with closer river views (and for me this past year sightings of a few deer munching in the pastures). Past Mazama and Early Winters campground, the surrounding peaks rise up sharper as the ponderosa forests grow more dense, giving way to more douglas fir, cedar and hemlock amid lusher undergrowth. Soon, the ‘real climb’ starts as the valley walls close in: the only way out is up!
As one starts the climb the warmth of the day rises in tandem. I half-expected the traffic to pick up with buzzing continuity, but coming from the E., there’s very little the whole way up. In fact, the songs of local birds are more constant than the whoosh of passing cars. And no 18-wheelers are allowed over this route, so the few vehicles that do pass by are mostly campers or motorcyclists. Yeah, two-wheelers rule on this road!
Within ten miles of Washington Pass, the route delivers riders into an alpine wonderland as one turns up the valley and is introduced to the majestic local sentinels of Silver Star Peak and Liberty Bell. This being late June, there’s plenty of snow atop the peaks, and the last few miles to the pass there’s also a fair amount piled aside the switchbacks! The extra cooling factor is welcomed as the 6% to 8% grades the last 6 miles to Washington Pass generate warmth within any rider at any speed! And the magical views help take the edge off the incline as well. Finding a rhythm on this smooth, steady highway grade comes naturally. And if you’re as lucky as I, you’ll always have a few strong cyclists in sight just ahead to lend an extra measure of confidence and help instill a steady pace.
Soon enough, what had looked so scary from below becomes the last switchback, and one can’t help but look back to enjoy a gorgeous view down the valley! Atop Washington Pass amid the alpine meadows it’s instantly energizing to see multiple tables of food and smiling faces. And last year’s chow included not just the usual energy bar & fruit fare, but also ‘real eats’ like warm potatoes & soup! Though tempting to linger long at the welcome rest stop, the next few miles down and then up to Rainy Pass miles are a blast, so I’d recommend continuing westward if you’re curious. The adrenaline-fueled descent toward Rainy Pass provides spectacular views, as new peaks like Cutthroat, Black, and more reveal themselves behind the ridges. And enjoy the views southward toward the Stehekin River Valley and the N. end of Lake Chelan. Rainy Pass, though not as high as Washington Pass, also signals the beginning of the denser, greener western rain forest microclimate – unmistakable as the snow drifts deep in the dark, shaded parking lot well into summer.
For most cyclists, heading back on a long mountain ride is always a pleasure, because that means going down, down, down! This past year was also my first opportunity to descend a mountain pass on my recently-purchased carbon steed. The big descent off Washington Pass was marvelous – I don’t think 45 mph was ever achieved with so little effort, or corners cut so cleanly! And though one should always be a little apprehensive about mountain winds – i.e., occasionally squirrelly – they haven’t been a factor either time I’ve descended this route.
This year, I was also lucky to hook up with a few fellow descenders, and we maintained a quick clip as we turned the valley corner toward Mazama and faced a crosswind coming in from the E. But once at the Mazama rest stop, we were quickly back in the trees on the quieter side road, and all returned to forest calm.
The remainder of return to Winthrop goes quickly, especially if aided by some unexpected tail winds toward the end as we enjoyed this past year! Soon enough one reaches the speed limit signs on the outskirts of Winthrop, and right away there’s the Red Barn where the day began.
In short, the Native Planet Classic is just that: a classic ride of a caliber that is rarely found in the U.S. The views are magnificent, the roads are superb, the fellow riders friendly, and the support system solid. The homey post-ride dinner in The Barn is also a perfect opportunity to swap cycling stories with your new (or old!) friends. This route, like a select few others (e.g., from the town of Glacier to Artist Point at Mt. Baker, the Sunrise climb at Mt. Rainier), will never become ‘old’ to me; and after two years of riding the Native Planet Classic, its place is secure as a permanent highlight on my annual ride calendar! I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the official start of summer in this wonderful corner of the world.
© 2009, Native Planet Outdoor Club, A Non-Profit Organization