Capitol State Forest is an absolute wonderland of gravel. The nearly one hundred thousand acres of land is managed by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, and contains almost six hundred miles of gravel roads. It is a destination for hikers, horseback riders, campers, and dirt bike enthusiasts. It is also home to some amazing single track for mountain bikers.
The Black hills make up the majority of the forest and contain several prominent peaks; Fuzzy Top and Rock Candy Mountain are both around 1,700 feet, while Capitol Peak and Larch Mountain reach just over 2,600. *If they were on the east coast, they would be called the Black Mountains.
There is an almost endless array of routes that you could pick through the forest, but be aware, the forest is vast and it is extremely easy to get lost. Some roads are designated for ORV use, while others are used for active logging operations. It’s best to plan a route ahead of time, or go with someone who is familiar with the area.
There are several first-come first-served campgrounds that you could use as a base for multi-day explorations, and there are also several organized rides that you could take part in.
Race Cascadia puts on the annual Super Gravel Race, which will challenge even the most seasoned riders, and the local bike shop, Joy Ride, puts on the bi-weekly Gravelpalooza series. There’s really no better way to get acquainted with trails, than riding them with the locals, and the Gravelpalooza group rides are a great way to challenge yourself through some seriously challenging terrain while meeting some good people.
There are plenty of routes to take through the forest, but keep in mind that it’s really easy to rack up elevation here, and the grades can be painfully steep. Most routes will average 100 feet of elevation for every mile ridden, and you won’t have too much trouble finding sustained grades of 17% or more.
The ever-changing surfaces in the forest vary from stretches of smooth pavement, fast hard pack, and freshly graded forest roads, to washboarded, rutted, and overgrown paths, conditions depend on current usage and the state’s need to access the roads.
The forest roads are labeled A through E, with A being on the north end of the forest, and E being on the south. Numbered roads break from the main lines and the numbers are larger the further east you go. This all results in a navigable network of roads interconnecting the different ridges and valleys in the forest.
The Black Hills can create their own weather and it’s not uncommon to begin a ride on a pleasant sunny morning, only to find your self climbing into the clouds as you ascend a ridge line. It’s best to prepare and bring appropriate clothing and gear.
You will build up a lot of heat as you climb, which masks the fact that the higher you get, the lower the temperature drops, and if your descent ends up on the shady side of a ridge, you will quickly find out how cold it actually is in the upper elevations.
The Capitol Peak Loop. 16 miles / 2,400 ft.
This is a short, but challenging loop that will get you to the most epic of views on a clear day. Capitol Peak is an absolutely punishing climb that will test the limits and legs of even the most seasoned riders. The 2,400 feet of elevation on this route all comes in the first six miles, leaving you with a ten mile white-knuckle descent back to your starting point.
It’s brutal and it will make you question your decision to even ride bikes, but the summit and descent make all of the suffering worth it.
I’d recommend that you download the route here and use a Garmin or a Wahoo to navigate. Many of the forest roads aren’t signed, so without turn by turn navigation or stopping to use a map, you can quickly miss a turn and lose your way.
Essentially, the route starts out on C-Line before breaking off on C-7000 and climbing to C-4300 which summits on Capitol Peak. Then it takes C-4300 to C-4000, and hooks back up with C-Line back to the starting point.
You could also ride this route in reverse (I have), but I don’t recommend it as the descent in the other direction is extremely steep and not the best of ideas.
You will be on Sherman Valley Road as you enter the forest. Once the pavement ends, it becomes C-Line, one of the main through-roads. There is a gravel parking area where Sherman Valley Road meets Noschka Road. You can park here with a Discover Pass.
Once you’re on your bike, you’ll see that the pavement ends just up ahead, and everything starts going up almost immediately. There will be no warm-up so I hope you brought your climbing legs.
After about a half mile, the grade levels out a bit, giving you chance to catch your breath, spin your legs, and prepare for the oncoming steepness. C-Line is generally kept in good condition, but be aware of other road-users as you climb. You may encounter the occasional automobile or logging truck.
Right around mile three, things start going up very quickly. The next three miles consist of climbing unrelenting grades, some pushing 18% and beyond (This is the only time I’ve ever found myself relieved to see my Garmin read 8%).
Pace yourself, there are several (flat-ish) turnouts that will allow you to stop and take a break, and they happen to have some very nice scenic views as well. Use these to your advantage, because if have to stop on the steeper sections, you may not be able to get going again, forcing you to walk.
There are a few switchbacks as the road climbs along the ridge (If you don’t know the trick to switchbacks, here’s a tip- the inside of the turn may be the shorter distance, but the banking makes it the steepest part. Save your legs and take the outside of the turn).
The last switchback is a half mile from the summit where C-4300 breaks from C-7000. You’ll have to go around a gate to get on C-4300 where the road goes up like a wall to the top of Capitol Peak. Give it all you’ve got, because this is the last of the climbing that you’ll do for the day, and you’re about to be rewarded with a pretty spectacular view.
Hopefully, it’s a clear day and you’ll be able to experience the 360 degree panorama of Western Washington that the peak offers. The summit is clear cut and home to several large antenna arrays and outbuildings. These are all fenced off and it should go without saying that the fences are there for a very good reason. *LEAVE NO TRACE
Capitol Peak provides a spectacular, sweeping view of the surrounding landscape, which makes all of the suffering you just went through to get there worth it. From the northwest corner, you can see out past Montesano towards Grays Harbor. The massive cooling towers from the abandoned Satsop Nuclear Plant appear as two tiny dots from this distance.
The southeastern view is even more impressive and on a clear day you’ll be able to see the prominent peaks of Rainier, Adams, and St. Helens (Tahoma, Pahto, and Loowit), rising up from the rest of the Cascades. This is a great time to recover, have a snack, snap a few photos, and take it all in.
The rest of this loop is a ten mile descent that hugs the ridge, giving you long straightaways coupled with steep, sweeping curves. There are several short, paved sections, and a few great lookouts as well.
It’s easy to open it up and just go really fast, but be aware of the occasional oncoming car, as well as the road conditions. When it’s dry, it can be quite loose around the corners, and some of the steeper sections can be washboarded pretty badly.
Take your time and just enjoy the ride. You’ll be back to your car in no time.