Were you envious when you read Josh Cohen’s account of his car-free ride on the North Cascades Highway? You don’t have to wait until next spring to enjoy a mountainside ciclovia. The opportunity exists now for an equally epic and beautiful cycling experience: car-free Mount Rainier National Park!
Winter is releasing its grip on this stunning mountain park land in Washington’s central Cascades and it’s possible to drive into many parts of it—with a key exception. Sunrise.
At an elevation of 6400 feet, Sunrise is the highest point attainable by vehicle in Mount Rainier. Its flowery meadows, hiking trails, and in-your-face view of the Mountain make it the second most visited location in the park. It is also one of the last areas in the park to open to vehicle traffic—typically late June to early July.
This later opening presents the opportunistic bicyclist (me!) with a chance to experience an epic road climb into Mount Rainier car-free. A quick weather check assured us that morning clouds were burning off and giving way to sunshine (I’m doing this ride for the car-free experience AND the views), so Steve and I load our bikes into the truck and head for the Mountain.
Visitors access Sunrise from Highway 410 and the White River entrance into the park. It will cost you and your companions $15 to enter Mount Rainier with a vehicle. If you choose to park your vehicle outside of the park and bike in, it’s $5 per cyclist. On this trip, we opted to use our Interagency Federal Recreation Lands Annual Pass, so we entered with our vehicle and parked next to the Ranger station.
The Road Status page on Mount Rainier’s website told me that Sunrise Road was still closed to vehicles but states:
For safety reasons, bicycling and hiking on the road prior to its opening to vehicles is allowed only when the road crew is not working on the road. Please check the signs on the gate before heading up the road.
When I asked the ranger at the gate about the road status, he confirmed that the road crew had just finished for the day and it was ok to ride the road. You can call ahead for this information, but park staff don’t always know when the road crew will call it a day. Past experience (this is my sixth car-free journey up to Sunrise) tells me that weekends and later in the day are your best shots.
White River Road is open to vehicles up to the campground, but we encountered very little traffic on this Sunday afternoon. I was immediately enchanted by the sight of waterfalls and lush old growth forest. As we crossed Fryingpan Creek, we glimpsed our first view of Mount Rainier. The views would only get better.
Around 4 miles into the ride, we reached the gated entrance to Sunrise Road. The sign on the gate welcomed bicyclists, hikers and skiers. Hey, that’s us! So onward we pedaled.
Sunrise Road is a classic national park road: narrow, winding, steep, scenic—and congested with vehicle traffic in the summer season. Not so on this quiet Sunday afternoon, as we pedal this open road at our leisure. We pause frequently to catch our breaths and take in the views of the White River valley below us and the snow-capped peaks rising above the valley floor. A symphony of birds perform all around us: the drumming of nearby grouse and the haunting flutelike melody of the varied thrush to name a couple. We fill our lungs with fresh mountain air. Today Mount Rainier is OUR national park!
Fourteen miles, 3000′ of climbing, and two-plus hours later (I’m a slow climber), we reach 6400′ Sunrise and the end of the road plowing. The parking lot is still buried in snow, but I can see the top of the day lodge and visitor center. We admire the Mountain, eat a quick snack, down some more water, snap a few photos, don our jackets and gloves, test our brakes, and begin the descent.
The ride down is swift by comparison, but we must be vigilant—not for vehicles but for hairpin turns, rock and snow slides, loose gravel, and spots of uneven pavement. We stop several times on the descent to give our hands and shoulders a rest from frequent braking, but we are soon back at the truck loading our bikes in the truck and dreaming about our next National Park ciclovia!
Tips for Your Trip:
- You are visiting a mountain, so be prepared. Bring extra clothes for layering against the elements, food and water to keep yourself fueled and hydrated, and basic bike repair kit for an emergency repair. If the weather turns foul, consider turning around yourself. You can climb this road another day.
- Know before you go. Consult Mount Rainier’s website for information about road status and current conditions. You can also call the park at 360.569.2211. The National Weather Service – Seattle office provides a mountains forecast page that can be helpful.
- Parking outside the park? There’s a parking area at the base of Crystal Mountain Road, which is about 5 miles north of White River Road and will give you some extra bike miles.
Share your favorite bike ride with us!