The Ultimate Guide to Cycling the Utsukushigahara Highlands 美ヶ原





Zen Factor

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

Panorama of the Utsukushigahara, Matsumoto below, and the Japanese Alps.
Panorama of the Utsukushigahara, Matsumoto below, and the Japanese Alps.

Cycling The Utsukushigahara 美ヶ原

A mouthful for the non-Japanese speaker, the Utsukushigahara (Utsukushi-ga-hara) translates literally into the Beautiful Highlands. And it really lives up this name! A high plateau east of the inland city of Matsumoto, the Utsukushigahara is just opposite the high Alpine peaks of Nagano, making it the ultimate view point for cyclists.

Gaining some 1,400m from either side the Utsukushigahara tops out at 2,034m at its summit named Ougatou 王ヶ頭, or the Kings Head. And, while hikers and busses swarm to the high peaks each year, just to the east of the Alps is this amazing alpine grassland left largely untraveled by motorists & tourists.

Utsukushigahara Cycling Road to the summit at Ougatou
A view of the radio towers atop the Ougatou Summit on the Utsukushigahara Highlands.

Our favorite way to ride this climb is to approach from the east side and descend the west. This is because the east side is a narrower Rindo Forest Road that often goes hours without cars passing. Leading up from sweeping rice fields as you leave town the climb turns into a narrow snaking road through dense forests, eventually fading into alpine bamboo. Then, at the Takeishi Pass 武石峠 the canopy opens and the final 7km is an unbelievable string of exposed road along the highland plateau. One can expect epic views of the high peaks of Nagano, huge cliffs dropping down to the City of Matsumoto, and grassy alpine fields and happy grazing cows.

They really are massive cliffs down to the city of Matsumoto below.
The massive cliffs down to the city of Matsumoto below with Mt Norikura in the background.

What more, for the adventurous out there, when you arrive at the end of the paved road at the parking lot for the Utsukushigahara Nature Center, you can then take the gravel road up the final 2km to the Ougatou Hotel. Though expensive to stay, this hotel has public bath hours from 2-3pm each day, and I highly recommend planning your ride to incorporate this. The bath seemingly hangs from the cliffside facing Matsumoto and the Alps, and on clear days is one of the best views in Japan!

Also, don’t forget to hop off the bike and explore a little by foot once atop. There are strings of small hikes that can offer incredible vantage points in all directions!

Finally, after the summit and a soak in the onsen, enjoy a post onsen glass of milk from the local farms and hop back on your bike as you fly down the west side’s two lane wide road right into Matusmoto City!

Gazing at the Japanese Alps from atop the grassy alpine bamboo of the Utsukushigahara Highlands.
Gazing at the Japanese Alps from atop the grassy alpine bamboo of the Utsukushigahara Highlands.

Climb Details & Score Card Breakdown

Gain 5/5

Gaining 1,400m from either side this is one heck of a climb any way you slice it!

Views – 5/5

The final 7km are some of the best views in Japan as you skirt the massive cliff that separates the highlands and Matsumoto City below. The way up and down are also thrilling top class rindo forest roads.

Accessibility – 4/5

West Side – 4/5 | From Matsumoto Station you can ride straight to the climb adding very few “junk kilometers.” That said, it takes quite a bit of time to get to Matsumoto from Tokyo. (2h30 via Chuo Express Line direct from Shinjuku Station)

East Side – 4/5 | From Ueda Station it’s about 15km to the start of the climb. It is best to stay off the main Rt 152, and instead take the road near the river to avoid heavy traffic. Once you turn onto Route 62 the climb begins and the cars disappear. (1h20 direct via Shinkansen from Tokyo Station)

Pavement 3.5/5

West Side – 4/5, East side 3/5 | The preferred route is to go up the east side and down the west. See route below.

Zen Factor – 5/5

Like any top climb around the world, when the weather is right the views are just breathtaking. Couple this with virtually car free roads, rugged wilderness on the east side, sweeping views once atop, and an Onsen at the summit you can’t ask for a better Japan cycling climb experience!

Recommended Utsukushigahara Cycling Route – 73km & 1,900m

Strava Route File

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Utuskushigahara East->West Cycling Route Elevation Profile

Check out our full guide on the 14 Best Cycling Climbs in Japan (Hint, Not Mt Fuji!).

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