Originally published in Bunyan Velo Issue No. 05
People write and talk about the salmon fly hatch on the Deschutes River with near religious awe. It’s a time when strange, two inch, orange insects emerge and line the grasses on the banks of the river in biblical proportions, causing large and usually wary trout to throw caution to the wind and feed on the surface with the desperation of the last call at Old Country Buffet.
Or that’s what they say, at least.
While a hundred or so cyclists were voluntarily flogging themselves in earnest in the first Oregon Outback along gravel backroads not too far away, Laura, our friend Brendan, and I decided to go on a little gravel outing of our own, combining fishing and bikepacking. As we were gearing up at the parking lot at Deschutes State Park, Brendan even came up with a hashtag for our trip: #OregonTroutback. Our trip, in the current vernacular, was now legit.
As a fly fisherman, I had been hoping to fish the Salmon Fly hatch for some time. It was one of those “famous” hatches (if bugs coming out of the ground can be counted as something internationally noteworthy). As a cyclist, I had done day trips on the Deschutes River Trail but had never camped overnight along the river. This trip was meant to scratch both itches simultaneously with vigor. Even if the fishing wasn’t non-stop reel-scorching action, what is there not to enjoy about pedaling out along a gravel trail and setting up an idyllic camp by a river?
The Deschutes River Trail is an old railroad bed that is rideable for about 20 miles. It has become the de facto proving grounds of many a bikepacking rig for Portland area cyclists since it is a relatively quick drive from downtown. Along the trail you pass a few relics of the past; some wooden railroad boxcars and an old homestead that remain in surprisingly good condition. It is dotted with a handful of campsites, mostly used by rafters and hikers. While the grade is never really difficult, there are a few things out there that will keep you on your toes, namely goatheads and rattlesnakes. Goatheads will make short work of your tire and the rattlesnakes will make short work of you.
The goatheads on the Deschutes River Trail have been known to destroy many a tire. On our first ever outing there a few months ago I had underestimated their severity. When I stopped to fix a flat I had no less than thirty per tire. I ran out of patches and didn’t bring a spare tube and managed to ride out by pumping up the tires every quarter mile. It made for a long afternoon.
Our plan was to ride out to one of the campsites near the old homestead. It had a large flat area for camping beneath some trees and easy river access for fishing. We weren’t exactly the perfect picture of ultralight bikepacking with our Wald baskets and panniers in the rear, but we were carrying a fair amount of fishing and camera gear. Brendan brought along a fly tying vise to make a few streamside flies and I was packing a video monopod. We also had four rods between us: a 5wt, 6wt, and two tenkara rods.
We arrived at our targeted campsite in the early afternoon, only to find it had been claimed. There was a full on camo tarp city set up by two beer-bellied guys who clearly had no intention of sharing the space. We pedaled back a few miles to another site that unfortunately didn’t have as much shade or flat space. The problem wasn’t so much finding free space as it was finding a clearing to setup camp. The grass had grown to head high since the last time we were there and we were loath to tromp around for three days in high grass in rattlesnake country. Eventually we found a little clearing that had space for Laura and I to set up our tent and suitable trees for Brendan’s camping hammock.
After a hastily made lunch, we got down to the business of fishing. Instead of packing heavy wading boots and waders, we were planning to wet wade using neoprene socks and cleated water sandals. For the most part it worked beautifully. The neoprene socks kept your feet just warm enough so you could stand in the water for hours and the cleated sandals gave you some purchase on the slimy rocks of the Deschutes.
We strung up our rods and waded into the water. For me, the first hour or so of fishing is about calming down, settling into the river, and starting to read the water. The water was flowing at a good pace but was fairly shallow. You could walk out about forty feet and still be in waist deep water. I spotted a few obvious places that could hold fish: boulders that were creating some softer water, a few spots on the bank with low overhanging trees that made for good cover, and a few slow, dark, and mysterious runs. All the ingredients of good fishing were there, except for any obvious signs of rising fish and perhaps most importantly, the salmon flies.
Thinking that we hadn’t quite clued in on the schedule that the fish and flies were on, I tied on a hopper-dropper setup, which involves fishing with a dry floating fly and a small subsurface fly below it. For me, It’s a good searching pattern when I’m trying to figure out a stretch of water. Brendan was fishing downstream, working the bank over with some golden stone fly patterns he had tied the week before. We worked our way up and down the river, occasionally glancing over to see how the other person was doing.
It’s not that we didn’t get into any fish, it just wasn’t the white-hot fishing action we were expecting. I got into two medium sized white fish and a third mystery fish that
broke off. Brandon got into a few small sized redsides that he eventually let go. We debriefed over dinner and bourbon and planned the next day’s tactics.
That night a storm rolled in that would refuse to leave completely during our three days on the river. Fishing became a Sisyphean task of casting against 20mph winds. It was not exactly the delicate dry fly fishing we had imagined. I resorted to what was the equivalent of carpet-bombing the water. I switched lines to a shooting head, tied on a sinking tip, and swung flies through wide swaths of water, methodically covering every inch looking for fish. I looked over and saw Brendan, ever the optimist, double hauling dry flies through the wind to the bank. By the end of the second day we were exhausted, having tried everything but chumming the water to get into fish. It was then, when I was leaving the water to go back to camp, that I saw my first rattlesnake slithering across a footpath that I had used over a dozen times during the day. It was a slow and sinewy reminder to not get lazy in the backcountry.
On our final full fishing day we got on the bicycles and rode up and down the river looking for promising water. Everywhere we went felt like a fish ghost town. There were all the structures that make good fishing water, but no fish and no salmon flies. We chatted with some people hiking and fishing the trail who had no luck either. It was as if the hatch had already blown through like a mad tornado of two-inch orange insects a few weeks ago and all the fish were following it like kids and an ice-cream truck. We spotted hundreds of dried up husks of salmon flies on trees at one campsite that confirmed our suspicions.
We took it all with a grain of salt, and plenty of bourbon. That night at camp, Brendan produced an orange and some bitters and made some Old Fashioneds. It’s hard not to get philosophical when you go on a fishing trip and don’t catch very many fish. In fact, it’s probably the only thing you can do and keep your sanity. We all agreed that, at best, we came away catching a few fish. Not as many as we had hoped for (or as large), but neither of us got skunked. At worst, we had just enjoyed three days biking and camping on one of the iconic rivers of Oregon with nothing else to do but ride, cook over our stoves, and go fishing.
Incidentally, we did actually see a salmon fly. On the final morning as we were packing up, Laura said, “I think that’s it. That bug!” I looked over to where she was pointing and sure enough, sitting on my Keen sandal and looking a little worse for wear, was a solitary salmon fly. I pointed it out to Brendan who in a rare instance of losing his cool exclaimed, “Sonofabitch! Let’s throw it in the river!”
Rode Trip is our series of recommended bike travel ideas. If you have a route or a destination you think we should explore, contact us!
Cottonwood Canyon State Park is located right along the John Day River and is one of Oregon’s newest and largest State Parks. It is about a 2.5 hour drive from Portland through the Gorge, so unfortunately it is a bit challenging to get to purely on bike. However, it if you have access to an automobile, it makes for a beautiful place to basecamp for a few days to ride, hike and fish. The landscape is full of sagebrush and rocky basalt cliffs which cradle the John Day River. The park has 21 primitive tent campsites with a vault toilet and even 7 dedicated hiker/biker sites. There is potable water available as well as a large gazebo in the day use area which makes for a great place to hide from the mid-day sun. There are also remnants of an old ranch on the property so it gives the feeling of doing a farmstay when you are on the property.
We went, of course, interested in the mixed terrain riding possibilities. Often we think of State Parks as simply destinations on a bike tour, a place to pitch your tent then move on, but more and more we think they also make great basecamps for loops and deeper exploration (read our Gravel Getaway tour from Stub Stewart State Park). We arrived mid-morning on the first day and after dumping our gear, Laura, our friend Robert and I assembled our bikes and hit the road. We were tipped off to some interesting rides by Dave, the resident park ranger, who suggested we check out a few particular faint squiggles on the map.
Day 1 – Double Track Exploration
Every ride out of Cottonwood Canyon State Park begins with a climb (but also ends with a screaming descent) since it is at river level. After about four miles and 1000ft of elevation gain we turned on to Starvation Lane (they never name these roads Happy Unicorn Way do they?) which was immediately gravel. From here, the terrain is lumpy but not overly steep and the traffic is pretty non-existent. For the next four miles we rode through a windfarm beneath the giant spinning propeller blades. We didn’t notice it at the time (who does?) but we were getting a nice little push with a tailwind.
After about mile 9, the scenery really opened up. We started to get views of the John Day River and the canyon it has carved out over time. We started slowly losing elevation back towards the river. You can take Starvation Lane all the way down to the river with a screaming descent. We decided that since it was late in the day we would rather explore the ridge a bit more so we hopped on a bit of double track that looked like it would lead to an overlook. The surface was a little sandy but surprisingly rideable on the 35mm tires we had on the Warbirds. We decided to call it a day and backtracked back to the State Park. The little push we had gotten out was now a headwind, but the slog up the hill had turned into a glassy smooth descent. The roads are such that they provide good sight lines and you can descend with very little braking.
After we got back to the state park, I decided to take advantage of the remaining daylight and go fishing. This stretch of the John Day holds an interesting variety of fish from steelhead, to smallmouth bass, carp and catfish. This time of year, smallmouth is the fish to target. I recently snapped my 5wt rod so strung up my 7wt switch rod, hoping against the odds and swinging for the fences that I’d get into an errant steelhead. Supposedly someone landed one just last week. Swing and a miss, but couldn’t really complain about the view!
Ever the optimist, swinging for steel.
Day 2 – #Patchduro – a new kind of riding!
On the second day, our friend Adam joined us for more riding. There is a relatively well-maintained trail on the State Park side of the John Day that goes for about 4 miles downstream. On the opposite bank, there is a parallel but less well-maintained but still rideable trail. We took that one. While not as long or aerobically challenging as the ride the day before, the rocky surface kept us on our toes. Adam was riding the new Trek 920 with 29er tires and was doing pretty well. We were a little under-tired for some sections but were able to pick our way across.
The landscape was really something else! After a few bends in the river you get some great rocky canyon walls to one side and river views to the other. The terrain is constantly rolling and the surface is constantly changing. It alternates between hardpacked dirt, to loose chunky gravel, to grass, to babyheads with little rhyme or reason which keeps the ride fun and interesting. Unless you are on a fat tire bike, you HAVE to pay attention. After about 4 miles we passed through what looked like an old cattle holding pen and left the more established trail for some double track up Hay Canyon. We managed to get up about 2 miles on the double track when we all started to flat simultaneously. A quick look at our tires showed that they were riddled with goatheads. We tried at first to patch them and push on, but it became clear that this was an exercise in futility. My tire alone probably had about a half dozen punctures that were bleeding air.
At this point we decided to ride/walk back to the established trail and swap in new tubes there, rather than continue to flat on our last remaining good tubes. Needless to say, it is good advice to either run a tubeless setup with sealant if you plan to go exploring off-trail or bring a large supply of patches and tubes. The mileage of the day wasn’t very high, but the “fun” factor was.
Because Cottonwood Canyon is a new State Park and is fairly remote, it is a bit of an undiscovered gem. We sort of liken it to smaller Deschutes State Park with far less people. The camping is a little more primitive and you have to pack in all the food you’ll need, but there is potable water. It is a playground if you like to bike, hike, fish and take photos. As with any area in this part of Oregon, there are rattlesnakes and other critters to be aware of, but it shouldn’t deter you from exploring the area (just be aware and prepared). Although we spent two evenings there, we barely scratched the surface in terms of riding. We got tipped off to a pretty cool loop you can do at the right time of year (it includes crossing the John Day but connects two gravel roads) and some fishing advice for future trips. If you live in Portland and are looking for a new State Park to explore, we highly recommend it. There are lots of recreational activities to do out there. For us, we hope to return again in the Fall (after the summer heat cools down and the steelhead fishing heats up) armed with tubeless tires and steelhead flies.
Flats are a constant threat if you go off-trail. Be prepared and bring spare tubes, a pump and a patch kit. Or go tubeless (but I’d still bring a spare tube just in case)!
Be aware. You are in a remote landscape and there are some natural hazards like rattlesnakes and ticks, so exercise due caution.
If you plan on hammock camping, don’t. There are no trees in the camp area.
Exploring Starvation Lane and some double track.
Partial route of the river trail. Begins at the area where we diverged from the main trail. Total distance of the ride as about 10 miles.
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!
Bend, OR is generally considered Central Oregon’s bicycle capital. It has a great cycling culture, plethora of bike shops, and easy access to both mountain bike trails and great road rides. However, this past weekend we explored a town not too far away from Bend that we feel has the bones to be the next adventure bike capital of Central Oregon – Prineville.
Prineville is already on the map, so to speak, for bicycling. It is directly on both the Adventure Cycling TransAM route as well as the Oregon Outback. It has a great local brewery, Solstice Brewing Company, and most recently a local bicycle shop again, The Good Bike Co. Several community members are aware of the potential of bicycle tourism in Prineville, as seen by a recent Ford Foundation leadership class choosing bike racks as their signature project. In Prineville, all the ingredients are finally coming together.
Riding the North Star
We’ve spent a little time in Prineville, but haven’t really delved deep into the cycling in the area until this weekend. We decided to ride one of the RideWithGPS Ambassador Routes in the area called the North Star that was mapped out by James at The Good Bike Co. It is a 45-mile loop starting and ending in downtown Prineville, and traversing fantastic country roads and mixed terrain in the local Ochoco Mountains. We were joined by Laura’s brother and sister-in-law, who are Bend residents and also curious about the riding possibilities out of Prineville.
We started at around 11am from Good Bike Co and rolled North on Main St, which eventually becomes McKay Rd (pronounced “mc-KAI” by the locals). Main St has an ample bike lane out of town, which we appreciated. After passing some businesses and residential areas, the land opens up considerably. You find yourself surrounded on either side by ranches and farms. By mile 5, you are on a gentle country road that looks as pastoral as anything you’ll ever see. The traffic was extremely light and the few cars that passed went out of their way to pass safely.
The fun starts at around mile 13 when you are on NF-33 and the pavement turns into dirt. The road surface on the ascent was pretty hard-packed and surprisingly smooth. Laura rode 28mm Panaracer Gravel Kings which have a fairly fine file tread pattern and didn’t have a problem. The only tricky part was near the summit where the road was wet from melting snow. It made for a tacky surface. If we had wetter conditions, it wouldn’t have been as pleasant, since we no doubt would have been slogging through a lot of mud. The climb was pleasantly shaded and ran alongside McKay Creek that was flowing with water. James told us that it is seasonal and generally dries up in the Summer, so its not a reliable source of water later in the year. You’ll also notice quite a number of primitive camping areas along the road (mental note for future bike tours in the area).
The descent was fun and fast. It is on the downhill that you finally get a few views of the surrounding mountains, so be sure to stop and take it in. Just before we hit pavement again we passed Wildcat campground, an established Forest Service campground with a vault toilet and supposedly drinking water (as per the Forest Service website), although we didn’t confirm it. As you make your way back to civilization, you’ll pass an impressive monolith of rock known as Steins Pillar that juts out above the treeline like a prehistoric skyscraper.
At about mile 31, you’re back on a paved country road that gently descends towards HWY 26. Once you hit the highway, it is a straight shot back into town. There is generally a pretty good shoulder the whole way. If it’s hot or if you are running low on drinking water, a stop at the reservoir is in order.
This was one of our first longer rides in the greater Prineville area and we were pretty impressed with how quickly you could get out into the wilderness on your bike. While Prineville isn’t the first bikey town that leaps into your head when you think of Central Oregon, we did see a handful of other cyclists on the road (we even spotted a group wearing some jerseys from a Bend bike shop). This route is great for beginner to intermediate riders. The elevation is gained pretty gradually except for a few stretches of 7-8% near the top. Once you are pass the summit, the route is generally trending downhill, giving your legs a rest. It’s the perfect length for a day ride in the area if you are passing through town.
The Good Bike Co.
While in Prineville, we got a chance to talk with James and Natalie, the owners of the The Good Bike Co. The shop is centrally located and the building used to be an old car service station. Because of this, there is a huge outdoor awning which provides shade for the outdoor seating. The Good Bike Co. is a next-wave bike shop, serving beer and coffee, in an unlikely place. They have a great outdoor patio where James envisions many a cross-country bike tourist or day rider will find themselves after a long ride.
Although the shop isn’t even a year old, James is finding himself busier than he thought he would be. Since he has opened, locals have been bringing their bikes to be repaired in droves (the unseasonably nice weather has jump-started the riding season). While he is focusing primarily on repairs and service, he has also found himself selling a lot of hard tail mountain bikes to local residents. The local mountain bike advocacy group, COTA, has been hard at work creating a new 3-mile mountain bike trail that you can easily access from town. Since this resource is so close to downtown and doesn’t require a long drive to get to, a lot of Prineville residents have either been dusting off their old mountain bikes or buying new ones.
James hopes to cater to touring cyclists on the TransAm as well as the growing adventure bike segment. He is carrying some pretty interesting products, from Bartender bags from Randy Jo to frame bags from Revelate. Out front, he has a few fat bikes and even a Surly Straggler for rent. He and Natalie are also looking to put on a 100-mile gravel race later in the year!
Beyond just operating the bike shop, James and Natalie are also looking at the bigger picture and the potential of bicycle tourism in Prineville. James actively attends the local chamber meetings, is part of a proponent group for a potential Scenic Bikeway, as well as working with other businesses to figure out ways to combine agritourism and bicycle tourism in the area.
Is Pedaling in Prineville’s Future?
We’ve always had a soft spot for Prineville. We had a great welcoming experience as bike tourists there when we were on the TransAm 3 years ago. Since then, we’ve passed through a few times and have always thought that there is great potential for the town to capitalize on bicycling. It seems as if, with the addition of a new bike shop and leadership excited about bicycling, this might be the time for Prineville to create a strong cycling identity and give that other bike/beer Central Oregon town a run for its money.
The Dalles Mountain 60 is a mixed terrain/gravel route in the Columbia Gorge which is a classic for Oregon cyclists. Mapped out by VeloDirt, curators of dirt bike adventures in Oregon, and run as an unofficial ride for a few years (though they have recently let go of the reins), it has taken on a bit of a mythic status. We deviated slightly from the “official” route near the end to make up some time. Hence 50-ish. We’ve wanted to ride the route for the last few years, but being car-free has made it difficult to get out to The Dalles. There are a few regional buses that go between Portland and The Dalles, but information on whether they take bikes or not is unclear. So when our friends Kelley and Kelly wanted to go ride it, we hopped at the chance.
Kelley suggested we start the route from Deschutes State Park rather than The Dalles (the “official” start of the route), which made perfect sense to us. Looking at the profile, you tackle both Old Moody Road and Dalles Mountain Road within the first half of the ride. This knocks off a majority of the climbing and the steepest parts of the ride fairly early on. We parked and got our bikes ready at Deschutes State Park. Day-use parking is free and there are restrooms. It is important to note that, at this time of year, the flush bathrooms are closed for the season, and water is turned off, so there is only a single port-a-loo.
Laura and I rode our Vayas. Though we’ve typically used them as loaded tourers, they actually have quite a gravel pedigree. Before Salsa’s Warbird came out, many a rider had used the Vaya as their gravel steed. I removed all the racks on mine and used a pair of Revelate Mountain Feedbags at the cockpit and an Arkel Randonneur Rack and Tailrider to carry everything else. I’ve used the Arkel rack and bag system on a few mixed terrain adventures, so I knew it would be up to the task. Another important change was that Laura and I were both carrying a 40oz Klean Kanteen and another 26oz water bottle. There are no services once you get on the dirt, so it helps to carry enough hydration. For tires, we were riding the minimum you would want to ride on the route. Laura had 28mm Panaracer Gravel Kings and I had 28mm Clement LGGs. They have a file tread so not much traction on steep dirt climbs. Most of our climbing was seated. It would have been nice to have something in the 30mm range with a bit more tread (something like the Panaracer Gravel Kings in a 32), so standing climbing would have been possible.
From Deschutes State Park, it is a short ride to the first climb of the day – Old Moody Road. It is a steep gravel climb with grade pitches in the 14-15% range. If you start from The Dalles, you face Old Moody Road at the end of the ride, which makes it a lot tougher. But since we were fresh from the start, we were able to enjoy the grind up to the top. After you summit Old Moody, it is rolling terrain past farms and a few settlements. The landscape (especially in the Spring) is really picturesque and pastoral. The gravel ends when you get to 15 Mile Road, which is a beautiful little country road that follows the curve of a little creek. The beauty of this route is that most of the riding (even the paved portions…though there are some caveats) is generally pretty good.
The pastoral-ness is suddenly lost when you enter The Dalles proper. There is the issue of crossing the Columbia River to the Washington side for the big climb of the day. After a quick stop at the Chevron, we took the lane on the bridge (there is a sidewalk on THIS bridge) and made haste to cross it. We had a semi-truck wait patiently for a while before deciding to pass us using the oncoming lane. We did this ride on a Sunday mid-morning so traffic was generally light. On the Washington side, there was a little more highway riding (Hwy 197 to SR-14) but, thankfully, both highways on this stretch have a pretty good shoulder. After a couple miles, you make a left on to the gravel Dalles Mountain Road.
DMR is really the main course of this ride with Old Moody Road providing a spicy little appetizer. It is a long meandering climb. The sort where you wonder if it is going to end around the next corner, only to find that it continues up from there. Fortunately, unlike Old Moody Road, the grades are less steep (mostly in the 6-7% range with a few extended 8-9% stretches). The gravel, when we rode it, was in perfect conditions. After a rain storm, it can be a tire clogging muddy mess. Kelly rode it with a group of friends last year and they had to use their tire levers to scrape off mud every 25ft. About halfway up the climb is a State Park (day-use only, parking, pit-toilet) with some access to mountain biking trails. It makes a good place for a picnic.
From there, it’s still a long grunt up to the top, but the landscape and views become exponentially better. Looking across the river, you see endless rolling hills on the Oregon side. Eventually, you reach the peak (marked by some sort of radio tower), and it is a steep dirt descent down the other side. The gravel on THIS side was a lot thicker and sketchier. Once you reach the bottom of the dirt descent, there are a number of paved and unpaved country roads to navigate until you get to the highway.
By this time on our ride, it was starting to get dark. We were going at a meandering pace and were now trying to get back to the Oregon side before dark. It’s a good idea to have lights and a mirror for this stretch of the ride. We bombed down Hwy 97. Thankfully, the traffic was really light. We deviated from the official route again and curtailed the Maryhill Stone Henge visit, opting for more fast descending to cross the river (hence 50-ish). Once we were at river level, we had to cross the Columbia river again to Biggs Junction. This bridge sucks. It’s narrow and there is no sidewalk. We were riding in the lane on the bridge when a semi-truck decided to pass us in the same lane with on-coming traffic. Not the best feeling to have an 18-wheeler pass you within inches of your shoulder. Jerk. The best advice for this bridge is to wait for a gap, un-apologetically take the lane, and jam across at full tilt.
We had originally planned for a snack at Biggs, but decided to jam post-haste back to Deschutes State Park and get a meal in the Dalles. From Biggs, it is a straight shot on a frontage road back to the state park. On a windy day, it would suck, but we had been fortunate all day. We made good time and made it back to the vehicles just before it got too dark to see.
This ride has a bit of mythic status with Portland area riders. It is definitely an amazing route with some challenging climbs and rewarding vistas. Some of the views you see are simply unreal. The two bridge crossings and the highway descent are the sketchiest parts of the ride, but are thankfully short. It is a good idea to bring everything you need to be properly fed, hydrated, and fix your bike on the route. Windy or wet days will increase the difficulty of the route exponentially. There is little shade so bring sunscreen or long sleeves. The Vayas handled the terrain beautifully. We run a mountain double (40-28) in the front and a 12-36 cassette in the back, so were able to spin up everything. The 28mm tires were the right tire for about 80% of the ride. There were some soupier sections where we could have gone a little wider but, for the most part, 28mm was an ok choice. Disc brakes were definitely great for keeping our speed in check (especially on the highway downhill), but rim brakes would be fine too. Starting this ride from Deschutes State Park, we feel, is an awesome way to tackle the ride. You dispatch the steep Old Moody Road when your legs are fresh and the miles at the end of the day are generally rolling to downhill. If you’re visiting Oregon and are looking for a great mixed terrain ride that gives you a taste of the drier parts of the state, then definitely do this ride!
Our recorded GPS route here.
To say that Oregonians are spoiled with great outdoor recreation opportunities is a bit of an understatement. Even in Portland, the most populated city in the state, there are some pretty awesome mini bike adventures not too far out of town. We decided to take advantage of the unseasonably warm and sunny weather this week to do our February bike overnight for the #BikeTourR12 Challenge. I knew I wanted to get some fishing in so we chose Oxbow Park that is situated right along the Sandy River.
There are many ways to get there, but our current favorite way is a little meandering route that puts you on some quaint country roads that pass plant nurseries and farms. You can do this ride two ways depending on how much riding you want to do. You can take the long way from Portland via the Springwater Corridor or you can take the MAX out to Gresham and ride from the end of the line, which is what we did this time.
Once you get off the MAX, there is a little suburban unpleasantness to ride through but plenty of opportunity to pick up some last minute supplies you might have forgotten (Walgreens, Market 7, etc.,). After about 2 miles, you get on the Springwater Trail that parallels SE Telford Road. It runs along Johnson Creek, which this time of year has a pretty good flow of water through it. A little before mile 4, you leave the trail and get on Stone Rd. and deal with the only bit of traffic unpleasantness on the route, crossing Hwy 26. It is a big 4-lane highway, with no signals at that intersection, making it tricky to cross when it is busy. On the way to Oxbow, we were lucky that there wasn’t much traffic so we made it across fairly easily. Coming back, there was more traffic, so we had to cross it in two stages. We waited until the traffic on our side was clear then rode to the painted traffic island by the left turn pocket; when that side of traffic was clear we crossed the rest of the way. It is not ideal, but if you cross in two stages it is easily manageable. Once you get past that nastiness you are on a gem of a country road that is very lightly trafficked. You eventually get on Dodge Park Blvd, a long straight country road that on a clear day will give you great views of Mt. Hood in the distance. There is a country market and restaurant along the way that always smells like it has some awesome BBQ cooking that we quite haven’t made it to yet. Once you are on Hosner it is a straight shot to Oxbow Park.
Now is probably a good time to talk about The Hill. The Hill is about 1.6 miles and drops/climbs (depending if you are going in or out of the park) 600 feet to river level. It is steep. There are short stretches of 14-15% that make it a memorable experience either way you ride it. There are occasionally some rough patches on the road so keep your eyes peeled and speed in check coming down. The Hill, unfortunately, deters people from attempting to bikecamp at Oxbow more often. It is a tough hill to ride up, but it is short in the grand scheme of things and there is no shame if one decided to take in a bit more of the scenery and walk up it. It doesn’t go on forever (even though it may feel like it when you are pedaling).
After descending The Hill, you’ll pass the entrance to the park (bikes enter for free!). Past the entrance there are about two more miles until you get to the actual campsites. The road through the park is a fun little ride that rolls and curves with great views of the Sandy River below. The campsites were blissfully empty when we arrived. During peak summer months, they fill up easily on the weekends. If you have a flexible schedule, mid-week during shoulder seasons are best for peace and quiet. Campsites cost $22 per site and firewood is $5 a bundle. We had stopped at a convenience store to pull cash, but were pleasantly surprised to learn that the rangers at Oxbow now take credit cards! The rangers on duty were exceptionally nice! Seeing that we were on bikes, they offered to drop some wood off with their truck.
After we got our tent set up and afternoon coffee made, we soft pedaled down to the boat ramp along the Sandy. There is a big swath of pebbly beach and we walked down a little ways with the bikes to find an empty spot. Laura wrote in her journal and I donned the waders and boots. The Sandy River is a well regarded steelhead river. During steelhead season you’ll see people floating down the river fishing every few minutes like a ride in Disneyland. Oxbow Park is unique in that it has a lot of bank fishing opportunities for steelhead. I’ve come out to Oxbow about half a dozen times exploring a few hundred feet with each visit. For the bank fisherman, you could spend years unlocking the nuances of the different runs in the park. I haven’t quite spent that much time there, so I’m still bumbling along trying to figure out where the good water is.
Steelhead are notoriously fickle fish (affectionately called “fish of a thousand casts”, though by the count I’m more than overdue), and many a fisherman has gone through an entire season without bringing one in. At worst it is an absolutely maddening Quixotic experience standing waist deep in cold water, swinging rod and reel in the air like a daft magician trying to conjure up a giant rabbit. But even in those moments where you question your sanity about the whole endeavor, it still beats a lot of other things you could be doing with your time. It felt oddly good to stand there with the warmth of the sun on my face, slowly working down river to the cadence of a snap-T cast as my left foot went slowly numb from the frigid water (have to find that hole in my wader that time). That’s why its called fishing and not catching, right?
Once the sun dipped below the trees we started a campfire, made dinner and enjoyed the rare clear February evening in Oregon. Morning was leisurely and included a healthy sized campfire and multiple cups of coffee. We packed up and rode out around 10:30am and took the same route home and were back home by 1:30pm.
The Oxbow Overnighter is a great beginner-intermediate ride. What prevents it from being completely beginner/family-friendly is the crossing at Hwy 26 and The Hill. Though not particularly harrowing, those two features demand a little more attention. It is a remarkable destination that you can reach in fairly short order from Portland by bike and MAX. On longer summer days, it begs to be ridden the entire way from Portland. The Sandy River is a great attraction and if you like to fish as well as bike, this trip offers both great rural riding and a chance to hook into some amazing fish.
This weekend, despite very uninviting weather, we made our way to Vernonia for another gravel recon ride with some members of Travel Oregon’s Gravel Working Group. The goal of these gatherings, aside from pedaling on some amazing gravel roads, is to try to develop a sense of what makes a great gravel ride for visiting cyclists and discuss some of the issues surrounding gravel tourism. This weekend’s ride started near Vernonia, OR (one of the bookend towns on the Banks-Vernonia Rail Trail).
We met at the Coastal Mountain Sport Haus, a beautifully appointed European style resort. Glen and Sandy are avid cyclists and based the lodge around some cycling lodges in Europe. It has an amazing yoga room, a mini tavern in a barn and a soaking pool that overlooks the property. Sandy is an excellent cook and provides breakfast and dinner for guests and takes into consideration any and all dietary restrictions. Their hope is that people will plan to basecamp at their property and tackle any number of the paved and non-paved roads in the surrounding mountains.
The weather was foreboding but we decided to ride anyway (it couldn’t possibly rain the WHOLE time could it?). We had a good group of people from Evan Ross who owns Cycle Portland Bicycle Tours; to Lisa Luna who is in charge of the adventure biking programs at Mountain Shop, an outdoor store in Portland that also rents gravel bikes, fat bikes and bikepacking bags.
For those interested in the route, you can find it here. A few route notes: 1) it’s a partial route since my Garmin apparently wasn’t recording, but you can pretty easily see the intended start/stop point 2) this variation of the route begins at the Coastal Mountain Sport Haus 3) if you don’t intend to stay at the Coast Mountain Sport Haus, begin your ride from Vernonia and connect to the route there 4) we rode it counter-clockwise but it is a better ride going clockwise because the climbs are more gradual and descents are smoother in that direction. Vernonia based route here.
In terms of other things to expect, bring everything you need to fix your bike. This area is pretty remote and any bike malfunction will result in a very long walk. In fact, it would be a good idea to bring a few riding pals along for the ride. Cross bikes or all-road bikes are ideal. You probably want no smaller than a 32mm tire. If you have good bike handling skills and aren’t afraid of a little gravel surfing, you could ride it with 28mm tires as well. I rode it with 33.3 Jack Browns and it was perfect except for one steep climb with some wet and loose gravel. The terrain is really varied. There are a few fast smooth dirt sections but there are also parts where it is loose, chunky and deep as well as one stretch with good fist-sized rocks. You will also have to walk around a few gates. Not a big deal. It is legal recreational access and the gates are there to dissuade motor vehicle use. Although there is some climbing on this route, everything is pretty reasonable. In fact, a vast majority of the ride is on some nice rollers. There are no services once you leave the highway so bring all the food and water you’ll need. In terms of navigation, a GPS with the route pre-loaded is necessary. There are a lot of logging roads you’ll cross and a GPS with the route will keep you on the right “road.”
Enough disclaimer. Once you leave the Nehalem Highway, you’ll be treated to splendidly quiet roads. We were riding with a group, so we didn’t stop as often as we usually would to take photos. Highlights include the several creek crossings on the route. Everything was pretty high and brown because of the recent rains, but I can imagine during the summer they are clear and inviting. A lot of the roads had trees lining the route like sentries. At other spots, logging activity was clearly visible with barren hillsides that atleast afforded some great views of neighboring peaks. On some parts of the routes you’ll pass pastoral scenes of barns and small farms with cows watching you with curiosity as you roll by. What was enjoyable about the ride was how remote it felt even though it was relatively close to Portland. Modern civilization seemed distant and often the only sounds were of nearby creeks and that Rice Krispies sound your tire makes on dirt and gravel. In short, despite the weather, the riding was pretty awesome.
Compared to the Banks Gravel Loop that we rode a few weeks ago out of Stub Stewart, this ride felt a little more remote and rugged. There wasn’t as much climbing, but the surface of the roads made it seem a little more technically challenging (especially on the descents). It is also longer with less services than the Banks ride, so it is a good idea to pack a sandwich for a creek side picnic or a few bars in your jersey pocket.
The ride ended at the Coastal Mountain Sport Haus where Sandy had prepared an awesome post-ride spread (complete with chilled beers in a bucket). When everyone came in, we ate and chatted about the ride. Some of us already scheming to ride this route again when we have better weather.
Also check out BikePortland’s account of riding this route a few years ago.
Stub Stewart State Park is a well-known bike touring destination for Portland-area bicyclists. Located off the Banks-Vernonia Trail, it is a relaxing car-free experience to gently ride up the rail trail through the forests in the foothills of the coast range. It is also featured in the Tualatin Valley Scenic Bikeway video we filmed. We’ve ridden there about a dozen times and have always treated “Stub,” as it is affectionately called, as an end destination for a quick bike overnight.
Over the last year or so, we’ve become more interested in mixed terrain road riding. After joining the Gravel Working Group on a recon ride a few weeks ago, and getting a sample of some of the great quiet roads in the area, we decided to try treating Stub as a basecamp for further adventure.
Usually, we take the Max out to Hillsboro and ride this route, which puts you on about 10 miles of quiet country roads before the start of the Banks-Vernonia Trail. We actually prefer this route to the official Scenic Bikeway route. It is a bit shorter, a lot less traffic, with fewer major street crossings. If you’re a beginner bike tourist or even a family, it is probably the recommended route.
We wanted a few more miles in our legs so we took this route from Portland all the way to Stub. It was our first time riding there without taking MAX. You essentially leave Portland on HWY 30, climb over the West Hills via Saltzman, ride about a mile on Skyline, descend via Springville, and weave your way through a strange tapestry of suburban trails to country roads.
The route was circuitous and strange, but generally low stress. At one point, you make a left on a gravel service road for 500 feet beneath some power lines. It looks like you are going the wrong way, but you’re not. If you attempt this route, I’d highly recommend taking a GPS, especially if you are not familiar with the trail system. When you get to Banks, it is pretty straight-forward. Hop on the trail and head into the hills.
If you need a lunch break, the Banks Cafe makes some solid hamburgers (GF bread available), has free wi-fi and even some craft beers on tap! Not bad for a tiny town. A little further down the street is the Trailhead Cafe with a green bike out front. They have coffee and focus on more breakfast-type items (the breakfast burrito was a good 2nd breakfast for the ride back to PDX).
Perhaps one of the best-kept secrets about Stub is its cabins! We’ve tented at Stub, but during the colder months, the cabins are really the best option. They are all wood and are outfitted with a futon, bunk-bed, a small dining table, and lamp. The have heat and electricity inside, as well as a fire ring (wood is available from the camp host) and picnic table outside. Bathrooms and hot showers are a short walk to a separate building. They all have a porch with a bench that overlook the coastal range (for best views, book cabins 11 or 12!).
If you are into mountain biking, there is a trail network that you can connect to from the cabins. If you are into disc golf, a short walk down the hill and you are on the course. The price is more than reasonable at $44 a night. They are popular during the summer months and weekends, but if you have a flexible schedule, going midweek almost ensures you’ll have a quiet stay.
As a side note, there are no kitchen facilities, so bring your camp cooking gear. We brought along a small electric kettle, which was awesome for not only making coffee, but for cooking dehydrated mashed potatoes and oatmeal.
The only caveat is that, if you come on bike, be prepared for a one mile slog up-hill to get to the cabin village. While nothing terrible, the road from the trail to the cabins tops out at about 9% grade. If you are hauling kids or a super heavy load, there’s no shame in walking and enjoying the view.
For us, riding in the area around Banks and Vernonia is relatively undiscovered terrain. We are car-free, so just getting out to Stub is essentially a day ride. By treating the cabins as a basecamp, it has opened up our range of roads to explore. There are two routes that have been mapped out in the area by a friend of ours, a local gravel road connoisseur. One of them starts from Banks, and a slightly longer one starts from Vernonia.
Having ridden the one from Banks with the recon group and knowing that it was a good ride, we opted for a modified version of that one. We had a chilly descent down to the Manning Trailhead and picked up the route there. After crossing the 26, we hopped on Hayward Rd, which essentially climbs in earnest. It is initially paved but quickly turns into a great gravel country road. It is important to note that, although the roads seem blissfully empty, you should still generally be aware of the errant vehicle which will definitely not be expecting you.
There are a few houses and small farms along the route and more than a few dogs. For the most part they kept away, but there is a chocolate brown boxer that lives at the top of a hill that got a little bitey during the recon ride a few weeks ago. I was carrying a friend’s Dazzer as insurance. If you are uncomfortable around dogs, this is worth noting. Generally, having some sort of deterrent or plan if a dog gets a little over anxious is a good idea.
The route climbs at a fairly steady pace, with the occasional 14% grade spike. You’ll meander along a rolling ridge before a fast descent to Cedar Canyon Rd that you take into Banks.
The gravel roads this time of year are hard packed and fast! Conditions will change as things dry out, or if there are logging trucks using the roads. I was riding on 33.3mm Jack Brown tires and they were perfect. Laura was riding on 28mm Panaracer GravelKings, which is probably as small as you’d want to go.
After another lunch in Banks, we headed back up to the cabin. Although it was sunny, it was still cold, so we decided to call it a day. The area definitely calls for more exploration when the weather is warmer and the days are a little longer. The next day, we left Stub and rode back to the Hillsboro MAX station and took it back to Portland.
Stub Stewart is a great bike touring destination, but it is also an ideal basecamp for gravel rides. We, admittedly, barely scratched the surface, but are planning to go back again and spend more time riding other routes. It is easy to imagine some awesome 3-night cabin stays in the summer when the days are long, riding loops around the area and ending every evening with a campfire, cold beers, and watching the sunset behind the mountains!
Confession: when I was growing up as a kid in Los Angeles, I had no interest in bikes whatsoever. My interests were about par for my age (i.e. hanging out at the mall and killing quarters on Street Fighter II). So when my family moved out of the more urban part of the San Fernando Valley into what I considered “the sticks” (Sunland/Tujunga), I was filled with typical mall-deprived angst. Fast forward a few decades later, and I’ve come to appreciate where I grew up through the lens of bicycling… and it is awesome!
Yep. This is Los Angeles.
Sunland is not a town one would really consider a tourist destination. The main drag of Foothill Blvd has had a hard time attracting and keeping any businesses of note. There used to be a bike shop, but they have since moved down to the neighboring town. What it lacks in urbanity, though, it makes up in some pretty amazing (and completely hidden) bicycle rides.
When visiting my parents during our winter escapes, we can literally take a small neighborhood road and be in honest-to-goodness mountains in less than 20 minutes. It was a pretty mind-blowing moment when I first realized this. The brown hills and mountains that I looked upon with discontent as a teenager now call to me with any number of adventures as an adult. Amazing how perspective changes. There is quick access to Big Tujunga Road (“Big T”) that winds its way up into the mountains of Angeles Crest Forest. On that road, you can climb on pavement to your heart’s content or veer off on any number of dirt roads and trails along the way. There is also the gruelling off-road climb up to Mt. Lukens on a battlefield of babyheads.
One of our favorite areas to ride, which can be accessed from Sunland (and even Burbank), is in the Verdugo Mountains. The Verdugos are a small transverse mountain range that parallel the San Gabriels and divide the La Cresenta and San Fernando Valleys. It is literally a small island of wilderness in a sea of urban development. Growing up as a kid, I went to high school on one side of the mountains and lived on the other side. The Verdugos have an interesting history. Apparently, a tram was once proposed to go its top. It would have started in Burbank and ended at the summit, at a restaurant. For better or for worse (probably for better), it never materialized. Instead, it now exists as an outdoor escape right in the middle of the city.
There are several trailheads that access the Verdugos from both it’s Southern and Northern sides. We’ve only ever entered from the Northern side of the mountains, near where La Tuna Canyon and the 210 freeway intersect. There is an unimproved dirt parking lot, which to our surprise always seems half full. I never considered this part of Los Angeles as having much outdoor recreation, but every time we have gone to the Verdugos, we’ve seen loads of people walking, jogging, hiking, and biking.
From the trailhead, there is a short and wide paved section which feels like an abandoned freeway on-ramp, then the climbing begins in earnest. You make a right and you’re almost instantly into a short 14% climb. It doesn’t last for long, but it’s punchy enough to get the heart beating. From there, you end up on Hostetter Fire Road, which is unpaved and rocky in parts, but is pretty rideable. We would recommend at least 32mm tires (28 would be doable but not much fun). I have 40mm Clement MSOs and they were just about right. You are pretty much on Hostetter until you get to the ridgeline. Hostetter winds, twists, and turns, and gives you some amazing views along the way. You’ll absolutely forget that you’re in the city after a while.
When you get to the ridge, you’ll intersect Verdugo Motorway. I’ve tried to figure out why it is called Verdugo Motorway without much luck (if you know, email me!). Perhaps it was a through road for cars at one point, but now it is only open to hikers and bikers. Verdugo Motorway meanders along the ridge of the Verdugos and has great views of greater Los Angeles. On a clear day, you’ll see downtown Los Angeles, the piers of San Pedro, and the Channel Islands. It really is an amazing view to behold.
One of our favorite spots along the Verdugo Motorway is Warden’s Grove, which has a picturesque oak tree and bench, begging for you to have a picnic. It’s a good place to stop to take in the view and some snacks. Be sure to bring plenty of water with you, since there are no services up there. Usually, that is about where we turn around and head back, but there are miles and miles of riding to be explored. There is singletrack, as well as fireroads, that criss-cross the Verdugos.
If you live in Los Angeles or The Valley and are looking for some great mixed terrain riding (a la those epic Rapha videos), the Verdugos might literally be in your backyard! I never thought that I’d go back to where I grew up as a teenager and appreciate it like I do now, but that pocket of Los Angeles has some of best bicycling that no one has heard about. Go explore!
(Keep our adventures going and the site growing! If you’ve enjoyed our stories, videos and photos over the years, consider buying our ebook Panniers and Peanut Butter, or our new Brompton Touring Book, or some of the fun bike-themed t-shirts we’re designing, or buying your gear through our Amazon store.)
(Rode Trip is a new short series of bicycle vacation ideas. Some touring. Some day trips. All fun.)
You know a road has a reputation when you tell people you’re going to ride it and they give you a “it takes all kinds” look. Laura’s dad moved to Palm Springs a few years ago and we try to work in a visit to the desert city every time we visit California (especially during the winter). During past visits, I would look wistfully at the mountains that rise out of nowhere on the edge of town and ask, “Where’s that go?” Pointing, of course, to an impossibly straight road that appears to cut a path deep into the mountains. “That thing? That goes to the tram. You’d have to be crazy to ride it on a bike.” And that is how minor obsessions begin.
In 2013, Tramway Road was featured in stage 2 of the Tour of California. It was an exciting mountain-top finish after a long hot day of riding. Riders had been moving at breakneck speeds through the flat desert valley. Once they made a left to go up Tramway, all hell broke loose, and the peloton shattered like a beer bottle in a bar fight. The swarming group was thinned out and the Columbian rider Acevedo edged out the American Tejay van Garderen when the road got stupid steep.
For us, watching bike races through flat lands is a bit of a yawn fest, but watching them suffer in the mountains is a beauty to behold. It’s hard for us to relate to bike racers as they hammer at 30mph on the flats, but when they are defying gravity and willing their bodies up mountain peaks it is somehow more universal, it reveals the human condition.
All the poetry to say that I was determined to ride this road on our recent winter visit. There’s not a whole lot of ride reports about Tramway Road online. Apparently, it’s the sort of ride people do and then keep to themselves. The best description comes from Tough Ascent. He quotes some pretty compelling stats from The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike) in California:
-2nd steepest climb in southern California at a 9.5% average grade
-#1 fastest descent in southern California
-#1 climb with the greatest length of > 10% grade in southern California (1.6 miles long)
-#5 most scenic/spectacular climb in southern California
Additionally, a few more stats:
Length: 3.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 1910 ft
Average Grade: 9.5%
Last 1.2 miles: 12%
Last 1/2 mile: 14.3%
The ride report on Tough Ascent was written in 2010. While the vertical geometry of the road hasn’t changed since then (it is still a straight and steep climb with the steepest sections at the end), the road itself has been much improved. Recently repaved, the road surface is now silky smooth and makes for a great uphill experience and a very exciting descent (to say the least). Also new to the road is the addition of a really wide walkway that is separated by a concrete curb! This makes it wonderful for walking or running. When we were out on the Tramway, it was being well used, so kudos to Palm Springs for turning an otherwise featureless road that only cars could enjoy into something that is great for more users.
Back to the riding. After a few days of walking around downtown and enjoying some great food (Bill’s Pizza, by the way, is awesome and offers GF pizzas and craft beer, although service can be slow), we decided to tackle the hill. To beat the warmer temperatures and especially the traffic, we started out fairly early. We’d recommend getting to the base of the climb probably no later than 8am, if not earlier.
The ride itself is pretty straight forward. You go up. Since we were riding early enough, the traffic was extremely light and we could ride side by side and talk. There are very few turns and it’s essentially straight, so it can be a bit disheartening when the point in the distance moves towards you at a glacial pace. A better strategy is to look around while spinning. It’s easy to imagine the desert as a flat and featureless plate of sand, but this road shows that it is anything but. The mountains, particularly during the early morning light, cast some magnificent shadows. Even better views can be had if you stop and turn around. It’s easy to focus on the slowly moving road beneath you, but you’ll miss the best part – spectacular views of the valley below.
The riding is challenging but not impossible (especially if you are used to riding hills and have good gearing). For most of the climb, the grades were pretty reasonable. At some point near the top, you are greeted with a ticket booth and entrance of sorts. This is NOT the top, though it is tempting to stop there and turn around. It is also about here that the road kicks up a bit more and will cruelly test your lungs and legs. This is where, as Phil Ligget would say, we were experiencing a “spot of bother.” Fortunately there wasn’t too much further to go and we pushed on.
The top is actually quite anti-climactic from a scenery perspective. There is the tram station and a tram car where you can take pictures, but the views of the valley are occluded by the mountains. After a few quick snaps, we put on our jackets and began the screaming descent back into Palm Springs. As you go back into town, you get some spectacular views of the desert valley and wind farms in the distance.
Palm Springs isn’t the kind of place that often makes it on top bicycling lists, but the Tour of California put it on center stage. From what we have heard, the city is slowly moving forward on becoming a more bikeable city. In our opinion, it makes a great winter cycling destination for anyone escaping colder climes. 80 degrees and sun in the middle of winter? Yes please! We toured through the desert cities a few years ago and it felt pretty bike inhospitable, though there were some true gems like Box Canyon Road to Mecca and the road that traverses Joshua Tree. If Palm Springs continues down the path of slowly becoming more bike-friendly, it could really be a cycling oasis in the middle of the desert.
(Keep our adventures going and the site growing! If you’ve enjoyed our stories, videos and photos over the years, consider buying our ebook Panniers and Peanut Butter, or our new Brompton Touring Book, or some of the fun bike-themed t-shirts we’re designing, or buying your gear through our Amazon store.)