When we were invited to speak at the first-ever Lodi Bicycle Summit, we were thrilled! Lodi is a wine town (our first experience with Lodi wine was in Iowa of all places!) in California’s central valley. Probably best known for their old vine Zinfandel, the wine industry has expanded and matured during the last two decades and has become one of the major draws to the area. Lodi is perhaps lesser known as a cycling destination; however, hosting the Stage 2 finish of the 2015 Amgen Tour of California has put them on the map and created interest in the area.
We spent five days in Lodi, with the first few spent riding with local cyclists to get a sense of Lodi as a bicycling destination, before presenting at the actual summit. Lodi, like all destinations, has strengths and challenges. For us, the most obvious strength was strong community support for bicycling in the area. Several wineries support bike teams and bike events. Giro d’ Vino attracts around 700-900 people every year and generates an estimated $40,000 in wine sales on that day, not including dollars spent on local lodging and restaurants). LangeTwins not only sponsors cyclocross riders, but hosts a cyclocross race on their property as well. During our stay, we saw about a half dozen jerseys from various wineries. There is also good political support for cycling in Lodi. City manager, Steve Schwabauer, is an avid cyclist and spoke about the freedom he feels while bicycling at the summit. Mark Chandler, former executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission and vice mayor of Lodi, is a cyclist as well and was instrumental in bringing the Amgen Tour of California to town.
Headbadge sticker on the bike of David Philips, part owner of Michael David Winery.
Location. Location. Location.
Geographically, Lodi makes a perfect weekend escape for people from Sacramento and the Bay Area. Lodi is also fortunate enough to have an Amtrak Station run right through downtown, with roll-on bicycle service. This opens up any number of multi-modal bike vacations in the central valley. Topographically, Lodi is flat as a pancake, which can be both good and bad. For the casual cyclist and bicycle commuter, this makes for easy pedaling terrain. However, for someone who wants hills, this is a bit more of a challenge. We did learn that many local cyclists will head east into the foothills of the Sierras to test out their climbing legs (this site has some great ride suggestions). West of Lodi is the California Delta. We got a short tour through some of the Delta communities, like Locke (a historic Chinese community whose labor built the levees), and were blown away. It was like stepping back in time, with old weathered wooden buildings leaning towards the street.
While people currently ride in Lodi, big gains with ridership (as with most destinations) can be made with more bike infrastructure. On one morning ride, we got caught in few lights with busy crossings that weren’t sensitive enough to recognize our bikes. This is the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Bicycling Needs – being recognized by the all-seeing traffic signaling device. There were some bike lanes but not a very thorough network. Some two lane-country roads were lightly trafficked and delightful, others (which looked very similar) had very high traffic volumes – and as a visitor it would be easy to end up on the “wrong” road. Because of farming and water drainage needs, many roads were shoulderless or had soft shoulders. While almost all the drivers we experienced were really courteous, a few “Bicycles on Roadway” signs or “watch for bicyclists” would be a welcome addition in terms of feeling safe. Bike destinations become attractive because of great riding opportunities AND the presence of other cyclists. Building infrastructure that grows cycling for residents will also attract bike travelers – we like to travel where our tribe is.
Promote Beyond the Silos
In addition to biking, Lodi also has some surprising outdoor recreational assets – like a lake! I had assumed that most central valley towns were just hot and dry, so I was surprised to learn about Lodi Lake, which is formed by the Mokelumne River (which gets a salmon run!) that passes right through town. Dan Arbuckle, owner of Headwaters Kayak and an avid cyclist, has been working hard to make more people aware of the recreational activities you can do on the lake and river. Dan offers SUP yoga classes, kayak and SUP rentals and can also give you tips on where/how to fish in the waterways around town. While seemingly tangential to bike tourism, these other recreational activities are a great compliment to the experience. For me personally, I could see one day of riding in the morning and tasting in the afternoon and another day floating and fishing the river in the morning and more wine in the afternoon. If you look at the travel experience beyond just neat activity silos, but more of as a traveler archetype (explorer, adventurer, epicurean), and package complimentary experiences together, you are more likely to entice multiple overnight stays.
Regionally, Lodi is in a unique location. To the West is the California Delta and Bay Area and to the East are the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. One could create a fascinating multi-day bike tour throughout the region and get a different perspective of California every day. Or, one could use Lodi as a base camp, with day explorations to the Delta and the foothills. Thinking regionally is essential. When a cyclist goes on a bike ride they are blind to arbitrary political borders – they are just going on a bike ride. And while it is important to promote your home destination, it is just as important to have information available about bordering areas.
Drawing a slightly smaller circle, there are some interesting communities that don’t fall under your typical wine-tour experience which we appreciated. We rode through the community of Thornton which has a panaderia with a sign welcoming cyclists and advertising free ice. How could we not stop? Around the corner, we learned there is a bullfighting ring where they hold Portuguese style bullfights (the bull isn’t killed). A little further away is a nature preserve with a visitors center that tells you about the area’s wildlife (complete with a large Sand Hill Crane and aquarium with Steelhead smolt). We appreciated these stops which don’t fall in the typical wine-tour itinerary, because it gave us an authentic-feeling look into the area. Often, looking at what is in your own backyard that will provide a memorable existence to a visitor is the biggest challenge in developing bike destinations. After you’ve ridden a route a thousand times, things don’t stand out as special or unique anymore and sort of blur into the background scenery.
The Bike Summit itself was an awesome event. Organized and spearheaded by Robin Knowlton, a longtime Lodi resident and art gallery owner, the Summit attracted not only cyclists and business owners from Lodi but the neighboring communities as well. The morning kicked off with a community bike ride on an informal tour of Lodi’s bike lanes led by local bike shop owner Jon Tallerico. It was great to see a wide spectrum of cyclists at the ride, from family cargo bikes to faster riders. Pat Patrick, CEO of the Lodi Chamber of Commerce, gave introductory comments and was the event emcee. In total there was an estimated 150-200 attendees which is a great turnout for a first time event. After our keynote, the attendees broke out into small working groups to identify gaps in bicycling in the area. Everyone remained engaged and all the comments were to be turned over to the city for consideration.
Lodi has a strong identity as a wine destination and we are excited that they are getting more serious about incorporating bicycling as a complimentary activity. While the bike advocacy is in its early stages, we expect great things in short order by the amount of community support and enthusiasm we saw during the last week!
We’re excited to announce that we’ll be heading to Lodi, California next week to present and participate in their Bike Summit. This will be our first visit to Lodi, but our favorite wine comes from the region, so we know we’re headed to a good place! We’ll be speaking about bike tourism and the potential for the area – and we hope that it sparks some good conversation.
We’re also excited to be flying down a few days before the Summit to ride some of the routes that they’re proposing as designated bike tourism routes – some short mileage, some long, some through a quiet nature preserve, others stopping for wine and beer tastings.
If you’re in the region, we hope that you’re planning to join us and local community members at the Summit. No doubt it will all be great fun and a lot of valuable work – and definitely find us to say Hi.
Standing on the edge of Lost Lake, with Mt Hood looming majestically in the distance, it’s easy to see why it’s the second most photographed lake in the whole state (behind only Crater Lake). As the sun set behind the forested hills and shadows crept across the water, I stood on the shore and watched as the kayakers slowly turned back toward land and Russ hooked into trout after trout. It was about as idyllic an evening as you could imagine – made all the sweeter by the challenging ride that had gotten us there.
Knowing the elevation profile in advance, and the fact that the temperatures were forecasted to be well into the 100s, we let public transit carry us straight to the start of the good riding – first the MAX to Gresham, then the bus to Sandy. As we loaded the bikes on the bus, the driver inquired about our impending adventure, and then cheered enthusiastically at the very idea. Here was a man who clearly relished the way his bus takes city dwellers to the foot of the mountain.
We navigated our way out of Sandy, onto Ten Eyck Road, then Marmot Road, winding alongside the Sandy River and picturesque small farms. Tall trees and wildflowers lined the road. Cows milled about in the pastures. And every viewpoint showed hills that seemed to roll out forever.
Our first glimpse of Mt Hood.
As Marmot Road ended, we turned onto Barlow Trail Road. We stopped in the small hamlet of Brightwood, where we stocked up on water and snacks at the Brightwood Store. A few miles further and we finally turned onto Lolo Pass Road, the iconic road which had lured us into this entire trip.
Since moving to Portland, we have heard about Lolo Pass Road. It’s a beautiful country road that lets you wind up the base of Mt Hood without the headache of the nearby highway. It provides views of the mountain and surrounding forest that you can’t see from other roads. It’s also one of the original routes across the region and once served as a final leg along the Oregon Trail. Today, it’s mostly paved and mostly ignored by motorists.
She turned out to be our constant companion.
We worked our way up Lolo Pass slowly, stopping frequently to take in the spectacular views. The power lines that share the corridor meant little shade along the route, which became increasingly more brutal as the afternoon wore on and the temperature increased. But the grades were mostly gentle, so we dropped into the low gears and spun up the long climb, reminding ourselves to enjoy every moment of the long-awaited ride.
As we crested the pass level, we were met with a crossroads. Straight ahead was a very rough and rocky road, with a “not maintained for car travel” sign. The road surface to the right was more appealing, but the GPS said to go straight. A family in a minivan waved us down, concerned, when their GPS said to take yet a third option. We finally decided to go straight, and bombed down the rock garden of a road.
The giant chunks of rock don’t mean anything with that view, right?!
Eventually, we merged back with the main paved road, which treated us to a fast tree-lined descent, and then we hooked a left to continue on to Lost Lake Road. Russ joked that his GPS said we still had 1400 feet of elevation to climb to get to the lake, and that it must be wrong. Jinx. As we spun our way up the last few miles, the sun beat down, and car-after-car passed on their way to the lake, with rafts strapped to the roof. Slowly, we crested the last of the climb and then dropped into Lost Lake campground.
It has taken us a long time to finally ride Lolo Pass Road for the simple fact that we were stumped by how to ride it the way we wanted on the bikes we wanted. In our minds, this was a road that cried out for a light and fast bike, a machine that would let us simply enjoy the climb and the view – not a heavily-loaded touring bike that would get us there, but in a fashion more akin to slogging. At the same time, we wanted the freedom to stop a lot and take photos. We didn’t want to just bang it out like any ordinary day ride.
Yes, there really are that many trees.
In other words… How could we plan an overnight trip up Lolo Pass, while bringing a few necessary items and leaving the rest, and still have an adventure? How could we go “credit card touring” without the often-negative connotation of going “credit card touring”?
If you’d asked us about credit card touring when we first took off six years ago, we likely would have scoffed at the very idea. For us, at that time, the fun of traveling by bike centered around the self-sufficiency of carrying all our stuff with us wherever we went. A week’s worth of food, six gallons of water, extra wool layers, metalsmithing tools… whatever we needed to be able to ramble off into the middle of nowhere for an extended period. But strip away the stuff, and our beast-of-burden bikes weren’t “fun” on their own. As we grew weary of lugging around all the gear, we began to re-think our bike travel model. Which is how, over the past year or so, we have come to appreciate and value ride quality over utility.
In fact, part of the reason we got our Warbirds was to take them up Lolo Pass. Fast and nimble, while still stout enough to handle rough terrain and a bit of gear, we knew instantly that these bikes would fit that ride in a way that surpassed our other bikes. And our spring trip to Cascade Locks had proven our hunch correct – the Warbirds could handle a super-lightly-loaded trip without sacrificing the ride quality.
But what unlocked the whole puzzle was the discovery that Lost Lake Resort (a private entity operating along the lake, just a few miles off Lolo Pass Road) offered minimalist cabins with a bed and linens, and a store stocked with beer (and, if you remember to order in advance, fresh hot pizza).
Since we didn’t need the wood stove, it provided perfect indoor bike parking.
Double gas burners + pots + dishes + toaster. Pretty well set-up for a tiny cabin.
On the morning of Day 2, we were up early in the cool mountain air. We navigated our way our of the campground via trail, which was mostly planned but also a bit of a gamble – and which turned out to be a very bumpy shortcut to NF13. (To avoid the trail, just backtrack out of the campground and turn left.)
Before we left Portland, we were tipped off to NF13 as a better way to ride down the mountain to the NE. NF13 basically parallels Lost Lake Road, but the narrowness of NF13 makes it feel more like a bike path through the woods. Without a doubt, it was the best stretch of road of the whole trip. We passed a ranger a few times, and a couple logging trucks, but otherwise it was just us and the quiet, as we descended through giant rock flows and old growth trees.
Boulders bigger than our apartment.
Quiet descent through the thick forest full of old growth trees.
At some point, we popped out into the Hood River Valley. Mt Hood gleaming to the South, Mt Adams to the North, orchards all around. On our way into Hood River, we stopped at Tucker County Park for a fishing break. In talking with the campground staff, we learned that they now offer hiker-bike camping for just $5 per night (so does nearby Toll Bridge Park). We also learned where to find the “best street tacos in all of Hood River” – and, when I had to dust off my rusty Spanish to order, I knew it wasn’t a bluff (a little food truck by a gas station called “Nobis” for fellow taco aficionados).
Since we had decided to turn the ride up Lolo Pass into a whole trip, we routed a 4-day loop: up the mountain on the West, then down the North slope into Hood River for 2 nights (giving us time to ride another iconic route: the Rowena Loops), then back to Portland via the Gorge.
Hood River is a beautifully-appointed small tourist town, so we knew lodging wouldn’t be a problem. But after a night in a cabin in the woods, we bristled at the idea of just crashing at a motel somewhere. Small towns excel at unique lodging options, so I went hunting for something that could parallel the cabin experience. I found it in the tent cabins (also known by the terrible term “glamping”) at Vagabond Lodge.
Our tent cabin, secluded, yet just a short distance to town.
Makes you sleepy just looking at it, doesn’t it?
Set back at the edge of the property and nestled a short distance from the cliffs that drop down to the Columbia River, the tent cabins felt like some modern-day version of Hemingway going on safari. The soft-side canvas tent was pitched on a wooden plank floor, set up several feet off the ground. Beautifully furnished, it came with a vintage-styled cooler, full water jug, and LED lanterns. No electricity, no running water, a short walk to the outdoor shower and porta-loo. The only downside is the low rumble of traffic from the nearby freeway, although the crickets put up a pretty good fight for loudest white noise.
Our “layover” day in Hood River was meant to be a long day ride, a chance to tick off some of the iconic area rides. We decided to head out to Rowena Crest, along the Historic Columbia River Highway. From Hood River, we followed the state trail through the Mosier Twin Tunnels, then passed through the small community of Mosier, before continuing through the orchards and vineyards.
Mother Nature was out in force that morning, determined that her latest heat wave should keep us all inside by the air conditioner. By this point, we had traveled far enough to the East that we were officially on the “dry side” of the state, meaning no shade, and the little wind that kicked up was hot and dusty. Still, we were determined. We were also not alone, and the several dozen other cyclists on the road far outnumbered the cars.
We reached Rowena Crest and peered down at the twisting curves of the old road. And then we kicked off. When the road was first built 100 years ago, it conformed to the needs of the cars at that time: wide curves, gentle grades. But it feels as if it was built for cycling, because those wide curves and gentle grades let you let off the brakes, lean in, and just enjoy the ride.
They don’t build roads like this anymore. Absolutely perfect descent.
The next day, we would return to Portland via the very-familiar-to-us Historic Columbia River Highway corridor. But it didn’t escape our attention, at that moment, that we had successfully pulled together a multi-day, lightly-loaded-yet-bikepacking-esque, Lolo Pass themed trip. Our pursuit of Lolo had also enabled us to check off several other iconic NW rides. Despite the heat and the moments of getting lost, it absolutely lived up to our hopes and expectations.
After soaring down the Rowena Loops, we turned around and rode them back uphill. We backtracked our morning route, and stopped in Mosier for a taco lunch. And then, when we were safely back in Hood River, we waited out the rest of the 109-degree day with a few perfectly cold adult beverages.
Climbing back up Rowena Crest, with the mighty Columbia River in the background.
Margarita salt is an electrolyte replacer, right?!
Curious about the route we took? The GPS tracks of our route are below…
– Sandy to Lost Lake. Remember that we took the straight and rocky route over Lolo Pass. To avoid all that bumpiness, turn right. Both roads intersect again.
– Lost Lake to Hood River. With no signs and a confused GPS, we didn’t realize that the trail had delivered us to NF13 – so we did some extra credit and rode uphill until we found a sign that told us we had been exactly where we wanted to be. If you take the trail, just turn left.
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
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.
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.
We are headed to Iowa! We had a chance to explore a bit of the state last year and are coming back to find some of Iowa’s most interesting riding experiences. If you’d like to join us for a ride or make suggestions about what to check out in the following areas, send us a message! Here are our riding dates:
Taco Ride (5/28) and the Wabash Trace (5/29-5-30)
The taco ride out of Council Bluffs, Iowa is so popular it was turned into a commercial for Jennie-O. We want to check it out first hand. We are also planning to ride the rest of the Wabash Trace to explore some of the cool small towns along the way. Last year we were super impressed by the tiny community of Imogene that turned a quonset hut into a makeshift bicycle hub!
Gravel Grinnell (6/1 – 6/2)
The quaint college town of Grinnell has played host to one of Iowa’s most legendary races, Trans-Iowa. This year was particularly epic, with peanut butter-like conditions that decimated the field. We’re planning to sample some of these gravel roads and find some interesting things to do along the way.
Decorah (6/4 – 6/5)
Iowa has the reputation of being flat as a pancake. Local riders in Decorah beg to differ. We are headed to this charming small town to find some of the hilliest (you heard us right!) in Iowa. After punishing the legs for a bit, we’re going to check out the very tantalizingly named Trout Run Trail (hello, #bikefishing!).
If you’d like to meet up with us and ride along, send us an email!
We’re going to be honest here, when we think of Nevada, we usually think of Las Vegas. From a visitor perspective, Las Vegas takes on such a huge mindshare of our pre-conception of the state that it nearly eclipses everything else. It wasn’t until last year’s Bicycle Tourism Conference, where we chatted with folks from Travel Nevada and NDOT, that we learned about the wealth of outdoor recreation possibilities. We recently had the opportunity to do a breakfast keynote at the Nevada Bicycle and Pedestrian Summit, and we met with bicycle advocates, tour operators and State Parks to learn about the bicycle tourism opportunities in Nevada. We arrived unsure of what to expect, but left thrilled about the possibilities.
Nevada, much like Oregon (perhaps even to a greater extent), has very small, rural and isolated communities, many of which are seeing some tough times. What they lack in built attractions like golf courses, amusement parks and shopping districts, they make up in natural beauty and being nestled in a landscape of mind-blowing scale. We sat in on a presentation led by Bill Story of NDOT about bicycling economics, and it was heartening to see that they see bicycle tourism as a means to attract people to these areas of the state. Even better, is that they are fairly realistic about the challenges of promoting tourism in those remote areas.
Another surprise is how active State Parks is with bicycling. Dawn Andone, a park ranger in Lincoln County, Nevada helps run a yearly bicycling event called Park to Park Pedal Extreme, with the help of local Lincoln County residents as well as a Las Vegas-based bicycling website – BikingLasVegas.com. It first began as a way to increase visitation to the region’s State Parks. It is unique in that it ends in a big gourmet Dutch Oven cook-off, a Lincoln County specialty.
In speaking with Dawn, we learned that the local residents were absolutely crucial in pulling off the ride. During their first year, many stood on the sidelines curious about the strange event. A few years later, they were clamoring for another event to bring in more visitors. To that end, Dawn also organizes a gravel event, called the Beaver Dam Gravel Grinder which ends in a BBQ! Our kind of ride!
Speaking of gravel, we also sat in on a panel with Travel Nevada’s Greg Fine, where he unveiled some early plans for a bicycle gravel network throughout the state. If there is anything that Nevada has a lot of, it is gravel and non-paved roads. After the session, there was a lot of spirited discussion about what they should do next. It was really exciting to see the sparks fly as Nevada bicycle advocates, State Park employees and tourism professionals were in the same room talking with each other for the first time! In our research before visiting the state, we also learned about TransNevadaTrail.com, a group of cyclists that are currently ground-truthing a gravel route across the state.
While our visit to Nevada was short (we didn’t even get to ride!), it left us intrigued. As a state for bicycling, it offers a blank canvas. With the current trend in adventures by bike and bikepacking, it could be poised to be the next hot bicycling destination!
We are doing A LOT of traveling in May! We’ve got two presentations coming up in the next week that are free and open to the public. We always love chatting and grabbing beers with readers. If you’re in the area, come on by!
Saturday, May 2
Time: 10am to 5pm
Presentation Time: 3pm
Russian Community Center on North Capitol Hill
Address: 704 19th Ave E, Seattle, WA 98112
We’ll be giving a pretty light-hearted presentation about combining bike touring and flyfishing. We’ll share some reasons why you should give it a try and some practical trips on a minimal fly fishing kit. There will be lots of stories from the road, photos and goofy videos. We will be at the event all day but are going to present at 3pm.
Nevada Bicycle Summit
Wednesday, May 6
Presentation Time: 8:30am-10:00am
Henderson Convention Center
We will be doing a breakfast keynote about bicycle tourism: what we’ve seen in our travels across the country and New Zealand as well as our work in Oregon. We will also be doing an afternoon session on gravel riding.
One of the classic bike rides in Portland is to ride portions of the Historic Columbia River Highway, a 73-mile scenic stretch of road that was once the only way from Portland to points East in the Columbia Gorge. It was designed with the road user’s aesthetic experience in mind, with twists and turns and slowly-revealed vistas. In the 1950s, it was replaced with I-84 and large segments of the highway were destroyed, while other parts were orphaned in the woods. There has been a push over the last two decades to reconnect the remaining sections of road with a state trail corridor. The 73 mile trail corridor is ALMOST complete, but the hardest and toughest 10 miles remain.
Today, you can ride from Portland to the town of Cascade Locks with relative ease (you COULD ride further, but have to navigate some pretty gnarly sections on the shoulder of the interstate). Cascade Locks is notable in that it is one of the few towns that the Pacific Crest Trail passes through. Over the years, the town has begun to embrace its outdoor recreational assets. It hosts an annual Pacific Crest Trail Days Event and even boasts a new mountain bike park, the Easy Climb Trail, on the outskirts of town.
For this trip, we took a slightly different route out to Cascade Locks. We have been itching to take our Warbirds out on a quick overnight and saw it only fitting that they see a little gravel en route. Less known to motorists but popular with Portland cyclists is Alex Barr road, a lightly trafficked gravel road that rises steeply from the Historic Highway towards Larch Mountain.
We wanted to get to the GOOD riding as quickly as possible so we got up relatively early and took MAX to the end of the line in Gresham. About 15 minutes from the transit stop, we were out in bucolic country, crossing the Sandy River and on the Historic Columbia River Highway.
From this point on the Historic Highway it is a steady climb passing through the small communities of Springdale and Corbett. Shoulders are of varying widths, but traffic is generally light and the road sees LOTS of cyclists on the weekends. Any last minute snacks you want for the ride you can pick up at the Corbett Market (the market makes a great lunch time stop on the return trip, especially if you like bbq and fried chicken!). The owners are welcoming and pay to have a portaloo maintained outside for passing cyclists. Whenever we pass by we always make the point of buying something and letting them know we appreciate what they do. From there it is a short ride to Portland Women’s Forum, a little plot of land that was protected from future development by a group of women that banded together so that the views would always be publicly accessible (that’s just how they roll in Oregon!).
Typically, from Portland Women’s Forum, we would usually crest the last little bit of hill and descend to Vista House and continue along the Historic Highway. On this trip, we took the right hand fork on East Larch Mountain Road. After about 3 miles of climbing, we made a left turn down Haines Road, which turns into a fantastic twisty descent to Latourell Creek, only to climb slowly back up again.
Eventually, we hit the intersection of Haines and Alex Barr and the fun began. All this work to ride a short stretch of dirt road. Was it worth it? Heck yes. It is immediately unpaved and drops down to to Historic Highway with a vengeance (lets just say we were glad to be going down the hill with our overnight load on this trip). It twists and turns beneath a tall canopy of trees, offering the occasional view out to the Columbia River. It was a real treat to ride, not only because it was unpaved, but because it gave a different perspective of the Gorge from just riding on the Historic Highway. You forget that people live in the hills or that the Gorge is more than a giant rock face constantly at your side.
This was our first ride with extra gear on the Warbirds. I was borrowing a friend’s Pika seatbag and Laura was using an Arkel Randonneur Rack and Tailrider bag. We had hoped to camp, but our current sleeping bags, pads and tent aren’t quite small enough to work in a bikepacking setup, so we decided to stay indoors and just pack a change of clothes (and some coffee making gear of course).
The Warbirds ride like fast road bikes on pavement, but have the compliance and predictable steering for the rough stuff. The disc brakes were awesome on the descents. If there would be anything we would change on the bikes, it would be to switch to brifters that use internal routing that won’t interfere with a handlebar roll, and a little bit lower gearing. The low gear was 34×30, yielding about 29 gear inches. With our load on the climbs we were almost always at the bottom of our gear range. For longer, extended dirt climbs with gear, we would definitely want to go lower. Future upgrades would be Apex brifters, SRAM’s 48-32 trekking double and a 36t cassette in the rear.
After Alex Barr, we were back on the Historic Highway. While not as exotic after something like Alex Barr, it is still a great ride. Traffic was still fairly light and we rode fast through the undulating terrain to Multnomah Falls. Generally, we try to get pass the falls before noon before traffic gets crazy. Perhaps the least pleasant stretch of the Historic Highway is a few miles on either side of Multnomah Falls. Heading East, once you past Ainsworth State Park, most of the motorized tourist traffic that was visiting Multnomah will have dissipated by then.
Eventually, you reach the paved trail section that is free from motorized traffic and it is smooth sailing into Cascade Locks. The new section of trail is wonderful, with several bridge crossings. It’s hard to imagine that not too long ago you had to endure riding on I-84 to get to Cascade Locks!
The first order of business when one enters Cascade Locks is to go to the East Wind, a tiny throwback drive-in known for its soft-served ice cream. Fortunately, the line wasn’t too long and we ordered some bacon cheesburgers, because science. After protein-loading, we checked in to the Columbia Gorge Motel to get cleaned up and head over to Thunder Island Brewing. If you want to camp, you’re in luck, because the camping option in town is literally a stone’s throw from the brewery as well.
If you’ve never been, having a beer in the outdoor patio of Thunder Island Brewery might seriously be the best place to have a beer in the Gorge. You’re far enough away from the main drag to not hear the traffic, a grove of trees provides shade in the middle of the day and you look out directly to the mighty Columbia River. The owners are also avid bike tourists themselves (they helped to spearhead getting the fancy new bike racks you will see all over town), and they have racks conveniently positioned in a place of honor right at the entrance. After a few beers, we had dinner at Cascade Locks Ale House (another bike friendly business) which has solid pub food and lots of craft beer on tap. Bike touring tip: they have an outside patio in the back where you can eat and watch your bike if you didn’t arrive with a lock.
We got up early the next morning and got ready to head out of town, but not before we stopped to get some of the best corned beef and hash in Oregon at the Charburger. I know that’s a bold statement, but every time we’ve had the opportunity to have breakfast there, it does not disappoint! Also, the views of the river from inside are pretty remarkable.
We pedaled out of town well-fueled and backtracked along the Historic Highway to Gresham. This of course included the climb up to Vista House and Women’s Forum, which actually aren’t too bad on lightly-loaded bikes. We got to the MAX station at around noon and by around 1pm we were back at our apartment.
If you’re visiting Portland and have the time to either go out for a long day ride or want to do an overnighter in one of Oregon’s iconic natural wonders, this is your ride. You get a little flavor of the small communities along the way, ride on a historic highway that became the model for the nation’s National Park roads AND end the day with a cold beer with a view!
-If you choose to take the gravel option and are on loaded bikes, a minimum of 28-32mmm tires are recommended.
-To avoid the traffic at Multnomah falls, leave early and plan to pass through that section before noon.
-If you have a flexible schedule, ride it mid-week and you’ll have the roads mostly to yourselves.
-Things you have to eat: soft serve at East Wind, beers on the patio at Thunder Island Brewing, burgers at Cascade Locks Ale House and corned beef hash at Charburger!
-Don’t have a “gravel bike” or fancy bikepacking bags? No problem. The Mountain Shop is now renting bikes and all the doodads to strap to your bike.
For more bike travel ideas, check out other posts in our Rode Trip series!