Explore Washington's Off-Road Mountain Biking

The state’s national forests hold numerous trails open to recreational bikers.
Washington State Vacation
Washington State Vacation

With thousands of square miles of mountain and forest, canyon and desert, Washington state is laced with unpaved, unsmoothed off-road mountain biking trails that range from moderately challenging to expert.

Perhaps best-known of the Seattle-area trail systems is the Black Diamond Coal Mine trail network. Winding through both deciduous and conifer forests, the trail is a nice single-track with many ups and downs but no severe grades.

Rattlesnake Mountain, east of Seattle near Issaquah, holds miles of bike trails for those who like to go up—and up. On the east side of the Cascades, the Devils Gulch trail near Cashmere climbs up its namesake little canyon, winding in pinewoods near Mission Ridge ski area. For more information on hundreds of other trails in the state, as well as sponsored rides and classes, visit the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance.

For serious downhill riders, winter slopes turn into summer trail systems at Crystal Mountain and Stevens Pass. Special protective and braking equipment, on both bikes and riders, is required for this exhilarating and challenging sport.

At the far opposite end of the spectrum is road riding—setting out on paved highways for lengthier, higher-speed rides. Though serious enthusiasts use (and even travel with) high-tech, lightweight, high-geared bikes, mainstream travelers can rent road bikes at many locales throughout the state—and obtain advice on good local rides from the same source.

Best confined to back roads, Washington’s highway rides offer scenic circumstances, generally easy riding, and, in the right areas, very light traffic. Many roads in eastern Washington’s Palouse bear these virtues, especially in the Pullman area. The same is true of the Columbia Gorge, from Stevenson to the Tri-Cities area.

The most eagerly sought road rides, though, are those in the San Juan Islands, where quiet lanes loop through farms, fields and woods, affording vistas of Puget Sound and its surrounding mountains, not to mention the occasional glimpse of passing whales. San Juan and Orcas islands both offer good riding, but bicyclists’ favorite is probably Lopez Island. This lightly populated isle’s many country lanes hold scenic views at almost every turn, are generally level and are traveled by residents who treat their wheel-borne guests with courtesy and care.

Many travelers cycle all three islands, using ferries to cross between them and prearranging nightly stops at some of the Islands’ numerous small inns and B&Bs. It’s an experience unlike any other in the United States—sure to linger in the traveler’s sensory memory for years.

Perhaps the ultimate remote-road ride is that in the Stehekin Valley, at the west end of Lake Chelan, Washington’s beautiful, 55-mile-long freshwater fjord. The valley road is paved and fairly gentle, and makes its way from the lakeshore through pine forests, and past pioneer homesteads and a lovely guest ranch, with virtually no cars on the road. The valley can be reached only by ferry or floatplane, and thus has few residents who drive the road.

Part of the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, the valley and its 11-mile road offer both sublime riding and the chance to stop at a famous bakery whose cinnamon rolls are known for hundreds of miles. Wise riders arrange to pass the bakery twice—going up and coming back down.