Cycling in Mt Rainer National Park
Cyclists, all decked out in spandex and brightly colored jerseys, are converging and happily greeting each other. It’s 9:45am on the last Friday in June. We are at the intersection of the Crystal Mountain Boulevard and Highway 410, the North entrance to Mt Rainer National Park. 20 Crystal Mountain skiers and friends have enjoyed a three day “road ride” around Mt Rainer; fondly call RIOT, for 15 years.
Challenging, breathtaking and rejuvenating all describe cycling in Mt Rainer National Park. There is nothing like it – especially when “the mountain is out”. Incredible views of “our” glacial covered mountain have been highlighted by deep blue skies 13 out of our 15 years.
Day One – Crystal Mountain Boulevard and Highway 410 up to The Paradise Inn
Cayuse Pass is the first destination – 9 miles, 2000 feet. The group is together for the first few miles. As the climb gets stepper the riders spread out. Cayuse Pass takes about an hour. The triangular parking spot at the top is the perfect place to re-group, get jackets for the downhill and make sure everyone heads toward Paradise.
The next stop is the Stevens Canyon entrance (Grove of the Patriarchs) to Mt Rainer National Park which is an 11 mile downhill from Cayuse Pass. Riders need a National Park Pass or $5 to get in. There are parking spots right inside the entrance. We always have a vehicle (SAG) carry our bags so this is where we take our jackets off, and get snacks and water – especially if it’s hot. Our group also likes to “yack” so a lot of that goes on at the stops.
The 10 mile climb up and over Backbone Ridge begins here. It ends at Box Canyon – our next spot to re-group. Even though we have seen Box Canyon and the falls numerous times, we can’t help but take another look.
The final challenging 10 mile climb of the day takes us up Stevens Canyon to Paradise Inn. Our group arrives between 2 and 5pm. The first day is the toughest – 40 miles with 6,500 feet of climbing. Some years we are greeted by avalanche lilies. Other years, walls of snow 10 feet high greet us. We usually enjoy “happy hour” outside on the southeast corner of The Inn. We check in, shower, and take full advantage of the beautiful dining room with a group dinner. It’s very nice to have a wine distributor along – we enjoy fine wines all weekend (with corkage fees).
Day Two – Paradise Lodge to Packwood, WA
Day two is the easiest day – 40 miles and 2000 feet of climbing – which begins with a hearty buffet breakfast in the dining room. Everyone zips up their jackets for the 11 mile descent down to Longmire. Although we aren’t sure they really like preparing 20 lattes, they do it anyway and The National Park Inn’s large porch provides a fantastic view of “the mountain” in comfy rockers.
From here we cycle down another 6 miles and exit at the Nisqually entrance. We head east on Highway 706 toward the town of Packwood. 7 miles down the road we turn left onto Skate Creek Road. The SAG waits at this intersection to insure no one misses it. Always one of the favorites, the road winds along the gorgeous Skate Creek amid glorious greenery. It is a gradual climb then descent covering 23 miles.
We stay at The Packwood Hotel. They can accommodate up to 18 riders but we must call early to get the whole hotel. We eat and drink well again on our friend, Maree’s deck overlooking the Cowlitz River.
Day Three - Packwood, WA back to Crystal Mountain Boulevard and Highway 410
Day three begins with superb lattes and muffins at The Butter Butte Coffeehouse or a diner type breakfast down the street at The Peters Inn. On day three we cycle up and over the “backside” of Cayuse pass. We leave Packwood via busy Highway 12 and turn left onto Highway 123 in 8 miles. In another 6 miles we pass the Stevens Canyon entrance again. The first few miles from here are a gradual climb. The final miles are fairly exposed with wonderful mountain vistas, waterfalls and a steep grade.
At the top of Cayuse Pass everyone grabs their jackets again for the 9 mile descent down the other side (the climb from the first day). Day three is 34 miles with 3,400 feet of climbing.
The ride ends where it began at the intersection of 410 and the Crystal Mountain Boulevard in the early afternoon on day three. Once again we have completed, “the best ride ever”. Next year is already being organized.
An alternate RIOT (Rainer in Only Three) route
A great alternate RIOT route is to begin at the bottom of the Crystal Mountain Boulevard and Highway 410 and climb up and over Cayuse Pass into Packwood on Day one. Day two leave Packwood via Skate Creek Road and climb up to Paradise via Longmire. Day Three leave Paradise and enjoy the Stevens Canyon downhill with a climb up the “backside” of Cayuse Pass followed by another downhill back to the Crystal Mountain Boulevard and Highway 410. This route spreads the climbing out more evenly over the three days. However, Paradise Inn requires a minimum of a two night stay if Sat is included. Therefore, this route requires a Sat, Sun, and Monday versus the traditional RIOT Friday, Sat, and Sunday.
Other suggested one day rides:
Ride from Crystal Mountain Boulevard (parking lot requires a Northwest Forest Pass) to Cayuse Pass and back - 19 miles, 2,300 feet.
Continue up to Chinook Pass from Cayuse Pass. An additional 3 miles and 700 feet gives you spectacular views of Mt Rainer overlooking Lake Tipsoo. Wildflowers abound beginning in August.
Ride from the Crystal Mountain Boulevard up to Sunrise – 21 miles, 3,600 feet. Mountain Vistas, a small visitor center, and cafeteria welcome you at the summit. This ride is especially great in the spring.
If you go:
Get reservations by April at The Paradise Inn. Many rooms have the bath and shower down the hall. It works well.
Be prepared for cold, wet weather in addition to extreme heat. Don’t forget extra water and extra layers.
On sunny weekends, there can be a lot of traffic on Highway 410. Try to do the downhill early in the day.
Enjoy “the mountain” and have a great time!
Previously published on www.visitrainer.com.
Check out Cycling Solvang for more cycling fun.
And, check out other National Park visits on our way to reach our goal (now 61) below:
We like to give back to the National Parks through the National Park Foundation.