Skiing is in the August air, cycling is good prep for the legs. To that end, we have incredible mountain biking in Washington. On the west side of the mountains where I live, you’ll find classic PNW trails — smooth loam, fast descents, and nicely built features are the norm. However, from growing up in Colorado, I do sometimes miss the long, rough xc adventures that remind me of the rocky trails back home, (and the epic ski tours we do in winter on those same routes). When I heard about Angels Staircase bike ride, a 22 mile high-alpine loop in the North Cascades, checking it out was mandatory.
Most alpine and above treeline areas are in wilderness areas (especially in Washington), so there aren’t that many mountain bike trails that venture above the trees. Angels Staircase is an exception. It gains 6,000 feet over its 22 mile length, and goes over two passes, one above 8,000 feet. Considering the highest non-volcanic peak in Washington is only 1,500 feet higher, that’s impressive.
The weather looked good last weekend. We wanted to escape the heat of the lowlands so we decided to give Angels a go. We left early and cranked several hours up the trail to Cooney Lake. After lunch at the beautiful lake, we started the climb up to our first pass of the day. I had heard that the climb was short but brutal. It was.
After 1,000 feet of hike-a-bike up the steep, rocky trail, we reached the top. I suspected the views along the ride would be aesthetic, but I wasn’t prepared for just how stunning it was. I’ve never been on a bike anywhere else that even came close. We were high above the surrounding lakes and valleys, and could see Rainier, Bonanza Peak, Glacier Peak, and the backbone of the North Cascades.
After soaking up the views and cooling in the breeze, we began the descent. The first switchbacks were steep and rocky, but eventually smoothed out and mellowed. We cruised through wildflowers and alpine meadows all the way to Boiling Lake, where the next climb started. Although it wasn’t quite as long, this hike-a-bike felt even more brutal.
Eventually we crested the ridge with only downhill in our future. The first part of the descent was more rocky switchbacks, this time even more rough. With a bit of walking we made it through, and found smoother trails. The rip back to the car was fun and fast.
The ride was long, and the rough parts really put my skills (and 150mm of suspension) to the test. I hadn’t really known what to expect on the ride; I ended up worked, with a big smile on my dusty face. I love adventure, going off trail, and exploring places that are out of the way. That sense of exploration is tough on a bike; if you want to actually ride, you’re confined to comparatively manicured trails. Even though the trails are well established, and they see plenty of other bikers, the Angels Staircase was a full-value adventure. I felt more like I was on a backpacking trip than a bike trip. I’ll have to find more rides like this.
Louie Dawson earned his Bachelor Degree in Industrial Design from Western Washington University in 2014. When he’s not skiing Mount Baker or somewhere equally as snowy, he’s thinking about new products to make ski mountaineering more fun and safe.