About 6 miles west of the locked gate near Mazama, State Route 20 climbs above the trees then takes your breath away.
“The whole North Cascades open up in front of you,” said Joe Brown of Methow Cycle & Sport in Winthrop. “It’s beautiful.”
Visiting the American Alps, as it’s sometimes called, by bike has long been considered one of the Northwest’s classic rides. “It should be on every cyclist’s bucket list,” said Kristen Smith, an avid cyclist and the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce’s marketing director.
The North Cascades Highway typically doesn’t reopen to vehicle traffic until early May, but Methow Valley residents start pedaling up toward 5,477-foot Washington Pass well before then.
Highway crews already are taking advantage of the record-low snow pack to start clearing the highway.
Most winters, cyclists might shy away from the highway and the avalanche chutes it passes under. “But this year is a bit of an anomaly,” Brown said. The lack of snow has meant fewer risks of avalanche.
Still, the ride shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s challenging with more than 3,000 feet of climbing if you travel all the way to Washington Pass – a trek some fat bike cyclists have already attempted before the snow is cleared. The return trip is speedy with some sharp turns. They still need to be attentive to avalanche risks.
Whether on a fat bike or the skinny tires of a road bike, Brown says pedaling the North Cascades Highway before it reopens to cars is an enjoyable experience.
“The uniqueness of having a highway with a locked gate below you is reassuring,” he said.
On Saturday mornings during the snow-removal period, when the snowplows aren’t running, a small group of local cyclists meet at the Winthrop bike shop to pedal their road bikes as far as the highway has been cleared. Often, more cyclists join them at the Mazama Store.
Each week as the cyclists go a little farther and climb a little higher, they find themselves riding between walls of snow that can be taller than they are.
“Oh my goodness, it’s such a unique experience,” Smith said.
Every once in a while, however, cyclists are reminded of the hazards that come with their exclusive playground.
Work crews occasionally paint on the snow banks, “Look Up.” This is a reminder of why the road closes every winter in the first place: avalanches.
“And there are avalanches,” Smith said. “We’ve heard them and we’ve seen them.”
Once the snowplows reach the pass, the highway’s reopening becomes a bit of a moving target. Sometimes it opens in a matter of days. Sometimes it remains closed while plowing continues on the west side of the mountains.
But when the opening is finally announced, Methow Valley cyclists traditionally gather the day before for one last trip up their private road. Even on opening day, cyclists are known to hop the gate in the morning so they can beat the cars to the pass.
Glacier National Park offers a similar experience for cyclists in the weeks of May and June when crews are removing snow from the Going to the Sun Highway over Logan Pass.
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