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Bike Trails of the Pacific Northwest

Fall in Love with Cycling

Where are the best routes to ride your bike? Well, that depends on who’s riding. Check out what experienced cyclists tell us about their favorites in Washington, Oregon and northern Idaho. Despite their personal preferences, they all agree that our area has plenty of wonderful trails and road routes that are suitable for all levels.

My kids were not avid cyclists when I decided to pause our regular marathon to their grandparents’ place in Montana for a half-day ride on the Hiawatha Trail. Not that experience matters on this amazing 15-mile long theme park of a bike ride. For starters, the Route of the Hiawatha is mostly downhill, and a shuttle takes riders back to the Lookout Pass Lodge.

Secondly, the trail is one of the coolest outdoor adventures in the entire Pacific Northwest, an experience that begins pedaling through the 1.7-mile long St. Paul Pass Tunnel, then leads riders into nine more tunnels. And don’t forget the trestles, seven in total, that span ravines and gorges to flabbergast, not only my then 7-year-old Malcolm and 10-year-old Aodhan but we parents as well.

At Mile Post 0, the Hiawatha is located on the Idaho-Montana border and has become an annual ritual for many Panhandle travelers. The rail-to-trail adventure is just that fun. The Lookout Pass bike rental shop makes it easy to jump off Interstate 90, catch some fresh air and share an experience that often becomes the highlight of the vacation before you’ve hardly begun your holiday.

Two young cyclists take a break on a tree-lined flat stretch of gravel road before a tunnel in North Idaho
Route of the Hiawatha in north Idaho. By Valerie/AdobeStock

On the Road

The Pacific Northwest is laced with trail systems and road touring routes for every level of cyclist from kids on their first mountain bike ride to Robin White, a triathlon coach and co-owner at Team PR Performance. A Sammamish resident, White loves riding the winding farm roads beside the Tolt River near Carnation in the Snoqualmie Valley.

“A bike loop in the Valley includes beautifully preserved open spaces, flowers and cornfields, and even a couple of open farm stands if you want a snack,” says White, who was a road bike novice when she entered her first triathlon two decades ago. “I’ll sometimes extend this ride with a loop up to Snoqualmie Falls and North Bend to add a climb and a view of the falls.”

In addition to triathlons White annually joins several organized rides like the Chilly Hilly, a winter ride on Bainbridge Island, and with the Cascade Bicycle Club, Flying Wheels, which organizes frequent “Centuries,” 100-mile day rides. The Seattle-to-Portland (STP) is a favorite.

“There’s an active cycling community in the Seattle area that makes it easy to get out there and enjoy the Pacific Northwest on two wheels,” she says.

Colin Brandt has been an active rider for as long as he can remember and was serious enough to complete the STP in one day a few years ago. His riding focus shifted, he says, when he “experienced the wonders of the full suspension mountain bike.”

Brandt, who lives on Mercer Island, says he’s continuously amazed by the quality of trails that traverse Washington, the primary reason he hesitates when asked to describe his favorite system.

“It’s a tough call, I ride Tokul and Tiger Mountain a fair amount and love them, but maybe my favorite ride is the Freund Canyon – Rosy Boa Figure 8 near Leavenworth. They’re good climbs and fun descents through great scenery with a brewery nearby.”

Man on a mountain bike cycles on a mountain trail with his dogs
On the trail at Carnation, Washington. By John/AdobeStock

Bikes, Breweries and Bakeries

As anyone who rides will readily share, biking, breweries and bakeries seem to go together. One friend of mine who knocks out a Century most Saturdays says his motivation comes from the croissants at a favorite French patisserie. Needless to say, Washington’s robust brewing culture translates well for cycling pretty much anywhere in the state.

Ballard-based Jake Jones has been riding trails (and drinking ales) for 30 years. A firefighter who supervises the fitness program for the Tacoma Fire Department, it’s no surprise Jones “enjoys” long uphill climbs and fast descents. His go-to routes include Palisades and Suntop trails off of Highway 410 in Greenwater, as well as Kachess Ridge east of Snoqualmie Pass.

“North Mountain out of Darrington is running great these days,” Jones says. “It takes a bit to get there, but this small town has some epic trails built by the local community and the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance. The community was hit hard after the Oso landslide, so anytime I can spend some time and money there, I do.”

While some cyclists like Jones are in fabulous shape, I’m a primary example that one doesn’t have to be as fit as a firefighter to enjoy cross-country mountain biking. The Olympic Discovery Trail Adventure Route (OAT) runs for 26 miles from Highway 112 to Lake Crescent. There’s elevation gain for the first 3.5-miles but, at a 5% average grade, it isn’t “Jake the Firefighter” steep. (Climbers will find ascent aplenty nearby at Mount Muller.) I took my son Aodhan, age 12 at the time, on his first mountain bike ever on the OAT and he handled it just fine.

Overview of a bridge crossing into a forested mountain area on the Olympic Discovery Trail
Overlooking the Olympic Discover Trail. by Jesse/AdobeStock

Trails for All Levels

The OAT is the single-track offshoot of the Olympic Discovery Trail (ODT), a prime example of a fantastic trend: the annual expansion of non-motorized trails throughout the state. The ODT stretches 135-miles long and about half is isolated from traffic (roughly Port Townsend to Port Angeles) with more separate trails being built every year. Now, every spring I greet this exponential growth of area non-motorized trail systems with an enthusiasm I’d once reserved for daffodils and tulips.

Seattleite Sean Petersmark represents another excellent trend in Washington State cycling: inclusion. A road cyclist since his college days at Western, he rode from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Bellingham in the summer of his senior year. Petersmark works with the Major Taylor Project to introduce urban kids to the joys of cycling. Students in the program learn safe riding techniques, bike repair and other skills with the goal of participating in the STP.

“That STP ride is such a beautiful moment,” he says. “To ride with students who at the beginning of the program didn’t even know how to ride a bike, then watch them ride 200 miles in two days!”

Like most regular riders, Petersmark says choosing his favorite destination to ride is a very tough question.

“I’d have to say it’s a tossup between the Skagit Valley and The Palouse, especially in the spring. Both are wonderful farmland regions with rolling hills that are less frequented by cars. They also are dotted with small towns with fresh food and farm stands. Then again, riding at sunrise near Paradise Lodge on Mount Rainier or anywhere in the San Juan Islands is as good as you’ll find in the U.S.”

After talking with Petersmark many others about their favorite places to ride, I’m relieved I wasn’t assigned a “Best of” or “Top Ten” piece. These annotated lists would engender heated debates and instantly detract from that unique joy we all share when watching our child hit his first single track banked curve, seeing the Skagit tulips nod as we pass, or high-fiving with a kid who’d never even dreamed of cycling from Seattle to Portland. Like riding a bicycle, may we never forget how to make these memories.

–Written by Crai Bower, last updated in October 2022.
–Top photo of Skagit Valley tulip fields is by Danita Delimont/Alamy

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