Bike on Over to the Sunnier Side

By Rhesa Bubbel

Spring weather in Seattle can be a little lackluster. It’s still gray and drizzling and all you want to do is stretch your legs after a dark and cold winter. There are moments of optimism: a break in the clouds, blue skies and a warm glow that seems vaguely familiar, even the smell of the air is different. Taking up the opportunity, your mind races with excitement as you run through all the excursions you’ve wanted to do lately. You grab your bike and start pedaling. The air is clean and refreshing, you can smell the change in the season and you feel like there won’t be an end to all this energy. Then, your excitement and optimism are crushed when, twenty minutes into your ride, it starts to monsoon and you realize that you’ve been fooled again and should have worn the diving gear. Yes, Seattle’s weather has the incredibly frustrating ability to turn even the most upbeat into an Eeyore, but there’s a little sunshine at the end of this tunnel. Besides being a convergent zone, the Northwest is also home to another meteorological process called a rain shadow, which just might be the ticket to logging some sunny spring rides.

Dry singletrack is worth the effort. Photo by Darren  Dencklau Photo by Darren Dencklau

Dry singletrack is worth the effort.

David Britton, a resident of the rain shadow and someone who wanted to study just how much of an impact this effect has, put a weather station atop his house and joined forces with Cliff Mass, a weather guru at the University of Washington. Britton has been cataloging and comparing the weather in Seattle, Sequim, Port Angeles and Port Townsend on a daily basis. He has come up with some elaborate and surprising data, but to grasp it all we first need to understand how a rain shadow works.

As moisture-laden air or a storm moves off the Pacific Ocean toward the Puget Sound, it runs right into the Olympic Mountain Range. That wet air is forced to rise above the mountain cluster and as it does, it cools. When this air cools, its ability to hold moisture lessens and clouds form, resulting in precipitation in the form of rain and snow. What started out as moist air gets wrung like a wet towel, releasing up to 200 inches of precipitation per year, as it ascends the Olympics. True to the hypothesis that what goes up must come down, that air then descends on the north and east sides of the mountains, warming and thus regaining its ability to hold moisture. However, clouds don’t form because that recently drained air is now moisture light, leaving blue skies and sunshine in its wake, at least more so than not.

“While other rain shadows exist in the Western US, and around the world, the Olympic rain shadow is unique in some ways,” says Britton. “For starters, it happens to lie over a maritime area with miles of scenic coastline. The rain shadow...” — or orographic effect if you want to be all fancy — “...is centered over Sequim, but Port Angeles, Port Townsend and San Juan Island (Friday Harbor area) get a bit of the benefit too.”

Sunny shores near Sequim. Photo courtesy of David Britton Photo courtesy of David Britton

Sunny shores near Sequim.

His website, www.olympicrainshadow.com, is fairly extensive. Not only does it include information about the various climates and locations he tracks, but also features monthly sunshine analysis, a blog on the latest weather happenings, a live weather station for Sequim, and photos.

So what has he discovered from this? “In reality, if you get in your car and drive two hours, it’s amazing how different the North Olympic Peninsula is. The weather is generally better over there compared to Seattle,” he says.

According to his website, the monthly weather analysis of October says Sequim averaged 2.34 hours of sunshine per day and recorded 17 mostly sunny days compared to Seattle’s 12, and only 3 in Redmond/West Lake Sammamish.

“Check out the weather in November and compare it to the spring months. Twenty-two days of mostly sunny or partly sunny. Fourteen days had no rain at all,” he states. When asked about spring weather and biking, Britton said, “Something magical happens about late February and early March. Grass grows, the number of sunny days increases rapidly, and storms that do show up clear quickly.” In other words, it may be the perfect place to venture for drier spring riding.

Visit the Olympic rain shadow to get some early season dry rides in.  Photo courtesy of David Britton Photo courtesy of David Britton

Visit the Olympic rain shadow to get some early season dry rides in.

We talked to Mike Wanner from Mike’s Bikes in Sequim, who is a life-long resident of the area and the shop’s owner for ten years. He gave us the skinny on where to pedal. “Mountain bikers should definitely do the Lower Peninsula and Adventure Trail.” Both trails you can ride year round but, “The Lower Peninsula is a great spring ride because of the lower elevation and it’s a beautiful state park.”

Sequim’s visitor’s site suggests there are hundreds of trails in the Olympic National Forest for mountain bikers too. If you want to head out of the rain shadow a bit, Mike says to “...go west to Port Angeles and ride Adventure Trail, there’s singletrack that’s smooth and fabulous, a few climbs and no Outdoor Recreational Vehicles (ORV) allowed, so it’s all mountain bikes, hikers, and a few horses.” You’ll have to ask Wanner to get the skinny on its exact location.

For those more interested in road cycling, Wanner recommends riding in the Dungeness area and, “The Olympic Discovery Trail for a nice day ride from Sequim to Port Angeles and back,” which Britton says, “...is a paved and dedicated bike trail along the North Olympic Peninsula, but there’s very little bike traffic on it.” It would make for a great family ride. Mike also mentioned that a local group gets together every Sunday morning at nine and tours around the local roads. Swing into his shop at 150 West Sequim Bay Road to chat and pick up maps, or log onto mikes-bikes.net for downloadable maps and trail information. Another great resource is the official Sequim visitor’s site at www.visitsun.com. They’ve got the lowdown on biking, hiking, and a myriad of other activities to help alleviate your rainy day blues.

Whether you’re a serious athlete looking for warmer and drier training routes or simply searching for a new adventure, a quick ferry or car ride will bring a change of scenery and possibly the sunshine you’ve been pining for. Thanks to David Britton’s interest and research and Cliff Mass’s collaboration, Sequim can be added to the list of must do’s for spring riding.

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