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!
There is nothing quite like new bike day, is there? The hand wringing anticipation as you wait for the call from the bike shop that your bike is ready to go home with you. The simultaneously familiar and strange feeling of throwing a leg over a new bike and pedaling it home for the first time. This weekend, we added two new bikes to the flock – Salsa Warbirds.
The Warbirds are Salsa’s dedicated gravel racer and for some readers will seem like an unlikely departure for us (it doesn’t even have fender mounts!). But let me explain. Over the years, our interests and style of riding has changed over time. To paraphrase much wiser men/women than I: mutability is the only constant. Many will remember that we started with traditional fully loaded touring rigs, segued into lighter multi-modal touring with Bromptons, and for the last 3 years have been doing shorter trips with less overall gear on our Vayas.
While not quite ultra light, we’ve learned to pare down quite a bit! Check out our Gravel Getaway story.
We’ve also started doing more road rides and venturing into gravel riding. Fatbiking and bikepacking have exploded onto the scene, but since we choose to be car free in Portland, getting out to where those bikes really come to their own means a lot of pavement riding or navigating a Rube Goldberg puzzle of light rail and regional buses.
This is where the Warbirds come in. They are a better fit with our preference for trips that originate from our doorstep. We plan to experiment with a rackless softbag/bikepacking system on the Warbirds for mixed terrain, multi-day tours. There are so many backroads to interesting destinations and classic mixed terrain routes from Portland that we haven’t really explored yet.
We’re also eying some gravel rides and events, for research purposes, of course :), to understand what this “new” kind of riding means in terms of bicycle tourism and rural communities. One of the rides we’re looking at in particular is put on by Bicycle Rides Northwest, which features 3 days of gravel riding out of a basecamp along an awesome flyfishing river! Of course, we could use the Vaya for a lot of this, but they are our daily drivers and loaded tourers. For more spirited gravel rides, we find ourselves constantly taking off the racks and then putting them on afterwards. I’m a bit weary that we’ll strip out a bolt one of these days so it’s great to have a dedicated rackless go-fast bike.
Enough of the why and more of the how’s it ride?! Just as a note, we’ve only put in a few short rides and are still dialing in the fit, so these are pretty early impressions. We both have the Tiagra versions of the Warbird which come in a glossy orange and a more muted “army green.” Orange is my favorite color and the orange on the new Warbird is sublime and reminiscent of the orange waterproof Field Notes notebooks. The army green has a matte finish and evokes a more utilitarian version of Bianchi’s Celeste.
The bikes are outfitted with Tiagra throughout. The rear cassette is 12-30, fine for unloaded riding, but we might look at options to put in a 12-34 in the future. The crankset is a 46-34 cross crankset, which we actually quite like. The 46 is a sensible size chainring size for the kind of riding we do and lets us stay in the “big ring” a lot longer.
The handlebars are Salsa Cowbells, which we love and are on our Vayas. They have a very usable shallow drop and a bit of flair so they are pretty functional, even for cyclists that aren’t contortionists. The Warbirds came stock with WTB Silverados which many people like, but which we found a bit narrow for our anatomies, so Laura installed a Charge Ladle and I put on a 143mm Toupe harvested from another bike. As mentioned earlier, the Warbird has no eyelets for racks or fenders. For some, this will be a deal breaker. We knew about this limitation and since we have fully fendered Vayas, if the weather really got that wet out we’d have other options.
For our first ride we took them out to Forest Park, Portland’s local mixed terrain playground. The surface in Forest Park varies based on the amount of recent rain. When it is dry, there are some head rattling stretches with fist sized rocks. Just after a rain, you can get some muddy sections. The day we went, it was somewhere in the middle. Some of the rocky portions had been smoothed over with dirt and there were a few muddy patches but nothing too severe. The main road through the park is also generally climbing anywhere from a 2-3% to some 7-8% grade.
The first thing we noticed immediately was how the bike seemed to dull the rough surface. That’s not to say that it magically made everything buttery smooth, but the bike was working to take the sting out of the ride. We plan to ride the route again with various tires to see how much is a function of the rubber (35mm Sammy Slicks) and how much is the function of the bike. Another very noticeable difference from the Vaya was the Warbird’s willingness to climb.
The rear end of the bike felt a lot more taut and responsive to standing and seated efforts, due to the shorter and flattened chainstays. While not as responsive a climber as a pure-bred carbon roadie, it definitely had more get up and go than our Vaya and All-City Space Horse. The front end of the bike is mellow and predictable which is always welcome on bumpy road surfaces. Most interestingly is how well the bike descends on dirt, the mild mannered front end lends a lot of confidence on mixed terrain descents.
So far, in the short time we’ve ridden the Warbirds, the bikes are undeniably a blast to ride. If the Vayas are about going the distance, the Warbirds are about going fast. We’re looking forward to really dialing them in during the next few months and figuring out how to pack our gear without racks! So stay tuned!
Our first full day in Alabama, we borrowed some bikes and joined a small group of folks on a 20-mile loop through the farmland outside of Montgomery. The overcast sky threatened rain and thunderstorms at any minute, and we passed old, crumbling farmsteads and small pre-Civil War cemeteries.
The traffic was nonexistent. I asked Jeff if it was because it was Sunday or if that was the normal traffic volume – and he smiled and said it’s normal to not see any cars out there. So far, so good.
We were in Alabama to speak at the first statewide bicycle summit, and to meet with a few communities interested in bicycle tourism. We were excited (after all, the South is the frontier for bike advocacy), but we truly had no idea what to expect from our week-long visit. Would it be a living stereotype? Would there be more to eat than fried chicken? Was it a joke to think that anyone might ride a bicycle there?
On our second day in Alabama, we drove to Selma. It turned out that we happened to be there on the same week as the voter rights march from Selma to Montgomery, 50 years ago. A large group was walking the route in honor of that historic event, and the visitor’s center was buzzing with activity. For me, it was surprising and humbling to find ourselves in the middle of something so significant.
In Selma, the blocks of empty downtown buildings met us with sadness and resignation. The tall brick buildings date back to the early 1800s, and you can almost envision what it must have been like when there was enough commerce to support them all.
The Montgomery Bicycle Club put on a ride to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the march. They expected only a handful of people – and had to cut off registration when it reached 350. They estimate an economic impact of $300,000. But they had to bus participants to the beginning in Selma, because there’s no lodging.
Could this really be a bicycle tourism destination? The history and culture are incredibly strong draws, but is that enough?
At Redemptive Cycles in Birmingham, a large and diverse group turned out for pizza and beer and talk about cycling. Here, there is a burgeoning bike culture, with tall bike jousting and an independent coffee roaster and a new bike share system which is slated to open in the fall.
Several hours to the South, we visited the town of Fairhope, along the Mobile Bay. Fairhope is a small community, literally built around utopian ideals. The downtown is exceedingly walkable, they’re starting to stripe bike lanes, and the whole town shows up along the beach each evening to watch the sun sink into the bay. It couldn’t have been more different from Selma.
In Fairhope, we were treated to a round-town bicycle tour so we could see the “castle” built by a local artist and a segment of the Eastern Shore Trail. We ate gumbo and jambalaya and far too many beignets.
And we learned about a new mountain bike park in the nearby community of Foley. One day, someone noticed that people were biking on the hiking trails through a nature area. Rather than kick them out, they worked with the local bike shop to design purpose-built mountain biking trails.
Back in Montgomery, there was an interview on Alabama Live, followed by a short bike ride with staff from the Mayor’s office and a pre-Summit happy hour. The manager at the restaurant suggested the First White House of the Confederacy, just around the corner, as the one thing we should see before leaving town.
Alabama is a surprisingly beautiful state, and a bit of a conundrum. Rolling hills in the North, the Gulf and Mobile Bay in the South. Trees and farms and the most biologically diverse waterways in the US. And, yet, outdoor recreation hasn’t really caught on.
The Summit, which initially drew us to Alabama, was the finale of our trip. After five days spent in various parts of the state, talking with folks about bikes and tourism, reading visitor brochures and trying to grasp the various experiences on offer, we joined 30 or so folks to talk about bicycling in Alabama. From DOT to tourism to Forest Service to advocates across the state, the most striking thing about the Summit was that it brought together people who had never before been in the same room. Maybe that’s what all Summits are about, but it felt remarkable in a place like Alabama, which seems like one of the last places to consider adopting cycling as a part of its culture.
Our week was spent digging in and questioning the possibility of cycling in Alabama. In many ways, bike tourism is already happening. There are pockets of opportunity for cycling and there are energetic, enthusiastic people who are working for safer, more comfortable riding experiences. And, yet, there’s no denying the incredible uphill battle that advocates are facing. What happens next is anyone’s guess. But we’ll definitely be watching, with our fingers crossed.
We need your help Iowa readers! We visited Iowa last year and got a small sampling of some of the riding possibilities in the state. RAGBRAI is synonymous with bicycling in Iowa, but we want to dig a little deeper and share what people are missing. What surprised us were the sheer number of rail-trails, as well the small businesses and bars that were targeting bicyclists. We’ll be returning in early June to highlight some of the best riding in the state and need your help finding out what we should ride.
Grinding some gravel outside Grinnell with Craig from Bikes to You. Will be glad to visit in the summer!
So if you’re from Iowa or have ridden in Iowa, what is your favorite ride? It can be anything from an epicurean multi-day tour on a rail trail; a scenic day ride on some of Iowa’s gravel roads; or some sort of ride that challenges the expectations people have about Iowa (what’s the hilliest ride in Iowa?). We’re also looking for rides that pass by some great food and beer of course : ) We’re completely open to suggestions. Leave a comment or email us!
Loved discovering lots of bike friendly businesses in Iowa.
We’re thrilled to announce that we’ll be presenting about bike tourism at this year’s Alabama Statewide Bicycle Summit. At first blush, Alabama might not seem like an obvious bike tourism destination – and that’s exciting for us, because bike tourism brings new people to the bicycling conversation.
We’re also excited because we have the opportunity to visit a few parts of the state before the Summit. We’ve never been to Alabama, so we’re looking forward to exploring a bit, as well as meeting with community leaders and bike advocates, and seeing what bike tourism can look like in Alabama.
If you’re local and want to join in the fun, we’d love to meet up! There are some events already planned or in the works, and hopefully there will be impromptu meet-ups along the way as well.
We’ll be in the following places on the following dates:
– Birmingham: Monday 3/23
– Fairhope: Tuesday 3/24 & Wednesday 3/25
– Montgomery: Thursday 3/26 & Friday 3/27 (the Summit is Friday)
If there’s anything we should see and do (or eat), we’re all ears!