Distance: 18 miles (6 miles descending)
Altitude Change: 3,600
Current Conditions (as of Tuesday, July 28, 2009): Dry and slightly eroded in places, with only two blow-downs still waiting for the chainsaw fairies to come by and improve the feng shui flow. Pray for rain—one good cloudburst could bring back the tackiness that makes this roller-coaster of a trail a local favorite.
Why Ride It: A climber’s (or shuttler’s) delight, the fire road ascent to Ranger Creek is rewarded with a forested singletrack descent that may be a bit narrower in parts compared to years past (thanks, erosion!), but it’s still a thrilling six-mile dive to the bottom. Some of the switchbacks are looser and thus harder to ride than in moister seasons—I certainly didn’t clean all of them this time around—but you should certainly try them. What could happen? Plummet 20-30 feet down to the next switchback? Nah—you’d probably slide a bit. But seriously—keep your eye on the inside line.
Driving Directions: From Seattle, head south on I-5 to exit 142A, merging onto WA-18 E toward N Bend/Auburn. Take the Auburn Way/WA-164 exit, and follow the 164 through Enumclaw until you reach the 410. Turn left at Roosevelt Ave E/WA-410 and follow this road through the small town of Greenwater, Washington. A few miles later, start looking for Forest Road 72 on the left. (If you pass by a parking lot/scenic overlook on the right, or the road to the Skookum Flats/Sun Top trailheads, you’ve gone too far.)
The Ride: So usually I prefer riding Forest Road 7174 up to Corral Pass and then dropping into Ranger Creek. It’s the steeper fire road choice, but it delivers more shade as well as commanding views at the Noble Knob summit. However, FR 72 makes for an easier shuttle (ask your DH friends), and so it became the route for Tuesday’s sultry, upper-90s training ride. After driving my friend Brian half way up the road and kicking him and his bike out, I rallied back down to park my car by the 410 to try to catch him before he reached the top. I left at 12:35 in the afternoon (hot!), and then—thanks to a sweat bee or hornet that chased me for over six freakin’ miles, I caught up to Brian, and we finished the final half-mile together. For fast climbers, you can finish the climb in an hour and a half, or under.
For those who take their time, be aware that FR 72 undulates around the foothills seemingly forever. There’s a little shade from trees—it’s certainly worth swerving back and forth across the road just to hit a cool spot for a pedal stroke or two. Keep it going for 7 ½ miles without expectations of change until you hit the fork at FR 7250. Follow 7250 to the right and stay on the main road for another mile or so. At the next major trail intersection, stay straight and climb for another half mile until the fire road dead ends in singletrack (finally!) Climb for half a mile, and you’ll hit signage for the Ranger Creek/Palisades trails.
You’re now at 5,400 feet—take a deep breath, and drop it like it’s hot (and it is). Speed down fast, smooth singletrack and negotiate the occasional, well-placed root or two. There are easy (if washed-out) switchbacks all the way until you reach the log shelter at 11.5 miles. Have a snack here, and then slide in to Ranger on the left for some challenging switchback-action or, if you’ve got more time in the day, take the Palisades trail up to the right for a longer and far more scenic ride. Ranger Creek Trail dumps onto the 410, and you can either cross the road to jump onto the three-mile Skookum Flats Trail, or take the paved road back to your car parked on FR 72.
Be sure to stop in Greenwater on the way home for Gatorade or water. Lots of water:)
See you on the trail!