Route Planning: It's as hard as it looks

I tend to be the kind of person who rides other people’s routes. Either I show up to a group ride or I find a verified route online. This is particularly true when it comes to off road riding - before venturing off to a new place to mountain bike, I tend to read trail guides or look at reviews online  So when I stepped up to plan the June route, I will admit to being nervous.

Not only was it the six of us team riders, but I knew we would also have two additional guest riders. In addition to the group, these were all of the other elements I felt I needed to balance in the new route:

  • mostly gravel/dirt
  • generally up on the way out, down on the way back (can be up and down)
  • no more than 1000 ft of elevation gain per 10 miles
  • think 4-6 hours of total ride time per day (mileage will vary with elevation and grades)
  • terrain can also greatly affect ride time, and maps don't really tell you much in terms of road quality
  • would like some more technical riding, but not too much
  • want the route itself to be beautiful and with something to look at, not just the destination
  • need water along the route
  • don't want the route to be too exposed, especially if hot
  • need a bail route, just in case
  • need multiple camping options, on water of some kind
  • at most, around 2 hours of drive time to the starting point, which needs to be a place to camp and leave cars overnight

I read (and suggest you do to) Donnie Kolb’s very thorough post on route planning, which gave me a number of helpful tips, especially regarding maps. In the end I think I used three different paper maps plus Ride with GPS. I found that one of the most useful features of the Ride with GPS app is the multiple maps option; trails and smaller roads don't show up on the standard Google maps and I would use the USGS topo scans to find interesting connections.

I spent a lot of time staring at maps. Photo by Krissy.

I spent a lot of time staring at maps. Photo by Krissy.

I knew I wanted the trip to be in one of my favorite locations: Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington State. I have road toured and mountain biked extensively in the area, but there is still so much there to explore.

Trying to plan a trip around Mt St Helens in two days is pretty much impossible; you cannot camp inside the monument and, as I discovered on a road bike tour a number of years ago, the terrain just outside the monument is very steep and not great for camping (at least off of the paved roads).

I pretty quickly settled on riding near Mount Adams. It doesn't see nearly the same amount of traffic as the other mountains in the area. I'm pretty sure everyone who goes up there regularly thinks of it as their secret spot (sorry guys, I'm sharing our secrets!).

There is an area on the mountain with a ton of high elevation lakes, so I circled that spot right away and knew I wanted to camp there. I found that trying to start from the south, around Trout Lake, WA, wouldn't really work without forcing the route to be an out-and-back. So I found some possible launching points coming from the north side near Randall, WA.  With those decisions made, I just started playing around, connecting roads and counting miles and elevation gain.

I re-mapped the route about 20 times - no exaggeration. Balancing all of my requirements using the available trails and roads made for challenging work, and the pressure of knowing I’d be leading seven people into an unexplored-by-me area made it a tad stressful. But I knew the area was amazing, and most of the team had never been there. I was excited to show it off.

One more map review the night before the trip. Photo by Jocey.

One more map review the night before the trip. Photo by Jocey.

Thankfully, I did my homework well, everything came together and the route was amazing. There were views at every turn, water was always nearby, we saw very little traffic, and I only went off course once. Read more about the trip here.

Post by Kristin Valentine.