Cycling in the Drizzle: Seattle to Vancouver by Bicycle

Day One

Downtown Snohomish, WA: Touristy but cute

The open trail: cycling the Centennial Trail. Quiet and smooth enough to take a photo hands free while moving.

I can see 5,000 miles: my odometer hits 5,000 miles. I could've cycled to China. Instead I'm at …

Instead I'm at this Strawberry Stand in the middle of nowhere.

Alger, WA: Tired, ready for bed, not for crispy fried chicken.

Mac's Motel Bellingham, WA: Groovy man!


Day Two

The train crossing at Kickerville: if I hadn't stopped to look at my map when stuck by this train, I'd have gotten really lost!

Ugly ugly Surrey BC: This sign pretty much sums up what it has to offer. And who would want to rent a room in a building with KY Wrestling and a strip club with Maxi Mounds?

At times riding from Seattle to Vancouver I could imagine what a world without cars would be like. Idyllic trails through the forest between cities. Everyone healthier: us and the environment. The trail system is evolving so one can almost imagine this. But then Interstate 5 appears on the horizon and the dream is ended.

It was a cool drizzly day in June when I set out from Seattle on my bicycle for Vancouver. The first day's plan would get me to Bellingham and was the substantially longer day. Despite that I dawdled leaving Seattle a bit and then made my first stop, for breakfast at Starbucks, after only 10 miles in Kenmore, WA at the North end of Lake Washington. From here the route would be mostly new for me. Although I'd biked between Seattle and Vancouver twice before (once in each direction), the previous rides were group rides where a truck was carrying my luggage and there was not much need to pay attention as the route was well marked. They were also rather different routes than the route I had tried to map out the day before at the Seattle Public Library. With my photocopies of those maps in hand and a little info printed from the web in hand, I set out.

The first surprise was how long I could stay on trails. The bike trail North from Seattle continued winding East around Lake Washington and then at Woodinville branched off Northward into a spur I hadn't been on before. This trail brought me into scenic and touristy Snohomish where I saw the last of the cyclists I would see until the end of the day approaching Bellingham. After Snohomish I was especially surprised to see the trail keep going and going. A large new section had obviously just opened and had wonderfully smooth pavement that was a pleasure to roll down. The very wide and quiet trail rolled through forested and rural landscapes almost all the day to Arlington, WA. Since it is a rails to trails conversion, the grades were always reasonable as well.

The end of the trail also marked the first time I got lost. The trail just ended in a small parking lot on a rural road. I knew from asking along the way that I was near Arlington but wasn't sure what way it was and since the trail had diverted me from my planned route, my photocopied maps didn't cover where I found myself. About 10 miles later, after some bad advice, I found myself in downtown Arlington. I think it should have been half that distance but it was made worse by the fact that I thought it would only be a mile or two so I was constantly doubting if I was going in the right direction. The few locals I encountered were friendly enough but no terribly helpful since their idea of directions was to drive directly to the Interstate. Outside Arlington, at a small strawberry field and stand, my odometer rolled over the lifetime 5,000 mile mark. An event I celebrated with a photo and a chicken wrap at the 7-11 in Arlington (fine dining indeed, this was all that was available).

The trail seemed to pick up again in Arlington but that turned out to be a false lead to a unrenovated rail trestle a 1/2 mile up the road. I understand though that they are planning to build the next section of the trail all the way North to the county line someday. Instead I picked and chose among roads that seemed to offer the best route without detouring too much from the direct route. The weather was getting me down, not getting worse but threatening to at any moment so I was wary of stopping, wanting only to reach my destination as quickly as possible. But somewhere North of Mt Vernon I realized my vision was blurring and I was having trouble concentrating. Not good signs. And so into a Texaco for a few burritos (the only thing in the extensive hot food warming display case that hadn't been deep fried) and a 20 minute break.

Getting back on your bike after a break can be a challenge. Your legs are tired, your butt hurts and your motivation is broken. But plow on I did. Stopping only to take a picture at the 100 mile mark in Alger, WA. Not hard to see my annoyance at what I'd got myself into is it? A few more wrong turns and a bunch more miles later I climbed the hill just South of Bellingham, where my pannier fell off zooming downhill into town, damaging my wheel slightly. And I sought the refuge of a cheap motel. Cheap I found in Mac's Motel which had clearly been redecorated last in 1972. When I entered the office I almost walked out again, the smell of cat piss was overpowering. But the room itself was clean, or as clean as a room with thick dark brown shag carpet could get I suppose. And the price was right: Under $30 including tax. Day one total: 116 miles, 186km, 3 fast food stops, 2 liters of Gatorade.

Bellingham itself always surprises me with it's charm and it's big city features for such a small place (including some rather sleazy areas downtown). I attempted a little nightlife but even in little Bellingham on a Thursday night there wasn't going to much happening before midnight and my tired legs weren't up for waiting for that.

I woke up to pouring rain the next day. Now what? I wasn't prepared for this. Didn't have the right clothes. Nor the martyr complex necessary. So I waited and had a very leisurely morning checking out local coffee shops to see if there was anything worthy of a mention in myCoolest Coffee Shop article. By noon it had slowed to a drizzle and I set out Northward again. There were some pretty bits near Birch Bay just South of the border. But generally the second days ride was rather uneventful and about half the miles, especially since I cheated on the last bit and took the Skytrain in from Surrey. Frankly I was tired of the ugliness. The route I took from the border, on or paralleling King George Highway, was butt ugly. Do suburbs get any uglier than Surrey? I thought this sign summed up pretty much what Surrey has to offer.

Route notes:

This is a general idea of the route I took. I recommend getting county level maps with all the small rural roads marked so you can plot your route (or print out a lot of detailed maps online). You can also download the detailed turn guide and route maps for the RSVP (Ride Seattle-Vancouver and Party) ride from the Cascade Bike club but that route is optimized for thousands of riders and support vehicles so it may not be your optimal route.

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Discussion »

  • #1Candace

    hey, Surrey isn’t as ugly as you think. You’ve just been in the bad parts. So please watch what you say, sir!

  • #2Anthony Maw

    I’d like to point out an error:

    On the last leg described going through Surrey, BC, one cannot ride a bicycle across the Port Mann Bridge. There is no sidewalk and it is illegal to ride on the bridge’s roadway (it’s a high speed freeway). Perhaps this was just a typographical error.

    The easiest way is to just go straight north on King George Highway which takes you across the Patullo Bridge to New Westminister. After crossing the Patullo Bridge, go immediately westward along Columbia Street and then you can just follow the route of the Skytrain. 7-Eleven sponsors a dedicated bicycle path under the Skytrain route all the way into downtown Vancouver, about an hour’s ride (21km).

    Don’t bother going through Richmond unless you really want to take the long way.

    Regards, Anthony Maw, Vancouver

  • #3Michael Faulkner

    As a Surrey resident, I apologize for my City’s lack of cycling infrastructure–from the Border to anywhere, your choice of routes through Surrey will be confusing at best, usually ugly and dangerous at worst; if you are able to negotiate your way through our embarassment–take heart: the cycling routes, signs, bridgeways, and general “cycling friendliness” improve every inch of the way into Vancouver proper. Tip: Head for White Rock and catch the “351″ –effective Sept. 7, 2009–$3.00 will take you and your bike to the new Bridgeport station where a new bike bridge greats you for your ride into Vancouver–skip Surrey..they don’t want cyclists and you’ll not miss a thing.

  • #4ray moyes

    Surrey is a nice place,sure it has some issues but so do many other places.The U.S. has worse places of comparable size.

  • #5Samantha K

    HAHAH omg the picture you took of Surrey. That’s Newton and I live not even 2 minutes away from there. This is pretty damn funny. That sign isn’t there anymore and there is no wrestling place (it’s now a Save-On-Foods and Shoppers Drug Mart (:
    A little less crappy..yet more crime.

  • #6remy

    I agree, surrey is actually pretty beautiful. Not sure where that sign is from but my area is damn nice.

  • #7Thomas

    What a narrow minded statement to say that an entire city is ugly and has nothing to offer based on your one route through it. I once came into Seattle along Aurora Ave/99/519(I think) and by that measure Seattle is just as ugly, however I know that an old highway with it’s industrial areas , fast food joints and strip malls(and clubs)is not a fair representation of any city.

  • #8Doug Dosdall

    Funny that this article has just lately been getting some hits…comes up high in Google I guess.

    Ok, first, yes, not Port Mann. If you want to continue cycling to Vancouver and not cheat and take the Skytrain like I did then it is the Alex Fraser you want. This does have a cycle/walk sidewalk and sineage but it is not the most pleasant cycle.

    I got in some trouble for my Surrey-bashing…sorry! Surrey has indeed improved in the 10 years since I wrote this. Although given its sprawl it’ll never be the most sustainable/cycle-friendly city.

    There’s still no great route from the border to Vancouver but I understand there is now a bike path called the Delta-South Surrey Regional Greenway which would cover the part between Mud Bay and Annacis Island (the Alex Fraser Bridge). I’d be curious about anyone’s feedback who’s been on this route?

    I was at the south end of the Alex Fraser recently on a ride from Vancouver and the signage is a little confusing. Going south from the Alex Fraser apparently it roughly parallels highway 91 then heads southeast and comes out at the King George Hwy (99A). It would be wonderful if they added a cycle route and cycle bridge directly south to Cresent Beach. Right now only the train goes through there. That would really complete this missing link.

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