We’re about to hop a plane today to head down to San Diego for the National Bicycle Tourism Conference (#biketourism2015 for Twitter folks) in San Diego. It should be a fun and informative conference and will give us a chance to connect with both our bicycling and tourism colleagues. From there, we’re going to the Los Angeles area to ride the Verdugos, visit with family and celebrate my birthday (yay!).
From there, we are on sort of a road trip (with a car unfortunately and bikes in tow) making our way back to Portland, Oregon. We have rough plans to stop in Redding, CA to do some #bikefishing with some locals then stop in some Shasta area communities to interview folks behind the new Great Shasta Rail Trail. We’ll be posting on our various feeds (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) and if you want to meet up or give us suggestions of what to check out, let us know!
Merit Badges going in the mail.
Last week, we introduced our #RideBikesTravelDoGood merit badges. The idea was to recognize people who are making the bike travel world a better place, and encourage all of us to keep paying it forward. The response to our call has been incredible, heartening, and encouraging. And we thought we’d share some of what we’ve gleaned so far…
1. There are a lot of people building the bike community.
Even though it’s happening largely under the radar of any big media, you all are already out there, spreading the bike love. From leading rides and supporting new riders, to volunteering on bike-ped committees and hosting travelers – the breadth of work that’s happening to grow a bike-friendly world is astounding.
“Whenever there is a chance to promote biking she is there – with her bike, doing it.”
“His enthusiasm for bicycling is undeniable and contagious.”
“I can’t imagine someone more passionate about bicycle life, including touring and helping others”
2. You all are eager for a way to say Thank You.
In almost every email we’ve received, there’s some variation of “I can never repay them.” You have been inspired, educated, and supported by some truly wonderful people – and there hasn’t been a mechanism to honor their contribution.
“The generosity and friendship shown by these two to me is beyond what I could ever repay or even dream possible. When I see them do the same for strangers, I am humbled and reminded that while we ride to get away from it all, we also ride to build the kind of community in which we want to live.”
3. This isn’t as niche as we thought.
We had this wacky idea to make some patches and offer them up as a merit badge. We thought we’d receive a few responses, probably nominating many of the same folks we want to honor. Instead, our email inbox is full of stories about everyday heroes across the world. We are humbled to learn about and honor these people. But, wow, we need to order more patches!
“Cycling is moving in a fantastic direction and it’s our duty to raise awareness and get more people interested and motivated to bike more often.”
Thank you to everyone who has nominated your personal bike heroes! Please continue to send us stories of the inspirational folks in your lives, so we can continue to honor them. Instructions to nominate someone for a #RideBikesTravelDoGood merit badge are here.
The bad news is that these merit badges can’t be bought.
The good news is that they’re free and you’ll get two of them (more on that a little later).
First, a little backstory.
Ride bikes. Travel. Do good. This is our mantra.
In all our years of traveling by bike, what has stuck in our memory more than breathtakingly beautiful sunsets, screaming mountain descents or (believe it or not) the joy of a well-timed greasy spoon diner … are the people. Traveling by bike affords us the unique chance to interact with both the landscape AND the people in ways the other modes do not.
The bike is simultaneously transportation, adventure-mobile and conversation piece.
We’ll never forget the inspiring fellow riders we’ve met (like a 65-year-old woman touring solo across America with a service dog in her handlebar bag), businesses that went above and beyond to accommodate us (like the KOA in Dillon, MT that saved a cabin for us because it was raining… or the owners of Fall Hollow who fired up the grill before their kitchen was open, to cook us burgers when they saw us hungry upon arrival) and other random acts of kindness or friendly interactions with people while traveling on the road.
We have a large karmic debt to repay, and that is why we have dedicated a large part of our lives the last few years to focus on the “Do Good” part of our mantra. Bicycle travel and tourism has the potential to do amazing good to not only the traveler but the communities travelers pass through.
We want to spread this message.
Think of it as the social equivalent of “Leave No Trace.” Instead of just setting the bar at not leaving a mess, let’s strive to leave things a little better than when we first found them. We want to encourage and recognize people who embody this idea of bicycle travel doing good. While a little woven merit badge is really a small token, it’s a start of a new narrative. We want people to ride bikes, travel and get rad… and also look at the larger picture, because one person’s Outback is another person’s Backyard.
As bike travelers, let’s be better guests. As communities, let’s be better hosts.
The merit badge is available for free to anyone (we do have a limited supply though) who also believes or embodies these ideals. Especially, the “do good” part. We want to give them to businesses who are particularly bike-friendly; to people in the travel and tourism industry who are reaching out to cyclists; to people in the bike industry who are promoting bike travel in a responsible and diverse way; to bike tourists themselves who believe it is important to be a good ambassador for this activity we love; and to anyone else who is positively spreading the love of bicycle travel.
We need your help in finding these people (it could be you or someone you know or someone you met months ago on your last bicycle adventure.) Email us, contact us or tag us on Instagram with the hashtag #ridebikestraveldogood – and tell us about that person.
When you contact us, send us the person’s name, contact information (so we can notify them), photo and three to five sentences about how they #ridebikestraveldogood. We’ll feature this on our site and other social media channels. That person will get two merit badges. One for themselves and another to pay forward when they encounter someone who is a good ambassador for bicycle travel.
After you or the person you’ve nominated receives the merit badge, please send us a photo of you and the badge!
That’s it. We have no intention of selling these. We just want people to look beyond “getting rad” for a second and be more conscious of the landscapes and communities they go through. We only have a limited run and the badges will be given out very intentionally so let us know of someone who should get one today!
Ride bikes. Travel. Do good.
For the past two years, we’ve partnered with the good folks behind the National Bicycle Tourism Conference, to help them broaden their mission and their conference sessions to be more inclusive of the issues facing destinations. This year, we’ve been able to help behind-the-scenes, organizing a few of the sessions, which we think will be full of great information and inspiration.
Bike Tourism 101 Roundtable
For the first time this year, we’ve created a Bike Tourism 101 Roundtable, to follow the highly-popular format of the Events 101 Roundtable – only focused on the nuts and bolts of the tourism side of cycling. We’ve compiled a wide variety of experts, who’ll discuss issues related to bike-friendly business programs, safety, marketing, tracking success – as well as the often-overlooked niches of mountain bike tourism and urban bike tourism.
We first envisioned this session almost two years ago, when a conversation at the 2013 Bicycle Tourism Conference led us to wonder how to bottle the basics for destinations who are beginning to dip their toes into bike tourism. So, we were really thrilled to be asked to organize this session this year, and we’re excited to see what conversations are sparked as a result.
Bicycle Traveler Experience Interactive Session
To be honest, I can almost not contain how excited I am for this session. If you’re a destination representative or a tourism-focused business owner, and you’re trying to figure out how to be more successful at reaching out to cyclists – this is your session!
So many times, as bicycle travelers, we show up at our destination and have to jump through silly logistical hurdles. Maybe it’s asking permission to bring your bike into your hotel room. Maybe it’s figuring out where to park your bike while you stop for lunch in town, without a lock. Maybe it’s shipping your bike ahead, or landing at the airport and having to put your bike back together in an ill-equipped baggage area, or figuring out how to get from your lodging to the trail without having to drive.
We’ve crafted this session to help folks who are in the tourism world start to think through these details that bicycle travelers routinely have to navigate. Our goal is to lead an open discussion of these hurdles and how to make it easier for bike travelers, all while doing a bit of role-playing in the sunshine in San Diego. You know you want to be there.
Connect With Us!
We love this conference because it’s always a fun and enlightening few days – and because it’s a great opportunity to connect face-to-face with folks who we work alongside in the virtual world. We love meeting colleagues and readers, so give us a shout if you plan on attending, or just find us amongst the crowd.
When: November 4-7, 2015
Where: San Diego, CA
More info: www.bicycletournetwork.org
The latest Scenic Bikeway video we shot, edited and produced for TravelOregon is out! The Cascading Rivers Scenic Bikeway is a great summer ride and fall ride because of all the river access along the way. There is some climbing involved (especially if you ride it out and back) so we would probably categorize this as an intermediate ride. If possible, we’d highly suggest doing it mid-week to avoid competing with other river traffic (especially during the middle of summer!). If you’re into flyfishing like we are, bring a rod. There is some good cut throat trout fishing to be had along the way.
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.