When I last looked at the weather for Minneapolis, it promised a whopping 5 degrees when we arrive this afternoon. It’s not lost on us that this may not the best time of year to visit, especially since we don’t really like the cold. But it is when QBP is hosting Frostbike, so we’re packing all of our layers (literally) and planning to make the best of the silly cold weather.
We’re looking forward to meeting (and meeting again) the good folks at Salsa (and Surly and Cogburn), and maybe tossing around some new project ideas. We’re looking forward to seeing some of the behind-the-scenes, and getting a glimpse into what’s coming up. And, despite the cold, we’re looking forward to exploring a bit of Minneapolis, although we have conceded that biking in this weather is not in the cards for this trip (unless anyone wants to lend us proper snow biking gear).
To say that Oregonians are spoiled with great outdoor recreation opportunities is a bit of an understatement. Even in Portland, the most populated city in the state, there are some pretty awesome mini bike adventures not too far out of town. We decided to take advantage of the unseasonably warm and sunny weather this week to do our February bike overnight for the #BikeTourR12 Challenge. I knew I wanted to get some fishing in so we chose Oxbow Park that is situated right along the Sandy River.
There are many ways to get there, but our current favorite way is a little meandering route that puts you on some quaint country roads that pass plant nurseries and farms. You can do this ride two ways depending on how much riding you want to do. You can take the long way from Portland via the Springwater Corridor or you can take the MAX out to Gresham and ride from the end of the line, which is what we did this time.
Once you get off the MAX, there is a little suburban unpleasantness to ride through but plenty of opportunity to pick up some last minute supplies you might have forgotten (Walgreens, Market 7, etc.,). After about 2 miles, you get on the Springwater Trail that parallels SE Telford Road. It runs along Johnson Creek, which this time of year has a pretty good flow of water through it. A little before mile 4, you leave the trail and get on Stone Rd. and deal with the only bit of traffic unpleasantness on the route, crossing Hwy 26. It is a big 4-lane highway, with no signals at that intersection, making it tricky to cross when it is busy. On the way to Oxbow, we were lucky that there wasn’t much traffic so we made it across fairly easily. Coming back, there was more traffic, so we had to cross it in two stages. We waited until the traffic on our side was clear then rode to the painted traffic island by the left turn pocket; when that side of traffic was clear we crossed the rest of the way. It is not ideal, but if you cross in two stages it is easily manageable. Once you get past that nastiness you are on a gem of a country road that is very lightly trafficked. You eventually get on Dodge Park Blvd, a long straight country road that on a clear day will give you great views of Mt. Hood in the distance. There is a country market and restaurant along the way that always smells like it has some awesome BBQ cooking that we quite haven’t made it to yet. Once you are on Hosner it is a straight shot to Oxbow Park.
Now is probably a good time to talk about The Hill. The Hill is about 1.6 miles and drops/climbs (depending if you are going in or out of the park) 600 feet to river level. It is steep. There are short stretches of 14-15% that make it a memorable experience either way you ride it. There are occasionally some rough patches on the road so keep your eyes peeled and speed in check coming down. The Hill, unfortunately, deters people from attempting to bikecamp at Oxbow more often. It is a tough hill to ride up, but it is short in the grand scheme of things and there is no shame if one decided to take in a bit more of the scenery and walk up it. It doesn’t go on forever (even though it may feel like it when you are pedaling).
After descending The Hill, you’ll pass the entrance to the park (bikes enter for free!). Past the entrance there are about two more miles until you get to the actual campsites. The road through the park is a fun little ride that rolls and curves with great views of the Sandy River below. The campsites were blissfully empty when we arrived. During peak summer months, they fill up easily on the weekends. If you have a flexible schedule, mid-week during shoulder seasons are best for peace and quiet. Campsites cost $22 per site and firewood is $5 a bundle. We had stopped at a convenience store to pull cash, but were pleasantly surprised to learn that the rangers at Oxbow now take credit cards! The rangers on duty were exceptionally nice! Seeing that we were on bikes, they offered to drop some wood off with their truck.
After we got our tent set up and afternoon coffee made, we soft pedaled down to the boat ramp along the Sandy. There is a big swath of pebbly beach and we walked down a little ways with the bikes to find an empty spot. Laura wrote in her journal and I donned the waders and boots. The Sandy River is a well regarded steelhead river. During steelhead season you’ll see people floating down the river fishing every few minutes like a ride in Disneyland. Oxbow Park is unique in that it has a lot of bank fishing opportunities for steelhead. I’ve come out to Oxbow about half a dozen times exploring a few hundred feet with each visit. For the bank fisherman, you could spend years unlocking the nuances of the different runs in the park. I haven’t quite spent that much time there, so I’m still bumbling along trying to figure out where the good water is.
Steelhead are notoriously fickle fish (affectionately called “fish of a thousand casts”, though by the count I’m more than overdue), and many a fisherman has gone through an entire season without bringing one in. At worst it is an absolutely maddening Quixotic experience standing waist deep in cold water, swinging rod and reel in the air like a daft magician trying to conjure up a giant rabbit. But even in those moments where you question your sanity about the whole endeavor, it still beats a lot of other things you could be doing with your time. It felt oddly good to stand there with the warmth of the sun on my face, slowly working down river to the cadence of a snap-T cast as my left foot went slowly numb from the frigid water (have to find that hole in my wader that time). That’s why its called fishing and not catching, right?
Once the sun dipped below the trees we started a campfire, made dinner and enjoyed the rare clear February evening in Oregon. Morning was leisurely and included a healthy sized campfire and multiple cups of coffee. We packed up and rode out around 10:30am and took the same route home and were back home by 1:30pm.
The Oxbow Overnighter is a great beginner-intermediate ride. What prevents it from being completely beginner/family-friendly is the crossing at Hwy 26 and The Hill. Though not particularly harrowing, those two features demand a little more attention. It is a remarkable destination that you can reach in fairly short order from Portland by bike and MAX. On longer summer days, it begs to be ridden the entire way from Portland. The Sandy River is a great attraction and if you like to fish as well as bike, this trip offers both great rural riding and a chance to hook into some amazing fish.
How do you tell a story from five years ago? How do you describe a memory that looms so large in your head that you’re not sure if you completely remember the “truth”? And, as you search for all the little details, how do you know what you were really scared of and what the lesson really was?
Tonight, I will be one of four storytellers at a bike-themed fundraising event here in Portland. (If you’re in town, join us!) Over the past few weeks, we’ve been working with the creative souls behind the Portland Story Theater, slowly fine-tuning our stories and how to tell them in front of a live audience. And the thing that has struck me most about this process is the way it has dug out all of the details that I haven’t thought about in years, leaving me pondering the “truth” of my memories and the extent of that “truth” that I’m brave enough to share.
Five years ago, we were in the West Texas desert. We were exhausted, and we desperately wanted winter to be over. Yet, we were also in awe of the beautifully rugged landscape and the immense quiet. And set right in the middle of this frontier is the story that I’ll be sharing tonight.
At its core, it’s a story about bravery. Not the “bravado” that Hollywood tries to sell as bravery – but the quiet bravery of being anxious about an impending situation, while not wanting to admit it, and then going ahead because there are no other good options, and finding a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I easily could have missed.
Which means that, as I have found my way to the precise words that I will be stringing together on stage, I have thought a lot about the concept of bravery.
Sometimes we don’t see our own bravery, because we assume that “being brave” means doing something “epic” or “hard-core.” But we’re not all afraid of the same things, so I’ve come to believe that bravery operates on a sliding scale. I didn’t see it at the time, but the more that I think back on our travels and prepare my story for tonight, the more I believe that bike travel is inherently brave. Not because of the unknown or the bears or the strange people – but because traveling by bike has an incredible knack for breaking down barriers and giving us glimpses into worlds that we would never otherwise see – and the simple act of being open to these experiences is bravery.
This weekend, despite very uninviting weather, we made our way to Vernonia for another gravel recon ride with some members of Travel Oregon’s Gravel Working Group. The goal of these gatherings, aside from pedaling on some amazing gravel roads, is to try to develop a sense of what makes a great gravel ride for visiting cyclists and discuss some of the issues surrounding gravel tourism. This weekend’s ride started near Vernonia, OR (one of the bookend towns on the Banks-Vernonia Rail Trail).
We met at the Coastal Mountain Sport Haus, a beautifully appointed European style resort. Glen and Sandy are avid cyclists and based the lodge around some cycling lodges in Europe. It has an amazing yoga room, a mini tavern in a barn and a soaking pool that overlooks the property. Sandy is an excellent cook and provides breakfast and dinner for guests and takes into consideration any and all dietary restrictions. Their hope is that people will plan to basecamp at their property and tackle any number of the paved and non-paved roads in the surrounding mountains.
The weather was foreboding but we decided to ride anyway (it couldn’t possibly rain the WHOLE time could it?). We had a good group of people from Evan Ross who owns Cycle Portland Bicycle Tours; to Lisa Luna who is in charge of the adventure biking programs at Mountain Shop, an outdoor store in Portland that also rents gravel bikes, fat bikes and bikepacking bags.
For those interested in the route, you can find it here. A few route notes: 1) it’s a partial route since my Garmin apparently wasn’t recording, but you can pretty easily see the intended start/stop point 2) this variation of the route begins at the Coastal Mountain Sport Haus 3) if you don’t intend to stay at the Coast Mountain Sport Haus, begin your ride from Vernonia and connect to the route there 4) we rode it counter-clockwise but it is a better ride going clockwise because the climbs are more gradual and descents are smoother in that direction. Vernonia based route here.
In terms of other things to expect, bring everything you need to fix your bike. This area is pretty remote and any bike malfunction will result in a very long walk. In fact, it would be a good idea to bring a few riding pals along for the ride. Cross bikes or all-road bikes are ideal. You probably want no smaller than a 32mm tire. If you have good bike handling skills and aren’t afraid of a little gravel surfing, you could ride it with 28mm tires as well. I rode it with 33.3 Jack Browns and it was perfect except for one steep climb with some wet and loose gravel. The terrain is really varied. There are a few fast smooth dirt sections but there are also parts where it is loose, chunky and deep as well as one stretch with good fist-sized rocks. You will also have to walk around a few gates. Not a big deal. It is legal recreational access and the gates are there to dissuade motor vehicle use. Although there is some climbing on this route, everything is pretty reasonable. In fact, a vast majority of the ride is on some nice rollers. There are no services once you leave the highway so bring all the food and water you’ll need. In terms of navigation, a GPS with the route pre-loaded is necessary. There are a lot of logging roads you’ll cross and a GPS with the route will keep you on the right “road.”
Enough disclaimer. Once you leave the Nehalem Highway, you’ll be treated to splendidly quiet roads. We were riding with a group, so we didn’t stop as often as we usually would to take photos. Highlights include the several creek crossings on the route. Everything was pretty high and brown because of the recent rains, but I can imagine during the summer they are clear and inviting. A lot of the roads had trees lining the route like sentries. At other spots, logging activity was clearly visible with barren hillsides that atleast afforded some great views of neighboring peaks. On some parts of the routes you’ll pass pastoral scenes of barns and small farms with cows watching you with curiosity as you roll by. What was enjoyable about the ride was how remote it felt even though it was relatively close to Portland. Modern civilization seemed distant and often the only sounds were of nearby creeks and that Rice Krispies sound your tire makes on dirt and gravel. In short, despite the weather, the riding was pretty awesome.
Compared to the Banks Gravel Loop that we rode a few weeks ago out of Stub Stewart, this ride felt a little more remote and rugged. There wasn’t as much climbing, but the surface of the roads made it seem a little more technically challenging (especially on the descents). It is also longer with less services than the Banks ride, so it is a good idea to pack a sandwich for a creek side picnic or a few bars in your jersey pocket.
The ride ended at the Coastal Mountain Sport Haus where Sandy had prepared an awesome post-ride spread (complete with chilled beers in a bucket). When everyone came in, we ate and chatted about the ride. Some of us already scheming to ride this route again when we have better weather.
Also check out BikePortland’s account of riding this route a few years ago.
Stub Stewart State Park is a well-known bike touring destination for Portland-area bicyclists. Located off the Banks-Vernonia Trail, it is a relaxing car-free experience to gently ride up the rail trail through the forests in the foothills of the coast range. It is also featured in the Tualatin Valley Scenic Bikeway video we filmed. We’ve ridden there about a dozen times and have always treated “Stub,” as it is affectionately called, as an end destination for a quick bike overnight.
Over the last year or so, we’ve become more interested in mixed terrain road riding. After joining the Gravel Working Group on a recon ride a few weeks ago, and getting a sample of some of the great quiet roads in the area, we decided to try treating Stub as a basecamp for further adventure.
Usually, we take the Max out to Hillsboro and ride this route, which puts you on about 10 miles of quiet country roads before the start of the Banks-Vernonia Trail. We actually prefer this route to the official Scenic Bikeway route. It is a bit shorter, a lot less traffic, with fewer major street crossings. If you’re a beginner bike tourist or even a family, it is probably the recommended route.
We wanted a few more miles in our legs so we took this route from Portland all the way to Stub. It was our first time riding there without taking MAX. You essentially leave Portland on HWY 30, climb over the West Hills via Saltzman, ride about a mile on Skyline, descend via Springville, and weave your way through a strange tapestry of suburban trails to country roads.
The route was circuitous and strange, but generally low stress. At one point, you make a left on a gravel service road for 500 feet beneath some power lines. It looks like you are going the wrong way, but you’re not. If you attempt this route, I’d highly recommend taking a GPS, especially if you are not familiar with the trail system. When you get to Banks, it is pretty straight-forward. Hop on the trail and head into the hills.
If you need a lunch break, the Banks Cafe makes some solid hamburgers (GF bread available), has free wi-fi and even some craft beers on tap! Not bad for a tiny town. A little further down the street is the Trailhead Cafe with a green bike out front. They have coffee and focus on more breakfast-type items (the breakfast burrito was a good 2nd breakfast for the ride back to PDX).
Perhaps one of the best-kept secrets about Stub is its cabins! We’ve tented at Stub, but during the colder months, the cabins are really the best option. They are all wood and are outfitted with a futon, bunk-bed, a small dining table, and lamp. The have heat and electricity inside, as well as a fire ring (wood is available from the camp host) and picnic table outside. Bathrooms and hot showers are a short walk to a separate building. They all have a porch with a bench that overlook the coastal range (for best views, book cabins 11 or 12!).
If you are into mountain biking, there is a trail network that you can connect to from the cabins. If you are into disc golf, a short walk down the hill and you are on the course. The price is more than reasonable at $44 a night. They are popular during the summer months and weekends, but if you have a flexible schedule, going midweek almost ensures you’ll have a quiet stay.
As a side note, there are no kitchen facilities, so bring your camp cooking gear. We brought along a small electric kettle, which was awesome for not only making coffee, but for cooking dehydrated mashed potatoes and oatmeal.
The only caveat is that, if you come on bike, be prepared for a one mile slog up-hill to get to the cabin village. While nothing terrible, the road from the trail to the cabins tops out at about 9% grade. If you are hauling kids or a super heavy load, there’s no shame in walking and enjoying the view.
For us, riding in the area around Banks and Vernonia is relatively undiscovered terrain. We are car-free, so just getting out to Stub is essentially a day ride. By treating the cabins as a basecamp, it has opened up our range of roads to explore. There are two routes that have been mapped out in the area by a friend of ours, a local gravel road connoisseur. One of them starts from Banks, and a slightly longer one starts from Vernonia.
Having ridden the one from Banks with the recon group and knowing that it was a good ride, we opted for a modified version of that one. We had a chilly descent down to the Manning Trailhead and picked up the route there. After crossing the 26, we hopped on Hayward Rd, which essentially climbs in earnest. It is initially paved but quickly turns into a great gravel country road. It is important to note that, although the roads seem blissfully empty, you should still generally be aware of the errant vehicle which will definitely not be expecting you.
There are a few houses and small farms along the route and more than a few dogs. For the most part they kept away, but there is a chocolate brown boxer that lives at the top of a hill that got a little bitey during the recon ride a few weeks ago. I was carrying a friend’s Dazzer as insurance. If you are uncomfortable around dogs, this is worth noting. Generally, having some sort of deterrent or plan if a dog gets a little over anxious is a good idea.
The route climbs at a fairly steady pace, with the occasional 14% grade spike. You’ll meander along a rolling ridge before a fast descent to Cedar Canyon Rd that you take into Banks.
The gravel roads this time of year are hard packed and fast! Conditions will change as things dry out, or if there are logging trucks using the roads. I was riding on 33.3mm Jack Brown tires and they were perfect. Laura was riding on 28mm Panaracer GravelKings, which is probably as small as you’d want to go.
After another lunch in Banks, we headed back up to the cabin. Although it was sunny, it was still cold, so we decided to call it a day. The area definitely calls for more exploration when the weather is warmer and the days are a little longer. The next day, we left Stub and rode back to the Hillsboro MAX station and took it back to Portland.
Stub Stewart is a great bike touring destination, but it is also an ideal basecamp for gravel rides. We, admittedly, barely scratched the surface, but are planning to go back again and spend more time riding other routes. It is easy to imagine some awesome 3-night cabin stays in the summer when the days are long, riding loops around the area and ending every evening with a campfire, cold beers, and watching the sunset behind the mountains!