Epic Rides: 100 miles of pain and beauty to Washington's Mount Baker

Mount Shuksan

My alarm rang at 4 a.m. I hauled myself out of bed, cracked a half-dozen eggs, and made myself the biggest breakfast my stomach could handle.

I'd need the energy.

Our plan was to ride from my current location in the sleepy seaside town of Bellingham, Washington, to the top of Highway 542, near Mount Baker in the heart of the Cascade Mountains, and back. We had 100+ miles and 7,000+ feet of elevation gain to contend with. It was going to be a long day.

I grabbed a bunch of lunch food, then thought twice and doubled it. Every extra calorie would come in handy. I grabbed a light wind jacket, some sunscreen, my cycling shoes, and everything else I'd need for day of riding. I threw all my gear into my panniers, then walked outside into the coolness of an August morning in Washington state.

My front light wobbled down the road as I took off, riding the first few miles to the rendezvous point on the north side of town. I was the first one there -- not surprising to me since I'm habitually on time and it was still shy of 5:30 in the morning.

The others trickled in one by one or in small groups, and before too long all eight of us we're ready for a ride. We didn't look like professionals, with expensive racing bikes and slick uniforms. We looked like what we were: a bunch of college students unused to the rigors of a pre-dawn start, astride a motley collection of bikes. There was a smattering of touring bikes like my own, a few old-school steel framed racing bikes from the 70s, one or two newer aluminum framed road bikes, and even one old beat-up hardtail mountain bike. My first thought when I saw that one was, "That guy is going to be hurting later today."

We got on the road and the first miles passed while we were still in our dream state. The cool wind woke us up pretty quickly, however, as did the beautiful sunrise over the Cascade Range spread out in front of us. Our first 10 miles took us through mixed forest and rural properties of 10 or more acres, with the occasional car heading to work early.

By the time the
computer ticked over to 25 miles, the sun was over the horizon and we started to climb upwards gradually. The incline was very moderate, but that wouldn't last for long. We kept a brisk pace to keep things moving.

Our first stop was in a small little town called Maple Falls -- not much more than a gas station, a few houses, and a nice park to be found down a turnoff. But the attraction for us was something different: a little bakery on the side of the road that makes its living feeding hungry skiers and hikers on their way to the world-famous Mount Baker ski area, which held for many years the world record for the most snowfall in one season (it's since been passed up by a station on Mount Rainier, 100 miles to the south).

We loaded up on pastries and ham sandwiches and continued riding. Now the road got really beautiful. The forest closed in on both sides of us and we began to climb a bit more steeply. The Nooksack River made occasional appearances off to our right, glinting blue-green in the morning sun.

A few more miles down the road, and we came to the last habitation we would encounter until we turned around and came back down -- a little town called Glacier. Inhabited primarily by skiers and snowboarders who want to minimize their travel time to the slopes, it didn't hold much for us this morning; we passed it by.

A mile past town, we crossed a bridge and began to climb steeply. This would be the first real test of our legs. The grade was steep -- eight percent -- for about two miles, and our granny gears got some extensive usage. Dense forest and beautiful maple trees helped distract us from the burning in our legs.

We were rewarded for our efforts when we reached the top of that rise and were greeted with a 5-mile flat through beautiful old-growth forest. Towering cedar trees 10-feet thick reared towards the sky on both sides of the road.

But the true test of our legs was just around the corner.

Mount Baker from Artist Point

Across another bridge, and then it started. We all knew it was coming, having driven the road many times before. But that didn't make it any easier to contemplate cycling up. The final push is just over 10 miles and just over 3,000 feet of elevation gain. Our legs burned as cars passed us on the way up, and we stopped for lunch with only four or five miles to go.

The final section of the ride was spectacular. Mount Shuksan, a 9,000-foot glaciated peak adjacent to Mount Baker, loomed to our left. And as we crested the top of the rise at Artist Point, the main attraction became visible: Mount Baker, a heavily glaciated volcano that stands nearly 11,000 feet tall. We were at 5,000 feet, and the mound towered over us.

We took our time resting, eating, and enjoying the view, then prepared for the descent. While much less physically demanding than the climb, the dissent proved to be a challenge, as well. The steep initial dissent pushed us to more than 40 miles an hour, and the tables were turned as we had to pass cars moving slowly around hairpin turns.

That evening, we were back in town, exhausted but thrilled knowing that we had shared an incredible experience. Riding 100 miles in a day is a challenge, especially when you throw in 7,000 feet of elevation gain, but the rewards -- in terms of self-respect, exercise, and appreciation for the beauty of the natural world -- make it well worth it.