Paved road climbs are drastically different from climbing gravel roads. In quite a few ways though, they are very much alike. The paved climbs generally are not as steep as a gravel one, but what they lack in grade they make up for in distance. There is a bit less thinking while climbing a paved road as well. It lacks the constant decision making of which line will I not spin out on or have to bounce up a large rock. When it comes down to it though, a 180 degree switchback feels almost the same on either surface. The feeling you get when you look across to the adjacent ridge and see the road hundreds of feet above you is also the same. The view at the top is almost equally as good. That is unless you are topping out at Artist Point, just off Mt. Baker in the North Cascades National Park.
Since it is not a pass and is in a relatively low use area it is one of the last roads to see the giant snow blowers the state employees to clear the roads. It is maintained to the ski area nine miles up, but the last two and a half miles are left to be covered snow. The parking lot at the top sees over fifty feet some winters and in the past has not been clear until late August. This year it opened two days before I was camping with the family just miles from the start of the climb.
With the parking lot atop the climb being the starting point for family adventures throughout the weekend, it made it easy to work a ride to the top into the schedule. Amid a summer swarm of mosquitoes, I got dropped at the WSDOT maintenance facility at the bottom and watched my car peel up the mountain away from me. I took a mile in the other direction to wake up the legs and warm up a knee I had smacked on the mountain bike days earlier. I told my wife I’d see her in an hour, that meant about an eleven mile an hour average.
The start of climbs in this region I think of as the meat and potatoes. You need to eat your meat if you are going to have any pudding. The forest is dense and you are still pretty low in elevation. You need to put in the first thousand feet of work to get much of a view. That doesn’t mean you are not riding past huge old trees and little cascading creeks constantly, by no means is it unpleasant. The first hairpin comes at about three miles and things start to open up.
The views North to the Canadian boarder are stunning. Mt. Shuksan is continually poking into view up the road. It is strange how it seems to change the closer I get. A slight right hand turn, just below the ski area, about half way up is where the view really starts to get distracting. The road bends around itself more and more as well. Between the two ski area parking lots there is a round-a-bout so to speak encircling Picture Lake. The road levels off and with a one way road you can almost get lost in the splendor of the mountains.
This is where the gate is, the one that is closed more often than open. After that, the walls of snow appear almost immediately. The climb also rises a little more sharply. But it almost doesn’t matter, it is just too good. Four hard and tight switchbacks that are only a single lane wide get you to the parking lot at the top. The walls of snow in places are twenty to thirty feet high. So close to the roads surface that I can reach out, drag my fingers through snow that fell last October and spray myself in the face. Then, suddenly, there is a right turn and the walls of snow open into the parking lot at the end of the road.
I have had the opportunity now to ride three of these big climbs to high points in the mountains and I would have to say, mile for mile, this is my favorite one so far. At eleven miles it isn’t a super long ride, but the thirty three hundred feet of elevation got me to a pretty magnificent place. It leaves me wondering why that national park is the least visited in the system.