About six 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’s should be on every cyclist’s bucket list,” said Kristen Smith an avid cyclist and the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce’s marketing director.
The road 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. In fact, nowadays they don’t even have to wait for the snow to be cleared.
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Two winters ago, Methow Trails opened up some of its 120 miles of Nordic skiing trails to fat bikes, go-anywhere bikes with huge 4-inch-wide tires that allow them to float over compact snow. It didn’t take long for those fat bikes to venture beyond those neatly manicured trails.
“We’re seeing more and more people taking fat bikes up there (state Route 20) because they can,” Brown said.
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. The return trip is speedy with some sharp turns. Cyclists should leave early in the day while the snow is still firm. And 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.
Brown has a small fleet of fat bikes at his Winthrop store, and when he sends them out he reminds users that “cold is your friend.”
Fat bikes perform well on firm, cold snow. But as the snow softens later in the day, even these bike’s huge tires sink and make pedaling difficult if not impossible.
This means getting out early, especially if you’re tackling ungroomed terrain such as the North Cascades Highway.
A few layers will help battle the cold as will the handlebar mittens Brown has available at his shop. The large mittens attach to the handlebars and allow cyclists to easily insert their hands for an extra layer of warmth.
Brown says it’s important to check a local forecast (for both weather and avalanche conditions) before heading out.
“We still get people who come over from Seattle at 3 in the afternoon and want to take the bikes out,” Brown said. “We tell them it’s not ideal, but we try to help them.”
Brown says cyclists can expect to travel about the same speed on a fat bike as they would on a mountain bike, but expect to go slower traveling uphill while carrying extra gear, food and water.
While this could mean it takes longer than expected to climb the highway, Brown says don’t wait too long before turning back.
Trying to descend on soft snow could make for a long day.
“It’s similar to coming down a muddy hill on a mountain bike,” Brown said. “Keep your weight back and keep the front end light in case it is too soft.”
The worst case scenario? Your front tire breaks through the snow and send you flying, Brown says.
You might curse the soft snow if this happens, but you’ll probably grateful for it by the time you land.
According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, it starts plowing the highway in late March or early April and the work can last up to eight weeks.
On Saturday mornings during that stretch, 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 they 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.
“It’s a great experience,” Smith said. “It’s definitely worth the trip.”