Cycling Mount Norikura – The Highest Road in Japan

Introduction

Cycling to the top of Mt Norikura in peak fall colors, Koyo in Japanese.
Cycling to the top of Mt Norikura in peak fall colors, Koyo in Japanese.

Gain
5/5

Views
5/5

Accessibility
3/5

Pavement
4/5

Zen Factor
4/5

Climb Score Card from our full article on the 14 Best Cycling Climbs in Japan (Hint, Not Mt Fuji!).

There really is not another place like this in the world. High above the rest of Japan at 2,702m above sea sits the caldera of Mount Norikura 乗鞍岳. A massive stratovolcano right in the middle of the spine of high peaks that separate Nagano and Gifu Prefectures.

While many other climbs to the highest roads in other countries might boast higher summits, Norikura is home to the only 100% closed to cars road to the summit!

That’s right, no cars from 1,800m to the top. That’s 900m of gain on 13km of car free road to the top!

The snow capped Norikuradake in late May.
The snow capped Norikura-dake in late May.

The Route

Starting from Matsumoto City in Nagano Prefecture you can take the most direct route up the Route 158 west, turn left on Route 84, and then just climb to the top.

But that’s a really bad route, as Route 158 that close to Matsumoto is always full of cars. Here are the three routes I most recommend based on how long of a ride you want.

The snaking switchbacks and stunning fall foliage on Mt Norikura in late September.
The snaking switchbacks and stunning fall foliage on Mt Norikura in late September.

Route 1: The Big Kahuna

The most direct route from Matsumoto City.
The most direct route from Matsumoto City.

Instead of the busy 158 this route takes you through some of Nagano’s famous apple orchards out of town. Then hopping back on Route 158 just before the last train station of Shinshimashima Station.

After this, it’s 4 tunnels to the beautiful Nagawado Dam. Three more tunnels gets to to the turn onto Route 84 where the traffic really dies down. Then three more short tunnels and it’s all up from there!

NOTE ON THE TUNNELS: This route has 10 tunnels on roads with no shoulders of which you are trending uphill. The tunnels are not pitch black, but the lighting is not the best. Bring a tail light.

It is for this reason I highly recommend doing this route on a WEEKDAY and leaving VERY EARLY. If you can make the turn onto Route 84 by about 9am you should have pretty little traffic.

Strava Route File 138km & 3,200m gain

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Elevation Profile of The Big Kahuna Route
Soaking in the views from the top of Japan.
Soaking in the views from the top of Japan.

Route 2: The Scenic Route

The Big Kahuna!
The Big Kahuna!

A similar route to the above but with one modification. At the Nagawado Dam Parking Lot you will head left along Route 26 for 4 more tunnels before turning right onto the 乗鞍岳スーパー林道, Norikuradake Super Forest Road. You heard right, this is not just a normal forest road, but a SUPER forest road. In all seriousness, it is beautiful and 1/10th the traffic of the other route, but you will climb more for it.

From here a short downhill into the Norikura Kogen and a left on Route 84 to head up to the top.

Strava Route File 146km & 3,500m gain

Elevation Profile of The Direct Route
Elevation Profile of The Direct Route

Route 3: Norikura from the Parking Lot to the Top

13km of car free epic volcano climbing!
13km of car free epic volcano climbing!

For those looking to just do the best part, take the bus or drive your car up to the Sanbondaki Falls Parking Lot. From there hop on your bike and pass through the gate to start your climb and enjoy the peace and quiet!

Strava Route File 26km & 900m gain

Elevation Profile of The Top Only Route
Elevation Profile of The Top Only Route

Making a Trip Out of It

Guided Trips That Climb Mt Norikura

Tour of the Japanese Alps

Our level 5 Tour of the Japanese Alps is the best way to join a group. We not only do the highest road in Japan, but also cross three different prefectures and hit all of the best hidden gems and epic climbs over the week.

more details

Want to design a private tour that includes Norikura-dake? Email us to chat more: contact@biketourjapan.com

cyclists climbing on road bikes

Going It On Your Own

One Day

For those brave enough to go for it in one day time is of the essence. I recommend starting as early as possible to both avoid morning traffic and to have the most daylight. If you can aim to be at the top by no later than 4 hours from sunset you should be able to get back to Matsumoto in that time. Remember it’s basically all up on the way out and all down on the way back.

Multi-Day

This would be my recommendation if you don’t want to pull an epic day. You can easily break the ride into two days. Day 1 ride up to Norikura Kogen. Stay the night at one fo the hotels. Then the following morning head up and return back to Matsumoto.

When to Cycle Mt Norikura-dake

Much like the high passes around the rest of the world, Mount Norikura’s road is only accessible for a short period of time in the year.

Nagano Prefecture Official Road Closure Information for Mt Norikura

While opening and closing dates will vary based on the snowfall and melt each season the Echo Line up from the Nagano side is open year round to the parking lot. From here, the upper 13km past the gate is typically open starting the first day of July and closes the last day of October each year.

The rainbow of Koyo, or fall colors of the high alpine grasses and shrubs on the mountainside.
The rainbow of Koyo, or fall colors of the high alpine grasses and shrubs on the mountainside.

Early vs Late Season Riding on Norikura

With just a 4 month window in which you can climb Mt Norikura it is important to consider what weather to expect.

Our article on the four seasons of cycling in Japan will give you an in-depth idea of what to expect each month. But in short, the months of July & August will prove to be much cloudier and wetter on average than September and October.

My personal favorite time to ride Norikura is mid to late September when the fall colors have started at the highlands near the summit.

While you are never guaranteed a view with the temperamental high mountain weather, I have found September and October to offer far more blue sky days than July and August.

Score Card Breakdown

Gain – 5/5 | A whopping 2,200m from Matsumoto | 1,200m from the turn onto Rt 84 | 700m from the gate to the top
Views – 5/5 | Passo Stelvio level views without the cars!
Accessibility – 3/5 | Direct train via Chuo Express from Tokyo, but heavy traffic is common up to Rt 84.
Pavement – 5/5 from the gate to the top, but 3/5 below the gate to Matsumoto City
Zen Factor – 5/5 above the gate, NO CARS! 2/5 below the gate with narrow roads and many tunnels

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