Highway 20 Solo: A Bike Touring Adventure along Washington’s Iconic Cycling Route

Modern day life often dictates that time and money are limited, and therefore we seek out adventure on the weekends, or in short bursts of time. In order to minimize travel time and maximize destination time, many times we board a plane (or boat, or bus, or car) and rush off to a far-away wonder. Traveling at such a rapid rate allows us to experience so much beauty; but are we truly seeing it all as it zips by the window?

I’ve long been enamored by the adventures beginning from my doorstep. The idea that adventure is not a trip detailed on the pages of a guidebook or the events that occur only after you step onto an established trail, but instead includes every moment of the experience—from planning, preparation, and execution. The bucket list destination is merely a brush stroke in an enormous mural of experience, enriched by the landscapes, people, and stories found along the way. Even though I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to countless amazing places, something has always been missing – as if I skipped a step in the experiential process.

Last year, I began searching for that missing piece, and decided to embark on a solo, self-supported adventure. I planned to step out my front door, jump on my bicycle, and just ride – Forrest Gump style – across the wilds of Washington. My destination: the cool Pacific shores of Anacortes. My route: north on Highway 395 to Kettle Falls, then rambling across the Cascades via Highway 20. My method: madness.

Photo of campground near Republic by Sarah Oscarson.
Camping solo near Republic. // Photo: Sarah Oscarson

In the wee hours of a warm September morning, I took one last look back at my house, my cat, and my husband, and I rode off with doubt in my heart and fear seizing my muscles. I never expected to feel so scared. Although help was merely a phone call away, I felt like I was venturing into the unknown. Ahead of me lay 400 miles, four mountain passes, and boundless solitude. I doubted I’d even make it out of Spokane, let alone across the state.

While Highway 20 is a popular destination ride and is friendly to bicycle tourists, it isn’t without its challenges and dangers. The road is often narrow and without a shoulder. Drivers are frequently rubber-necking at the scenery and not watching for cyclists. Logging trucks hustle to get their loads to the mill. Sasquatch are lurking just around the next corner (I could feel it). But Highway 20 also offered some of the best sights these eyes have beholden from a bicycle seat. From the grand Columbia River to the pastoral Methow Valley to the majestic Cascades, I felt like the star of a Washington State tourism ad. There were ample places to camp, and finding pit stops, supplies, and welcoming people was easy in the quaint mountain towns dotting the route.

Photo from the ferry of Vancouver Island by Sarah Oscarson.
Goodbye, Anacortes. Fellow, Vancouver Island. // Photo: Sarah Oscarson

For nine days I pedaled, experiencing some of the best and hardest moments of my life; my moods ebbed and flowed with the topography. I felt a rhythm to my riding, and a sense of calm, even during times of hardship. Even when I got a flat tire in the pouring rain. Even when the grueling, relentless 25-mile climb up Sherman Pass with a broken odometer nearly broke my spirit. Even when I lay awake in my tent, camped in the woods near Republic, trying to decide which way I’d rather die: being gnawed on by a bear or being hacked to pieces by a psychopath.

Eventually, I processed the beauty around me in a visceral way. As I rode into North Cascades National Park and climbed Washington Pass, the morning fog dissipating to reveal the Early Winters Spires standing like sentinels protecting my ascent, I barely noticed the difficulty of the climb. A grin crept across my face, and it remained as I rode along the misty shores of the Skagit River, the golden dawn sunlight filtering through moss-covered cottonwoods. Then, it seemed like my heart might explode with joy when the brackish tidal flats of Anacortes came into sight. I knew I was home free.

As with any adventure, there was a feeling of accomplishment when I reached my destination. But having made the physical journey from my home using just the strength of my legs, mind, and heart helped me gain a new sense of place and connection. The road was an extension of my own backyard, the people I’d met were neighbors. For this I credit the magic of human-powered adventure, and more, the enchanting beauty of Highway 20. // (Sarah Oscarson)


After pedaling over 430 miles in nine days last September, Sarah Oscarson met up with her husband in Anacortes for some much-needed rest. This is her first article in Out There Monthly.

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