Paul Khermouch

How to Ride the Washington Parks Route [VIDEO]

Showcasing the diversity of Washington’s landscapes, the Washington Parks route not only traverses three national parks but also highlights the fertile orchards of the central Columbia Valley and island hops along Puget Sound. This paved route has two loops: Washington Parks I that circumnavigates Olympic National Park on the Olympic Peninsula, and Washington Parks II, crossing the Cascades twice and meandering through Mount Rainier National Park and North Cascades National Park.

Friends Mary McGowan and Laura Matacia rode the Washington Parks II loop self-supported in June, taking photos and notes along the way to help other adventurers ride this route with ease. Watch their video presentation about the bicycle route — including their favorite highlights, gear, bakeries, and more — and scroll down for a summary of their trip advice. 

A Route Rundown

While the beginning and endpoints of this 552-mile route are Sedro-Woolley and Elma, Washington, the central location of Seattle, its ferries, and bike paths allow great flexibility in planning. Mary and Laura started and ended their trip in Seattle, riding around 700 miles in 10 days with an average of 70 miles a day. The variety of landscapes, small towns, fresh fruit, and epic views made the route an instant favorite. 

A map of the Washington Parks II Route, starting in Elma and ending in Sedro-Woolley, Washington.
The Washington Parks II Route
Adventure Cycling

Mary and Laura’s Route Stats

  • 700 miles
  • 26,000+ feet of elevation gain
  • 10 days
  • 2 national parks
  • 4 Washington State Parks
  • 6 bakeries
  • 8 nights of camping
  • 2 nights in hotels
  • 1 winery
  • 3 river baths
  • 2 ferry rides
  • 4 mountain passes
  • 1 canyon
  • 3 fresh fruit stops
  • 3 islands
  • 1 hike

Day 1

Mary and Laura flew into the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with their bikes to avoid the hassle and worry of shipping them. While the Seattle Airport has a bike tool stand in the baggage claim area, the tire pump didn’t work for Laura and Mary. After assembling their bikes and checking with airport staff, they left their bike boxes near a trash can and rode away from the airport to start their tour. 

With an afternoon airport arrival, Laura and Mary’s first day was short. They rode south and camped at Saltwater State Park campground for $25 with a beautiful view of the ocean.

If you haven’t packed up your bike before, Mary recommends having an IceToolz Allen wrench set on hand — it has all of the sizes you’ll need to reassemble your bicycle. 

Day 2

Taking advantage of the good weather, Laura and Mary rode 115 miles on Day Two. They stopped in Sumner, a cute small town, and met up with the Washington Parks II route in Elbe. From there they began the climb and descent through Mount Rainier National Park. The road grade was reasonable, and big rivers and beautiful waterfalls were their constant views. They camped at Ohanapecosh campground, not far from national forest land if you’re looking for other options.

Mary points at Mount Rainier riding the Washington Parks II route
A clear view of Mount Rainier.
Laura Matacia

Day 3 

After a wet and chilly 40-mile ride over Chinook Pass, Laura and Mary happened upon the Whistlin’ Jack Restaurant and Lodge. After discovering the Lodge had French fries and a hot tub, the friends decided to call it a day and booked a room for $60.

Day 4 

Laura and Mary descended out of the Cascades onto the eastern slope with rolling hills, orchards, and farmland. Cherry trees were in perfect bloom in June. Yakima Canyon was a treat, as were the small towns dotting the route. Ellensburg Canyon Winery is on the route and serves sweeter wines like riesling. Ellensburg brought Mary and Laura beers, burritos, and a tune-up at the local bike shop. They camped at the edge of town at the Ellensburg KOA after riding 65 miles for the day.  

Day 5

Brutal wind! Attempting to head north in June along this section of the route was as windy as the locals told Laura and Mary it would be. After struggling with the wind, the friends found a reprieve on Blewett Pass — a must-see part of the route. This old, scenic road winds over the pass providing spectacular views and little traffic since most drivers choose the bypass. Then the route took them along the Columbia River, which had more traffic but a big shoulder. While Mary and Laura didn’t make the side trip into Leavenworth, a Bavarian-styled village in the Cascade Mountains, they did stop in Winthrop, which felt to them like a Wild West movie set with a great local brewery. Mary and Laura stopped for the night at the Early Winters Campground just north of Winthrop, a first-come, first-served Forest Service campground. It was full, but a nice couple shared their spot.

Day 6

After climbing their last big mountain pass of the route, Washington Pass in North Cascades National Park, Laura and Mary celebrated with a hike to Rainey Lake at the top of the pass. It’s good to note that in June all mountain passes had a good amount of snow on the ground, although not on the roads. The descent down Washington Pass was long and exhausting but beautiful. Once the route flattened out, Mary and Laura followed an alternate route on the Washington Parks II map, a gravel section between Concrete and Sedro-Woolley, Washington, without cars but not lacking in scenery. They stayed at Hotel Planter in La Conner, a small historic inn that provided a locked area for their bikes and a room for around $100.

Mary and Laura cycle the Washington Parks 2 Route
The mountain views just kept coming.
Courtesy of Mary McGowan

Day 7

Mary and Laura began the island hopping portion of the trip, starting with Fidalgo Island. This island has a long boardwalk that made for excellent cycling and bird watching and leads to the ferry dock. Mary and Laura found the ferries easy to navigate, cheap, and bike-friendly. Port Townsend was a lovely stop for ice cream and lunch. They camped on a private property they found on HipCamp.com, just south of Port Townsend. 

Day 8

The friends left the Washington Parks route to make their way back to Seattle. Along the way, they enjoyed a stop in Poulsbo, a small town nicknamed “Little Norway.” After riding across Bainbridge Island, they took the ferry back to Seattle. Riding around the city, Mary and Laura went to Gas Works Park, Mercer Island, and the Troll Bridge. They were surprised by the city’s nice bike lanes. They stayed at the Green Turtle hostel downtown for about $30 per person.

Day 9

Laura and Mary went to Back Alley Bike Repair for bike boxes and to pack up bikes. They then carried their bikes a quarter mile and took the light rail to the airport. Mary recommends that you call ahead to a local bike shop to make sure they save a bike box for you.

Cycling into Mount Rainier National Park
Avoid national park crowds by riding in the morning or evening.
Laura Matacia

Nuts & Bolts

Navigating the Route

Mary and Laura used both the Adventure Cycling paper map of the Washington Parks II Route as well as the route on Adventure Cycling’s Bicycle Route Navigator app. Both navigation methods came in handy. Laura brought a Garmin for additional navigation support, but the Adventure Cycling maps and Strava maps for island hopping proved sufficient. To learn more about the route, including a descriptive overview, terrain, logistics, and resources, visit the route page.

Packing

Mary found that the variety of ecosystems and landscapes along this route made packing clothes a little tricky. She recommends packing more warm layers for the mountain pass descents and cool layers for the hot, drier valleys on the eastern side of the Cascades.

Because towns were prevalent along the route, the friends carried only one or two days of food with them at a time, stopping often at bakeries and for lunch. Most of their camp food consisted of tortellini and homemade oatmeal with nuts and fruit.

Timing and Direction

Mary and Laura had a window of great weather in June, but expect rain throughout the year in the Pacific Northwest. June through August are the busiest times for tourism in Washington, especially in its national parks. Mary suggests riding through national parks either early or late in the day to avoid the heaviest traffic and get the best views. 

Mary and Laura rode this loop in a counterclockwise direction but considered how June winds might make a clockwise direction a touch easier.

Setup and Gear

You can do this paved route with whatever bike and gear setup you have. Mary and Laura used a minimalist bikepacking setup.

Mary's minimalist bikepacking set up
Mary cycled the route with a minimalist bikepacking setup. 
Mary McGowan

Mary’s favorite pieces of gear were her JetBoil and her MODL water bottle, which has a filter. All their campgrounds had water and they never ran out, but Mary did end up using the filter a few times.

Both Mary and Laura used Ortlieb seatbags, and Mary loved her Salsa Anything Cradle, which carries gear on her handlebar.

Both Mary and Laura carried one-person backpacking tents.

Guided Tours

Adventure Cycling occasionally offers a guided tour of this route with a small group and a support van. Check out current tours in the Pacific Coast area.
 

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