Maybe the Best Car Driving Road in the West is in Southern Washington

by Brendan Leonard on November 21, 2011

The RouteI have for so many years believed that the winding mountain roads in car commercials do not exist anywhere in the United States. Maybe they used to, but there are too many people now, too much traffic. The roads I drive in the West, mostly near popular climbing areas, are never without other cars. If you are a driver who likes to push the upper limits of your car’s handling abilities, barely making it around curves without skidding, tossing your passenger around and making them wish that they too had a steering wheel to hold onto, the roads I have driven will do nothing but piss you off during the daytime. Tourists in rental cars, motorcyclists, bicyclists, buses and cars and trucks carrying climbers and backpackers like me are everywhere. If you really want to open it up on the mountain roads I know, your bliss will be interrupted within three minutes, your freedom impeded by one of us going a little slower than as fast as our tires could handle.

But there is a road that exists, not only in the artificial creations of advertising agencies who sell us BMWs and Audis, but in the forests of southern Washington State.

If you have the occasion to drive between Mount Rainier National Park and a place called Indian Heaven in southern Washington, you will find it. National Forest Road 25 between Randle, Washington, and Swift Reservoir, Washington, just east of Mount St. Helens, is 45 miles of pure driving ecstasy, a goddamn rollercoaster of a road built by an engineer who was perhaps motivated by finding the most direct route possible for a road in these parts, but I like to think maybe more so to create something that would bring joy.

I don’t get excited about driving fast, for the most part. I’ve never souped up a car or drag raced anyone. I cautiously accelerate and brake slowly wherever I go. My car has 210,000 miles on it and has a 25-year-old engine. Right now, I live in it. But I found the joy in National Forest Road 25, driving north to south. I had a car-driving experience.

For almost an hour, I was 16 years old again, behind the wheel of my first car, in love with the freedom of moving myself at a speed faster than my mother would drive, smashing on the accelerator more excited than scared of what could happen, watching the speedometer needle shoot up 20, 30 miles per hour on the short straight-aways, punching it in the last half of curves and hoping I didn’t have to hit the brakes as I came out the other side. Everything slid around in the back of the car as I flew low around the bends in the road, 20 mph faster than advised on the yellow signs with the curved arrows on them. It was as if an invisible hand was pushing and steering my car faster down the road, skating on blacktop down a tunnel of green so thick you couldn’t see the sky through it.

Mount St. Helens from the car windowI ripped it wide open, seeing only a handful of other vehicles on the road the entire time. I imagined a highway engineer, laying out the route on maps, watching the asphalt poured, anticipating what it would be like to drive, and then finally getting a chance, driving this same stretch of road just like I was, smiling and laughing out loud the whole way. It’s possible that he or she or they were just doing there job, that this was the only logical course for this route between two places, but it’s just too good to believe that’s the reason.

This is the king, two lanes of speed, gravity, centripetal and centrifugal forces, a water slide and a bullet train ride with your hands are on the wheel and your own lead foot is on the gas. No Estes Park or Yosemite Valley at either end to draw thousands of tourists, no scenic pull-offs to slow you down. Pure, American driving for the love of driving. And some guy in a piece-of-shit, 4-cylinder, 2.5-liter Subaru Outback with bad tires and a million dents in it, a guy who thought it was over, that there was no joy in driving anymore, who could be in a BMW Z4 for all he knows.

 


Outdoor adventure and dirtbag travel from a not-so-extreme perspective.

Brendan Leonard is a writer, climber and urban cyclist living in Denver. He has written for the Mountain Gazette since 2006.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Tricia M. Cook November 21, 2011 at 10:40 pm

Dammit, B. Leonard, slow down and enjoy the view!
Sincerely, a WA State native and go-slow driver of mountain and scenic byways,
Tricia

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Mick November 22, 2011 at 12:43 pm

That does it! I’m trading in The Warrior for a Corvette.

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the Outage December 4, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Really enjoyed this write-up. Like you (?), I don’t geek out over cars. If it runs reliably, I’m satisfied. But every once in a while, I hit a stretch of road like yours, and I understand what drives people wild about internal combustion.

The real question: on those hairpin left-hand turns, could you resist cheating over into the other lane? Any near-misses with oncoming cars?

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