How the West was won
Cycling Skyward: Conquering the West’s Toughest Climbs
Editor’s Note: Cycling across the country is a time-honored tradition in America, requiring athleticism, fortitude and a sense of adventure. GP contributor William Eginton recently set out from King’s Beach, CA, for a 5,000-mile journey. This is his third dispatch from the open road.
One month after I set out from King’s Beach, CA, on a 5,000-mile bike tour of America, I stood on top of the Continental Divide at Logan Pass in Glacier National Park. As I stood on the side of the road, basking in sun-drenched peaks that surrounded me, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of disappointment. There would be no more triumphant mountain crossings. No more dizzying, sweat-pouring-off-of-you, lung-stinging climbs. No more high alpine views of great, snow-stippled peaks. This was it. I had crossed four mountain ranges — the Sierras, the Southern and Northern Cascades, Oregon’s Coastals, and the Northern Rockies. Ahead of me was 2,000 miles of rolling farmland and grassy hills.
I’m going to miss those climbs, those struggles, more than I ever expected. For that reason, I’ve accumulated a list of my favorite climbs — each one backbreaking and unique in its own right.
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Dead Indian Memorial Road
Ashland, OR On paper, the Dead Indian Memorial Drive does not seem all that difficult: 15 miles and 2,200 vertical feet of climbing. Climbing high above the surprisingly bustling college town of Powell, the road offers striking westward views if you happen to take a look over your shoulder. However, the majority of the time you’ll find yourself out of the saddle, gasping for air, and wondering why exactly you decided to start this climb at four o’clock in the afternoon with temperatures hitting triple digits. But maybe that’s just me.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Mineral, CA In the northern Sierras lies the 11,000 foot Volcano known as Lassen Peak. It has been designated as a national park for good reason. Beautiful, rocky peaks give way to snow-fed streams and waterfalls; the road itself, from the base of the visitor center, rises close to 3,000 feet in seven steep, switchbacked miles. The road summit tops out at 8,800 feet. In the high desert, heat is a serious force; it is best to attack this climb in the early morning with temperatures still in the 50s. As you summit from the southern entrance, Lake Almanor can be seen shining in the distance 30 miles away. From gate to gate, you’ll ride over 7,000 feet of vertical and reach speeds of nearly 60 mph on the descent.
McKenzie Pass, Oregon
Sisters, OR McKenzie is an extremely popular cycling destination from both Bend and Eugene alike. I prefer coming in from the east. From Sisters, OR, you’ll face an 18-mile climb through a canopied forest that gives way to molten rock boulder fields flanked by jagged peaks: to the north, the iconic Three Fingered Jack, and to the south, the Sisters Peaks. Even in the midsummer heat, these massifs still hold snow. The highlight of this ride, however, lies in the descent. You cross different climates as you drop on to the western flank of the Southern Cascades, through a lush, dense forest, categorically different from the one you passed through your ascent. Along the fast, curvaceous descent, you can feel the air grow thick with moisture and humidity. It’s a bizarre sensation.
Washington Pass, Route 20
Newhalem, WA The Northern Cascade Mountains are truly awesome, with steep, drastic relief cut by the Skagit River. From Newhalem, Washington, Route 20 winds through the Skagit Gorge, past the three hydroelectric dams. After a surprisingly gradual climb to Rainy Pass, the remaining five miles angle up at over 6 percent. You are rewarded by a long, fast descent of 18 miles and 4,000 vertical feet to the town of Mazama. The state of Washington is often assumed to be densely forested and damp, but the eastern slope is in fact extremely dry.
Mt. Hood Scenic Byway
Clackamas County, OR Route 26 exits the Portland area and begins a gradual climb up to the sleepy mountain communities that flank Mt. Hood. Once in Welches, the road pitches upwards, extending for a casual 17-mile climb up to the Government Camp area. Throughout this span — almost all of which falls within the Mt. Hood National Forest — you are afforded views of the valleys and rolling ridge lines that abut the massive volcano. The weather can be decidedly fickle and may not even allow for the opportunity to actually see Mt. Hood (both riding down and later up, in my case).
Glacier National Park, MT This, in my mind, is one of the most epic climbs in the Northern Rockies. Glacier National Park is known for its drastic relief, and the Going-to-the-Sun Road is quite possibly the best vantage point. From the park’s gate in West Glacier, the road pushes out for 15 miles along the shores of Lake McDonald. It is quiet and cool early in the morning, and sight lines to the mountains are obscured from all angles by dense forest. The road takes an abrupt left and begins its ascent as you work you’re way to the road’s first and only switchback. In a quick eight-mile spell, you climb around 1,500 vertical feet before reaching the crux. At the switchback, the road extends ahead of you, working its way up the mountainside, offering awe-inspiring views: cascading waterfalls, and residual snowmelt that constantly mists the roads and keeps the temperatures down.