This classic loop takes you to the highest singletrack in Washington. You spend a lot of time pedaling at 7000 feet, and get as high as 8000 feet. The loop here includes Cooney Lake and Horsehead Pass.
Most riders agree that this loop is far better in the clockwise direction.If you have not ridden this route before, budget extra time for navigation. There are several unmarked intersections and areas where the trail is not immediately visible. Tips: at cooney lake, stay left to continue climbing up to angels staircase. Climbing up from the lake is hike-a-bike due to loose steep rocky conditions. At the top of this ridge there is an unmarked intersection- stay right here and maintain your elevation. Do not take the left which drops down into a valley!
This is an absolutely awesome ride. Get an early start and be prepared to be out for at least 6 hours (more if you're not used to the elevation). There is a ton of climbing, and the description isn't kidding about the hike-a-bike sections. Angel's Staircase proper is a very exposed steep and rocky descent. The final 7 mile descent from Horsehead Pass is fast and fun. The entire 20+ mile loop is singletrack and can be pretty technical at times, but it's never boring. Snow can hang around until midsummer so try to check local trail conditions before heading out.
My wife and I just finished this ride a couple of days ago. The entire ride took us about 7 hours with a half hour lunch break at the bottom of the staircase. There is a total of 3 unrideable sections: 1). Hike-a-bike up form Cooney Lk, 2). descending the 1st half of Angel's Staircase, 3). about a mile of hiking out of Boiling Lk basin to Horse Head Pass (though some riding near the top). All of these sections involve long loose talus. Having ridden Foggy Dew a couple years ago, we both agreed that FD is much more of a classic ride than Angel's Staircase by far. I say this with reservation since I like long rides. I am, as is my wife, quite fit for riding BC distances such as this, so aerobically speaking, this ride was not out of hand for us. It's the bike pushing that puts this ride in a not-so-classic category for me. Not misunderstood, I ride trials when I'm not riding distance. The above mentioned sections, for all intents and purpose, are in fact unrideable by any human I know. Even if they were, and I am an idiot, which has proven the case more than once, it would in no way be worth the effort--you'd literally get 10-20 feet and have to get off, due to shifting talus. So plan for it. The hiking is bitchy under a hot sun. The views? Now here's where the ride differs from most others in WA state. This is the highest FS trail, open to mt bikes, in the north Cascades. Put simply, you're above the crest of all but anything over 8000' and therefore the views are spectacular. Flowers, flowers, flowers with lots of water if you need to replenish your supply, but remember to treat it or filter. I finished my large capacity camelback at the top of Horse Head Pass and dipped into the spare bottle I filled and treated with iodine earlier in the ride. All in all the ride was worth doing, especially for the view, but not necessarily worth doing twice. On to other things. I will however, return to ride Foggy Dew, perhaps once a year. Cheers!
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