It’s nice when we can reach our favorite trailheads via nice paved roads—or at least wide, well-graded and regularly maintained gravel roads. But unfortunately that’s not usually the case—and we are often faced with the dilemma of having to drive a harrowing road to get to the trail. While some of us drive pickups and SUVs and love the challenge of a steep, twisting road with some exposure—many of us drive sedans and are terrified driving Queen Anne Hill or the Terwilliger Curves –never mind some narrow mountain byway.
With that said—here are three of my picks for Washington’s most harrowing white-knuckle drives to trails that you definitely want to hike.
Harts Pass Road
Originally built to access mines and the booming mining towns of Chancellor and Barron—this North Cascades road leads to some amazing high country hikes. The road itself is full of views and has the distinction of being the highest public road in Washington going all the way to 7400 foot Slate Peak—although you’ll need to walk the last .25 mile on the road. What makes this 12 mile road that climbs nearly 5000 vertical feet so nerve wracking is the steep cliff hugging no guardrail stretch known as Deadhorse Point. The road was built for narrow gauge trucks, not wide sedans and rigs. Meet another vehicle on this stretch and one of you will have to do some backing up making sure not to get too close to the edge—or you’ll be meeting that unfortunate horse.
Obstruction Point Road
Most drivers are perfectly content driving the twisty but well maintained and paved 17.5 mile road to Hurricane Ridge. But if you want to get to two of the finest hikes in the Olympic National Park; Grand Pass and Grand Valley—you’ll have to negotiate this 7.7 mile gravel ridge hugging road to 6400-foot Obstruction Point. The worst part is probably the first half mile—actually the first few feet as you’ll need to make a sharp turn and not be tempted to look right to the drop all the way to the Elwha Valley. You’ll drive down and up and down again on this roller-coaster route traversing meadows and rounding knolls and trying not to meet a deer in your grill–and trying not to be distracted at all the incredible alpine beauty spread out in front of you before you even get to the trailhead.
Sullivan Mountain Lookout Road
Truly one of the most god-awful roads I have ever had the pleasure of taking a rental car up! With my fellow intrepid guidebook author friend Aaron Theisen we crawled up this 7 mile road which gains more than 3000 feet and taking us 1 hour and 30 minutes. Never driving faster than 10 mph, most of the way I was hopping out of the passenger side to roll rocks off the embankment and direct Aaron through tight and sloped cliff side stretches. We made a game of can we clear that rock and contemplated that if we blew a tire or worse–it was going to be a long hike out after doing a long hike on the incredibly scenic Crowell Ridge—one of the most spectacular hikes east of the Cascades.
How about you? What are your three top White-knuckle trailhead drives in Washington?
For Detailed information on the great hikes that emanate from these nerve-wracking roads, consult Day Hiking North Cascades for Harts Pass, Day Hiking Olympic Peninsula for Obstruction Point and Day Hiking Eastern Washington for Sullivan Lookout.