Crystal, Palisades, Sun Top

This year hasn’t lead to many mountain biking trips. Not sure if it’s the continual exhaustion from commuting, or if there isn’t much new in terms of trails left for me to discover nearby. There is a bit in the far-off reaches of Washington that I’d like to ride, but those are probably better combined in a bikepacking trip. The real epics this year have been my winter fatbiking excursions. New territory. New mode of transportation. New vistas. And new gear. It was exciting. I am looking forward to winter, again.

Nevertheless, quite a good little ride is the Cascade Triple Crown. This year, 2 serious contenders joined me at the 8 am starting line. It was frigidly cold, so I put on my wind breaker for the first 20 minutes. It was fun riding up the familiar roads and getting to know one of my comrades on this trip. He was riding strong, but for some reason seemed to want to hang back with me. At some point, he passed me, then I passed him, and then didn’t see him again until half-ways up the Northway trail on Crystal Mountain.

Riding up Northways, I was soon alerted by a voice that I was a slow poke: “Coming up on your left” was my warning to get over. A trail runner was light-footed passing me at twice my speed. Earlier, I had seen a bunch of cars and runners just below the trailhead. There must have been some kind of running event.

The tricky sections along the single-track climb are pretty fun if you can get them without maxing out the heart rate. Some are just really rocky, some switchbacks are steep and tight, some step-ups are just rideable.   And sometimes, you just walk. It feels good to walk.


After a while, some views open up to the north: Sun Top is visible and a reminder that we are still to go there, today. In the meantime, we climb up this ridge.


Higher up, the wildflowers are popping. Just gorgeous. Later on in the day, not many more wildflowers were seen, as the remaining peaks are lower in altitude then Crystal Mountain. I knew this terrific switchback section was coming up and vaguely intending on staying ahead to take some nice pictures. But, one guy passed me and so I still got one of us riding this sweet section:


I had forgotten to bring my DeLorme InReach, and as I was riding up, I knew my only chance of sending ‘alive’ messages from my phone would be at the top of the mountains. Sure enough, full signal strength on Crystal to send a photo back home:


My two compadres / competitors were soon ahead as I fiddled with my phone, air in the rear tire, and food for a while. They were both riding pretty nice bikes, and must have been looking forward to the descent.


Somehow, I passed both at the top and one of them caught up with me was I was taking pictures and chatting with hikers. The cool thing on this ride is that you can see where you’re going next, or where you came from. Here’s Sun Top and Palisades behind me:


Sun Top is about 1/3 over from the left, and Palisades are straight ahead.

Mt. Rainier was looking splendid, as per usual – time to ride the singletrack down! But first, a bit of gravel road.



Chatted briefly with a gal from Arizona – who was hiking in 60 F temperature through this scenery.


Afterwards, it’s a lot of fun and techy singletrack down, then some fast dirt roads and a looong grind back up on Corral Pass Rd. I filled up with water at the bottom and carried about 3 liters with me, in addition to a yummy Diet Coke. About half-ways up as I was pushing steadily and slowly, a couple mountain bikers were gaining on me. Who were they? Very slowly, the couple reached me and we rode up semi-together for a while. However, I was not about to burn any matches on Corral Pass Rd., so we started to drift apart at 0.1 mph. Funny.

Higher up, I passed the No. 1 guy, who seemed to not have a very good time. I tried to be as cheerful as possible in wishing him well, and rode up. My legs were still ok, but after a bit of coasting on the Noble Knob single-track, they felt like lead. Luckily, not much pedaling is required, safe for a steep hike-a-bike section a bit later on.


I came across an older guy on a yellow 26″ Specialized hardtail, he looked a bit confused and inquired about the routes. A bit later on, I ran into a hiker who asked me if I’d seen an older mountain biker. When I said that I pointed him to the Corral Pass Rd. for the descent, the hiker seemed ok with that and turned around! Apparently, the bike dude had just crashed right in front of him.


After rounding the above Noble Knob, I stopped for some coffee. Half expecting to see one of my compadres fly by any second, I wasn’t totally relaxed as I wanted to have my camera at the ready. However, no one came by. I sent another text messages that I was still alive.


The next part is the rooty-annoying Palisades, at least on my hardtail it is a fairly serious torture. Luckily, there are these incredible views every now-and-then to pull me out of the tech-funk.


The start of this ride was at the little Ranger Creek airport strip.

This year, I was really looking forward to the stairs at the end. I had a plan: to not ride any of them. That plan worked out pretty well, as mounting and dismounting takes a lot of time and effort on the 20+ switchbacks. But, first, we need to go down a ladder – which was difficult as always.



Sturdy log, but unsteady feet with bicycle held at an awkward angle over the abyss.

Reaching the bottom, which is White River trail, I filled up with water and actually had a pretty good time on the root-filled route. Skookum came afterwards, and it didn’t seem nearly as fun as White River, today. Not sure what’s wrong with me.  One pretty big washout took a bit of trail down with it, but a rope had been strung to help the trail users along. Thanks, guys!


I noticed the sunlight getting a tad low through the trees here and there. Not too bad, I thought. The next climb is up Sun Top Rd., and I always have a really hard time on that one. This time was not that much different. After an early break, I thought I’d be able to ride up, but instead bonked hard. I told myself to just keep on pushing, eating and drinking – which helped eventually.

A few dim-witted people on ATVs and motorcycle were racing up – and then down within 30 minutes. Lots of dust and tire tracks were left behind. In the distance, someone was unloading their guns for the entire 2 hours it took me to ride up. Just what is wrong with people?

A Jeep passed, people were waving. Friendly people. Not everyone has gone mad in the world. The sun was starting to set and I had reached the top.


The caretaker at the lookout on SunTop was super friendly. We chatted for a while and I paid a visit to the brand-new outhouse. All was well, again.


Knowing that there are 1000′ of climbing on the SunTop descent left, I bid farewell after half an hour from the caretaker, and headed down the rocky trail from the lookout. Not feeling too spent was quite helpful in getting up the next section and then down, as was plenty of daylight. Farther down, Palisades was all lit-up by the sunset.


Back at the car, I saw that one person had come late and was gone already, one person quit and one guy was still out riding. Someone had left a bag of sliced oranges on my car, too. What a nice gesture? Should I be eating those? Kinda weird – no note.

A small airplane was taking off the Ranger Creek airport. I watched as it made about 3 circles after take-off to gain enough height to leave the valley.

I waited for about an hour, and then pulled out of the parking lot. But just then, a bike headlight shone brightly through the trees and I pulled back in. Yay, another person finished! We hang out for a little while and chatted about the day’s ride. Excellent.






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2 Responses to Crystal, Palisades, Sun Top

  1. Nice story, great country.

    “still alive” “fiddled” nice idioms which we use. Here’s my new favorite when you encounter the dim witted people. “knotheads”


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