|Technical Skill Level:||Beginner|
|Distance:||19 miles, out & back|
|Elevation Gain:||2,000 ft, approx.|
|Pass Required?||National Park Pass|
|Riding Season:||July - Early-October|
Beginning mountain bikers, intermediate riders wanting a non-technical outing and families looking for a nice ride with the kids should all check out the West Side Road. Located just a few miles inside the Nisqually Entrance to the park, this gravel road closes to motor vehicles after three miles leaving the remaining 9 miles to Klapatche Point open for mountain bikers. The first 5 miles is especially good for families with smaller children. To bike the complete out and back ride to Klapatche Point will take the average rider about 4-5 hours.
There was a plan once for a highway that would encircle the mountain, a road through the high alpine wilderness, a dream of twentieth-century engineering that never quite materialized. Budgets, priorities and simple topography combined forces to kill the idea, but parts of the vision were actually completed, and one of the key portions is this spur road from the Nisqually River to the Puyallup River.
It doesn't take too long after leaving the parking area for the feeling of wilderness to take hold. The road follows Fish Creek at first, before a major washout and a log crossing, then climbs along a little copper-colored stream, another tributary of nearby Tahoma Creek. Over time, volcanic flows of water and rubble have scoured the surrounding area and the ghost forests in the flood path provide ample evidence of the power of the mountain.
The road is in relatively good shape throughout; it was open to automobiles for at least some of the way as late as 1993, and it is still used by park personnel from time to time. Closure came after multiple slides and washouts raised concerns about visitors being stranded in the aftermath of future geologic reorganization. For bicycles, however, it's a perfect path. Wide and easy, with a gentle slope, it's ideal for novice riders and families alike.
About two miles in, the road switches back abruptly at the old Tahoma Vista. It's a roadside turnout, a relic of the automobile age, where there was plenty of room for vehicles carrying park visitors years ago. Exquisite rock walls frame the area, but the expansive views that once defined the old lookout are gone now, lost behind the fast growing alder and fir.
Beyond Tahoma Vista, the road climbs along the base of Emerald Ridge toward Lake George. A bit of a steeper section, and you're at Round Pass, just like that. There are some excellent prairie views and crestline riding from there, up toward Klapatche Ridge, and snow can be a factor, even late into the season. Of course, the beauty of an out-and-back trip is that you can turn around anywhere.
Numerous trails branch off from the old roadway. Lake George, Denman Falls and Aurora Lake are among the variety of alternate destinations that are within easy reach of the West Side Road. Bicycles are not permitted on the trails, but it can make for a nice change of pace to stash the wheels and use the foot muscles once in a while.
It's a little over 9 miles from the car to Klapatche Point and the return, the trip back down to the car, is a beautiful lesson in the power of gravity. Although the climb may have seemed gradual, the descent has the potential to be a rocket ride. Since the roadway offers such wide clearances and a wonderfully consistent surface, speed is easy to come by. It's the reward for work well done, I suppose, although a day spent out here - uphill or downhill - is reward enough.
TO FIND THE WEST SIDE ROAD: Enter Mount Rainier National Park via the Nisqually Entrance near Ashford and drive about a mile in on the Longmire/Paradise road. You will then see another road coming in from your left, just as the main road turns to the right, toward the river. This is the West Side Road.
- Ken Campbell