Recommended Routes: Hoh Rainforest Route
The world of gravel cycling is exploding. More and more people are venturing beyond the tarmac in search of quieter, safer roads, exploring the world around them in the process. But if you’ve never ridden gravel before, it can be hard to find the perfect trails and roads to explore this burgeoning discipline of the sport.
Enter our Recommended Routes series. In partnership with Continental, we’ve pulled together a bunch of the best gravel cycling routes around the USA. Stay posted for future episodes in the weeks and months to come. And head to Trailforks to see the routes themselves.
Words by Emily Alexander and Rachel Wills | Photos by Ben Groenhout
The weekend we choose to ride through the rainforest, it doesn’t rain.
It’s the first weekend of May, which means the only predictable thing about the weather is its unpredictability. In the days leading up to this weekend the forecast has changed almost hourly. Even on the drive out, there is a quintessentially Pacific Northwest moody mist that hangs in the air almost the entire way to Kalaloch, where bluebird skies await.
We snag a campsite at Hoh-Oxbow Campground, 20 minutes south of Twilight-famous Forks, Washington. Rachel and Ben have taken the more direct route, via a ferry and US-101 West, while I decided on the scenic route and drove along I-5 South to US-101 North. Either way, it took us about four hours to get here. We arrive with fully loaded cars of supplies, kit, and gear. By no means do we intend, or need, to be completely self-supported, but even with Forks up the road we are very isolated out here.
Forks is a struggling former lumber town that received a breath of new life from cashing in on the influx in tourism thanks to the Twilight books and movies. With its population of roughy 3,800 people, it boasts an assortment of greasy spoon cafes, burger and barbeque shacks, local bars that serve food, and bare necessities in the form of a single grocery store that’s connected to the single hardware store, a couple of gas stations and motels, and a Tesla charging station that looks like an alien installation.
In this part of the state, unless you’re asleep in the passenger seat on the drive out, you can’t miss why Washington state is the second-largest lumber producer in the US. There’s a near-constant stream of lumber trucks hauling daisy-chained trailers fully loaded with logs rumbling along the 101 and passing “managed” forests. There’s the jarring sight of a stand of trees over 40 feet tall next to a swath of clear-cut, followed by a re-planted stand that already appears to be ripe for a harvest. It gives the hillsides the feel of having received a bad, patchy buzzcut.
None of us have done much exploring of the gravel offerings this far west on the Olympic Peninsula. Rachel has the most experience having completed the Gravel Circumnavigation of the Olympic Range (GCOR) gravel route last summer. But with the carrot of a gravel event, Peninsula Adventure Sport’s Hoh-ly Roller, we decide to make a weekend of it.
We are planning to take part in the Gran Fondo on Saturday, and then a route Rachel has pieced together on Sunday. Combining some of the GCOR route with a few adventurous off chutes to trails that might offer some views of the Pacific and a stop at Rialto Beach.
The forests in this area of the state are a mix of public, state, and federally owned, and private property. On Saturday, we ride on publicly owned land. No worries of needing a permit to be there, no gates to hop or skirt under. We only occasionally happen upon very active logging sites that are blissfully dormant for the day. We can’t help but feel a little conflicted at the amazing views offered by the clear-cuts, while wondering at the reasoning behind trying to “manage” nature.
With most of the gravel roads out here being originally built to allow access for logging, they follow the flow of the hillsides. A near constant undulation of ups and downs. Steady, gravel-packed grinds that occasionally meet a very steep rocky kick in the teeth that have us walking almost as fast as we could pedal. Then there are the rocky, loose, and rowdy descents that might or might not be a reward worthy of the climb just completed.
We never make it above 2,600 feet (790 metres) of elevation and, somehow, we climb almost 10,000 vertical feet (3,050 m) over a 66-mile (106 km) course. We know it’s the endorphins talking, but the post-ride beers and brats might be the best we’ve ever had.
On Sunday, after letting the morning light and birds of the forest wake us, we savor some camp coffee and debate whether we think the weather will hold for the day before rolling out from the campground. Descending Oil City Road we fly through tunnels of dense, delightfully mossy forest. The pavement has been broken up by packed gravel sections where washouts have occurred. Turning up into the forest we meet our first gate of the day. Today we’re riding on land managed by Rayonier, which – outside of the main gravel road that transects the property – requires a permit for accessing the side roads and trails.
“Something has been using this trail… at least sort of regularly,” I insist, as I start plunging into the undergrowth, bushwhacking. The double-track gravel has come to an odd, not-quite-dead end, with a vague impression of a trail leading into some very tall grass and bushes. We ride until the undergrowth forces us to start walking. I’m not sure why I’m so insistent we continue. I didn’t plan this route. I have no idea what’s at the other end of this – none of us do.
We haven’t made it 10 miles yet, but I can feel that the trail we’re following – to use a climbing term – goes. That we can make it connect. If not where we want to be, someplace we’d like to be. “I kind of wish I’d brought my hatchet,” I hear Ben murmur.
With a triumphant cheer, we emerge from the underbrush and reconnect with our desired gravel road, check our shifting, and get back to riding. Eventually we happen on another part of the route that would send us into another vague foot trail, and after a few minutes of consulting TrailForks, find a workaround that will still take us to one of Rachel’s favorite remembered parts of the GCOR route, a massive bridge that crosses the Bogachiel River before we connect with the pavement of La Push Road.
We make a snack stop at the Three River Resort Convenience Store, just on the La Push side of the “Treaty Line” between the vampires and werewolves of Twilight lore. Loading up on the childhood dream lunch of potato chips, candy, and sodas, we pack up our bounty and head down to Rialto Beach.
Almost a mile away, the saltwater air hits us and we seem to all sigh together. Coming around a bend we are greeted by the sight of the Quileute Tribe’s A-Ka-Lat rising high out of the ocean, and the waves rolling. If we didn’t need to ride back to the campsite, we could stay here for hours. Lounging in the sunshine, listening to the waves, and letting the saltwater air flow over and around us.
We take a lush, loamy escape route on the way back to the main gravel road that will return us to Oil City and the campsite. The steep ascent – it is a tsunami evacuation route after all – from La Push Road is tempered by the almost magic-carpet-like vibe of the road. It’s rugged but maintained. Electric green stripes of grass running along the sides and in between the tire tracks blend into the tunnel of trees draped with hanging moss.
As we make it back to the main gravel road, the dry brown dirt, and the almost Magic-Eye effect of the uniformity of the trees is a shock to my eyes.
On the flat grind back to Oil City Rachel begins to slowly ramp up the pace, and the bike racer in me can’t help but egg her on. It has warmed up enough to shed our layers. We welcome the sunshine on our pale PNW winter skin with open, and bare, arms. “I think we killed Ben!” I yell, after noticing he is no longer on either of our wheels.
Coming to the end of the gravel road, and the conclusion of this weekend’s adventure, we stop, soaking in the views of the snow-capped Olympic mountains in the distance and the river below as we wait for our faithful photographer and adventure partner.
For how this weekend started, with surprisingly near-perfect conditions, it only improved with added adventure. It’s all familiar, and yet so new. No flats, no mechanicals, no crashes, no rain. In their place; laughs, shouts, and awestruck sighs.
None of us quite knew what we were doing when we agreed to this weekend, other than going to ride in a place that feels so naturally magical – a rainforest in the mountains. And what better place to remember that even when you know exactly where you’re going, the adventure comes from embracing all the things that happen in between.
What you need to know
Hoh Rainforest is the wettest forest in the contiguous United States, receiving over 150 inches (3,810 mm) of rain per year. With that said, midsummer is the best time to visit the Hoh if you’re looking for the best chance at a sunny day with views from all the ridgelines climbed. July through September are the warmest and driest months of the year, but it is a rainforest after all. Temperatures range between 40-70 ºF (4-21 ºC) and are elevation dependent, and cloud cover is almost a given. We’d recommend bringing all your gear and all your gears. Even with the best forecast, you’ll want to have enough gear and grit to beat the elements before they beat you.
The flora and fauna species in the Hoh are bountiful. Underneath the moss and lichens rise the western hemlock and sitka spruce trees. Many creatures big and small call this place home including the threatened banana slug, racoons, bobcats, tree frogs, and Roosevelt elk. During my GCOR experience, I was stopped by a large herd of elk galloping across the road I was traversing. I’ll never forget the feeling of the ground trembling below my feet; a trespasser on their land.
Bike shops and repairs
Ensure your bike is in good working order or that you’re fairly self-sufficient as this is a remote area. The closest shop is Sound Bikes & Kayak, two hours away in Port Angeles. Check out Swain’s general store for any other gear needs.
Grab your easiest gear ratios and widest tubeless tires (38c+). Although the gravel forest service roads are in great condition with washboard-less two-track for most of the ride, there are a few extremely steep (20%+) climbs and technical descents on the Hoh-ly Roller Course that have very loose river rock and water bars. Proceed with caution. A Garmin inReach or Spot tracker is highly advised in case of emergency, as there is little cell service on route.
Local cycling clubs
Rural riding in a remote area is what makes this place so special, and the lack of other cyclists or recreationalists is evident. However, The Olympic Peninsula Bicycle Alliance is a great resource. It is a non-profit cycling club with the mission to make the OP better, safer, and more accessible for all cyclists.
Campfire cooking at one of the many free state campsites is the way to go. However, if you find yourself in calory deficit, head out for a short drive to Forks, WA. The In Place is a great greasy spoon diner, head to Sully’s for a delicious juicy burger, onion rings and ice cream, or over to D&K BBQ for takeout.
BYOB from your favorite PNW brewery and coffee roaster, or head to the Westend Taproom Tip & Sip in Forks, or one of the many small town coffee stands. Electric Cloud Coffee located in the Swain’s parking lot in Port Angeles has fresh donuts and Dole Whip ice cream in the summer months.
You cannot beat the free camping (Discovery Pass required) at one of the WA state park sites along the Hoh River. If you’re looking for an easy spin on the day of your arrival, the 18-mile (29 km) paved, dead-end Upper Hoh Rd to the Olympic National Park Hoh Rainforest entrance will give you a small taste of what’s to come. If you’re vampire / werewolf curious, the Twilight saga store and museum in Forks is quite the experience.