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
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.
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.