We first learned about the Great Shasta Rail Trail several months ago, and have since been following the progress with great interest. The 80-mile corridor cuts through the forest south of Mt Shasta in Northern California, crossing several trestle bridges and connecting the communities of McCloud and Burney – which means it will be an incredible bike tourism route when complete.
Currently, there are 37 miles open and rideable, and we had the opportunity to check it out on our way back to Portland from LA. During our visit, we also had the opportunity to connect with some of the advocates behind the Great Shasta Rail Trail. We’ll cut the footage into a short video in the near future, but we wanted to share two big takeaways from the interviews – because we feel it’s information that could be helpful for other trail and bike tourism advocates.
1. Work Together & Communicate Openly
We’ve heard this from other successful trails and bike tourism destinations (most famously, from our interviews about the Otago Central Rail Trail in New Zealand) – but it bears repeating.
The Great Shasta Rail Trail morphed from vague idea to 37 miles open in just six years – which feels like lightening speed compared to other large destination trails. What moved it forward so quickly was the coalition of people working together. April Gray is the woman at the helm, but she quickly recognized the importance of building a team to work on the trail with her. Before there was a Great Shasta Rail Trail Association (who now manages the trail construction and maintenance), there was April and representatives from several other organizations (from land trusts to trail builders), who all saw the vision. Together, they reached out to their contacts, leaned on each others’ strengths, and put a plan in motion.
Equally as important, this diverse group met every month. Not only did regular meetings keep them all on track, it also kept them in contact with community members and land owners. For bike tourism to be successful in a small town, it’s important that nobody be alienated during the process – which happens best when there’s constant, consistent communication.
2. Name Wisely & Invest in Quality Branding
Often, we encounter trails (or other named routes) which are built without much marketing forethought. Names are long or confusing or otherwise uninspiring, and the routes aren’t branded in a way that brings in visitors. We understand that naming is complicated, and there are serious budget considerations in creating quality marketing – but potential visitors make snap decisions based on how they perceive an experience.
What helped the Great Shasta Rail Trail stand out to us, in the middle of all of the noise of the internet, is its incredible logo and iconic name. In talking to April, it was great to hear that they recognized the importance of good branding at the beginning. For everyone involved, the primary goal of the Great Shasta Rail Trail is to bring economic development via tourism to these communities – and they understood that potential visitors needed to find out about the trail in order to plan a visit. Hiring a professional graphic designer to create their branding imagery was, in our opinion, money very-well-spent.
But it turns out that selecting the name wasn’t so cut and dry. In fact, “Great Shasta Rail Trail” didn’t come along as a name until the committee kept squabbling about which town name should go first. It turns out that the original name was the McCloud-Burney Rail Trail, which the residents of Burney wanted reversed to be the Burney-McCloud Rail Trail. When nobody could agree to be second, someone suggested just leaving the town names out, and that’s when the hunt began for a new name. Our feeling is that, whatever it took, the new (and current) name is much better. Naming is tricky, because we often want to recognize an important person or reference a locally-known icon. But it’s important to think about an outsider coming in – who doesn’t know one regionally-important person from another – and who will likely choose a route based on the experience that it promises. The name “Great Shasta Rail Trail” promises incredible scenery, views of Mt Shasta, an epic trail experience – which will help it stand out above other potential destinations with less-exciting names.
Merit Badges going in the mail.
Last week, we introduced our #RideBikesTravelDoGood merit badges. The idea was to recognize people who are making the bike travel world a better place, and encourage all of us to keep paying it forward. The response to our call has been incredible, heartening, and encouraging. And we thought we’d share some of what we’ve gleaned so far…
1. There are a lot of people building the bike community.
Even though it’s happening largely under the radar of any big media, you all are already out there, spreading the bike love. From leading rides and supporting new riders, to volunteering on bike-ped committees and hosting travelers – the breadth of work that’s happening to grow a bike-friendly world is astounding.
“Whenever there is a chance to promote biking she is there – with her bike, doing it.”
“His enthusiasm for bicycling is undeniable and contagious.”
“I can’t imagine someone more passionate about bicycle life, including touring and helping others”
2. You all are eager for a way to say Thank You.
In almost every email we’ve received, there’s some variation of “I can never repay them.” You have been inspired, educated, and supported by some truly wonderful people – and there hasn’t been a mechanism to honor their contribution.
“The generosity and friendship shown by these two to me is beyond what I could ever repay or even dream possible. When I see them do the same for strangers, I am humbled and reminded that while we ride to get away from it all, we also ride to build the kind of community in which we want to live.”
3. This isn’t as niche as we thought.
We had this wacky idea to make some patches and offer them up as a merit badge. We thought we’d receive a few responses, probably nominating many of the same folks we want to honor. Instead, our email inbox is full of stories about everyday heroes across the world. We are humbled to learn about and honor these people. But, wow, we need to order more patches!
“Cycling is moving in a fantastic direction and it’s our duty to raise awareness and get more people interested and motivated to bike more often.”
Thank you to everyone who has nominated your personal bike heroes! Please continue to send us stories of the inspirational folks in your lives, so we can continue to honor them. Instructions to nominate someone for a #RideBikesTravelDoGood merit badge are here.
This is the last week to register for the National Bicycle Tourism Conference!
We’re putting the finishing touches on our portions of the National Bicycle Tourism Conference, checking off to-do lists, reaching out to our colleagues who we’ll see in a few weeks – and we wanted to write up one last pitch for you to join us in San Diego.
If you’re interested in where and how bicycling and tourism intersect, then we think you should consider attending the conference. This year’s agenda is full of interesting topics and conversation starters – from mountain bike tourism to urban bike tourism – from the big picture experience of a bicycle visitor to the nitty-gritty of putting together a route or a ride.
And, of course, the most valuable component is the opportunity to connect with folks from around the country (and beyond), to learn from each other, and to brainstorm interesting new ways to bring bike tourism into your community.
DMOs/CVBs: If you’re a tourism industry professional or work for your local Chamber or Business District, and you want to learn current best practices and how you can better incorporate bicycling into your tourism offerings, you should attend.
Bicycle Advocates: If you want to broaden your message of bicycles as economic development, or want to be able to speak to constituents who aren’t necessarily cyclists, you should attend.
If you’re interested in starting a Bike-Related Business, and you want to see what the gaps are in the market and learn from others who have started similar businesses, you should attend.
Trail Advocates: If you want to attract more visitors to your trail and learn about successes from other trails, you should attend.
If you’re involved in Economic Development, whether at a local or larger level, and you want to learn more about using bicycling to kickstart new opportunities, you should attend.
If you represent a Bicycle Brand or work in the Bicycle Industry, and you want to get in on the discussion of combining bicycling and tourism, which will ultimately help you sell more bikes, you should attend.
Over the last two years, we’ve seen the conference grow and change to become more inclusive of destinations and styles of riding beyond just fast-paced road events. We’re proud to be involved and look forward to the interactions that we’ll have this year – and we hope that you’ll consider joining us.
Registration ends on October 20. So, if you’re going to jump on the opportunity, now is the time to do so.
For the past two years, we’ve partnered with the good folks behind the National Bicycle Tourism Conference, to help them broaden their mission and their conference sessions to be more inclusive of the issues facing destinations. This year, we’ve been able to help behind-the-scenes, organizing a few of the sessions, which we think will be full of great information and inspiration.
Bike Tourism 101 Roundtable
For the first time this year, we’ve created a Bike Tourism 101 Roundtable, to follow the highly-popular format of the Events 101 Roundtable – only focused on the nuts and bolts of the tourism side of cycling. We’ve compiled a wide variety of experts, who’ll discuss issues related to bike-friendly business programs, safety, marketing, tracking success – as well as the often-overlooked niches of mountain bike tourism and urban bike tourism.
We first envisioned this session almost two years ago, when a conversation at the 2013 Bicycle Tourism Conference led us to wonder how to bottle the basics for destinations who are beginning to dip their toes into bike tourism. So, we were really thrilled to be asked to organize this session this year, and we’re excited to see what conversations are sparked as a result.
Bicycle Traveler Experience Interactive Session
To be honest, I can almost not contain how excited I am for this session. If you’re a destination representative or a tourism-focused business owner, and you’re trying to figure out how to be more successful at reaching out to cyclists – this is your session!
So many times, as bicycle travelers, we show up at our destination and have to jump through silly logistical hurdles. Maybe it’s asking permission to bring your bike into your hotel room. Maybe it’s figuring out where to park your bike while you stop for lunch in town, without a lock. Maybe it’s shipping your bike ahead, or landing at the airport and having to put your bike back together in an ill-equipped baggage area, or figuring out how to get from your lodging to the trail without having to drive.
We’ve crafted this session to help folks who are in the tourism world start to think through these details that bicycle travelers routinely have to navigate. Our goal is to lead an open discussion of these hurdles and how to make it easier for bike travelers, all while doing a bit of role-playing in the sunshine in San Diego. You know you want to be there.
Connect With Us!
We love this conference because it’s always a fun and enlightening few days – and because it’s a great opportunity to connect face-to-face with folks who we work alongside in the virtual world. We love meeting colleagues and readers, so give us a shout if you plan on attending, or just find us amongst the crowd.
When: November 4-7, 2015
Where: San Diego, CA
More info: www.bicycletournetwork.org
We’re excited to announce that we’ll be heading to Lodi, California next week to present and participate in their Bike Summit. This will be our first visit to Lodi, but our favorite wine comes from the region, so we know we’re headed to a good place! We’ll be speaking about bike tourism and the potential for the area – and we hope that it sparks some good conversation.
We’re also excited to be flying down a few days before the Summit to ride some of the routes that they’re proposing as designated bike tourism routes – some short mileage, some long, some through a quiet nature preserve, others stopping for wine and beer tastings.
If you’re in the region, we hope that you’re planning to join us and local community members at the Summit. No doubt it will all be great fun and a lot of valuable work – and definitely find us to say Hi.
Standing on the edge of Lost Lake, with Mt Hood looming majestically in the distance, it’s easy to see why it’s the second most photographed lake in the whole state (behind only Crater Lake). As the sun set behind the forested hills and shadows crept across the water, I stood on the shore and watched as the kayakers slowly turned back toward land and Russ hooked into trout after trout. It was about as idyllic an evening as you could imagine – made all the sweeter by the challenging ride that had gotten us there.
Knowing the elevation profile in advance, and the fact that the temperatures were forecasted to be well into the 100s, we let public transit carry us straight to the start of the good riding – first the MAX to Gresham, then the bus to Sandy. As we loaded the bikes on the bus, the driver inquired about our impending adventure, and then cheered enthusiastically at the very idea. Here was a man who clearly relished the way his bus takes city dwellers to the foot of the mountain.
We navigated our way out of Sandy, onto Ten Eyck Road, then Marmot Road, winding alongside the Sandy River and picturesque small farms. Tall trees and wildflowers lined the road. Cows milled about in the pastures. And every viewpoint showed hills that seemed to roll out forever.
Our first glimpse of Mt Hood.
As Marmot Road ended, we turned onto Barlow Trail Road. We stopped in the small hamlet of Brightwood, where we stocked up on water and snacks at the Brightwood Store. A few miles further and we finally turned onto Lolo Pass Road, the iconic road which had lured us into this entire trip.
Since moving to Portland, we have heard about Lolo Pass Road. It’s a beautiful country road that lets you wind up the base of Mt Hood without the headache of the nearby highway. It provides views of the mountain and surrounding forest that you can’t see from other roads. It’s also one of the original routes across the region and once served as a final leg along the Oregon Trail. Today, it’s mostly paved and mostly ignored by motorists.
She turned out to be our constant companion.
We worked our way up Lolo Pass slowly, stopping frequently to take in the spectacular views. The power lines that share the corridor meant little shade along the route, which became increasingly more brutal as the afternoon wore on and the temperature increased. But the grades were mostly gentle, so we dropped into the low gears and spun up the long climb, reminding ourselves to enjoy every moment of the long-awaited ride.
As we crested the pass level, we were met with a crossroads. Straight ahead was a very rough and rocky road, with a “not maintained for car travel” sign. The road surface to the right was more appealing, but the GPS said to go straight. A family in a minivan waved us down, concerned, when their GPS said to take yet a third option. We finally decided to go straight, and bombed down the rock garden of a road.
The giant chunks of rock don’t mean anything with that view, right?!
Eventually, we merged back with the main paved road, which treated us to a fast tree-lined descent, and then we hooked a left to continue on to Lost Lake Road. Russ joked that his GPS said we still had 1400 feet of elevation to climb to get to the lake, and that it must be wrong. Jinx. As we spun our way up the last few miles, the sun beat down, and car-after-car passed on their way to the lake, with rafts strapped to the roof. Slowly, we crested the last of the climb and then dropped into Lost Lake campground.
It has taken us a long time to finally ride Lolo Pass Road for the simple fact that we were stumped by how to ride it the way we wanted on the bikes we wanted. In our minds, this was a road that cried out for a light and fast bike, a machine that would let us simply enjoy the climb and the view – not a heavily-loaded touring bike that would get us there, but in a fashion more akin to slogging. At the same time, we wanted the freedom to stop a lot and take photos. We didn’t want to just bang it out like any ordinary day ride.
Yes, there really are that many trees.
In other words… How could we plan an overnight trip up Lolo Pass, while bringing a few necessary items and leaving the rest, and still have an adventure? How could we go “credit card touring” without the often-negative connotation of going “credit card touring”?
If you’d asked us about credit card touring when we first took off six years ago, we likely would have scoffed at the very idea. For us, at that time, the fun of traveling by bike centered around the self-sufficiency of carrying all our stuff with us wherever we went. A week’s worth of food, six gallons of water, extra wool layers, metalsmithing tools… whatever we needed to be able to ramble off into the middle of nowhere for an extended period. But strip away the stuff, and our beast-of-burden bikes weren’t “fun” on their own. As we grew weary of lugging around all the gear, we began to re-think our bike travel model. Which is how, over the past year or so, we have come to appreciate and value ride quality over utility.
In fact, part of the reason we got our Warbirds was to take them up Lolo Pass. Fast and nimble, while still stout enough to handle rough terrain and a bit of gear, we knew instantly that these bikes would fit that ride in a way that surpassed our other bikes. And our spring trip to Cascade Locks had proven our hunch correct – the Warbirds could handle a super-lightly-loaded trip without sacrificing the ride quality.
But what unlocked the whole puzzle was the discovery that Lost Lake Resort (a private entity operating along the lake, just a few miles off Lolo Pass Road) offered minimalist cabins with a bed and linens, and a store stocked with beer (and, if you remember to order in advance, fresh hot pizza).
Since we didn’t need the wood stove, it provided perfect indoor bike parking.
Double gas burners + pots + dishes + toaster. Pretty well set-up for a tiny cabin.
On the morning of Day 2, we were up early in the cool mountain air. We navigated our way our of the campground via trail, which was mostly planned but also a bit of a gamble – and which turned out to be a very bumpy shortcut to NF13. (To avoid the trail, just backtrack out of the campground and turn left.)
Before we left Portland, we were tipped off to NF13 as a better way to ride down the mountain to the NE. NF13 basically parallels Lost Lake Road, but the narrowness of NF13 makes it feel more like a bike path through the woods. Without a doubt, it was the best stretch of road of the whole trip. We passed a ranger a few times, and a couple logging trucks, but otherwise it was just us and the quiet, as we descended through giant rock flows and old growth trees.
Boulders bigger than our apartment.
Quiet descent through the thick forest full of old growth trees.
At some point, we popped out into the Hood River Valley. Mt Hood gleaming to the South, Mt Adams to the North, orchards all around. On our way into Hood River, we stopped at Tucker County Park for a fishing break. In talking with the campground staff, we learned that they now offer hiker-bike camping for just $5 per night (so does nearby Toll Bridge Park). We also learned where to find the “best street tacos in all of Hood River” – and, when I had to dust off my rusty Spanish to order, I knew it wasn’t a bluff (a little food truck by a gas station called “Nobis” for fellow taco aficionados).
Since we had decided to turn the ride up Lolo Pass into a whole trip, we routed a 4-day loop: up the mountain on the West, then down the North slope into Hood River for 2 nights (giving us time to ride another iconic route: the Rowena Loops), then back to Portland via the Gorge.
Hood River is a beautifully-appointed small tourist town, so we knew lodging wouldn’t be a problem. But after a night in a cabin in the woods, we bristled at the idea of just crashing at a motel somewhere. Small towns excel at unique lodging options, so I went hunting for something that could parallel the cabin experience. I found it in the tent cabins (also known by the terrible term “glamping”) at Vagabond Lodge.
Our tent cabin, secluded, yet just a short distance to town.
Makes you sleepy just looking at it, doesn’t it?
Set back at the edge of the property and nestled a short distance from the cliffs that drop down to the Columbia River, the tent cabins felt like some modern-day version of Hemingway going on safari. The soft-side canvas tent was pitched on a wooden plank floor, set up several feet off the ground. Beautifully furnished, it came with a vintage-styled cooler, full water jug, and LED lanterns. No electricity, no running water, a short walk to the outdoor shower and porta-loo. The only downside is the low rumble of traffic from the nearby freeway, although the crickets put up a pretty good fight for loudest white noise.
Our “layover” day in Hood River was meant to be a long day ride, a chance to tick off some of the iconic area rides. We decided to head out to Rowena Crest, along the Historic Columbia River Highway. From Hood River, we followed the state trail through the Mosier Twin Tunnels, then passed through the small community of Mosier, before continuing through the orchards and vineyards.
Mother Nature was out in force that morning, determined that her latest heat wave should keep us all inside by the air conditioner. By this point, we had traveled far enough to the East that we were officially on the “dry side” of the state, meaning no shade, and the little wind that kicked up was hot and dusty. Still, we were determined. We were also not alone, and the several dozen other cyclists on the road far outnumbered the cars.
We reached Rowena Crest and peered down at the twisting curves of the old road. And then we kicked off. When the road was first built 100 years ago, it conformed to the needs of the cars at that time: wide curves, gentle grades. But it feels as if it was built for cycling, because those wide curves and gentle grades let you let off the brakes, lean in, and just enjoy the ride.
They don’t build roads like this anymore. Absolutely perfect descent.
The next day, we would return to Portland via the very-familiar-to-us Historic Columbia River Highway corridor. But it didn’t escape our attention, at that moment, that we had successfully pulled together a multi-day, lightly-loaded-yet-bikepacking-esque, Lolo Pass themed trip. Our pursuit of Lolo had also enabled us to check off several other iconic NW rides. Despite the heat and the moments of getting lost, it absolutely lived up to our hopes and expectations.
After soaring down the Rowena Loops, we turned around and rode them back uphill. We backtracked our morning route, and stopped in Mosier for a taco lunch. And then, when we were safely back in Hood River, we waited out the rest of the 109-degree day with a few perfectly cold adult beverages.
Climbing back up Rowena Crest, with the mighty Columbia River in the background.
Margarita salt is an electrolyte replacer, right?!
Curious about the route we took? The GPS tracks of our route are below…
– Sandy to Lost Lake. Remember that we took the straight and rocky route over Lolo Pass. To avoid all that bumpiness, turn right. Both roads intersect again.
– Lost Lake to Hood River. With no signs and a confused GPS, we didn’t realize that the trail had delivered us to NF13 – so we did some extra credit and rode uphill until we found a sign that told us we had been exactly where we wanted to be. If you take the trail, just turn left.
For the past many months, we have been working on a video project with the Oregon Department of Transportation and Travel Oregon, to highlight the ongoing effort to re-connect the Historic Columbia River Highway as a walkable-bikeable State Trail.
We’ve long been supporters of the trail project – so it’s been fun to help highlight the opportunities for increased bike tourism through the Columbia River Gorge.
Now it’s time to celebrate! Join us at the video premiere party:
When: Tuesday, July 14.. 6-8pm
Where: Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland
Check out the Facebook event page for the full event details. We look forward to seeing you there!
A few weeks ago, we spent 10 days in Iowa. Our goal: to explore three diverse parts of the state and find great places to ride.
The air is thick and sticky when we arrive in Des Moines, an appropriate welcome to the Mid West. It’s hot and humid on the patio of El Bait Shop also, but it’s worth it to sample the bike-friendly bar’s impressive beer list (along with some of their famous wings).
In the morning, we pick up a pair of bikes from Kyle’s Bikes in Ankeny. We had hoped to avoid the headache of flying our own bikes – and, although they don’t officially rent bikes, Kyle graciously set us up with a couple loaners for the whole trip (thank you Kyle, and Bob!).
Then we’re off to the SW corner of the state.
The Wabash Trace
The Wabash Trace is a 63-mile rail trail that would make a perfect easy bike tour from the Council Bluffs – Omaha metro area. The surface is crushed limestone, and it’s lined with a thick canopy of Elm and Walnut trees. The whole length of the trail is a nature preserve, and there are birds everywhere (and squirrels and bunnies and deer). It’s quiet and peaceful as it winds through the small communities that grew up with the original railroad.
The natural surroundings of the Wabash Trace.
We’ve arranged to stay in a few of the communities as we wind our way down the trail. In Malvern, we “check in” at the Project Art Church. A few years ago, Zack moved back to Malvern after a decade in Arizona. He bought the old Presbyterian church, which had stood empty for a generation, and converted it to a studio/gallery space and apartment. Now, that same apartment is headed for a listing on AirBnB, and we’re lucky to be only the third visitor to stay.
Zack, surrounded by some of his work, at the Project Art Church.
We visited Malvern for approximately 3 hours last fall, to talk with the trail group in the back room of the Classic Cafe. We ate dinner beforehand, and the idea of returning for another meal was one of the things we were most excited about on this trip. We splurge on a pair of steak dinners, complete with baked potato and fresh veggies. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, it’s the best steak of the whole trip (and quite possibly one of the best ever).
Along the trail, we goof off at the old jail in Silver City, stop in to the Mineola Steakhouse (where the infamous Thursday Night Taco Ride ends), and ponder the meaning of all the train cars in the river (an old way of dealing with riverbank erosion). We meet up with some local trail advocates who ride a stretch of the trail with us and tell us all the fascinating history.
A small piece of history tucked along the Wabash Trace.
Trail champion, Becca, and her son, enjoying one of the many historic rail bridges.
In Imogene, the tiniest town along the trail, I’m told the current population is: “maybe 40?” But it somehow feels bigger than it is – maybe because The Emerald Isle, the local bar (and only business in town), is the de facto community hang-out spot, and it’s positively buzzing when we’re there. Dinner is great, but it’s really just an excuse to dig in to the pie. Twice a year, at spring planting and fall harvest, the infamous Pie Lady and her husband travel to Imogene to help at the family farm, and immense and delicious pies abound. It’s a story that couldn’t be any more ‘small town,’ and it’s exactly the memorable sort of experience that got us into bike touring in the first place.
Seriously, plan your trip around the pie.
The next day, we work our way down to Shenandoah, the biggest town along the Wabash Trace (except for Council Bluffs, which anchors the trail at the North end). In Shenandoah, we have three places to seek out: Wabash Wine Company (yes, Iowa makes wine – Wabash also makes excellent wood-fired pizzas), George Jay Drug (or, rather, the old fashioned soda fountain inside the pharmacy), and The Depot Deli (an old railroad depot converted to a restaurant, that also houses a micro-brewery). The woman at the Shenandoah Inn, when I ask about our bikes at check-in, laughs, not skipping a single beat: “of course you can bring them in!” she says, telling me that they see a lot of folks coming in off the trail.
The Depot Deli and its incredible collection of memorabilia.
Our next destination is Grinnell, a small college town about an hour NE of Des Moines. For the past several years, Grinnell has hosted TransIowa, which has helped put the town on the map for gravel riding. After a teaser ride last fall, we’re excited to really explore some of the roads that the harder-core-than-us TI riders traverse (we’re also excited that we’ll have much, much better weather).
Our lodging is one of the impeccably designed and decorated lofts downtown. Since most of Grinnell’s hotels are on the edge of town, we feel fortunate to simply stumble downstairs and into one of several great restaurants. And we take full advantage, sampling almost all of the local eateries, including the wine bar. The food options in town are surprisingly cosmopolitan for this little town surrounded by farmland. (Our favorites: La Cabana for filling Mexican lunches, and Prairie Canary for fresh, locally-grown dinners.)
Solera wine bar welcomes with a cozy interior and a delicious collection of wine and beer.
Our first morning in town, we meet up with two local gravel riding aficionados, who have offered to take us out on an iconic Grinnell gravel loop. Instantly, the roads surprise us, as they roll straight up and over some pretty intense hills. This is not the flat land that we blindly assumed characterizes the whole Mid-West, nor is it the kind of long-and-slow climbing that we’re used to in the West. These are short punchy climbs that suck all the wind out of your lungs and legs, before giving you a rip-roaring descent down the other side.
Gravel and farmland in Grinnell.
Lots of challenging-yet-picturesque hills.
A few miles out of town, we pass the barn that marks the end of TransIowa. We pass beautifully-quintessential farmhouses, perched on ridge-lines, overlooking miles and miles of corn and soybeans. We pass Rock Creek Lake and several small streams. And we roll back into town ready for a nap.
Over the next few days, we get into a rhythm of riding early in the morning, hiding inside while the sun rages, then heading out again in the late afternoon. We learn that the rides to the West of town are hillier than the rides to the East. We learn that B roads are absolutely phenomenal, provided that they are dry, dry, dry (these roads will swallow you whole after a rain). We learn that you can ride in a straight line for seven miles, and gain 500 feet of elevation. We learn that you can turn a corner and disappear into a landscape belonging to rural Europe.
Just about perfect.
Our final destination is Decorah, nestled in the NE corner of the state. Here, there’s no mistaking the landscape as flat. Decorah sits at the lower edge of the Driftless Region, an area marked by deeply-carved river valleys and limestone bluffs. As a result, surrounding farms are smaller, because it’s hard to plant thousands of acres of corn across the steep landscape.
We check in to the Hotel Winneshiek, a beautifully-renovated historic hotel in downtown. Again, we are within easy walking distance of great restaurants and shops. Decorah has a thriving Main Street district, complete with a food co-op and outdoor store. Again, we’re determined to sample a little bit of everything. (Our favorites: Old Armory BBQ plus a beer at The Courtyard & Cellar’s neighboring beer garden, and the seasonal bistro options at La Rana.)
Bike-friendly Hotel Winneshiek.
Warm interior and delicious food at La Rana.
We meet up with the three women who’ve offered to ride with us in Decorah, and we pick a route the heads NW to the small community of Bluffton. It’s a simple out-and-back route, following low-traffic paved roads. We climb out of one valley into another, taking in sweeping vistas as we momentarily follow a ridge-line. We pass some of the characteristic rocky bluffs, before paralleling the river into Bluffton and resting for a bit at one of the shaded campgrounds.
It turns out there’s great (paved) road riding in Iowa too.
Rocky cliffs and rolling hills.
The next day, we expand our radius a bit and piece together a mixed-terrain route that zig-zags down gravel farm roads and beside impressive rock outcroppings. We’re astounded at the changing terrain and topography – lush and green, then wide open farmland, with the occasion tiny community – and we’re astounded that this incredibly-remote-feeling countryside is only a few minutes from town.
There’s a reason they call this ‘Scenic River Road.’
Both afternoons, as the heat of the day fades, we head out on the Trout Run Trail, a phenomenal 12-mile loop that winds alongside fishing rivers, small farms, and a bald eagle nest. Russ throws a line out in a few places along the river, and reels in (and then tosses back) a dozen or so small trout.
The switchbacks along the Trout Run Trail, as it cuts through farmland south of town.
If only all #bikefishing was this accessible!
Our 10 days in Iowa surprised us. As natives of the West Coast, we admit that Iowa never really registered as a travel destination – at least, not until we had an opportunity to spend some time in the state last fall. As we rambled across the state, we found signs of bike dotted throughout Iowa’s culture, just in a different way than you find in Portland – and we found ourselves wondering what other great rides are hiding behind the cornfields.
Exasperated, I stopped in the middle of the mud field of a road. I could no longer shoulder my bike, after carrying it most of the way down the hill. But pushing wasn’t an option either, as the peanut butter mud clogged up the tire tread and chain and everything else in the bat of an eye. So I just stood there for a moment, pondering what to do.
And that’s when I saw Phil’s van, chugging up the hill on a rescue mission. I stuck out my thumb, amazed that he’d gotten enough traction to come after us. As we loaded up my muddy mess of a bike (and muddy me), Phil joked, “if everything went perfect, it wouldn’t be a good story!”
In Oregon, the part of the state West of the Cascade Mountains is known as the “Wet Side.” The Eastern part of the state, predominantly high desert and ranch land, is the “Dry Side.” There’s a reason for this – it’s usually exceedingly dry and sunny in the East.
The Dry Side also has spectacular gravel roads that wind their way through endlessly open and empty vistas – which is why we had crossed the mountains with a motley group of friends.
We were base-camped out of Treo Ranch, a hunting lodge that caters to cyclists in the off-season – and a slate of beautifully challenging rides had carefully been planned for our weekend.
Phil and Dan plotting ride routes for the weekend.
But Russ and I seem to be on a streak of having rainy weather on the Dry Side – and we woke up Saturday morning to a soggy landscape that had been pummeled with rain overnight.
We dawdled over coffee and breakfast, trying to pull up the weather forecast via weak internet and cell service, before deciding to just go for it. This was clearly not the weather we wanted, but there was no point in wasting the trip.
Dodging puddles as we pedaled away from Treo.
We followed the undulating ridge line out of the ranch. All of Eastern Oregon, it seemed, rolled out alongside us, a never-ending series of deep valleys and tall hilltops, all covered in sage and wild grasses. The storm clouds of the night before still lingered on top and around us, lending a surprisingly grey cast to the landscape.
Determined to ride, we ignored all the ominous signs.
Fantastically steep descent down Buttermilk Canyon.
After a few miles, the storm clouds seemed to lessen, and we descended into Buttermilk Canyon. The creek had long ago carved this narrow and winding canyon, and there was an old ranch spread out through the bends. Hundreds of swallows rushed out of their nests in the cliff walls above us – and, for a few miles, everything seemed perfect.
Then we started up the hill.
At a certain point, the good gravel we’d been enjoying turned into sticky muck. Mud glommed on to every possible surface, gumming up tires and chains in seconds. And it brought along the remnants of the gravel that should have surfaced the road, so that pebbles could be heard scraping frames and found clogging chain links to the point of cogs no longer turning.
There’s a bike under there somewhere.
When the mud got too thick on my tires, I walked.
When the mud got so sloppy that it tried to suck off my shoes, I carried my bike.
Cyclo-cross style, aka why I have a bruise on my shoulder.
Slowly, gingerly, we made our way up the hill.
At the top, I discovered that I had cell signal, so I snapped a photo and posted it to Facebook, laughing at the ridiculousness of the mud.
And then I heard the worst words you can hear on a ride: “I broke my bike.” In the fight of Russ vs the mud, the mud had won. It had ripped off his derailleur, which now hung from his chain in a sad and mangled ending.
Our 70-mile ride had been reduced to just 16, and the mud had left a few casualties in its wake.
Unable to make all the necessary repairs on the fly, Russ and his steed hitch a ride with a passing rancher.
There is something about Eastern Oregon that keeps drawing us back. The landscape is mesmerizing, with its big skies and rolling hills. You can stand on a hilltop and feel impossibly tiny, just as you will check that your eyes are open when it’s pitch black at night and that your ears can still hear when it’s stunningly quiet. Whenever there is an opportunity to ride around Eastern Oregon, I will take it, and it will never be enough.
But the allure of Eastern Oregon can obscure an important fact: you can easily get in over your head.
On a ride last fall, we climbed up a twisting gravel road and dropped into a deserted valley. Breathtakingly beautiful, and eerily easy to just disappear and never again see anyone or a hint of civilization.
I love the feeling of being completely independent and self-sufficient. But, I have to say, when things go wrong, when the road tries to swallow you alive, it’s nice to know that someone has your back.
Thank you Phil and your mud-conquering van.
We first met Phil roughly a year ago, and we were instantly impressed. A former rancher and mechanic, Phil has run a hunting lodge near Heppner, Oregon since the 1980s – and began to reach out to cyclists a few years ago to fill the gap during the hunting off-season.
Cycling caps now hang alongside hunting hats.
At Treo, cycling and hunting blend together under one roof, in a style that’s both odd and perfectly fitting. There are pheasants on the wall and cue sheets on the side table. There’s Bud Light for the hunters, IPA for the cyclists – and everyone gets a steak at the end of the day (this is Eastern Oregon, after all).
And that’s what makes Treo so inviting – rather than putting on airs, it’s a cozy slice of Eastern Oregon. It’s an opportunity to experience a place that’s vastly different from where most of us live, to rub elbows with the history and culture of this part of the West – and to cycle some of the most beautiful roads in Eastern Oregon, without a second thought about ‘did I pack enough water?’ and ‘what if I break my derailleur in the middle of a long ride?’
Helping cyclists blend into the surroundings and be a good neighbor.
The morning after the mud fiasco, we awoke to sun streaming in the window. Was it all a dream? It would be easy to believe that we had simply imagined all those miles of walking through muck – if not for Russ’ derailleur-less bike propped against the wall.
On a normal independent trip, we would resign ourselves to “not chancing it.” But the promise of van support on our planned 40-mile route meant that we wouldn’t have to miss out on the last day of (now dry) Eastern Oregon gravel. Russ could spin on his make-shift single-speed – and bail if it turned out to be a terrible idea.
In sharp contrast to the day before, we were greeted by a sparkling blue sky, dotted with a few perfect powderpuff clouds. Out through the ghost town of Hardman, down a roaring canyon descent, uphill again along a winding creek, and into the Ponderosa forest. Treo Ranch is located on a grassy slope, surrounded by rangeland – so the tall pine trees surprised and delighted us. And then they surprised us even more when they suddenly disappeared on the other side of the summit, and we followed a screaming descent through wildflower-dotted prairie-land.
Incredible views around every turn.
A much better experience in the sunshine.
The landscape and terrain of the route changed every few miles, a perfect welcome-to-Eastern-Oregon gravel sampler route. Up, down, narrow canyons, wide open fields. Constant wonder and surprise, on a deliciously warm and sunny day. It was exactly the ride that we had been looking forward to – made all the sweeter by the sheer inability to experience it the day before.
I feel like a complete goof. I’m standing in the Deschutes River, decked out in waders, rod in hand, as if maybe I belong there, but I have no clue what I’m doing.
An hour earlier, amid conversation at the fly shop, we let it slip that this is my first attempt at fly fishing. Curiosity ensues, and I try to explain what makes me want to wade into the river and swing for trout. As a feminist and marketer, it bugs me that fishing ads rarely show women. But that sounds weird and pretentious to say, so I go with the second reason – which is that, after years of watching Russ, I have simply started to wonder what the fuss is all about.
It’s over 80 degrees, sunny and dry, and the sky is swimming with giant insects. So far, so good.
We decide to keep it as simple as possible, so I use one of Russ’ Tenkara rods. No reel, no complicated cast patterns, I just have to land the fly in the right part of the water.
But first, I have to overcome my fear of water. As soon as I step into the river, I remember why I have always avoided fishing, and it’s the same reason why I avoid swimming in rivers or lakes or the ocean… I tend to panic when I can’t clearly see my feet. The river bottom is dark, and there are ripples on the water’s surface. I take a deep breath and step in, but I have to remind myself that I’m only ankle-deep and the waders and shoes will keep the river critters from brushing up against my skin.
Russ ties a fly onto the Tenkara line, the fly that the guy in the fly shop says I should rely on. I get a few pointers and throw the line into the water. Russ stands on the bank, watching and taking photos.
When it seems like I’ve grasped the basics, Russ strings up his own rod and steps into the river behind me. While he brings in a few trout, I snag a few trees.
Russ suggests that I move down the river a bit further, out from under the brush, but it’s too late. My fly has decided to dance with the tree branches. I wade down to where it’s royally tangled up, trying to make sense of the mess. And then I see the snake. Game over.
It rained overnight, so we wake up to a soggy campground and grey skies. The temperature is at least 20 degrees cooler than the day before. There are no giant clouds of enormous bugs. But we’re not leaving, so we load up the bikes and pedal down the gravel road.
The gravel is thick and chunky, recently graded. It’s not ideal for the tires we have, but I’d much rather be on a bike than picking my way through in a car.
Russ watches the river for rises while I take in the scenery. This stretch of the Deschutes is different from the stretch we usually visit.
Eventually we pick a spot. Waders. Crocs. Down jacket. Tenkara rod. Magic fly. I wander back into the river, thankful that the change in weather means I won’t likely see any snakes.
The morning wears on, I catch a few more trees. We take a break and chat with another fisherman. I feel completely out of my element.
And just when I’m beginning to think that fishing is completely the dumbest thing ever… I hook into a trout. I’m so shocked that I literally scream. The guys who had just boated across the river watch as Russ helps me land a beautiful 8” rainbow. I just keep saying, ‘holy crap, I can’t believe I caught one.’
Ten minutes later, I hook another.
Not long after my fishing triumph, it began to rain. And rain. All through the night and into the morning. We drag ourselves out of the tent, hoping for some clear skies for a few hours. I want to catch another trout.
We pack up our stuff, hop back on the bikes, and pedal back down the road to the magic spot of the day before. I get a strike only 10 minutes after getting into the river, and I’m so mesmerized by the sight of the fish coming up from the depths to grab the fly, that I forget to set the hook.
Clearly, I’m still a rookie. But at least I finally understand why fly fishing is so darn addictive.