A few weeks ago, we spent 10 days in Iowa. Our goal: to explore three diverse parts of the state and find great places to ride.
The air is thick and sticky when we arrive in Des Moines, an appropriate welcome to the Mid West. It’s hot and humid on the patio of El Bait Shop also, but it’s worth it to sample the bike-friendly bar’s impressive beer list (along with some of their famous wings).
In the morning, we pick up a pair of bikes from Kyle’s Bikes in Ankeny. We had hoped to avoid the headache of flying our own bikes – and, although they don’t officially rent bikes, Kyle graciously set us up with a couple loaners for the whole trip (thank you Kyle, and Bob!).
Then we’re off to the SW corner of the state.
The Wabash Trace
The Wabash Trace is a 63-mile rail trail that would make a perfect easy bike tour from the Council Bluffs – Omaha metro area. The surface is crushed limestone, and it’s lined with a thick canopy of Elm and Walnut trees. The whole length of the trail is a nature preserve, and there are birds everywhere (and squirrels and bunnies and deer). It’s quiet and peaceful as it winds through the small communities that grew up with the original railroad.
The natural surroundings of the Wabash Trace.
We’ve arranged to stay in a few of the communities as we wind our way down the trail. In Malvern, we “check in” at the Project Art Church. A few years ago, Zack moved back to Malvern after a decade in Arizona. He bought the old Presbyterian church, which had stood empty for a generation, and converted it to a studio/gallery space and apartment. Now, that same apartment is headed for a listing on AirBnB, and we’re lucky to be only the third visitor to stay.
Zack, surrounded by some of his work, at the Project Art Church.
We visited Malvern for approximately 3 hours last fall, to talk with the trail group in the back room of the Classic Cafe. We ate dinner beforehand, and the idea of returning for another meal was one of the things we were most excited about on this trip. We splurge on a pair of steak dinners, complete with baked potato and fresh veggies. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, it’s the best steak of the whole trip (and quite possibly one of the best ever).
Along the trail, we goof off at the old jail in Silver City, stop in to the Mineola Steakhouse (where the infamous Thursday Night Taco Ride ends), and ponder the meaning of all the train cars in the river (an old way of dealing with riverbank erosion). We meet up with some local trail advocates who ride a stretch of the trail with us and tell us all the fascinating history.
A small piece of history tucked along the Wabash Trace.
Trail champion, Becca, and her son, enjoying one of the many historic rail bridges.
In Imogene, the tiniest town along the trail, I’m told the current population is: “maybe 40?” But it somehow feels bigger than it is – maybe because The Emerald Isle, the local bar (and only business in town), is the de facto community hang-out spot, and it’s positively buzzing when we’re there. Dinner is great, but it’s really just an excuse to dig in to the pie. Twice a year, at spring planting and fall harvest, the infamous Pie Lady and her husband travel to Imogene to help at the family farm, and immense and delicious pies abound. It’s a story that couldn’t be any more ‘small town,’ and it’s exactly the memorable sort of experience that got us into bike touring in the first place.
Seriously, plan your trip around the pie.
The next day, we work our way down to Shenandoah, the biggest town along the Wabash Trace (except for Council Bluffs, which anchors the trail at the North end). In Shenandoah, we have three places to seek out: Wabash Wine Company (yes, Iowa makes wine – Wabash also makes excellent wood-fired pizzas), George Jay Drug (or, rather, the old fashioned soda fountain inside the pharmacy), and The Depot Deli (an old railroad depot converted to a restaurant, that also houses a micro-brewery). The woman at the Shenandoah Inn, when I ask about our bikes at check-in, laughs, not skipping a single beat: “of course you can bring them in!” she says, telling me that they see a lot of folks coming in off the trail.
The Depot Deli and its incredible collection of memorabilia.
Our next destination is Grinnell, a small college town about an hour NE of Des Moines. For the past several years, Grinnell has hosted TransIowa, which has helped put the town on the map for gravel riding. After a teaser ride last fall, we’re excited to really explore some of the roads that the harder-core-than-us TI riders traverse (we’re also excited that we’ll have much, much better weather).
Our lodging is one of the impeccably designed and decorated lofts downtown. Since most of Grinnell’s hotels are on the edge of town, we feel fortunate to simply stumble downstairs and into one of several great restaurants. And we take full advantage, sampling almost all of the local eateries, including the wine bar. The food options in town are surprisingly cosmopolitan for this little town surrounded by farmland. (Our favorites: La Cabana for filling Mexican lunches, and Prairie Canary for fresh, locally-grown dinners.)
Solera wine bar welcomes with a cozy interior and a delicious collection of wine and beer.
Our first morning in town, we meet up with two local gravel riding aficionados, who have offered to take us out on an iconic Grinnell gravel loop. Instantly, the roads surprise us, as they roll straight up and over some pretty intense hills. This is not the flat land that we blindly assumed characterizes the whole Mid-West, nor is it the kind of long-and-slow climbing that we’re used to in the West. These are short punchy climbs that suck all the wind out of your lungs and legs, before giving you a rip-roaring descent down the other side.
Gravel and farmland in Grinnell.
Lots of challenging-yet-picturesque hills.
A few miles out of town, we pass the barn that marks the end of TransIowa. We pass beautifully-quintessential farmhouses, perched on ridge-lines, overlooking miles and miles of corn and soybeans. We pass Rock Creek Lake and several small streams. And we roll back into town ready for a nap.
Over the next few days, we get into a rhythm of riding early in the morning, hiding inside while the sun rages, then heading out again in the late afternoon. We learn that the rides to the West of town are hillier than the rides to the East. We learn that B roads are absolutely phenomenal, provided that they are dry, dry, dry (these roads will swallow you whole after a rain). We learn that you can ride in a straight line for seven miles, and gain 500 feet of elevation. We learn that you can turn a corner and disappear into a landscape belonging to rural Europe.
Just about perfect.
Our final destination is Decorah, nestled in the NE corner of the state. Here, there’s no mistaking the landscape as flat. Decorah sits at the lower edge of the Driftless Region, an area marked by deeply-carved river valleys and limestone bluffs. As a result, surrounding farms are smaller, because it’s hard to plant thousands of acres of corn across the steep landscape.
We check in to the Hotel Winneshiek, a beautifully-renovated historic hotel in downtown. Again, we are within easy walking distance of great restaurants and shops. Decorah has a thriving Main Street district, complete with a food co-op and outdoor store. Again, we’re determined to sample a little bit of everything. (Our favorites: Old Armory BBQ plus a beer at The Courtyard & Cellar’s neighboring beer garden, and the seasonal bistro options at La Rana.)
Bike-friendly Hotel Winneshiek.
Warm interior and delicious food at La Rana.
We meet up with the three women who’ve offered to ride with us in Decorah, and we pick a route the heads NW to the small community of Bluffton. It’s a simple out-and-back route, following low-traffic paved roads. We climb out of one valley into another, taking in sweeping vistas as we momentarily follow a ridge-line. We pass some of the characteristic rocky bluffs, before paralleling the river into Bluffton and resting for a bit at one of the shaded campgrounds.
It turns out there’s great (paved) road riding in Iowa too.
Rocky cliffs and rolling hills.
The next day, we expand our radius a bit and piece together a mixed-terrain route that zig-zags down gravel farm roads and beside impressive rock outcroppings. We’re astounded at the changing terrain and topography – lush and green, then wide open farmland, with the occasion tiny community – and we’re astounded that this incredibly-remote-feeling countryside is only a few minutes from town.
There’s a reason they call this ‘Scenic River Road.’
Both afternoons, as the heat of the day fades, we head out on the Trout Run Trail, a phenomenal 12-mile loop that winds alongside fishing rivers, small farms, and a bald eagle nest. Russ throws a line out in a few places along the river, and reels in (and then tosses back) a dozen or so small trout.
The switchbacks along the Trout Run Trail, as it cuts through farmland south of town.
If only all #bikefishing was this accessible!
Our 10 days in Iowa surprised us. As natives of the West Coast, we admit that Iowa never really registered as a travel destination – at least, not until we had an opportunity to spend some time in the state last fall. As we rambled across the state, we found signs of bike dotted throughout Iowa’s culture, just in a different way than you find in Portland – and we found ourselves wondering what other great rides are hiding behind the cornfields.
A few weeks ago, we joined a recon team coordinated by Travel Oregon, for four days, to look at the feasibility of fatbiking the Oregon Coast. Bike tour operators like CogWild, Limberlost, The Bicycle Concierge and Pedal Bike Tours were on the trip to see if it would be a product they could develop. We pedaled along stretches that were already known fatbiking destinations, but also got to ride some areas where no fatbikes (or any bikes) had gone before. Here are 7 tips to keep in mind when you fatbike Oregon’s rugged coast.
1. Sand and cameras don’t mix
Fatbiking the Oregon Coast is an amazing and scenic experience. You will no doubt want to bring the good camera and take photos of your trip! However, take note of the sand. To say that there is a lot of sand at the coast is to state the obvious. However, weeks later, we are still cleaning sand out of shoes and clothes we brought on the trip! If you bring a DSLR, it’s a good idea to not change lenses anywhere on the beach if the wind is blowing (which is always). I’m also not a fan of protective filters, but the coast is one place you definitely want one!
2. Saltwater is not your bike’s friend
While shots of you and your buddies kicking up water from incoming waves looks rad, it will wreak havoc on your bicycle’s drive train in short order. On our first day of riding, we were riding against the wind on some off-camber sand. It was tricky to stay upright and find a good surface to ride on. The dry sand was too soft to ride on, so we had to ride near the breaking waves on wet sand. Occasionally a sneaker wave would come up and hit our bikes. You knew instantly, because the bike stopped sounding like a well-oiled machine and more like a coffee grinder! We even had a rider break his chain after getting hit with one too many waves.
3. Sea caves and tidal pools are rad
The most stunning features that we encountered while fatbiking the coast were the sections with rock formations and tidal pools. During low tide, you can pedal to and through these features. Pedaling through caves and around tidal pools, looking at momentarily-exposed sea life, reminded me of grade school field trips… but a lot more fun. For the best intel on where to find these spots and how to get to them, you want to contact Karl from South Coast Bicycles and Daniella and Elliot from Bike Newport. They have been fatbiking the coast for the last few years and know the primo locations.
4. Snowy Plover Patrol
The Snowy Plover is a cute diminutive bird that nests in the sand on the Oregon Coast. Invasive beach grass has ruined a lot of their natural habitat and they are now one of Oregon’s threatened bird species. Because of this, lots of efforts are in motion to protect them. This means that during their breeding season, many stretches of beach are closed to all human traffic. Volunteers monitor and patrol the coastline to help educate the public, but also enforce the beach closures. They take their job seriously. Before mapping a stretch of beach to fatbike on, be sure to check with local resources about Snowy Plover related beach closures.
5. It’s a Jigsaw Puzzle
Oregon’s coast unfortunately is not a giant continuous beach path. Although there are long swaths of pristine beach to pedal on, these sections are broken up by rocky headlands and wide uncrossable river outlets. On our recon trip, we had multiple creek and river crossings where we had to wade through the water (best done at low tide). Access to the beach is also an issue. Sometimes getting to a section of beach meant going down a steep trail to only ride a 2 mile stretch to then scramble up the bluff with bike in tow. The romantic idea of pedaling every inch of the Oregon Coast as an alternative to the 101 just isn’t possible. Currently, basecamping at a few key destinations and exploring on day trips seems to be the best way to experience the coast.
Oregon’s rugged coast makes a continuous route challenging.
One of the unique features you’ll encounter on the Oregon coast are sand dunes. They vary from small rolling hills to mega Dunes like the one at Pacific City (which conveniently rolls downhill to Pelican Brewery). If you’ve never fatbiked on a dune before, there’s a few things to keep in mind. Their rideability is extremely variable. On super soft sand, expect to either nearly completely deflate your tires to get some float, or prepare to push your bike. In general, the windward sides of dunes tend to be firmer and harder packed. After a rain, dunes can firm up and be very rideable. Laura had a blast hiking up the dunes and bombing down. The best way to think of them is as a giant sandy skate park that you session on, rather than something that is navigable. If you plan to traverse dunes, it’s going to take a lot longer than you think.
Expect some long walks on the beach.
7. Rent a bike / hire a guide
We’re usually fans of using our own gear, but would totally make concessions to fatbike the coast. Outside the logistics of finding fatbike-compatible car racks, the daily maintenance required to keep your bike from rusting or grinding itself in a slow death is considerable. For us, this is an instance when it makes sense to pay a little extra to have someone else deal with it. The folks at South Coast Bicycles and Bike Newport have fleets of fatbikes for rent and know where to ride them. If you want a simple turnkey way to fatbike the coast, contact them. If you want a multi-day experience that takes you to some lesser pedaled locations, CogWild will soon be putting together a package from some of the cool places we rode through. If you’re coming from the Portland metro-area, The Bicycle Concierge has a van and fleet of fat bikes for your next excursion.
How far is too far to ride to catch some fish? With the memory of our latest outing on the Deschutes fading, I was itching to get a fish on the line once again. Looking back at routes we’ve ridden, we were looking for someplace we could get to in a day’s ride that would provide good fishing opportunities for Laura’s tenkara rod and my 4wt fiberglass rod. One possible place that has always stood large in our minds was the Nestucca River. The last time we rode there, I wasn’t really into fishing. I did vaguely remember the river and that the campsites had looked nice enough.
Waders, Crocs and fishing gear all in the basket.
Nestucca River Road (or Meadowlake Rd as it is called out of the quaint winery town of Carlton) is a lesser known way for cyclists to get to the coast from the Willamette Valley. A short portion of the road is gravel, which tends to deter heavy thru traffic and makes it ideal for riding. But, there is still the matter of the coastal range to get up and over.
We decided to head out on Sunday morning. With summer in full swing, we didn’t want to compete for campsites and with traffic so we headed out when most would probably be heading home. We cut out a lot of suburban city riding by taking the MAX out to Hillsboro. From Hillsboro we rode few miles West on Hwy 8 which has a wide bike lane to just outside of Forest Grove, where we took a series of small roads that paralleled Hwy 47 South. This is the heart of Willamette valley wine country. Every few miles, it seemed, there were signs for a vineyard or a tasting room. The topography, as you would expect for the area is a series of gentle rolling hills. Flat enough to keep up a decent pace even when loaded, but hilly enough to keep the riding interesting.
We got up around 6am to get an early start and by the time we reached Carlton, we were glad we did. The temperature was rising and so was the amount of traffic. School was out and it’s tourist season, so there was more traffic than we would have liked on some of those shoulderless country roads. For the most part, drivers were well behaved but there were a few instances when someone would insist on pushing their luck and pass us on a blind curve instead of waiting five seconds. By the time we got to Carlton, we were ready for a break. Thankfully, there is an AMAZING bakery in Carlton (I would almost brave the traffic again for those cinnamon rolls!) where we stocked up on some pastries and Stumptown coffee for the climb ahead.
From Carlton, we hopped on Meadowlake Rd and made the slow grind up and over the coast range. Most of the riding is at a reasonable 5-8% grade, but there were a few pointy bits that got into the double digits. If anything, the climb is more of a war of attrition with gravity than it is a series of steep ramps. Thankfully, the latter half of the climbing is under tree cover which kept us sheltered from the sun that was now at full force. Although it was long and tiring, we were climbing pretty well. It is funny how your memories of a ride from years ago can be so different from the present day reality of it. The climbing wasn’t as bad as we remembered and there were whole sections of the ride we had completely no recollection of.
The summit came just in time. I had run out of water and we were both feeling a bit fried from the heat. As we descended we stopped into a few of the BLM sites looking for a good place to camp. We were targeting Elk Bend, but when we got there the layout was less than the ideal with campers stacked on top of each other. Instead, we rode a little further and camped at Alder Glen and settled on a ridiculously awesome campsite with a tiny tent pad beneath the canopy of a tree and the perfect view of a waterfall across the river. The site definitely made the trip worthwhile.
We setup camp and filtered water. I took a quick dunk in the river to cool off. After sufficient calories were consumed (in the form of salami), I strung up the Butterstick to check out the water. We had nearly followed the entire length of the Nestucca river from the summit where it barely looked like a puddle to something more fishable. The stretch along the campsite looked promising with a decent current on the far bank with lots of structure for fish to hide behind. At its widest, the river was maybe 30 or 40 feet.
Fishing is a lot like walking down your neighborhood and knocking on doors to see who is home. I started knocking. It didn’t take long until I had a pretty little cutthroat on a dry. Not a big fish by any means at 6 inches, but apparently a pretty good size for this stretch of water. After a few more missed takes from small fish I walked back to camp. We were both pretty exhausted. The mileage for the day was 56 miles with 3600 feet of climbing with nearly all the uphill at the end of the day. It was the evening of the Solstice, the longest day of the year, but by 7pm with the sun still blaring brightly in the sky we were wondering if it wasn’t too early to go to bed. We managed to stay awake until 9pm, when we called it a night (even though it was fairly bright out) and slept to the sound of the waterfall from across the river.
We had set aside one full day of fishing for this trip, which I think is the best way to do it. Usually the first few hours on a new river are just about feeling it out and getting use to where the furniture is. There’s almost as much observation going on as fishing. What bugs are present? Are there any risers? Where are the deep pools? You look, you listen and then take some educated guesses.
We decided to pedal down the road a few miles and check out the river downstream. There were some promising spots, but there were also a lot of private property signs (something else we didn’t remember from our last ride). We eventually settled on a turnout that had a trail down to the river. After a little hike-a-bike we ended up on an idyllic gravel beach and decided to kill a few hours there. It was classic trout water with riffles leading into deeper pools. It should have been easy and obvious but the most we got were some half-hearted looks from fish too small to get excited about. At worst, we ended up having a nice picnic by a beautiful stretch of water with no one else around.
We rode back for afternoon siesta, made a little #coffeeoutside and waited until things cooled off. We fished the water along the campsite quickly and efficiently. Laura hooked into a small but fiesty cutthroat complete with aerial acrobatics that put a nice bend in the tenkara rod. Outside of a few minor exclamation marks in the day, the fishing was slow and the fish we did get were small.
It was easy to get a little disheartened when we started to do the calculations: 56 miles, 3500ft over the coast range in the heat for some small fish. I’ve found that it is best to get philosophical at times like this. We were camped out in some beautiful country and for the last three days the sound of traffic had been replaced with the sounds of the river. There was no cell phone service where we were, so there was nothing to do but the bare tasks at hand: make coffee, fish til dark, eat dinner and drink bourbon while staring at a campfire. I even tried to find some solace in the fish we did catch and the way they took a fly with a sort of heartbreaking innocence. Tomorrow we would climb the coast range again and ride through the valley in the heat of the day to get back into the city. There would be plenty of time for worries and frustrations. All the time in the world, in fact. But for now, we had this small river and these small fish.
Exasperated, I stopped in the middle of the mud field of a road. I could no longer shoulder my bike, after carrying it most of the way down the hill. But pushing wasn’t an option either, as the peanut butter mud clogged up the tire tread and chain and everything else in the bat of an eye. So I just stood there for a moment, pondering what to do.
And that’s when I saw Phil’s van, chugging up the hill on a rescue mission. I stuck out my thumb, amazed that he’d gotten enough traction to come after us. As we loaded up my muddy mess of a bike (and muddy me), Phil joked, “if everything went perfect, it wouldn’t be a good story!”
In Oregon, the part of the state West of the Cascade Mountains is known as the “Wet Side.” The Eastern part of the state, predominantly high desert and ranch land, is the “Dry Side.” There’s a reason for this – it’s usually exceedingly dry and sunny in the East.
The Dry Side also has spectacular gravel roads that wind their way through endlessly open and empty vistas – which is why we had crossed the mountains with a motley group of friends.
We were base-camped out of Treo Ranch, a hunting lodge that caters to cyclists in the off-season – and a slate of beautifully challenging rides had carefully been planned for our weekend.
Phil and Dan plotting ride routes for the weekend.
But Russ and I seem to be on a streak of having rainy weather on the Dry Side – and we woke up Saturday morning to a soggy landscape that had been pummeled with rain overnight.
We dawdled over coffee and breakfast, trying to pull up the weather forecast via weak internet and cell service, before deciding to just go for it. This was clearly not the weather we wanted, but there was no point in wasting the trip.
Dodging puddles as we pedaled away from Treo.
We followed the undulating ridge line out of the ranch. All of Eastern Oregon, it seemed, rolled out alongside us, a never-ending series of deep valleys and tall hilltops, all covered in sage and wild grasses. The storm clouds of the night before still lingered on top and around us, lending a surprisingly grey cast to the landscape.
Determined to ride, we ignored all the ominous signs.
Fantastically steep descent down Buttermilk Canyon.
After a few miles, the storm clouds seemed to lessen, and we descended into Buttermilk Canyon. The creek had long ago carved this narrow and winding canyon, and there was an old ranch spread out through the bends. Hundreds of swallows rushed out of their nests in the cliff walls above us – and, for a few miles, everything seemed perfect.
Then we started up the hill.
At a certain point, the good gravel we’d been enjoying turned into sticky muck. Mud glommed on to every possible surface, gumming up tires and chains in seconds. And it brought along the remnants of the gravel that should have surfaced the road, so that pebbles could be heard scraping frames and found clogging chain links to the point of cogs no longer turning.
There’s a bike under there somewhere.
When the mud got too thick on my tires, I walked.
When the mud got so sloppy that it tried to suck off my shoes, I carried my bike.
Cyclo-cross style, aka why I have a bruise on my shoulder.
Slowly, gingerly, we made our way up the hill.
At the top, I discovered that I had cell signal, so I snapped a photo and posted it to Facebook, laughing at the ridiculousness of the mud.
And then I heard the worst words you can hear on a ride: “I broke my bike.” In the fight of Russ vs the mud, the mud had won. It had ripped off his derailleur, which now hung from his chain in a sad and mangled ending.
Our 70-mile ride had been reduced to just 16, and the mud had left a few casualties in its wake.
Unable to make all the necessary repairs on the fly, Russ and his steed hitch a ride with a passing rancher.
There is something about Eastern Oregon that keeps drawing us back. The landscape is mesmerizing, with its big skies and rolling hills. You can stand on a hilltop and feel impossibly tiny, just as you will check that your eyes are open when it’s pitch black at night and that your ears can still hear when it’s stunningly quiet. Whenever there is an opportunity to ride around Eastern Oregon, I will take it, and it will never be enough.
But the allure of Eastern Oregon can obscure an important fact: you can easily get in over your head.
On a ride last fall, we climbed up a twisting gravel road and dropped into a deserted valley. Breathtakingly beautiful, and eerily easy to just disappear and never again see anyone or a hint of civilization.
I love the feeling of being completely independent and self-sufficient. But, I have to say, when things go wrong, when the road tries to swallow you alive, it’s nice to know that someone has your back.
Thank you Phil and your mud-conquering van.
We first met Phil roughly a year ago, and we were instantly impressed. A former rancher and mechanic, Phil has run a hunting lodge near Heppner, Oregon since the 1980s – and began to reach out to cyclists a few years ago to fill the gap during the hunting off-season.
Cycling caps now hang alongside hunting hats.
At Treo, cycling and hunting blend together under one roof, in a style that’s both odd and perfectly fitting. There are pheasants on the wall and cue sheets on the side table. There’s Bud Light for the hunters, IPA for the cyclists – and everyone gets a steak at the end of the day (this is Eastern Oregon, after all).
And that’s what makes Treo so inviting – rather than putting on airs, it’s a cozy slice of Eastern Oregon. It’s an opportunity to experience a place that’s vastly different from where most of us live, to rub elbows with the history and culture of this part of the West – and to cycle some of the most beautiful roads in Eastern Oregon, without a second thought about ‘did I pack enough water?’ and ‘what if I break my derailleur in the middle of a long ride?’
Helping cyclists blend into the surroundings and be a good neighbor.
The morning after the mud fiasco, we awoke to sun streaming in the window. Was it all a dream? It would be easy to believe that we had simply imagined all those miles of walking through muck – if not for Russ’ derailleur-less bike propped against the wall.
On a normal independent trip, we would resign ourselves to “not chancing it.” But the promise of van support on our planned 40-mile route meant that we wouldn’t have to miss out on the last day of (now dry) Eastern Oregon gravel. Russ could spin on his make-shift single-speed – and bail if it turned out to be a terrible idea.
In sharp contrast to the day before, we were greeted by a sparkling blue sky, dotted with a few perfect powderpuff clouds. Out through the ghost town of Hardman, down a roaring canyon descent, uphill again along a winding creek, and into the Ponderosa forest. Treo Ranch is located on a grassy slope, surrounded by rangeland – so the tall pine trees surprised and delighted us. And then they surprised us even more when they suddenly disappeared on the other side of the summit, and we followed a screaming descent through wildflower-dotted prairie-land.
Incredible views around every turn.
A much better experience in the sunshine.
The landscape and terrain of the route changed every few miles, a perfect welcome-to-Eastern-Oregon gravel sampler route. Up, down, narrow canyons, wide open fields. Constant wonder and surprise, on a deliciously warm and sunny day. It was exactly the ride that we had been looking forward to – made all the sweeter by the sheer inability to experience it the day before.
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.