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.
From the moment I first threw a leg over my Warbird, I knew a gauntlet had been thrown down. This bike would travel places with me. But how would my gear?
Our first bike overnight without panniers to Cascade Locks.
As I stared at our bikes in advance of our overnight to Cascade Locks and as I dug around the pile of old bags at the back of the closet, I couldn’t help but think back to our very first bike tour, over eight years ago. A lot has happened in between then and now, but I once again faced a packing conundrum that proved how much I still had to learn.
Eight years ago, I had no idea where to start. I didn’t have any of the fancy gear, because I wasn’t yet sold on this bike touring thing. So, I used what I had, and I overpacked a basket that hung so heavily from my handlebars that it scraped the paint off the headtube.
We all have to start somewhere, but there would be no ill-fitting basket hanging on my Warbird. Nor would there be a hairdryer, or any of the other excessive items I packed on that first trip. But I needed to carry some things, and I once again faced the fact that I didn’t have any of the fancy gear – because, again, I wasn’t yet sold on this bikepacking thing.
Packing with panniers is so simple and easy.
The truth is I like panniers. They’re simple, they’re exceedingly functional, they locate the weight of your gear low to the ground. In contrast, most bikepacking setups rely on many small bags, strapped all over the place with fat ugly velcro, located so high off the ground that they raise your center of gravity.
Panniers are egalitarian. You can use them to buy groceries and you can use them to travel the world. Those funny seat bags, though? Where else do you use those?
Plus, I’ve become incredibly skilled at packing for a bike trip with panniers. It’s such second-nature that I really don’t need to think about it, other than deciding what to cook for dinner.
Put another way, though, maybe I’ve become too skilled at packing with panniers. There’s no challenge anymore, just the chore of finding the things and dropping them inside just-so.
I may hate the look of most bikepacking bags, but I have to admit that I like the challenge of completely re-thinking everything I know about packing for a bike trip.
And when I say re-think everything, I truly mean everything. The systems that I’ve adopted for packing in panniers aren’t transferrable. Neither is a lot of my gear. For the first time, I have to care about ounces and excessive compressibility. I love simplicity, but this is a whole other extreme. And I really don’t want to cut my toothbrush in half.
Definitely planning more rides like this!
In the end, though, I accept this challenge for one reason: this bike is a blast to ride!
I just hope I can find a Mary Poppins bag, because it turns out that the trunk bag I have will only hold one incredibly minimal change of clothes if I want to make decent coffee in the morning.
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!