When we first start cycling, we avoid hills and ride only on the flats. Then, we have to do a few hills. Maybe we are riding to work and we can’t avoid a hill, or maybe we are riding with a friend who chooses the hill. We hate hills, and we wonder why anybody would ever choose to climb them.
We ride some more. We come to an understanding with hills. We don’t like them, and they don’t like us, but somehow, we manage to get along. One day, we get convinced to do a century – probably something like Flying Wheels – and we realize that we can conquer hills like Inglewood or Fall City.
Something changes. Instead of looking to avoid hills, we start planning our rides around hills. We still don’t really enjoy them, but we have learned that they are a worthwhile challenge.
About this time, we start overhearing things among our riding buddies. RAMROD. Mont-something. The Zoo. While enjoying an after-ride burrito, we finally get up the courage to ask…
“What is the Zoo?”
Our buddy turns to us, and says, “The Zoo is a climb at the south end of Lake Sam. Steep. 3 miles, 1300’ or so”. And then he pauses, smiles, and adds:
“The Zoo will change the way you think about hills”.
Welcome to the land of world-changers…
Very hill. Much painful.
Just passin’ through….
The easy ways up take you to Lewis Creek Park, which is a notch between the Somerset hill/ridge (I call it that but it is unnamed AFAIK) and Cougar mountain. From the north, Lakemont (G) is the easiest way up, but it’s steep, has a lot of traffic, and is generally a soul-draining climb. I avoid it. 164th (not on this map) is a nicer and easier way to get most of the way up, with much less traffic. From the south, 68th / Lakemont (B) is a nice climb up; there are a few steeper sections but it’s mostly just a steady climb. At the park, you are at about 860’ of elevation, so it’s a fair amount of work to get to the top. See the Descents section for ways to go down.
Newcastle Golf Course
Lying above the notch on the South side is Newcastle Golf Course. There are two nice climbs there; you can either take SE 79th (A) and climb 390’ up, or you can take 155th Ave (C) and climb 190’ up. The first climb is both steeper and longer. At the top, you have a nice view all the way to Seattle if the weather is clear.
Any discussion about climbs on Cougar Mountain has to start with “The Zoo” (J). So named because of the small zoo near the beginning of the climb, The Zoo is a climb that gains 1325’ over 2.9 miles. It can be broken into three sections. The first section climbs 600’ in 1.1 miles, is mostly >10%, and includes a really steep hairpin turn that is 20%-ish on the inside. At the end of the first section, there is a short breather, and then a right turn on the second section. This section climbs only 436’ in 1.1 miles, so it seems easier than the first section, but in reality it’s a series of rollers of increasing gradient, with a nice 16% one right at the end of the section. You then turn left at the stop sign onto the third section, climbing 302’ in 0.7 miles, starting with a sustained climb in the 13% range, and then leveling off and starting to head down at the top. There used to be a small section at the top where you could climb a private drive up to the water tank, but there are recent reports that there is now a gate partway up that climb. The online climb has been modified to head up 173rd Ave SE, which is pretty much equivalent to the traditional top.
A shorter but perhaps more useful description of the climb is “the puke-inducing lactate-producing gasp-fest that I avoid unless taunted”.
That’s The Zoo. After you come back down from the top section, you should turn left and descend to the west; descending down the zoo is not recommended because of the steepness and the tight turns. Expect some hand cramps from braking if you do it. Note that while you can skip the top third – and many people do this – it’s not really “The Zoo” if you don’t do the top third, it’s just “the Zo”.
For quite a while, riding The Zoo was the hardest way up Cougar, and – therefore – one of the hardest climbs around. But then something else happened. That thing is a hill named “Montreaux”, which we’ll talk about next.
A mere half mile to the west of the start of Zoo hill is a road named NW Village Park Drive. Which would be the name of the climb, except that it’s also the entrance to a development named “Montreaux”, so the climb (H) is named after the development rather than the road. Montreux climbs 689’ over 1.4 miles, starting out with a 12% pitch, flattening out a bit, and then kicking up to 16% and staying like that for most of the way to the top. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s a bitch of a climb, enough to be comparable with the first part of The Zoo, but the exit sends you back out on Lakemont, so it always played second fiddle to its harder neighbor.
A little map-sleuthing showed a connection from the top of Montreaux into the midpoint of Zoo, leading to the first combined Montreaux + Zoo climb. It’s okay, except that the connector between is loose gravel and you have to get off your bike and walk, so it doesn’t really work, and it’s not really harder than the traditional route.
A few years ago, a short paved path appeared leading from the top of one of the Montreaux developments to the top of the second Zoo section, connecting the two areas. This connector is much better than the other one because 1) it is paved, and 2) it is truly brutal, with steep sections from 18% all the way up to 20%. Taking Montreaux, adding this connector and the top part of Zoo gave us “Montreaux-Zooma’s Revenge”.
And that is how The Zoo was dethroned. It is no longer the hardest climb on the north side of Cougar Mountain.
If you got up to the Zoo stop sign – either the hard way or climbing up SE Cougar Mountain Way on the back side – there are a couple of nice climbs to enhance your experience. They both offer killer views.
Pinnacles (E) is a 270’ very steep climb that switchbacks up. Make sure to climb all the way up to the cul-de-sac to get the full vertical. On the way down, stop to enjoy the view, which is pretty epic.
Belvedere (D) is a 261’ very steep climb just down the road a bit. It ends up pretty much the same place as Pinnacles, except it’s a bit to the south. It also has great views.
If you are feeling strong, I recommend Montreux-Zooma’s Revenge followed by both Pinnacles and Belvedere on the way down. That nets around 1900’ of climbing in 6.6 miles,
Rising up from Issaquah to the east of Cougar is the often-overlooked Squak Mountain. There are three ways up the North side:
- The first starts near Tibbets Valley Park (K). It’s a nice climb, steep, less steep, steep, less steep. Make sure to go around the loop at the top so that you don’t miss out on the last 85’ of the climb.
- The second goes up Wildwood (M).
- The third goes up Mountain Park Blvd (L).
Wildwood and Tibbets are of similar difficulty, and Mountain Park is the hardest of the three. There are pitches all three that are quite difficult.
Heading North, you can descend 164th, Lakemont, or Montreaux. I do 164th the most as it’s fun and doesn’t have much traffic. Lakemont is super-fast if you like that sort of thing and are confident you can stop for the light at the bottom if necessary. Montreaux I’ve done a few times, and the turns are nice and wide but it’s really too steep for a nice descent. Zoo is right out.
Heading south, things are easy. You can take the Forest Drive descent I spoke of in the Somerset edition, or you can take Lakemont/Newcastle golf club road. My favorite descent is to start at The Zoo stop sign, descend down to Lakemont, and then all the way down into Renton. There is two short uphill sections west of Coal Creek Parkway that mean it’s not a pure descent, but it’s still very nice. The last little bit is nice and curvy, and you can cross the freeway overpass and pick up the Lake Washington trail. If you want to head North, you can take Lake Washington Blvd north instead of south and it will dump you out near Newcastle beach Park. From the Zoo stop sign all the way down to the water it’s around 7 miles and over 1100’ of descending.
This is also a nice climb if you are headed the opposite way.
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