John's Gravel Tour: Bikepacking Seattle to Portland, Day Two

This is Day Two of our four day tour from Seattle to Portland via backwoods roads. Find posts from the rest of this adventure here.

It felt like the morning was apologizing when we woke up in Mount Rainier National Park to blue skies, fluffy clouds, and sunshine. After stomping into the woods the night before and tying hammocks to anything that wouldn't fall over, the beautiful day provided enough energy to help us pack up and get riding. From where we camped, I got my first glimpse of Mount Rainier- though its peak was hidden by clouds. A small problem, but one we would solve by spending the next few hours riding up to Paradise.

I'm a firm believer of leaving no one behind, so when the rest of the group rolled away while Mark was still in the bathroom I stayed back. It was early still. They were going up to the Longmire lodge for water, and as Mark and I were about to play catch up a ranger pulled over to have a chat about our illegal camping the night before. We were busted, and the ranger took our IDs to run them for warrants. But while that was going on they explained that they too had done their fair share of bike touring and understood what it's like to arrive somewhere in the cold dark. We were let off with a warning, and when asked if we had been the only ones camping I was quick to say at three others were up the road and they should absolutely put them through the same twenty minute delay we'd just experienced. It only seemed fair. Petty, sure, but fair.

Our group was reunited at Longmire briefly. The ranger had only stopped briefly to talk with them, apparently, and in that time Matt had decided he would head straight for the town of Packwood while the rest of us would test our quads for the twelve miles of steep switchbacks that separated us from the higher elevations of Mount Rainier.

Comfortable paces settled in, and our group slowly separated with a quarter-mile gap between John, myself, then Mark and Graham who were enjoying the views from the back. I was nervous, since I was making some route mistakes, that they'd turn onto roads for scenic overlook parking lots and Steven's Canyon, and I took part of the great tradition of leaving stick arrows behind me. The boys didn't even notice them it turns out, and we all made it up, rewarded ourselves with snacks and commemorative patches from the Paradise gift shop, then quickly put on layers for the most amazing descent back down the mountain, out of the park, and into Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Civilization returned with our reunion in the town of Packwood. Matt had busied himself for the past four hours of our Paradise detour with coffee and sweet, sweet wifi. The rest of us were quick to join and get our internet fix. But Packwood made for a great stop for lunch and beers at the local bar. Though it was noon, the bar was pretty busy and the spectacle of bike tourers started bringing more and more folks over our way.

More characters started to come out of the woodwork, inviting us to stay in town for the upcoming flea market or at least to share in sparking up a "doobie" before we headed back into the forest. It was a retro crowd, to say the least. The growing interest in us coupled with the sudden mass of dark clouds blowing in signified it was our time to leave, and we pedaled off in search of the solitude of gravel roads.

You could say we found what we were looking for. The roads leading back into Gifford Pinchot from Packwood were a profoundly challenging mix of fresh, large stone patches, washboards, and grades so steep it made us question why we decided to burn our legs out that morning on Rainier. People started taking breaks, either by completely stopping or walking their bikes for spells, but this riding was so challenging that my mind started to wander into discouraging thoughts. Thankfully, the impressive beauty of this National Forest kept me from spending too much time recalling every bad breakup or other moment of childhood humiliation that were starting to creep up. Nature has that cleansing way about it, and I'm thankful that these times when I push myself the furthest happen in such beautiful places.

But honestly despite the difficulty of this road we were making incredible time. Our first descent came only a couple hours into the nightmare climb, and during which we found an amazing campsite accompanied by the reassuring sound of running water. An old stone fireplace stood stoic amongst the pines and furs, with no sign of any building foundation to which it might have been once attached, but it made for a perfect spot to build a fire, cook dinner, and enjoy the dwindling light before we ended another amazing day of riding bikes.