Cycling Washington 20: scenic and sweaty

My arrival in Idaho was bumpy. We needed a safety pin and tweezers to extract the puncture-causing wire from my tyre. It’s times like that I feel grateful to have a doctor on hand. It was a quick ride to Bonners Ferry, and a lovely one the next morning to Sandpoint, via an ice cream and the valley of a chase in the real Falcon and Snowman story.

Sandpoint, Idaho

Just when Idaho seemed delightful (we had met nice people, scenic riverside cycling, etc) it went nuts. In the last 10 miles before the border we saw all of these. Yes, bottom left is a public toilet. They should really get in touch with the Albanian football stadium we visited to share good practice.

It is was exciting to get to Washington – our last new state before the ocean. Maybe this made Jo a little giddy. She went into a supermarket to get some ice cream and bought a three pint tub. Apparently it was cheaper than one pint. We ate it sat outside the cloud Forest Service Ranger Station in Newport. I’m relieved to admit that we didn’t quite manage it all but ate enough to make us feel unwell for the rest of that day’s ride. Jo hasn’t been trusted to buy ice cream since.

The next day was very hot. We opted for fizzy pop instead of ice cream and stopped for some chips at almost the top of the big hill. Our target was a wonderful bike hostel we had heard about. It was so sensational we decided to have a rest day. Good news – big downhill to the town to get food for the rest day. Bad news – long uphill in very hot weather with food to get back. I had a wobbly pedal though, so we made the trip, got pedals and a lot of food. We had some tough riding ahead.

Who doesn’t want to take a super side trip? (It was our route anyway. No detours this near the end).

The next day was even hotter. It turned out eastern Washington was having a heat wave, perfectly timed for our biggest climbing days since Colorado. Between us and the coast were five passes as state highway 20 winds through the North Cascades. Two of the days had more than 1500m of elevation gain.

Between the passes were scorchingly hot valleys. I don’t think I have ever sweated so much as during those few days. To exacerbate the heat/sweat/thirst problem Washington turned into a sort of squashed up Wyoming. Suddenly there were funny coloured rocks, no trees and it smelled of the sagebrush. The only differences were the closeness of the hills and the fact that we could always see at least one house.


We didn’t get out of Wymashington until we began the Washington Pass climb. The others had been a bit hard but this one was a real toughie. It was much steeper and had a dramatic switch back that resembled Sunwapta on the Icefields parkway. Fortunately it was much cooler and a real bonus was a friendly SAG wagon crew at the top who shared some of the snacks their road cyclists didn’t need.

The scenery was wonderful on the way down and we had a great night camping by Diablo Lake. We were aiming for Sedro-Woolley for our last night before hitting the ocean but had a great deal of trouble remembering this name. We struggled with it so much we decided to ride straight through Sedgely Woollen to Burlington. On Sunday July 31st, 102 days since leaving Boston we were only 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

Thanks for this sweaty section to: Bob & Diane, Steve, Meg, Robyn & Adele, DiAnne & Boyd, Larry & Lynette, Shelley & Barry, the SAG team, the water for cyclists providers.

Bear Glacier Hill Road

It is often said that we have weird place names in the UK (Cold Christmas?). As we have got further West there seems to be a generic template for road names. Montana has got this totally sewn up. To create your own you just need the following… 1. A status adjective. Examples include: Lost, Tall, Dead, Hidden, Blue or Montana favourite, Big. 2. A relevant noun. E.g. Horse, Pine, Fir, Lake, Creek, Church, Bear, Market. 3. Place or geographical feature: Mountain, Hill, Forest, Pass, Valley, Ranch, anything unused from the list in 2. So you end up with something like: Lost Horse Creek Road. This makes directions very confusing. Imagine you are tired from the headwinds (yes, we still have those), probably hungry and definitely a bit sweaty. Someone is explaining that you take Tall Pine Ranch Road up to Hidden Creek Hill Trail then take the left fork at Big Fork or was it maybe Big Arm, or Big Sky?

Cattle Mountain Road. Probably. Just like Montana should look.

Despite these navigational challenges we had a wonderful two weeks in Montana. Like so much of the USA it is very good at being exactly like Montana should be. Our first day’s ride was alongside a lake formed after an earthquake (naming guidelines: geological incident + geographical feature = Quake Lake). The sky was blue, the trees and mountains tall and the rivers populated with fly fisherman. We kept a close eye out for Robert Redford. For the first time in ages, the wind was helpful. When we turned north it blew us to Ennis, where we camped in the backyard of a whiskey distillery and had a picnic dinner outside the public library. Living the dream.

Before the earthquake, these trees used to be a forest alongside a river.

The next day we had some really good apple pie. Even better, it was at a cool old bakery in a gold rush ghost town. These two days of tourist attractions and information signs were really welcome after all the emptiness we had ridden through. Sadly the helpful weather didn’t last. Despite assurances (/lies) from west-to-east cyclists that they had loads of headwinds it wasn’t at our backs again and there was the odd thunderstorm to hide from. This gave us plenty of chance for ice cream sampling while sheltering outside supermarkets. Huckleberry became the new fave. Who knew it was even a real fruit.

Welcome to the Wild West. Gold rush towns Virginia City and Nevada City.

We rode over a load of really big windy hills (Tall Windy Hill Road) and questioned our sanity and life choices. It was hot and the air really drying. Much like Wyoming. If you are a cycling keen bean and would like to recreate this sensation in the comfort of your own home you could try this. Ride your turbo trainer really hard on a high resistance next to a radiator whilst a few friends point their hair dryers at your face, set to high. Alternatively you can use your imagination… Say you were a grown up and drank a lot of dry white wine, maybe whilst at university when life was less sensible, then fell asleep without drinking any water, and then when you woke up the next morning you put your head in a fan oven, that would feel like cycling uphill into the wind in the western USA.

Chief Jo taking a break from the hills. Our final divide crossing.

We took a rest day in tiny Wisdom, watched Wimbledon and the Euro Final, and wondered if you had to live in Wisdom before you could move to nearby Wise. For a whole day we sat on a sofa, or a chair, looked outside and the rain, and ate. It was amazing. A few days later we made it to Missoula, home of the Adventure Cycling Association. We were excited about this because long distance cyclists get an ice cream and their bikes weighed. Jo was especially looking forward to it as she was convinced that her bike was heavier. In actual fact it turned out that we are packing geniuses, Jo 94lb, mine 96lb. As we had just been to the supermarket and food goes on my bike we are probably about even most days. This weight didn’t include any water, so for the metrically minded the bikes and kit total at least 45kg each. As I mentioned, questioning sanity and life choices.

Clockwise from bottom left: 1. Bike weighing, a delicate operation. 2. Carrying the essentials in the bar bag. Actually a bar. 3. Our mugshot at the ACA. 4. We met a man from Rothley, Leics outside who took this one. It’s a small world in cycling.

It was a few days ride to Glacier National Park. On the way we took in the Smoke Jumpers Visitor Centre and had an excellent tour. These firefighters wear kit that weighs about the same as our bikes and parachute into forest fire areas. Very impressive indeed. The awesome staff also rescued Jo’s tea flask and posted it to us in Republic, Washington. Amazing. We treated ourselves to some new gear cables and bike chains in Polson. Rock and roll. The route went along Flathead Lake where there was great swimming and even better in-season cherries for sale by the side of the road.

Clockwise from bottom left: 1. Jo got some cookies as big as her face as a gift at the farmers market in Big Fork. 2&3. Real smoke jumper training jump prep. 4. Fake smoke jumper Jo. 5. Still hilly around here.

Lakes instead of showers continued in the National Park, but we didn’t mind because it was probably the best place we have been in the USA. Incredible scenery, waterfalls, wildlife, lakes. We decided to have a few ‘rest days.’ The big attraction for cyclists at Glacier is the ‘Going to the Sun’ Road. To get up to Logan Pass at about 2000m the scenic road is hacked out of the side of the mountains. As it was a rest day, we left the bags at the campground and took the shuttle bus to the top with our bikes. We rode down the East side, turned around, rode back up to the top and then down the West side to the camp ground, stopping to walk around a lake on the way. We found the perfect sports recovery drink – a Huckleberry beer (of course). You didn’t think it was an actual rest day?

The next day we went for a hilly walk (hike in American) to loads of waterfalls. It was beautiful. On the third day we were tired, so we decided to do 2 shorter walks and a shorter bike ride. On the first walk we saw a grizzly bear and cub in the absolute best situation. We were at a safe distance, there were loads of people around and we could have outrun at least 75% of them. It was amazing. The cub gambolled around whilst mum sedately crossed the person-boardwalk. Glacier rocked.

Montana had more great scenery for us before we left, but no more showers. We camped at Dickie Lake, hung out with some other cool teachers and swum in the lake for our wash. The next day was hot, windy and very pretty alongside Koocanusa Lake. There wasn’t much drinking water or shade and it was hard keeping cool. We had an essential dip in the afternoon to de-sweat. A kind Canadian family saw our heat induced fatigue and gave us some ice pops.

Montana’s parting shot was our first puncture (‘flat’) of the US. After 4000 miles we weren’t too upset.

Thanks to: The friendly Utah family in West Yellowstone, the vendors of the Big Fork Farmers’ Market, Tim & Carrie, Rachel & Kurt, AnnaMarie & Tom, Mike the mechanic, Suzanne & Pam for introducing us to Skipbo.

Welcome to “Colourful Colorado” 

If there was one state we were looking forward to the most, it was Colorado. And not just because it was a long slog across Kansas to get there. It was at the end of the yellow brick road for us. Filled with dreams of mountains and canyons we pedalled towards the border, where we were greeted with a sign that described Colorado as ‘colourful’. As we stood and ate a banana and looked beyond the sign, it seemed to be the same colour as Kansas. And just as flat. At our feet were empty bullet shells. Welcome to the Wild West!

And buffalo…

We had been told that Colorado doesn’t get interesting until you are halfway across, so weren’t expecting an instant change, but wow, this place is empty. The farm buildings we had been seeing in Kansas dried up, and the landscape was now barely dotted with ranches. Only the entrances were visible from the road, so all we could see was lots and lots of nothing. More nothing than I had ever seen. And despite the promises at the border, it was even less colourful than Kansas as the green and yellow fields were replaced with lots and lots of greeny brown. I’m not sure brown counts as a colour. At least the sky was blue.

The only thing of note when towns (a loose term here, more a collection of buildings) approached was how the huge old grain stores dominated the view. From a distance they look like castles or cathedrals, reminiscent of the approach to European cities. Then you get closer and they are just huge concrete structures. We took to measuring things by the side of the road, and passed an old train on a disused line that was over 3 miles long. Things are big out here to match the landscape.

Approaching the historic castle / grain store
The three mile long train

The first night in Colorado we camped in a town park, a little fearful of the storm clouds gathering overhead. Just as we were about to go to sleep the lightening started, and I have never seen anything like it before. The sky was lighting up in all directions, it was like watching a firework show. When the rain started and the thunder sounded closer we abandoned the tent to get under a shelter at the front of a disused building. British wimps. Eventually it looked like the storms had moved away so we ventured back to the tent only for the wind to pick up. The wimps then felt the need to go and check that there were no tornado warnings. There weren’t. Finally we got to sleep about midnight. Not ideal for our 5am start routine.

The morning after the night before. And thats only a third across on our crazy long route

After 100 miles of Colorado emptiness (that felt like 1000), mountains started to appear on the horizon. Finally! The road started to roll a bit. It was still another day before we reached a town of any size. Pueblo felt like a big city to us. There were fast food restaurants and everything. Unsurprising given the name, this was the place with the most Hispanic influence we have seen so far. Many Mexican restaurants, and public health signs in Spanish (drink less juice, more water – our Spanish is really coming on). It seemed like a pretty nice town to explore, and we arrived around 3pm, but we were so tired that the only thing we wanted to do with our spare few hours was sleep. So we did. Maybe next time, Pueblo.

Mountains! And a dirt road. Adventure begins here

Since we left St Louis we have been focussing on reaching Evergreen, a town just West of Denver and the home of two people we had never met before but were expecting us to pay a visit. As we got closer to this magical, mythical place where we could take a day off, the tiredness became overwhelming. The penultimate day took us to Colorado Springs, a town full of cyclists where no less than 5 people came up to us to ask if we had a place to stay that night (and a sixth offered to buy some margheritas). It pained us to turn down all offers. The friendliness of folk is quite overwhelming sometimes. It is also home to Garden of the Gods, a huge area of giant red rock formations that you can drive or ride a loop around. Despite almost falling asleep whilst having a late lunch in an air-conditioned taco place we wanted to pay the rocks a visit so reluctantly got back on the bikes and rode uphill for 6 miles into a strong wind to get there. Grey clouds loomed ahead and we hoped to get to the visitor centre before they decided to empty themselves. We made it with minutes to spare and sat undercover enjoying a tuna sandwich and the view of the rocks knowing there was no chance of us being able to ride around. But at least they looked nice, especially with the 14000ft Pikes Peak behind. During a break in the rain we pedalled madly back to town whilst lightening cracked all around us. The storms out here are crazy. And scary from a bike seat.

Garden of the Gods, through the rain

Day 15 of riding in a row was the most testing. I thought if I closed my eyes I could actually fall asleep while cycling. Luckily, riding with mountains all around was exciting enough to keep my eyes open. But it got us to Evergreen and our vacation destination with people we had never met before but in traditional American style treated us like long lost friends. Three days off in an amazing house up in the mountains was just what we needed. Even if we got up at 6am on the first of these to go white water rafting. This was incredible, rafting through a beautiful canyon with snowy mountains all around. The Arkansas river is pretty high right now so some of the rapids were a little sketchy and the 5 degrees Celsius water was refreshing to say the least. Colorado is beautiful. We also got driven through a stretch of the state that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise – including South Park (yes where the tv show is set).

Driving through South Park (cowboy hat on dashboard not optional)
Rafting in Browns canyon
Birthday eve breakfast for Debs in the mountains

From here things are going to get interesting. We are into bear territory. There is a huge mountain range to cross. The plan is to ride through Rocky Mountain National Park on the highest paved through road in the USA. I’m sure weeks of flat riding through Kansas (actually I don’t think we have ridden up a hill since Vermont) is perfect preparation for this….

Not scary at all…

Big thanks to Gillian in Ordway; Martha in Colorado Springs (and everyone else who offered help); and of course Sue and Lesli (and the Austin crew) for an amazing break at the high altitude mountain getaway.