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Outdoor adventures, mostly gravel rides, but not always

Mountain Loop Highway & Barlow Pass

Classic PNW ride through the mountains awash in fall colors.

By the Numbers

Sport
Cycling
Shape
Loop
Profile
Pyramid
Lots of flat sections, huge variety of terrain, and punchy gravel climbing.
Distance
98 miles
Elevation
4300 ft
Time
6h30m
Nutrition
Food available in Darrington, numerous water access points in the national forest
Logistics
Parked at Granite Falls HS
External
Strava | Ride with GPS

I finally had time and cooperative weather to ride this classic PNW loop through the mountains. The Seattle Randonneurs have a 200K brevet route but since I was riding on my own I decided to short it by ~30 miles and avoid some of the less scenic city riding.

Leaving BI on the 5:20am ferry I arrived at the Granite Falls High School shortly at after 7:00am where I was able to park for the day seemingly without issue. After a quick prep, and much debating what to wear, I was off for a long day in the mountains. I opted to dress a little more warmly than the weather forecast because I figured the tree cover and elevation would ultimately keep the air temperature cooler – turned out to the be right call.

Riding from the school I was pretty much immediately on Jordan Road, headed clockwise towards Arlington. The road is lightly rolling with little to no shoulder but at 8am on a Sunday, the day after daylight savings, it was pretty empty and any vehicles sharing the road gave me a wide berth. I had read other accounts about the road being very busy but it was not my experience on this day.

Foggy morning
Foggy morning

The cold morning, and valley depressions, put on a magical fog display which delighted me. After making a small correction to my planned route around another “Dead End” sign where the maps show a through road, I arrived in Arlington rather uneventfully.

From Arlington it’s a short ride on Washington 530, now known as the Oso Slide Memorial Highway, to the Whitehorse Trail. In planning the route I had given significant consideration to sticking to the highway rather than taking the trail because I’m not generally a trail rider but I am so happy I opted for trail as it was delightfully car free in addition to be incredibly scenic.

Whitehorse Trail
Whitehorse Trail
North Fork Stillaguamish River
North Fork Stillaguamish River
North Fork Stillaguamish River
North Fork Stillaguamish River

The trail, of varying terrain depending on location, loosely follows the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. On this day the steelhead were running and numerous fly-fishermen were on the water – hard to imagine a more enjoyable location to wet a line.

The trail itself is nearly dead flat, being an old rail line, but the gravel for large sections was loose requiring a little more effort than a normal flat section on tarmac. It was basically miles of gravel time-trialling with the rather frequent stop for a photo or two.

Oso mudslide
Oso mudslide
Oso memorial
Oso memorial

One of the most memorable, and somber, sections of the trail was riding through the region destroyed in the Oso mudslide. On March 22, 2014, at 10:37 a.m., the single deadliest landslide in U.S. history occurred along this stretch of Highway 530. When I rode through the very recently installed portal it became instantly noticeable something was different. It was super quiet and I experienced a very solemn sensation. The birds seemed quieter and the lush farmland I had just ridden through gave way to a recovering disaster zone. I was not able to comprehend the full magnitude of the slide and even when I returned home and looked at aerial photographs I wasn’t able to reconcile what I saw of the remaining mountain and the destruction it caused. After spending a few moments to pay my respects at the memorial I continued on.

Classic bike photo
Classic bike photo
Whitehorse Trail after the gravel ends
Whitehorse Trail after the gravel ends
Turnaround!
Turnaround!

After much pedaling the gravel and asphalt gives way to dirt – the trail continuing to delight. Shortly before Darrington my GPS alerted me to a turn off the trail back to 530 and into town. As I consulted my map I saw the trail continued all the way to town so I overruled the GPS and continued until I saw the sign above. Ordinarily I might have chanced this (ala the Iron Horse trail in the winter nordic skiing) but after the experience in Oso only a few minutes prior I decided turning around was prudent.

One of the consistent themes of gravel riding, at least in the mountains of Washington, is the sound of firearms. On the trail I heard what I thought were shotguns and while that’s modestly alarming I assumed the trail was a safe place to ride so I didn’t concern myself too much. Now that I had to backtrack towards the sound of guns I wanted to be even more careful.

Again looking at the map I could see a small gravel road which would take me towards 530 and back on my way. This turned out to be a mess. I rode all the way to 530 only to find myself locked on the wrong side of the chainlink fence keeping people from getting into the Darrington Rodeo Grounds while I very much wanted out. So after riding around for a bit and navigating away from the guns I ended up back at the gravel road I was originally meant to take according to my route. Score one for the GPS.

After a short stop in Darrington at the Shell station to get some water I was on my again but not before a delightful exchange with a local. As I was mixing my nutrition I could hear a diesel pickup pulling in beside me. After the truck cuts the engine I hear “Chuck, get back here!” so I turn around to see what’s going on. A doberman has escaped and is running laps around the station grounds. The guy is yelling, culiminatelty with “Chuck, you asshole, get back here!” He finally opens the door of the truck and in jumps the dog. We discussed dog training for a bit before he masked up and went into the station and I hit the road.

Gravel begins on the way to Barlow Pass
Gravel begins on the way to Barlow Pass
Gravel climbing
Gravel climbing
Views from a campground shortly before the Pass
Views from a campground shortly before the Pass
Car eating potholes
Car eating potholes

I’m not much of a flats rider, far preferring to climb, so I was excited to finally start heading into the mountains. The Mountain Loop Highway is paved for about the first 8 miles before 14 miles of wonderful punchy single-lane gravel road, replete with car eating potholes and river & mountain views galore.

Maybe it was the cold, all the flat miles leading up to it, the surprisingly punchy effort, or the prior weekend’s long ride but I didn’t have my usual climbing legs. Nonetheless I really enjoyed the effort and relished in the opportunity to get in one more classic gravel ride before the winter rain and snow.

I generally ride in the Olympics as they are logistically easier for me. In the Olympics, when you get to a pass, like Bon Jon or Washington, you’re greeted with … nothing. No sign, no people, no cars. I often have to confirm I’m at the pass on the map. The Cascades are totally different. When I finally did crest Barlow, and the front tire hit the asphalt, I was greeted with dozens and dozens of cars and people coming and going. Not sure when if I’ll ever be fully accustomed to the difference in the two ranges.

Descending
Descending

The road back to Granite Falls is primarily descending, though it’s a shallow descent and you’re pedaling the whole way. There’s only one significant rise, just a few miles outside of town, near the Robe Canyon trailhead. After that it was clear sailing back to the truck.

Great ride.

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