Last passes, last gasp: North Cascades National Park near Newhalem, WA

Tuesday August 4, 2009, 79 miles (127 km) – Total so far: 4,296 miles (6,914 km)

We got an early start this morning, snacking in our motel to get out half an hour before their continental breakfast started.  An inauspicious start, as there was a brisk headwind at 6:30, but we rode the first 14 miles up the Methow valley to Mazama.  Nice shade from the eastern ridges kept us cool on this section, although it was probably in the mid-60s.  Virginia said of Mazama Store, “One of the few gas stations that carries Patagonia and Smartwool.”  They also had warm cinnamon rolls with currants and walnuts, although they had two fewer of those when we left!

Looking up the Methow valley towards Mazama early in the morning

Crossing the river, we started following Early Winters Creek. I’m not sure if you’d call this a valley or canyon.  Entering this hollow, I was reminded of Yosemite Valley’s entrance; Virginia thought it looked like the Tetons.  Either way, the valley sides were steep, and pretty much visible through the sparse trees.  It was a beautiful ride, with great scenery, but it was a long, hard climb, varying from 3-6% grade, with flatter stretches interspersed between the hard stuff.  I don’t think the temperature ever exceeded 75 degrees, but the combination of the climb and the sunshine got me hot and kept me hot.

Starting up Early Winters -- valley or canyon?

The Needles from halfway up

Within a few miles of the top of Washington Pass, I just bonked.  I ran out of energy.  You could see the road climbing the final stretch, but I couldn’t make it.  So I stopped and finished water bottle number 5, finished up a yuppie candy bar (aka balanced nutrition bar, aka energy bar), and ground my way up to the top.

The last climb. See the switchback on the road as it climbs up and to the right? It turns back into the mountain there and goes over the pass.

Maybe I should have cooled off in the snowbank. In August, no less!

From that last leg, the view back down the hill was breathtaking.

Looking back from near the top of Washington Pass

We stopped at a closed rest area (restrooms locked, water off) and ate the lunch we’d brought up.  Wood chips would have tasted fine, so real food was superb!

High atop Washington Pass looking east down Early Winters Creek

The Top! of Washington Pass

Enjoyed a steep, short drop, then had to climb after 3 miles to the top of Rainy Pass.  It was quite clear, not a cloud in the sky.  No water here, either!

All clear at Rainy Pass

Then came the payoff, at 20 mile downhill.  It’s been dry up here, so they’ve had fire problems, and the smoke obscured the view for the camera.  We could see fairly well — I guess the smoke wasn’t as bad as the usual clouds would be.  It was bad enough to leave me coughing in spots, but it cleared so we could see Crater Peak.  Nice creek down below, but Seattle didn’t put in fish ladders back when they dammed the Skagit River, so there’s no salmon or steelhead migrating up here.

Crater Peak

Granite Creek below the road

After 20 miles, there was a series of mountain rollers — climb over a ridge, drop down.  The biggest drops, naturally, were below the three dams.  Not much of a view of Ross Lake, but Diablo Lake was an unnatural shade of green; it looked like a concentrated cupric chloride solution.  We didn’t see much of Gorge Lake beyond the bridge at the head of the lake, which was pretty sketchy with the headwind blowing us all over the place.  I was very glad the driver behind me was far enough back to let me get across, then I was happy to move over and let him by.  The next ridges had a couple of tunnels to get through, which we survived without incident.

Diablo Dam and Lake

Tunnel above Gorge Lake

We finally made it down to Newhalem.  This was where Seattle put their first powerhouse, from Gorge Dam, so they apparently built a town around the work zone and powerhouse.  Now there’s a visitor center, with a store.  Drinks and snacks were the order of business, then we went down to the nearby campground in North Cascades National Park.  Virginia’s been carrying emergency rations all across the country, so we supplemented the freeze-dried food with some extra chili and dessert.  It tasted the best I’ve ever tasted in freeze-dried.

Just a quick note, there’s this stuff we’ve seen since at least Montana hanging off the trees.  It looks like Spanish Moss, but this is the wrong end of the country, isn’t it?

Stuff looks like Spanish Moss

We could have stopped about 10 miles shorter, at another campground at Colonial Creek, but we’re under 100 miles to go, and this sets us up to finish a bit easier on Thursday.  Still, the combination of sun, wind, and climbs was tough.
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