The Historic Columbia River Highway is a fabled piece of road in Oregon history. It has the distinction of being designated the first “Scenic Highway” in the country and inspired other great roads in the US. With the construction of I-84 through the Columbia River Gorge many parts of the historic highway were lost. We’ve had the great pleasure of working with ODOT the last few months to create a web video series explaining the highways reconnection as trail and build support for the difficult final stretch. As a bicycle tourism asset, when it is complete it will provide an amazing experience. But, we are not quite there yet. Sit back and enjoy the videos and share them!
From Historic Road to Trail
The Mossy Road
The Final Five
The Mitchell Point Tunnel
Review: Small Pannier Shootout – Ortlieb Frontroller Plus vs Salsa Touring Pannier and Arkel Dry-Lites
Rackless bags are blowing up the bike touring / bikepacking internet. In the last few years, framebags (feedbags, seatbags, etc.,) have moved to the mainstream. With so many people going rackless, what is to become of the beautifully functional bicycle pannier? We think that panniers are here to stay, but are interested in the next evolution of small/micro panniers. If bikepacking has shown us anything, it is how little you really need to carry to travel by bike and that this lower pack weight lets you access rugged terrain. But, sometimes you need to carry a bit more than a rackless system can carry or perhaps you don’t/can’t re-invest in ultralight camping gear to make it fit in, or you ride a small frame and your storage capacity has shrunk proportionally. We think that many will take lessons from the streamlined minimalism of bikepacking and apply it to touring with panniers and that we will see an interesting hybrid of bikepacking and bike touring develop in the next year or so. Until then, here is a close look at three small panniers that will keep you from packing too much on your next bike tour.
Ortlieb Front Roller Plus
Ortliebs are often regarded as the gold standard of panniers. A quick look at bike commuting rush hour in Portland and Ortliebs easily outnumber other brands by a pretty big margin. On our big US tour we used a pair of rear Ortlieb Bike-Packer Plus panniers which we only recently retired and served us for nearly 5 years under hard use. For our future trips, we are planning to pack a lot lighter and are hoping to only rely on smaller front panniers.
The latest iteration of the front Front Roller Plus panniers come in rather fetching duotone colorways. The blue as pictured is “denim-bluesteel”. The Cordura material is completely waterproof but has a bit more texture than typical drybag material. A single pannier and strap that we weighed came in at 725g or 1.6 pounds.
Closure and Hardware
The front Backpacker Plus panniers can be closed two ways. You can either roll the top two to three times and connect the end buckles to themselves, or you can use provided shoulder strap to hold the end buckles down. We’ve found that using the shoulder strap gives you a little more volume to play with. An additional top strap helps compress the load and also makes a handy place to stick some clothes that need to be dried while riding.
The Q3 hardware consists of two adjustable locking hooks (opened and closed via the pannier handle) and a third lower hook to stabilize the bag. The mounting hardware is easily adjusted without the use of anything but your fingers. Spacers for the hooks are provided so you can match the diameter of your rack. For a truly perfect fit, we like to wrap a little electrical tape on the rack to take up any additional space.
Weight 1440g/50,8 oz./pair
No longer just single color bags! The aesthetics are great and the Ortlieb bags come in various colorways to suit your tastes.
Small enough not to overpack on tour but still large enough to serve double duty for daily commute/shopping errands.
Hardware can be adjusted without tools.
The heaviest of the three panniers reviewed.
Shoulder strap closure is a little confusing.
Wider profile may be problem on more technical terrain.
Salsa Front Touring Panniers
While Salsa has been helping lead the charge with the rackless revolution, they also recently released panniers of their own. Fashioned around the simple dry bag concept with few internal compartments, the panniers come in red/black and are nicely decorated with a reflective compass design. The material is waterproof and feels noticeably heavier than the material in the Ortlieb Front Roller Plus range. Interestingly, however, a single front pannier weighed in at 695g (1.5 pounds) and was marginally lighter than the Ortlieb. This bit of weight can be probably accounted for in the slightly smaller overall volume of the front pannier.
The Salsa pannier has a very simple and tidy closure mechanism: roll the top and lock down the sides. It is a bit more intuitive than Ortlieb’s closure utilizing the shoulder strap and tidier than both the Ortlieb and Arkel when you have to roll and join the top buckles. The pannier has a nice and thick rubber feeling handle which won’t cut into your hand like some fabric handles when you have to portage the bags off the bike.
The hardware is simple but effective. The hooks, like the Ortliebs, come with spacers to match the tube diameter of your rack. They have the additional feature of having a locking mechanism that keeps the panniers secure to the rack. The bottom hook is a simple hook that can only be adjusted laterally. Unlike the Ortleibs, all hook and hardware adjustment is limited and requires the use of a screwdriver.
Volume: 14.0L / 900 cubic inches
Great roll top closure system that is neat, intuitive and preserves bag volume.
Secure hook closure.
Hardware requires tools to be adjusted.
New and unproven track record for durability.
The Arkel Dry-Lites are an exciting departure from what Arkel is usually known for: panniers with lots of compartmentalization and beefy mounting hooks. These panniers are a glimpse of what taking bikepacking minimalism and traditional bike touring gear might look like. Immediately, you’re struck with the packaging – they come rolled up in a tube! The weight is staggering low for a pannier. The entire set weighed a scant 417g (.9 pounds)! The lower weight is achieved a few ways. Firstly, the waterproof material is noticeably the thinnest between the three panniers, requiring a bit more care with abrasion and the packing of sharp pointy things in your bag. The overall volume also appears to be the smallest of three as well, though the manufacturer states the volume as 28L. The bottom of the pannier is tapered for foot clearance and is less boxy overall than both the Salsa and Ortlieb. Also lacking in the Dry-Lite was any back stiffener. This saves weight but might be problematic for some racks which don’t provide enough support to keep the pannier out of the rear wheel.
Closure and Hardware
The closure is like any dry bag system. Roll the top and lock the two ends together. The attachment to the rack is where things get interesting: there are no hooks! The panniers are an interlocked pair and sit across the top of the rack like Dutch style commuter panniers. There are several velcro straps which let you adjust the fit of the panniers to your rack.
Holding the panniers down are a pair of bungee hooks. Simple but effective and provide enough tension to prevent the bags from flapping around. This style of attachment saves weight, but also to some degree limits their use. You have to use both simultaneously. Taking them on and off is cumbersome. You can’t use them with front low-rider racks which have no platform.
Featherweight 18 oz / 454 grams for the set!
Volume for the set: 28 litres / 1708 cu.in
Ultralight for pannier.
Simple bungee and velcro attachment system with little to break.
Limited to using the pair at all times.
Can’t be used with lowrider racks.
Slow to remove and put on a bike.
Which One is For You?
Out of the three, which is the perfect one?! Well, it depends. Each of the three panniers have various features that might be more important to one user over another. If you’re a gram counter and want the absolute lightest pannier option, but don’t mind running them on the rear then the Arkels are the clear choice. If you want a small pannier, but not so small that you couldn’t fit a laptop and some commuting essentials and want to adjust the hardware on the fly for different bikes then the Ortlieb is a good choice. If you want a small pannier with a solid and clean closure and slimmer profile for bushy or rocky terrain, then the Salsa panniers float up to the top of the list. For us, we reach for whichever pannier seems appropriate for the trip we are doing. The Ortlieb makes a great everyday around town pannier for me. I’ve used the Arkel Dry-Lites on tours with lodging or quick and fast #bikefishing excursions. Laura loves the closure and the compactness of the Salsas.
A few weeks ago, we joined a recon team coordinated by Travel Oregon, for four days, to look at the feasibility of fatbiking the Oregon Coast. Bike tour operators like CogWild, Limberlost, The Bicycle Concierge and Pedal Bike Tours were on the trip to see if it would be a product they could develop. We pedaled along stretches that were already known fatbiking destinations, but also got to ride some areas where no fatbikes (or any bikes) had gone before. Here are 7 tips to keep in mind when you fatbike Oregon’s rugged coast.
1. Sand and cameras don’t mix
Fatbiking the Oregon Coast is an amazing and scenic experience. You will no doubt want to bring the good camera and take photos of your trip! However, take note of the sand. To say that there is a lot of sand at the coast is to state the obvious. However, weeks later, we are still cleaning sand out of shoes and clothes we brought on the trip! If you bring a DSLR, it’s a good idea to not change lenses anywhere on the beach if the wind is blowing (which is always). I’m also not a fan of protective filters, but the coast is one place you definitely want one!
2. Saltwater is not your bike’s friend
While shots of you and your buddies kicking up water from incoming waves looks rad, it will wreak havoc on your bicycle’s drive train in short order. On our first day of riding, we were riding against the wind on some off-camber sand. It was tricky to stay upright and find a good surface to ride on. The dry sand was too soft to ride on, so we had to ride near the breaking waves on wet sand. Occasionally a sneaker wave would come up and hit our bikes. You knew instantly, because the bike stopped sounding like a well-oiled machine and more like a coffee grinder! We even had a rider break his chain after getting hit with one too many waves.
3. Sea caves and tidal pools are rad
The most stunning features that we encountered while fatbiking the coast were the sections with rock formations and tidal pools. During low tide, you can pedal to and through these features. Pedaling through caves and around tidal pools, looking at momentarily-exposed sea life, reminded me of grade school field trips… but a lot more fun. For the best intel on where to find these spots and how to get to them, you want to contact Karl from South Coast Bicycles and Daniella and Elliot from Bike Newport. They have been fatbiking the coast for the last few years and know the primo locations.
4. Snowy Plover Patrol
The Snowy Plover is a cute diminutive bird that nests in the sand on the Oregon Coast. Invasive beach grass has ruined a lot of their natural habitat and they are now one of Oregon’s threatened bird species. Because of this, lots of efforts are in motion to protect them. This means that during their breeding season, many stretches of beach are closed to all human traffic. Volunteers monitor and patrol the coastline to help educate the public, but also enforce the beach closures. They take their job seriously. Before mapping a stretch of beach to fatbike on, be sure to check with local resources about Snowy Plover related beach closures.
5. It’s a Jigsaw Puzzle
Oregon’s coast unfortunately is not a giant continuous beach path. Although there are long swaths of pristine beach to pedal on, these sections are broken up by rocky headlands and wide uncrossable river outlets. On our recon trip, we had multiple creek and river crossings where we had to wade through the water (best done at low tide). Access to the beach is also an issue. Sometimes getting to a section of beach meant going down a steep trail to only ride a 2 mile stretch to then scramble up the bluff with bike in tow. The romantic idea of pedaling every inch of the Oregon Coast as an alternative to the 101 just isn’t possible. Currently, basecamping at a few key destinations and exploring on day trips seems to be the best way to experience the coast.
Oregon’s rugged coast makes a continuous route challenging.
One of the unique features you’ll encounter on the Oregon coast are sand dunes. They vary from small rolling hills to mega Dunes like the one at Pacific City (which conveniently rolls downhill to Pelican Brewery). If you’ve never fatbiked on a dune before, there’s a few things to keep in mind. Their rideability is extremely variable. On super soft sand, expect to either nearly completely deflate your tires to get some float, or prepare to push your bike. In general, the windward sides of dunes tend to be firmer and harder packed. After a rain, dunes can firm up and be very rideable. Laura had a blast hiking up the dunes and bombing down. The best way to think of them is as a giant sandy skate park that you session on, rather than something that is navigable. If you plan to traverse dunes, it’s going to take a lot longer than you think.
Expect some long walks on the beach.
7. Rent a bike / hire a guide
We’re usually fans of using our own gear, but would totally make concessions to fatbike the coast. Outside the logistics of finding fatbike-compatible car racks, the daily maintenance required to keep your bike from rusting or grinding itself in a slow death is considerable. For us, this is an instance when it makes sense to pay a little extra to have someone else deal with it. The folks at South Coast Bicycles and Bike Newport have fleets of fatbikes for rent and know where to ride them. If you want a simple turnkey way to fatbike the coast, contact them. If you want a multi-day experience that takes you to some lesser pedaled locations, CogWild will soon be putting together a package from some of the cool places we rode through. If you’re coming from the Portland metro-area, The Bicycle Concierge has a van and fleet of fat bikes for your next excursion.
How far is too far to ride to catch some fish? With the memory of our latest outing on the Deschutes fading, I was itching to get a fish on the line once again. Looking back at routes we’ve ridden, we were looking for someplace we could get to in a day’s ride that would provide good fishing opportunities for Laura’s tenkara rod and my 4wt fiberglass rod. One possible place that has always stood large in our minds was the Nestucca River. The last time we rode there, I wasn’t really into fishing. I did vaguely remember the river and that the campsites had looked nice enough.
Waders, Crocs and fishing gear all in the basket.
Nestucca River Road (or Meadowlake Rd as it is called out of the quaint winery town of Carlton) is a lesser known way for cyclists to get to the coast from the Willamette Valley. A short portion of the road is gravel, which tends to deter heavy thru traffic and makes it ideal for riding. But, there is still the matter of the coastal range to get up and over.
We decided to head out on Sunday morning. With summer in full swing, we didn’t want to compete for campsites and with traffic so we headed out when most would probably be heading home. We cut out a lot of suburban city riding by taking the MAX out to Hillsboro. From Hillsboro we rode few miles West on Hwy 8 which has a wide bike lane to just outside of Forest Grove, where we took a series of small roads that paralleled Hwy 47 South. This is the heart of Willamette valley wine country. Every few miles, it seemed, there were signs for a vineyard or a tasting room. The topography, as you would expect for the area is a series of gentle rolling hills. Flat enough to keep up a decent pace even when loaded, but hilly enough to keep the riding interesting.
We got up around 6am to get an early start and by the time we reached Carlton, we were glad we did. The temperature was rising and so was the amount of traffic. School was out and it’s tourist season, so there was more traffic than we would have liked on some of those shoulderless country roads. For the most part, drivers were well behaved but there were a few instances when someone would insist on pushing their luck and pass us on a blind curve instead of waiting five seconds. By the time we got to Carlton, we were ready for a break. Thankfully, there is an AMAZING bakery in Carlton (I would almost brave the traffic again for those cinnamon rolls!) where we stocked up on some pastries and Stumptown coffee for the climb ahead.
From Carlton, we hopped on Meadowlake Rd and made the slow grind up and over the coast range. Most of the riding is at a reasonable 5-8% grade, but there were a few pointy bits that got into the double digits. If anything, the climb is more of a war of attrition with gravity than it is a series of steep ramps. Thankfully, the latter half of the climbing is under tree cover which kept us sheltered from the sun that was now at full force. Although it was long and tiring, we were climbing pretty well. It is funny how your memories of a ride from years ago can be so different from the present day reality of it. The climbing wasn’t as bad as we remembered and there were whole sections of the ride we had completely no recollection of.
The summit came just in time. I had run out of water and we were both feeling a bit fried from the heat. As we descended we stopped into a few of the BLM sites looking for a good place to camp. We were targeting Elk Bend, but when we got there the layout was less than the ideal with campers stacked on top of each other. Instead, we rode a little further and camped at Alder Glen and settled on a ridiculously awesome campsite with a tiny tent pad beneath the canopy of a tree and the perfect view of a waterfall across the river. The site definitely made the trip worthwhile.
We setup camp and filtered water. I took a quick dunk in the river to cool off. After sufficient calories were consumed (in the form of salami), I strung up the Butterstick to check out the water. We had nearly followed the entire length of the Nestucca river from the summit where it barely looked like a puddle to something more fishable. The stretch along the campsite looked promising with a decent current on the far bank with lots of structure for fish to hide behind. At its widest, the river was maybe 30 or 40 feet.
Fishing is a lot like walking down your neighborhood and knocking on doors to see who is home. I started knocking. It didn’t take long until I had a pretty little cutthroat on a dry. Not a big fish by any means at 6 inches, but apparently a pretty good size for this stretch of water. After a few more missed takes from small fish I walked back to camp. We were both pretty exhausted. The mileage for the day was 56 miles with 3600 feet of climbing with nearly all the uphill at the end of the day. It was the evening of the Solstice, the longest day of the year, but by 7pm with the sun still blaring brightly in the sky we were wondering if it wasn’t too early to go to bed. We managed to stay awake until 9pm, when we called it a night (even though it was fairly bright out) and slept to the sound of the waterfall from across the river.
We had set aside one full day of fishing for this trip, which I think is the best way to do it. Usually the first few hours on a new river are just about feeling it out and getting use to where the furniture is. There’s almost as much observation going on as fishing. What bugs are present? Are there any risers? Where are the deep pools? You look, you listen and then take some educated guesses.
We decided to pedal down the road a few miles and check out the river downstream. There were some promising spots, but there were also a lot of private property signs (something else we didn’t remember from our last ride). We eventually settled on a turnout that had a trail down to the river. After a little hike-a-bike we ended up on an idyllic gravel beach and decided to kill a few hours there. It was classic trout water with riffles leading into deeper pools. It should have been easy and obvious but the most we got were some half-hearted looks from fish too small to get excited about. At worst, we ended up having a nice picnic by a beautiful stretch of water with no one else around.
We rode back for afternoon siesta, made a little #coffeeoutside and waited until things cooled off. We fished the water along the campsite quickly and efficiently. Laura hooked into a small but fiesty cutthroat complete with aerial acrobatics that put a nice bend in the tenkara rod. Outside of a few minor exclamation marks in the day, the fishing was slow and the fish we did get were small.
It was easy to get a little disheartened when we started to do the calculations: 56 miles, 3500ft over the coast range in the heat for some small fish. I’ve found that it is best to get philosophical at times like this. We were camped out in some beautiful country and for the last three days the sound of traffic had been replaced with the sounds of the river. There was no cell phone service where we were, so there was nothing to do but the bare tasks at hand: make coffee, fish til dark, eat dinner and drink bourbon while staring at a campfire. I even tried to find some solace in the fish we did catch and the way they took a fly with a sort of heartbreaking innocence. Tomorrow we would climb the coast range again and ride through the valley in the heat of the day to get back into the city. There would be plenty of time for worries and frustrations. All the time in the world, in fact. But for now, we had this small river and these small fish.
Originally published in Bunyan Velo Issue No. 05
People write and talk about the salmon fly hatch on the Deschutes River with near religious awe. It’s a time when strange, two inch, orange insects emerge and line the grasses on the banks of the river in biblical proportions, causing large and usually wary trout to throw caution to the wind and feed on the surface with the desperation of the last call at Old Country Buffet.
Or that’s what they say, at least.
While a hundred or so cyclists were voluntarily flogging themselves in earnest in the first Oregon Outback along gravel backroads not too far away, Laura, our friend Brendan, and I decided to go on a little gravel outing of our own, combining fishing and bikepacking. As we were gearing up at the parking lot at Deschutes State Park, Brendan even came up with a hashtag for our trip: #OregonTroutback. Our trip, in the current vernacular, was now legit.
As a fly fisherman, I had been hoping to fish the Salmon Fly hatch for some time. It was one of those “famous” hatches (if bugs coming out of the ground can be counted as something internationally noteworthy). As a cyclist, I had done day trips on the Deschutes River Trail but had never camped overnight along the river. This trip was meant to scratch both itches simultaneously with vigor. Even if the fishing wasn’t non-stop reel-scorching action, what is there not to enjoy about pedaling out along a gravel trail and setting up an idyllic camp by a river?
The Deschutes River Trail is an old railroad bed that is rideable for about 20 miles. It has become the de facto proving grounds of many a bikepacking rig for Portland area cyclists since it is a relatively quick drive from downtown. Along the trail you pass a few relics of the past; some wooden railroad boxcars and an old homestead that remain in surprisingly good condition. It is dotted with a handful of campsites, mostly used by rafters and hikers. While the grade is never really difficult, there are a few things out there that will keep you on your toes, namely goatheads and rattlesnakes. Goatheads will make short work of your tire and the rattlesnakes will make short work of you.
The goatheads on the Deschutes River Trail have been known to destroy many a tire. On our first ever outing there a few months ago I had underestimated their severity. When I stopped to fix a flat I had no less than thirty per tire. I ran out of patches and didn’t bring a spare tube and managed to ride out by pumping up the tires every quarter mile. It made for a long afternoon.
Our plan was to ride out to one of the campsites near the old homestead. It had a large flat area for camping beneath some trees and easy river access for fishing. We weren’t exactly the perfect picture of ultralight bikepacking with our Wald baskets and panniers in the rear, but we were carrying a fair amount of fishing and camera gear. Brendan brought along a fly tying vise to make a few streamside flies and I was packing a video monopod. We also had four rods between us: a 5wt, 6wt, and two tenkara rods.
We arrived at our targeted campsite in the early afternoon, only to find it had been claimed. There was a full on camo tarp city set up by two beer-bellied guys who clearly had no intention of sharing the space. We pedaled back a few miles to another site that unfortunately didn’t have as much shade or flat space. The problem wasn’t so much finding free space as it was finding a clearing to setup camp. The grass had grown to head high since the last time we were there and we were loath to tromp around for three days in high grass in rattlesnake country. Eventually we found a little clearing that had space for Laura and I to set up our tent and suitable trees for Brendan’s camping hammock.
After a hastily made lunch, we got down to the business of fishing. Instead of packing heavy wading boots and waders, we were planning to wet wade using neoprene socks and cleated water sandals. For the most part it worked beautifully. The neoprene socks kept your feet just warm enough so you could stand in the water for hours and the cleated sandals gave you some purchase on the slimy rocks of the Deschutes.
We strung up our rods and waded into the water. For me, the first hour or so of fishing is about calming down, settling into the river, and starting to read the water. The water was flowing at a good pace but was fairly shallow. You could walk out about forty feet and still be in waist deep water. I spotted a few obvious places that could hold fish: boulders that were creating some softer water, a few spots on the bank with low overhanging trees that made for good cover, and a few slow, dark, and mysterious runs. All the ingredients of good fishing were there, except for any obvious signs of rising fish and perhaps most importantly, the salmon flies.
Thinking that we hadn’t quite clued in on the schedule that the fish and flies were on, I tied on a hopper-dropper setup, which involves fishing with a dry floating fly and a small subsurface fly below it. For me, It’s a good searching pattern when I’m trying to figure out a stretch of water. Brendan was fishing downstream, working the bank over with some golden stone fly patterns he had tied the week before. We worked our way up and down the river, occasionally glancing over to see how the other person was doing.
It’s not that we didn’t get into any fish, it just wasn’t the white-hot fishing action we were expecting. I got into two medium sized white fish and a third mystery fish that
broke off. Brandon got into a few small sized redsides that he eventually let go. We debriefed over dinner and bourbon and planned the next day’s tactics.
That night a storm rolled in that would refuse to leave completely during our three days on the river. Fishing became a Sisyphean task of casting against 20mph winds. It was not exactly the delicate dry fly fishing we had imagined. I resorted to what was the equivalent of carpet-bombing the water. I switched lines to a shooting head, tied on a sinking tip, and swung flies through wide swaths of water, methodically covering every inch looking for fish. I looked over and saw Brendan, ever the optimist, double hauling dry flies through the wind to the bank. By the end of the second day we were exhausted, having tried everything but chumming the water to get into fish. It was then, when I was leaving the water to go back to camp, that I saw my first rattlesnake slithering across a footpath that I had used over a dozen times during the day. It was a slow and sinewy reminder to not get lazy in the backcountry.
On our final full fishing day we got on the bicycles and rode up and down the river looking for promising water. Everywhere we went felt like a fish ghost town. There were all the structures that make good fishing water, but no fish and no salmon flies. We chatted with some people hiking and fishing the trail who had no luck either. It was as if the hatch had already blown through like a mad tornado of two-inch orange insects a few weeks ago and all the fish were following it like kids and an ice-cream truck. We spotted hundreds of dried up husks of salmon flies on trees at one campsite that confirmed our suspicions.
We took it all with a grain of salt, and plenty of bourbon. That night at camp, Brendan produced an orange and some bitters and made some Old Fashioneds. It’s hard not to get philosophical when you go on a fishing trip and don’t catch very many fish. In fact, it’s probably the only thing you can do and keep your sanity. We all agreed that, at best, we came away catching a few fish. Not as many as we had hoped for (or as large), but neither of us got skunked. At worst, we had just enjoyed three days biking and camping on one of the iconic rivers of Oregon with nothing else to do but ride, cook over our stoves, and go fishing.
Incidentally, we did actually see a salmon fly. On the final morning as we were packing up, Laura said, “I think that’s it. That bug!” I looked over to where she was pointing and sure enough, sitting on my Keen sandal and looking a little worse for wear, was a solitary salmon fly. I pointed it out to Brendan who in a rare instance of losing his cool exclaimed, “Sonofabitch! Let’s throw it in the river!”
We are headed to Iowa! We had a chance to explore a bit of the state last year and are coming back to find some of Iowa’s most interesting riding experiences. If you’d like to join us for a ride or make suggestions about what to check out in the following areas, send us a message! Here are our riding dates:
Taco Ride (5/28) and the Wabash Trace (5/29-5-30)
The taco ride out of Council Bluffs, Iowa is so popular it was turned into a commercial for Jennie-O. We want to check it out first hand. We are also planning to ride the rest of the Wabash Trace to explore some of the cool small towns along the way. Last year we were super impressed by the tiny community of Imogene that turned a quonset hut into a makeshift bicycle hub!
Gravel Grinnell (6/1 – 6/2)
The quaint college town of Grinnell has played host to one of Iowa’s most legendary races, Trans-Iowa. This year was particularly epic, with peanut butter-like conditions that decimated the field. We’re planning to sample some of these gravel roads and find some interesting things to do along the way.
Decorah (6/4 – 6/5)
Iowa has the reputation of being flat as a pancake. Local riders in Decorah beg to differ. We are headed to this charming small town to find some of the hilliest (you heard us right!) in Iowa. After punishing the legs for a bit, we’re going to check out the very tantalizingly named Trout Run Trail (hello, #bikefishing!).
If you’d like to meet up with us and ride along, send us an email!
We’re going to be honest here, when we think of Nevada, we usually think of Las Vegas. From a visitor perspective, Las Vegas takes on such a huge mindshare of our pre-conception of the state that it nearly eclipses everything else. It wasn’t until last year’s Bicycle Tourism Conference, where we chatted with folks from Travel Nevada and NDOT, that we learned about the wealth of outdoor recreation possibilities. We recently had the opportunity to do a breakfast keynote at the Nevada Bicycle and Pedestrian Summit, and we met with bicycle advocates, tour operators and State Parks to learn about the bicycle tourism opportunities in Nevada. We arrived unsure of what to expect, but left thrilled about the possibilities.
Nevada, much like Oregon (perhaps even to a greater extent), has very small, rural and isolated communities, many of which are seeing some tough times. What they lack in built attractions like golf courses, amusement parks and shopping districts, they make up in natural beauty and being nestled in a landscape of mind-blowing scale. We sat in on a presentation led by Bill Story of NDOT about bicycling economics, and it was heartening to see that they see bicycle tourism as a means to attract people to these areas of the state. Even better, is that they are fairly realistic about the challenges of promoting tourism in those remote areas.
Another surprise is how active State Parks is with bicycling. Dawn Andone, a park ranger in Lincoln County, Nevada helps run a yearly bicycling event called Park to Park Pedal Extreme, with the help of local Lincoln County residents as well as a Las Vegas-based bicycling website – BikingLasVegas.com. It first began as a way to increase visitation to the region’s State Parks. It is unique in that it ends in a big gourmet Dutch Oven cook-off, a Lincoln County specialty.
In speaking with Dawn, we learned that the local residents were absolutely crucial in pulling off the ride. During their first year, many stood on the sidelines curious about the strange event. A few years later, they were clamoring for another event to bring in more visitors. To that end, Dawn also organizes a gravel event, called the Beaver Dam Gravel Grinder which ends in a BBQ! Our kind of ride!
Speaking of gravel, we also sat in on a panel with Travel Nevada’s Greg Fine, where he unveiled some early plans for a bicycle gravel network throughout the state. If there is anything that Nevada has a lot of, it is gravel and non-paved roads. After the session, there was a lot of spirited discussion about what they should do next. It was really exciting to see the sparks fly as Nevada bicycle advocates, State Park employees and tourism professionals were in the same room talking with each other for the first time! In our research before visiting the state, we also learned about TransNevadaTrail.com, a group of cyclists that are currently ground-truthing a gravel route across the state.
While our visit to Nevada was short (we didn’t even get to ride!), it left us intrigued. As a state for bicycling, it offers a blank canvas. With the current trend in adventures by bike and bikepacking, it could be poised to be the next hot bicycling destination!
Rode Trip is our series of recommended bike travel ideas. If you have a route or a destination you think we should explore, contact us!
Cottonwood Canyon State Park is located right along the John Day River and is one of Oregon’s newest and largest State Parks. It is about a 2.5 hour drive from Portland through the Gorge, so unfortunately it is a bit challenging to get to purely on bike. However, it if you have access to an automobile, it makes for a beautiful place to basecamp for a few days to ride, hike and fish. The landscape is full of sagebrush and rocky basalt cliffs which cradle the John Day River. The park has 21 primitive tent campsites with a vault toilet and even 7 dedicated hiker/biker sites. There is potable water available as well as a large gazebo in the day use area which makes for a great place to hide from the mid-day sun. There are also remnants of an old ranch on the property so it gives the feeling of doing a farmstay when you are on the property.
We went, of course, interested in the mixed terrain riding possibilities. Often we think of State Parks as simply destinations on a bike tour, a place to pitch your tent then move on, but more and more we think they also make great basecamps for loops and deeper exploration (read our Gravel Getaway tour from Stub Stewart State Park). We arrived mid-morning on the first day and after dumping our gear, Laura, our friend Robert and I assembled our bikes and hit the road. We were tipped off to some interesting rides by Dave, the resident park ranger, who suggested we check out a few particular faint squiggles on the map.
Day 1 – Double Track Exploration
Every ride out of Cottonwood Canyon State Park begins with a climb (but also ends with a screaming descent) since it is at river level. After about four miles and 1000ft of elevation gain we turned on to Starvation Lane (they never name these roads Happy Unicorn Way do they?) which was immediately gravel. From here, the terrain is lumpy but not overly steep and the traffic is pretty non-existent. For the next four miles we rode through a windfarm beneath the giant spinning propeller blades. We didn’t notice it at the time (who does?) but we were getting a nice little push with a tailwind.
After about mile 9, the scenery really opened up. We started to get views of the John Day River and the canyon it has carved out over time. We started slowly losing elevation back towards the river. You can take Starvation Lane all the way down to the river with a screaming descent. We decided that since it was late in the day we would rather explore the ridge a bit more so we hopped on a bit of double track that looked like it would lead to an overlook. The surface was a little sandy but surprisingly rideable on the 35mm tires we had on the Warbirds. We decided to call it a day and backtracked back to the State Park. The little push we had gotten out was now a headwind, but the slog up the hill had turned into a glassy smooth descent. The roads are such that they provide good sight lines and you can descend with very little braking.
After we got back to the state park, I decided to take advantage of the remaining daylight and go fishing. This stretch of the John Day holds an interesting variety of fish from steelhead, to smallmouth bass, carp and catfish. This time of year, smallmouth is the fish to target. I recently snapped my 5wt rod so strung up my 7wt switch rod, hoping against the odds and swinging for the fences that I’d get into an errant steelhead. Supposedly someone landed one just last week. Swing and a miss, but couldn’t really complain about the view!
Ever the optimist, swinging for steel.
Day 2 – #Patchduro – a new kind of riding!
On the second day, our friend Adam joined us for more riding. There is a relatively well-maintained trail on the State Park side of the John Day that goes for about 4 miles downstream. On the opposite bank, there is a parallel but less well-maintained but still rideable trail. We took that one. While not as long or aerobically challenging as the ride the day before, the rocky surface kept us on our toes. Adam was riding the new Trek 920 with 29er tires and was doing pretty well. We were a little under-tired for some sections but were able to pick our way across.
The landscape was really something else! After a few bends in the river you get some great rocky canyon walls to one side and river views to the other. The terrain is constantly rolling and the surface is constantly changing. It alternates between hardpacked dirt, to loose chunky gravel, to grass, to babyheads with little rhyme or reason which keeps the ride fun and interesting. Unless you are on a fat tire bike, you HAVE to pay attention. After about 4 miles we passed through what looked like an old cattle holding pen and left the more established trail for some double track up Hay Canyon. We managed to get up about 2 miles on the double track when we all started to flat simultaneously. A quick look at our tires showed that they were riddled with goatheads. We tried at first to patch them and push on, but it became clear that this was an exercise in futility. My tire alone probably had about a half dozen punctures that were bleeding air.
At this point we decided to ride/walk back to the established trail and swap in new tubes there, rather than continue to flat on our last remaining good tubes. Needless to say, it is good advice to either run a tubeless setup with sealant if you plan to go exploring off-trail or bring a large supply of patches and tubes. The mileage of the day wasn’t very high, but the “fun” factor was.
Because Cottonwood Canyon is a new State Park and is fairly remote, it is a bit of an undiscovered gem. We sort of liken it to smaller Deschutes State Park with far less people. The camping is a little more primitive and you have to pack in all the food you’ll need, but there is potable water. It is a playground if you like to bike, hike, fish and take photos. As with any area in this part of Oregon, there are rattlesnakes and other critters to be aware of, but it shouldn’t deter you from exploring the area (just be aware and prepared). Although we spent two evenings there, we barely scratched the surface in terms of riding. We got tipped off to a pretty cool loop you can do at the right time of year (it includes crossing the John Day but connects two gravel roads) and some fishing advice for future trips. If you live in Portland and are looking for a new State Park to explore, we highly recommend it. There are lots of recreational activities to do out there. For us, we hope to return again in the Fall (after the summer heat cools down and the steelhead fishing heats up) armed with tubeless tires and steelhead flies.
Flats are a constant threat if you go off-trail. Be prepared and bring spare tubes, a pump and a patch kit. Or go tubeless (but I’d still bring a spare tube just in case)!
Be aware. You are in a remote landscape and there are some natural hazards like rattlesnakes and ticks, so exercise due caution.
If you plan on hammock camping, don’t. There are no trees in the camp area.
Exploring Starvation Lane and some double track.
Partial route of the river trail. Begins at the area where we diverged from the main trail. Total distance of the ride as about 10 miles.
We are doing A LOT of traveling in May! We’ve got two presentations coming up in the next week that are free and open to the public. We always love chatting and grabbing beers with readers. If you’re in the area, come on by!
Saturday, May 2
Time: 10am to 5pm
Presentation Time: 3pm
Russian Community Center on North Capitol Hill
Address: 704 19th Ave E, Seattle, WA 98112
We’ll be giving a pretty light-hearted presentation about combining bike touring and flyfishing. We’ll share some reasons why you should give it a try and some practical trips on a minimal fly fishing kit. There will be lots of stories from the road, photos and goofy videos. We will be at the event all day but are going to present at 3pm.
Nevada Bicycle Summit
Wednesday, May 6
Presentation Time: 8:30am-10:00am
Henderson Convention Center
We will be doing a breakfast keynote about bicycle tourism: what we’ve seen in our travels across the country and New Zealand as well as our work in Oregon. We will also be doing an afternoon session on gravel riding.
One of the classic bike rides in Portland is to ride portions of the Historic Columbia River Highway, a 73-mile scenic stretch of road that was once the only way from Portland to points East in the Columbia Gorge. It was designed with the road user’s aesthetic experience in mind, with twists and turns and slowly-revealed vistas. In the 1950s, it was replaced with I-84 and large segments of the highway were destroyed, while other parts were orphaned in the woods. There has been a push over the last two decades to reconnect the remaining sections of road with a state trail corridor. The 73 mile trail corridor is ALMOST complete, but the hardest and toughest 10 miles remain.
Today, you can ride from Portland to the town of Cascade Locks with relative ease (you COULD ride further, but have to navigate some pretty gnarly sections on the shoulder of the interstate). Cascade Locks is notable in that it is one of the few towns that the Pacific Crest Trail passes through. Over the years, the town has begun to embrace its outdoor recreational assets. It hosts an annual Pacific Crest Trail Days Event and even boasts a new mountain bike park, the Easy Climb Trail, on the outskirts of town.
For this trip, we took a slightly different route out to Cascade Locks. We have been itching to take our Warbirds out on a quick overnight and saw it only fitting that they see a little gravel en route. Less known to motorists but popular with Portland cyclists is Alex Barr road, a lightly trafficked gravel road that rises steeply from the Historic Highway towards Larch Mountain.
We wanted to get to the GOOD riding as quickly as possible so we got up relatively early and took MAX to the end of the line in Gresham. About 15 minutes from the transit stop, we were out in bucolic country, crossing the Sandy River and on the Historic Columbia River Highway.
From this point on the Historic Highway it is a steady climb passing through the small communities of Springdale and Corbett. Shoulders are of varying widths, but traffic is generally light and the road sees LOTS of cyclists on the weekends. Any last minute snacks you want for the ride you can pick up at the Corbett Market (the market makes a great lunch time stop on the return trip, especially if you like bbq and fried chicken!). The owners are welcoming and pay to have a portaloo maintained outside for passing cyclists. Whenever we pass by we always make the point of buying something and letting them know we appreciate what they do. From there it is a short ride to Portland Women’s Forum, a little plot of land that was protected from future development by a group of women that banded together so that the views would always be publicly accessible (that’s just how they roll in Oregon!).
Typically, from Portland Women’s Forum, we would usually crest the last little bit of hill and descend to Vista House and continue along the Historic Highway. On this trip, we took the right hand fork on East Larch Mountain Road. After about 3 miles of climbing, we made a left turn down Haines Road, which turns into a fantastic twisty descent to Latourell Creek, only to climb slowly back up again.
Eventually, we hit the intersection of Haines and Alex Barr and the fun began. All this work to ride a short stretch of dirt road. Was it worth it? Heck yes. It is immediately unpaved and drops down to to Historic Highway with a vengeance (lets just say we were glad to be going down the hill with our overnight load on this trip). It twists and turns beneath a tall canopy of trees, offering the occasional view out to the Columbia River. It was a real treat to ride, not only because it was unpaved, but because it gave a different perspective of the Gorge from just riding on the Historic Highway. You forget that people live in the hills or that the Gorge is more than a giant rock face constantly at your side.
This was our first ride with extra gear on the Warbirds. I was borrowing a friend’s Pika seatbag and Laura was using an Arkel Randonneur Rack and Tailrider bag. We had hoped to camp, but our current sleeping bags, pads and tent aren’t quite small enough to work in a bikepacking setup, so we decided to stay indoors and just pack a change of clothes (and some coffee making gear of course).
The Warbirds ride like fast road bikes on pavement, but have the compliance and predictable steering for the rough stuff. The disc brakes were awesome on the descents. If there would be anything we would change on the bikes, it would be to switch to brifters that use internal routing that won’t interfere with a handlebar roll, and a little bit lower gearing. The low gear was 34×30, yielding about 29 gear inches. With our load on the climbs we were almost always at the bottom of our gear range. For longer, extended dirt climbs with gear, we would definitely want to go lower. Future upgrades would be Apex brifters, SRAM’s 48-32 trekking double and a 36t cassette in the rear.
After Alex Barr, we were back on the Historic Highway. While not as exotic after something like Alex Barr, it is still a great ride. Traffic was still fairly light and we rode fast through the undulating terrain to Multnomah Falls. Generally, we try to get pass the falls before noon before traffic gets crazy. Perhaps the least pleasant stretch of the Historic Highway is a few miles on either side of Multnomah Falls. Heading East, once you past Ainsworth State Park, most of the motorized tourist traffic that was visiting Multnomah will have dissipated by then.
Eventually, you reach the paved trail section that is free from motorized traffic and it is smooth sailing into Cascade Locks. The new section of trail is wonderful, with several bridge crossings. It’s hard to imagine that not too long ago you had to endure riding on I-84 to get to Cascade Locks!
The first order of business when one enters Cascade Locks is to go to the East Wind, a tiny throwback drive-in known for its soft-served ice cream. Fortunately, the line wasn’t too long and we ordered some bacon cheesburgers, because science. After protein-loading, we checked in to the Columbia Gorge Motel to get cleaned up and head over to Thunder Island Brewing. If you want to camp, you’re in luck, because the camping option in town is literally a stone’s throw from the brewery as well.
If you’ve never been, having a beer in the outdoor patio of Thunder Island Brewery might seriously be the best place to have a beer in the Gorge. You’re far enough away from the main drag to not hear the traffic, a grove of trees provides shade in the middle of the day and you look out directly to the mighty Columbia River. The owners are also avid bike tourists themselves (they helped to spearhead getting the fancy new bike racks you will see all over town), and they have racks conveniently positioned in a place of honor right at the entrance. After a few beers, we had dinner at Cascade Locks Ale House (another bike friendly business) which has solid pub food and lots of craft beer on tap. Bike touring tip: they have an outside patio in the back where you can eat and watch your bike if you didn’t arrive with a lock.
We got up early the next morning and got ready to head out of town, but not before we stopped to get some of the best corned beef and hash in Oregon at the Charburger. I know that’s a bold statement, but every time we’ve had the opportunity to have breakfast there, it does not disappoint! Also, the views of the river from inside are pretty remarkable.
We pedaled out of town well-fueled and backtracked along the Historic Highway to Gresham. This of course included the climb up to Vista House and Women’s Forum, which actually aren’t too bad on lightly-loaded bikes. We got to the MAX station at around noon and by around 1pm we were back at our apartment.
If you’re visiting Portland and have the time to either go out for a long day ride or want to do an overnighter in one of Oregon’s iconic natural wonders, this is your ride. You get a little flavor of the small communities along the way, ride on a historic highway that became the model for the nation’s National Park roads AND end the day with a cold beer with a view!
-If you choose to take the gravel option and are on loaded bikes, a minimum of 28-32mmm tires are recommended.
-To avoid the traffic at Multnomah falls, leave early and plan to pass through that section before noon.
-If you have a flexible schedule, ride it mid-week and you’ll have the roads mostly to yourselves.
-Things you have to eat: soft serve at East Wind, beers on the patio at Thunder Island Brewing, burgers at Cascade Locks Ale House and corned beef hash at Charburger!
-Don’t have a “gravel bike” or fancy bikepacking bags? No problem. The Mountain Shop is now renting bikes and all the doodads to strap to your bike.
For more bike travel ideas, check out other posts in our Rode Trip series!