Cycling on the North Cascades Highway
Welcome to the North Cascades Highway! Opened to the public in 1972, this was the last major road to be constructed across the Cascade Range in Washington. This scenic and adventurous trip offers a chance for cyclists to traverse one of the most remote and diverse mountain ranges remaining in the lower 48 states, and with total elevation gains exceeding 7,000 feet it can challenge even the fittest cyclists.
Plan ahead for significant elevation gains, changing road conditions, and remoteness. This webpage provides tips for an enjoyable and safe pedal along this beautiful route.
Falling Rocks and Rocks on Roadway
North Cascades Highway travels through amazing geologic scenery. Rocks commonly fall onto the road surface, especially along steep cliffs and road cuts. Use caution in areas where you encounter rocks on the road and don’t linger in areas with the potential for rock fall. Ride to the right of rock falls if possible to keep from going into traffic.
High Speed Traffic
Motor vehicles are generally permitted to travel at high speeds on the highway and speed limits reach 60 miles per hour. Shoulder widths vary from several feet wide to none, but on average road shoulders are widest east of the Ross Dam Trailhead. Ride defensively in areas with limited visibility. Stay alert and make yourself visible with head and tail lights, and bright clothing.
Two highway tunnels lie between the towns of Newhalem and Diablo. The longest tunnel, closest to Newhalem, is fitted with a "BIKES IN TUNNEL" flashing light that can be turned on at either end. On sunny days, high contrast between sun-lit areas and the inside of the tunnel can make it difficult for drivers to see cyclists. Before entering the tunnel, turn on your headlight and taillight to become as visible as possible to other traffic. Inside the tunnels watch for rocks that have dislodged from the tunnel walls.
If cycled from west to east from the town of Marblemount to Washington Pass (the highest point on the road at 5,477 feet above sea level), cyclists will ascend over 7000 cumulative feet in 57 miles. This description provides basic information about the road and points of interest from Marblemount to Washington Pass.
The highway closely follows the Skagit River from Marblemount to Newhalem and gains little elevation over 14 miles. To the west of the park, the highway has wide shoulders. Within the Skagit River gorge, however, shoulders are limited.
East of Newhalem, the road begins to climb in earnest. Before hydroelectric dams were constructed in the Skagit River gorge, traveling through this area was very challenging. Even though the grades in the vicinity of the reservoirs are some of the steepest on the route, cyclists can traverse the mountains far more easily and quickly than the Native Americans, explorers, pioneers, and prospectors who attempted to make a living here before the dams and highway.
East of the Ross Lake overlooks, the highway exits Ross Lake National Recreation area and enters Okanogan National Forest and climbs steadily to Rainy Pass (elevation 4,660 feet). Due to its relatively low elevation and location just east of the Cascade crest, the Ross Lake area is drier than the surrounding high peaks and lower elevations to the west. As the highway ascends, the forest transitions from one dominated by Douglas-fir to slightly wetter and more montane habitats dominated by mountain hemlock and Pacific silver fir.
After reaching Rainy Pass, the highway loses about 300 feet of elevation before it begins the final ascent to Washington Pass where alpine larch, a deciduous conifer tree endemic to the Pacific Northwest, dots the timberline with splashes of bright green needles in spring and golden yellow needles in fall.
Washington Pass (elevation 5,477) is the highest point on the highway. A short spur road at the pass leads to an overlook with fantastic views of the Early Winters Creek valley and surrounding mountains.
Mile posts in this list correspond to those on the North Cascades Highway.
Milepost (MP) 105.3: Ranger Station Road and North Cascades Wilderness Information Center (one mile from highway on Ranger Station Road).
Last updated: January 25, 2018