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5 Unusual Climbs in North America

Words/Images: John Summerson

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While a large portion of America’s road cycling community can now identify many of the country’s major paved hill climbs, a sizable number of hills remain hidden and a few are unknown to most, essentially brand new. On these pages are five U.S. climbs that, unless you’re living right next to them, you may not be aware they even exist. I think most will be surprised that solid ascents exist in some of these areas; in fact, one of them did not, at least with pavement, until a few years ago. While several are rated Category 1 for difficulty, several others are not quite to that level. However, each is unique and contains several attributes—from isolated locations to great scenery and almost non-existent traffic.

1: BUFFALO PASS SOUTH ARIZONA

buffalo pass south
Buffalo Pass South

DETAILS

Total elevation gain: 1,990 feet (607m)

Length: 6.3 miles (10.1km)

Average grade: 6.0% (18% maximum)

The south side of Buffalo Pass is an isolated and scenic climb within the Navaho Indian Reservation in the northeast portion of the Grand Canyon state and not a place where you would expect to find solid ascending. It’s also not a place where road bikes are often seen, so you may get a few double-takes as you pedal by. A moderate grade greets riders to begin with, along with views of sandstone pinnacles. Soon the road gets twisty and enters a canyon. Red rock eventually recedes to piñon pines and hits steeper grades. At mile 4.2, the grade ramps up through an S-turn to double digits to what may be the most difficult half- and full-mile of climbing in Arizona. The slope then eases a bit as trees close in as you gain altitude. Toward the top the slope gets quite shallow and the climb ends at an unmarked but obvious pass (road descends beyond). The descent on this south side of Buffalo Pass is challenging in places, while the north side is a solid, scenic climb (8.8 miles at 5.1 percent average grade). This is quite isolated territory so go there prepared.

HOW TO GET THERE

In the small town of Lukachukai on the Navajo Indian Reservation in northeast Arizona, at the junction of Routes 14 and 13, take Route 13 (unmarked at junction as of 2020) north for a few miles to the bridge over Totsoh Wash where the listed climb begins by continuing north on 13.

2: MILE HIGH AVENUE ALASKA

mile high avenue in alaska
Mile High Avenue in Alaska.

DETAILS

Total elevation gain: 979 feet (298m)

Length: 2.0 miles (3.2km)

Average grade: 9.3% (17% maximum)

Who knew there was solid road climbing in Alaska? After all, there are few paved roads and a low-altitude snowline year round. Well, Alaskans certainly know and Mile High Avenue may be the steepest climb in their state. It is a series of switchbacks that takes one straight up the valley walls of the Eagle River drainage. Beginning on mild slopes, you soon encounter a double-digit grade. A left turn follows, which begins a chain of stacked switchbacks. As you ride higher, nice views of the valley and surrounding mountains arrive with snow present all year above a certain altitude. Each subsequent segment of this route takes on a new name but just keep taking the steepest path to the top. Wondering what may be close by in the thick forest lining much of the route should keep you moving along on short stretches of severe grades. The climb ends where the pavement turns to dirt in a thickly wooded landscape. Keep in mind that riding in Alaska is a bit different from, although similar to high-altitude pedaling. Prepare for cold conditions and be prepared to get wet on almost any ride.

HOW TO GET THERE

Head north on Route 1 from Anchorage for several miles to Eagle River, Alaska. There, turn right on Eagle Loop Road. Travel Eagle Loop Road for just under 3 miles to Eagle River Road. Take a right on Eagle River Road and in 2.0 miles turn left on Mile High Avenue, where the climb begins.

mile high avenue
Mile High Avenue

3: EPHRAIM CANYON UTAH

ephraim canyon
Ephraim Canyon

DETAILS

Total elevation gain: 2,640 feet (805m)

Length: 6.6 miles (10.6km)

Average grade: 7.6% (10% maximum)

Ephraim Canyon is a brand-new gift to the road cycling world, the majority of its length only being paved within the last two years. This is a rarity, particularly for a climb rated as Category 1, and should be explored. From the small ranching town of Ephraim, lying within a large valley located in the central part of the state, the early section of the hill is mild as you begin within a neighborhood by heading due east toward the mountains. You leave the houses behind one mile in as the grade gradually increases. Soon you are riding within a canyon and the road begins to twist a bit as you ride farther. At the exact halfway point, cross a cattleguard. From here, the route begins a series of big S-turns, grades running from 7 to 10 percent—solid climbing that continues most of the way to the summit. Big pines appear as you gain altitude but while the trees and the switchbacks give the upper section an alpine feel, don’t expect any shade on this hill. Just before the top, the slope eases and the listed climb ends where the pavement ends at just over 8,000 feet in elevation. With its sweeping turns, Ephraim Canyon is a fast and fun descent.

HOW TO GET THERE

In the town of Ephraim on Route 89 in central Utah, head east on East Center Street for 0.4 miles to S 300 E. Turn right on S 300 E and travel for 1 mile to Canyon Road on the left where the climb begins.

4: ANGEL LAKE NEVADA

angel lake
Angel Lake

DETAILS

Total elevation gain: 2,711 feet (826m)

Length: 11.5 miles (18.5km)

Average grade: 4.5% (11% maximum)

The climb to Angel Lake is an interesting one among the steep, isolated mountains in the high desert of northeast Nevada. There should not be a paved road that ascends these craggy mountains or a lake at road’s end in this arid environment, but there are. The route contains a short descent near its start and then rolls a bit over moderate grade to begin. Soon more sustained climbing arrives as the slope gradually steepens along a straight stretch of road. At a saddle a series of short descents begin. You will need to cross several cattle guards along the way. At mile 6.5 climbing resumes for good toward the massive, sheer rock walls directly in front of you. The road soon begins to switchback up the hill over solid grades with excellent views and a few trees appearing in the drainages that the route cuts through. Toward the top there’s a stretch of steeper grade with serious exposure and very long views to your right. You then encounter a left turn back toward the mountains, the grade eases and you cross one last cattle guard as the top is in sight. The climb ends soon after at a small parking area for the namesake hanging lake in spectacular surroundings.

HOW TO GET THERE

In isolated Wells, Nevada, on Interstate 80, exit to Humboldt Avenue. Head south on Humboldt and almost immediately the road to Angel Lake appears on the right where the listed climb begins.

5. MCGEE CREEK ROAD CALIFORNIA

mcgee creek road
McGee Creek Road

DETAILS

Total elevation gain: 784 feet (239m)

Length: 2.2 miles (3.5km)

Average grade: 6.8% (14% maximum)

You may find yourself on the eastern side of the Sierras, worn out by climbing some of the biggest hills in the U.S. However, it’s not quite time to head home. What to do? If you are looking for something other than the long, classic ascents in the area, McGee Creek Road may just fit the bill. Unusual in that it is not a beyond-category hill that the area is famous for, this one is short and sweet although it does pack a punch in spots and still provides breathtaking views of the big mountains. The hill begins over moderate grade which soon gets serious (aim for the sharp peak in front of you). Just over a mile in, the double-digit pedaling reduces to a flat. It is short however and climbing soon resumes over moderate grades and on a narrow roadway as you now head west. The slope gradually eases and the climb soon ends where the road turns to gravel in an epic setting. McGee Creek Road is a quick descent over its lower half as well, just make sure you do not shoot out onto high-speed Route 395 at its end.

HOW TO GET THERE

From Mammoth Lakes, California, head south on Route 395 for just over 8 miles to McGee Creek Road on the right. Travel McGee Creek for 0.1 miles to begin the climb by continuing west as the grade pops up.

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