Three Volcanoes: Accidental Adventure Biking in WA
Two friends explore 150 miles of uncharted territory, with 12,000 feet of elevation gain, for fun
A few years back when I was still new to the whole bike thing, I noticed a few local riders in the Seattle area pop up on Strava doing something they called the Three Volcanoes Ride. I had no idea what it was, but the stats—about 150 miles distance and 12,000 feet of elevation gain— seemed well beyond anything that at that point I considered to be “fun.” Fast forward a few years and I found out that the route is actually based on a well known randonneuring route of the same name. And that my opinion about it had changed.
The name comes from its location in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington state, framed on three sides by, well, three volcanoes: the heavily glaciated Mt. Rainier (the tallest peak in Washington), Mt. Adams, and the remnants of Mt. St. Helens, which became known worldwide after its catastrophic eruption in 1980. After trying unsuccessfully to corral a crew for a few weeks, my friend Brandon and I decide it was on us to tackle the route alone. Now or never, as they say.
"Have you ever had hemorrhoids?”
"Well, it’s nice to meet a perfect asshole”
The old man extends his hand and I gladly oblige in a handshake. I’m sitting at a bar in a town called Ashford. It’s equal parts weathered locals and young mountaineering wannabes spending time practicing their craft on Rainier before heading off to Nepal or Argentina or wherever the pursuit to conquer the useless may take them. Over the course of the next 30 minutes and two beers he proceeds to tell me his life story growing up in the logging industry, his humble life, and his short stint as a touring musician with Merle Haggard.
Brandan finally arrives and I say my goodbyes, taking away perhaps the best cold opening line I have ever heard.
We head to the a friend’s cabin a few minutes away and I remember that the guy at the bottom of the driveway raises free roaming wolves. Mental note: don’t ride back to the house.
As is often the case on days like this the alarm rings when it’s still way too dark out. We get up, make coffee, consume a larger than normal breakfast, and then we’re off. It’s the middle of summer, but it’s still morning, and we are in the mountains, so arm warmers are in full force.
It does not take long before we encounter a sign that informs us that the road ahead is closed. We briefly discuss Plan B and Plan C and perhaps even a few options after that. Then we press on anyway. When we come upon the reason for the closure we find a crew starting work to rebuild a road… that’s not there.
We felt a little like explorers, only we were on paved road and in full kit.
A washout some time ago took a large chunk of the mountainside, and with it the road. The crew man hanging out by our end of the road does not seem at all plussed by our presence and informs that the road is washed out and we should be careful should we decide to proceed. We look past him and see a path around the side of the washout. We say we’ll take our chances and he tells us that he has no idea what lies beyond the washout. Feeling simultaneously curious and a tiny bit freaked out we walk our bikes around the nonexistent road.
When we start rolling on the other side it becomes quickly obvious by the amount of rocks, branches, whole trees and every other imaginable piece of debris that this road has not seen vehicles since at least the last winter. We felt a little like explorers, besides the fact that we were on paved road and in full kit.
The road keeps going up and we come to a few forks and start running into a few campers. We follow a route I built and loaded into my computer and take a turn off the paved road onto a narrow gravel driveway. A few hundred yards later the gravel turns to sand, the kind that grabs your entire wheel and does not allow you to get any forward momentum. “You sure this is the right way, man?” I don’t know… I’m just following the solid line in my computer.
The road slowly points steeper and steeper uphill and turns back into gravel interrupted by an occasional rock garden. At this point we both know that this was not a part of the original route. I mess around with the map and realize that we have been following a road parallel to the actual route we wanted to ride and we are now riding this steep forest road to rejoin the original route. It suddenly occurs to me what happened.
“Sorry man, when I stole this route from somebody’s Strava ride, I think I tried to edit it and it must have moved it”
“Yea, I need to stop making routes when I’m drunk”
The rock gardens end and we hit pavement that switches back to nice and lush gravel and we finally get a sweeping view of Mt. Adams in all its glacial glory. This is followed by a screaming descent into the town of Trout Lake and the most beautiful sight: a burger joint.
“How many miles left to go?”
“You don’t want to know”
We wrap up and continue. The second climb starts almost immediately. Whether fueled by beer of questionable origin or just finally coming alive, I feel great, but notice that Brandon is starting to sweat a bit. By the time we make it to the top of this climb we exchange hardly any words. We roll along and eventually he comes back to life just in time for us to realize that we hit the halfway mark. As if on cue we pass a sign.
ROAD CLOSED. 7 MILES AHEAD
We both see it, but we do not say a word. We just exchange a glance. The next few miles seem to last forever. As we descend I know both of us are imagining having to trace our ride all the way back the same way we came. Not the end of the world by any means, but it’s still the most terrifying prospect at the moment. We continue to descend until we hit it. Another massive washout. Another road that once used to be there but is no more. Thankfully, this one also has a convenient path around the side of it. We count our lucky stars.
We hit another food stop with just about 50 miles in the loop left to go and make a few more marginally stupid food choices. Word was this last climb was especially terrible, but we shrug it off and get right back at it.
When we hit the bottom of the ramp, I immediately feel I am about to pay for the nutritional choices of just a few minutes prior while Brandon seems to have found a second wind and steadily pedals away. Being left alone with my own thoughts, and way past cracking, I fish out my phone from my pocket, put on whatever playlist comes up first and continue to climb for what feels like somewhere between an hour and a week. The occasional glimpse of the St. Helens crater through the trees provides a respite and reminds me just how lucky I am to be able to ride this road on a random Monday in August.
As I hit the top, Brandon is already putting on his wind jacket for the final descent as the sun is getting low in the sky. In no time the conditions will become bipolar, with the sun still searing a sweat and the shadows bringing out a bone-deep chill.
Fifteen miles later we agree that the descent was one of the best that either of us had ever ridden and make loose plans to come back and ride this particular section at some point in the future. Though next time we’ll be sure not to ride it at a tail end of a 150 mile ride, at dusk.
We ride back into town and immediately seek out food, again. The only diner that’s still open seems like a perfect fit. As we await our food and take advantage of the wi-fi the waitress comes by and remarks on a couple of people running by the window. We hadn’t even noticed them up to that point, but she explains that this small town is a check point on an ultramarathon route during which people run over 200 miles on mountain trails and that the best ones do it in just about 72 hours with barely any breaks. She looks over at us and asks what we were doing there anyway. “Well, we rode our bikes for about 150 miles.”
“Cool,” she says and walks away. She is not impressed.