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Cycling (and Hiking) Norikura-dake 乗鞍岳 3,026m
Catching a glimpse of Norikura-dake (乗鞍岳) will take your breath away any time of year. However each year, cyclists from all corners of Japan and the world flock to this mountain during the fall, its most iconic season, also known as “kōyō” (紅葉) or “red leaves”. This year, we joined the peloton of climbers to ride out to Nagano Prefecture and catch a glimpse of Norikura’s famed fall foliage.
the reward for climbing up Norikura-dake
A thrilling descent! Watch our POV video here:
The Climb up Norikura-dake
We began our climb at Norikura’s base gate at the Senbondaki Parking Lot, which opens at 7am in October (6am July-September). After 30 minutes cycling on a green pine forest road, we turned a corner where gorgeous reds and oranges suddenly began to peek out.
Since Norikura-dake is well-known by cyclists around the country as Japan’s highest road, there were quite a few riders ascending the mountain with us on this Sunday morning. Being surrounded by other cyclists added to the magic and energy on the mountain that day!
Switchbacks continue to take us higher and higher: each turn in the road revealed more magnificent fall colors, more twisty roads, and endless mountain ranges in the distance. Eventually, the trees thinned out and rainbow bushes filled our peripherals, with Norikura’s hulking summit emerging through the background.
The texture and color of Norikura-dake’s landscape is truly one of a kind, making the grueling climb both inspiring and stunning!
Eventually, the sky opened up even more and the dramatic fall leaves turned into a rocky volcanic landscape. This unique view of Japan’s wild mountains is absolutely breathtaking, and we were lucky to get to see the full range of Nagano’s alpine landscape!
Reaching the Highest Road in Japan
We then reached the summit at over 2,702m above sea, gaining just under 1,000m from the parking lot below.
The summit of the road climb has two signs marking the border of Nagano and Gifu Prefectures. From here, there are two main trails: a short walk to a view point and a longer hike to the summit of Kengamine, the highest point on Mt Norikura-dake. Our plan that day was to reach the highest point of the mountain. So, at the trailhead, we locked up our bikes, traded our cycling shoes for trail shoes, and started the 5-km hike to Norikura’s peak, at 3026m (9928ft).
Hiking to Kengamine | Norikura-dake’s Summit 3,026m
On this clear Sunday morning during kōyō season, there were many other hikers voyaging up to Norikura-dake’s highest point. We joined the excited crowd of hikers on a relatively easy trail. The views continue to get better, with several photo-worthy viewpoints of the distant mountains in Nagano & Gifu Prefecture. We also caught views of the winding road we just climbed up, as well as alpine lakes resting in Norikura-dake’s troughs and caldera!
45 minutes later, we reached a mountain hut serving hot food and cold beverages. From here, the trail begins to get steeper, eventually turning into a rocky scramble up to the summit.
After 45 more minutes of scrambling towards the summit, we reached the end of a line of hikers waiting to reach the summit. Luckily, the beautiful weather & warm sun meant that it was enjoyable to sit around and wait for everyone to take their summit photos. We decided to have a short lunch break while waiting in line with our fellow hikers. Here, we had a small picnic with the fresh fruit and onigiri (rice balls) that we brought up the mountain with us.
After a 30-minute wait, we reached to the front of the line. We took a proud summit photo (see photo gallery below) with Norikura-dake’s elevation sign before hiking back down to our bikes.
Food on Norikura-dake
Our full time on the trail (with stops) was almost 3 hours, so we decided to look for a second lunch once we returned to the trailhead. Fortunately, there’s a mountain shop about 500m from the summit, next to Norikura-dake’s bus stop. Here, you can find onigiri, yaki-manjyu (sweet and savory buns), coffee, soups, curries, and several other Japanese options. The food is nothing to write home about, but a solid option and very convenient to have all the way up here.
After lunch, it was time to head back down. Sunset is early on Norikura-dake because the surrounding mountains are also quite high and we are on the east side of the mountian. We recommend descending the mountain by 3pm so that you have sufficient time to get back to your hotel or car safely. (They actually close the gate around 6-7pm each day!)
This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime climb that we are lucky to get to do several times each year. Each time, the road feels completely different due to its incredible ever-changing landscape & weather. We hope that you’ll also have the opportunity to ride this magnificent mountain and feel the power of Japan’s wilderness during the colorful kōyō season!
Complete Guide to Cycling Mt Norikura-dake!
Before your Climb
Norikura-dake is a serious mountain, high enough for some to experience altitude sickness. So, for those that have never ridden up over 2,000m above sea level it’s best to take it easy, bring plenty of snacks, and pace yourself.
Weather, temperature, and visibility can change instantly at high altitudes. A clear sky in the morning can often turn into wind and rain, so be prepared for these changes. Check the weather reports the morning of your ride, bring appropriate clothing, additional food and water, flat kits, and cash for other necessities or unexpected hunger at the top.
The Nagano side is open from July-end of October each yearl. We strongly caution against riding Norikura-dake outside the summer and fall seasons, when weather and roads are highly unpredictable. Once snow and ice are on the mountain, it’s better to hike rather than cycle, as the roads can become icy and dangerous.
When to Go to Norikura-dake
Fall is definitely the best time to ride on Norikura-dake. Usually, fall colors begin in the middle to last week of September and last until mid-October. Follow our instagram for kōyō updates and check online for weather updates before you go.
We recommend beginning your climb at 6am-7am (when the gate opens) to give yourself plenty of time to take photos, soak in the views, and descend safely before sunset. Also the lighting in the morning is magical!
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