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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  9/1/2007

The Northern Oregon Tour

I've recently returned from leading another one-week cycle-tour for the Santa Rosa Cycling Club: the Northern Oregon Tour. The last club tour I covered in this space was the Southern Oregon Tour of 2005. Since then we've done four more--two each in the summers of '06 and '07--and perhaps someday I'll write them all up. But for now, I want to focus on the most recent one, first, because it's one of the best ones we've put together in awhile, and second, because I have figured out a way that it can be done without camping; that is, staying in inns or motels and cycling on your plastic.

Normally, we set these club tours up for camping, and for large groups, with a big truck to haul our luggage from camp to camp, with the camps often in remote wilderness areas. That sometimes means that the routes do not lend themselves easily to being done by just a couple of people, unless you're willing to do the fully-loaded thing, hauling all your camp gear around with you. This is always an option, but not one I personally enjoy. I like my bike light and nimble...easy on the climbs and dancing on the downhills.

But if all the overnights can be set up where lodgings exist, then you can go credit-card touring, without all the camp gear. You still have to carry a few things--one small bike bag should do it--but it's a lot closer to having one's bike stripped down to the basics. I'm assuming very few of you will have the logistical wherewithal to put together a big group tour, complete with transport truck, the way we do it, so it's nice to know that an alternative exists; that I can describe this tour with the realistic expectation that some of you might just be able to tackle it on a smaller scale, on your own.

Although our tour was set up for camping, we had to stay in lodgings on three out of our eight nights. Of our five camp nights, four were immediately adjacent to inns or motels or cabins. Only one night was in the deep wilderness, and I have a plan here for dealing with that one.

This was the longest one-week tour I've ever laid out. It was not my intention for this to happen, but by the time all the best, meandering back roads had been strung together, the total was around 600 miles over seven days. The final two stages in particular were big lunkers: 95 and 97 miles. With the wisdom of 20-20 hindsight, I have some suggestions for reconfiguring those two whoppers into three shorter stages. But between those changes and the ones I will suggest for skipping the wilderness camp, the tour will grow from seven stages to eight or even nine. So you'd better put in for a few extra days of vacation time if you plan to take on this loop.

By the way, I have prepared maps and route slips for all of these stages, and I have also created a tour preview of over 40 pages of text, with over 40 color photos. I made all this for the folks doing our club tour, but the files are all here, on my hard drive, in the form of pdf's. If you would like to see them, all you have to do is ask: they're just a couple of mouse clicks away. We did discover a few errors in the route slips as we went along, and I haven't yet found the time to fix them, but I will do so before sending them out to anyone else.

The Tour follows a big counterclockwise loop beginning and ending in Springfield (just east of Eugene). It spends its first two days heading east and north through the heart of the Cascade Range, then two days meandering north through the high, dry desert of central Oregon on the east side of the big mountains. Then we arrive at one of the marquee attractions of the tour: the run from east to west down the Historic Columbia River Highway in the gorge of the great river. Finally, the route takes two long days to work south from the gorge back to Springfield through the western foothills of the Cascades, along the edge of the green and fertile Willamette River Valley.

(We set this up to be most convenient for travel from the south, from California. That meant beginning and ending at the southernmost spot on the loop and also the spot nearest Interstate-5: the Eugene-Springfield area. But it could just as well begin and end in Portland or anywhere else around the loop.)

Stage 1: Springfield to Frissell Crossing; 76 miles, 4600'

We stayed at the Village Inn in Springfield on the first and last nights of our tour. It's an above-average motel with decent rates. We drove into Eugene for dinner both nights--at McMenamins North Bank brew pub, which we recommend--and there is a pleasant coffee shop right at the motel serving basic egg-bacon-and-hashbrowns sorts of breakfasts. The motel is fairly convenient to both the first of our country roads on Stage 1 and the last of them on Stage 7. The motel manager kindly allowed us to stash our cars in their parking lot for the week.

Frissell Crossing is our one wilderness camp, so we'll get that problem sorted out right at the start. First though, let's look at how we did it, and then consider how to modify it. After leaving the clutter of Springfield behind (at about mile 4), we are treated to 15 miles of pleasant back roads through broadleaf forest on a nearly level run alongside the Willamette River. During that run, we pass or cross three historic covered bridges. Lane County and its neighbor to the north, Linn County, are home to an amazing collection of historic covered bridges, as many as you'll find in one small area anywhere in the United States.

Unfortunately, our quiet back road noodling is interrupted by 18 miles of Hwy 58, a moderately busy arterial connecting I-5 with Hwy 97 over on the other side of the mountains. It's not a terrible road, and in fact is rather pretty, running for most of this leg along the shore of a big lake. But the traffic load makes it less than ideal for cycling. Once past this little purgatory, things get better. Much better.

After bailing off 58, we arrive at the tiny village of Westfir, and that means bye bye to the busy highway and hello to the Aufderheide Forest Drive, one of the very best bike roads anywhere. This nearly perfect road runs for 60 magnificent miles north from Westfir to a junction with Hwy 126 near the little towns of Blue River and McKenzie Bridge. It's a US Forest Service National Scenic Byway and well worthy of that distinction. It is always well paved, always low on traffic, always beautiful, and always twisted up into one series of slinky bends after another.

It climbs for 34 miles from Westfir--elevation 1000'--to 3748' Box Canyon summit, most of the time next to the whitewater cascades of the north fork of the Willamette. Then, over the top, it descends for 25 miles along the headwaters of the south fork of the McKenzie River. 34 miles sounds like a long climb, but most of that is moderate to the point of being almost level, with just the last three miles at something like 5%. Ditto for the downhill on the other side. Our wilderness camp is about three miles beyond the summit--36 miles from Westfir--and a lovely little camp it is, although definitely primitive.

So, what's the overnight alternative? My idea is to begin the stage in Westfir or the nearby town of Oakridge on Hwy 58, and to ride the entire Aufderheide in one, glorious stage, ending in either Blue River or McKenzie Bridge. There is one bed-&-breakfast in Westfir--just across the street from another old covered bridge--and in the larger town of Oakridge there are three or four generic chain motels. A quick google turns up two or three inns in Blue River but nothingin McKenzie Bridge. I'm not convinced that's the last word on inns in the latter town. A more determined search might turn something up. But Blue River will do, although it adds a few miles to the end of the stage, bumping it from 60 miles closer to 65 or 70. In either case, it still will be a manageable stage. And it will be a fabulous stage: absolute bike heaven, from one end to the other. You couldn't dream up a prettier, more entertaining stage if you tried.

As for getting from Springfield to Westfir or Oakridge, you could do the first half of our Stage 1 as a short ride on your travel day...a quick, nearly level 38 miles. Or you could spend the night in Springfield and do that mini-stage after a leisurely morning in town, perhaps exploring Eugene before setting out...a very bike-friendly town.

Stage 2: Frissell Crossing to Sisters; 70 miles, 5000'. Or Blue River to Sisters; approximately 50 miles

It should have been 70 miles for us, crossing the Cascades on famous, wonderful McKenzie Pass. But we were ambushed by road construction on the pass and had to make a lengthy and none too pleasant detour over Santiam Pass. This was extremely frustrating for us, as McKenzie Pass had been eagerly anticipated as one of the highlights of the tour.

McKenzie Pass is one of the best and most dramatic of all the high mountain passes in the west, and is often featured in local pro road races. The road is tiny and twisty in the extreme, and because of that, most cars and trucks avoid it, preferring the wider, more heavily engineered Santiam Pass, just to the north. As a result, the beautiful curves and cliffs and canyons of this great road are left mostly traffic-free, the happy habitat of cyclists looking for that special walk on the wild side. Let's hope that if you ever decide to tour here, the pass will be open for you.

Our stage began with the balance of the Aufderheide: most of the downhill miles coming off the summit. What a great way to start the day! Or, if you were to do it all as a piece--from Westfir to Blue River--you'd begin at the summit and fly past Frissell Crossing already in full-tilt, rip-city mode, scooping up the gravity candy by the handful.

Whichever way it's done, this delightful road eventually dumps the happy cyclist out along the shore of Cougar Reservoir, where the waters of the young river are impounded in a big lake. There's a nice overlook at the dam, then another, final downhill flier from the top of the dam to the bottom of the canyon. After that, I have the route dinking around for a few miles on two very pretty, very quiet side roads--including passing yet another old covered bridge--before finally connecting with Hwy 126, heading east. If you were coming from an overnight in Blue River, you'd already be on 126 and it would be your decision whether to detour onto these side roads for a few miles or just stay on the main drag. Given that the whole stage to Sisters would be quite short, I would think the slightly longer, quieter bypass would be the better option.

For a big, fast state highway, 126 is actually not too bad for riding. The scenery is excellent, the shoulders are huge and smooth, and the traffic is moderate. If you're going over McKenzie Pass, you're only on it for four miles. Midway along that stretch is a big, fancy Forest Service visitor center at McKenzie Bridge: a good spot for restrooms and water. They have a big, three-dimensional map of the mountains, and you can trace the route of the road up and over the pass.

It really is a special road--McKenzie Pass--with off-the-chart scenery and loads of cycling entertainment and challenge. It is certainly the biggest climb on this tour: 4000' up in 20 miles. Most of that climbing is not too brutal, but there are a few sections that approach 10%. The lower slopes are all in shady forest, including most of the steepest sections. Up near the top, the forest gives way to an austere moonscape of black lava, with numerous impressive Cascade peaks on display: the snow-capped Three Sisters--all over 10,000'--the jagged Broken Top, the needle spire of Mount Washington, and many more. It is an elegant, epic landscape.

And then there's the descent off the eastern side of the mountains: 22 miles of twisted fun. There is one little set of rollers at Windy Point, but most of it is downhill in the best possible way. The final few miles into Sisters are an almost level roll-out at the base of the downhill.

The town of Sisters is nicely situated at the base of the moutains, with the forested hills on one side and the open "high desert" of Central Oregon on the other. It's an attractive town with a fairly intensively developed tourist industry. Most of the tourist stuff is fairly tasteful and not obnoxious, and there are loads of inns available for your overnight needs. Lots of choices, and plenty of places to eat as well.

Stage 3: Sisters to Kah-Nee-Ta Hot Springs; 77 miles, 3500'

Today we move from the green, forested mountains out into the open sweep of the so-called high desert...rolling grasslands and rugged mesas; yawning gorges and towering rock spires. By the time we arrive at the finish, the piney woods around Sisters will seem like a distant memory. The Cascades act as a very effective rain fence, blocking much of the moisture from reaching this far inland. As a result, this portion of the state is much drier and more austere than the lush jungle on the western side of the range. It's not like any desert you would envision in the Mojave or Sonora. But for sure, you do notice a difference. There is more exposed rock, more empty space, fewer plants, and not nearly as many broadleaf trees. And you can feel the aridity too. The rivers and lakes are recharged by snowmelt, not by constant, year-round rainfall. It seems brighter, crisper, and drier, and the country through which we'll be riding for the next two days will look and feel much different than what we experienced over the first two stages.

I had the help of a local cyclist in Sisters in puzzling out a rather complicated route on this stage, and I doubt I could have figured it out without her help. There are some really tricky, creative bits of navigating. But the results are worth it. Highlights on the day include crossing the Crooked River Gorge--300' straight down from the overlook--and the panoramic vistas over mammoth Lake Billy Chinook and Lake Simtustis. (Think of Lake Powell and you have a good idea of what this looks like.) An optional side trip, adding a net gain of nine miles, takes in magnificent Smith Rock State Park. If you don't mind bumping your stage miles up into the mid-80's, and if you've never been to Smith Rock, it's definitely worth doing.

This is not a particularly hilly stage, although there is one very steep descent near the lakes, plunging off the edge of the mesa, and a few small but testing climbs here and there. A couple of those climbs come in the late miles, within the borders of the vast Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Depending on what the wind is doing, those final 15 miles in the reservation may seem more difficult than the elevation profile would suggest they should be. We were absolutely slaughtered by head and cross winds while clawing up those supposedly modest grades, with the result that we felt a lot more worn out at the end than we expected to.

The end is the Kah-Nee-Ta Hot Springs resort on the reservation, run by the tribe. There is a motel at the resort, along with a huge swimming pool built around the original hot springs, all of it laid out quite attractively along the pretty little Warms Springs River.

Stage 4: Kah-Nee-Ta to The Dalles; 80 miles, 5000'

We're heading due north today, with our goal being the medium-size city of The Dalles on the Columbia River.

These are the real wide open spaces of the American west. No people, no houses, no trees, no cars...just a whole lot of elbow room. Rolling grasslands, looming rock outcrops, and a big sky overhead. And, to add that perfect touch of western ambience: herds of wild mustangs, galloping straight out of a Nature show on TV.
There are two longish climbs on the stage; a six-miler right at the start and a seven-miler at the midway point. Neither is steep, but both do seem to go on forever, especially the second one, which is out on a hot, rocky cliff face. But the payoff after that climb--over the top at 2697' Tygh Ridge summit--isa jumbo portion of downhill. From the top of the pass, with 11,239' Mt Hood to the west and 12,276' Mt Adams to the north, you can look forward to 25 out of the last 30 miles of the stage being downhill, and a great deal of that descending is best-quality bike fun. The only problem for us was another dose of afternoon headwind, blowing strongly up the slope from the Columbia River. It blew so hard at times that we had to dig deep just to make any headway on what should have been a lazy cruise downhill toward the town of The Dalles on the river.

This matter of the wind is a topic of constant discussion in and around the gorge. It blows a lot here, pretty much all the time. There are wind farms on the hills and Hood River, downstream from The Dalles, is considered by many to be the wind-surfing capitol of the world. Conventional wisdown should say that the wind most often would blow upstream from the ocean, meaning we're doing this loop in the wrong direction--heading down the gorge--but no one I talked to could seem to agree that there is a prevailing wind direction. In fact, some locals insist it blows just as hard down the gorge, and it was doing exactly that the day I first surveyed the course. It was blowing out of the northwest for our tour, and we were nailed hard by it at the ends of both Stages 3 and 4, and again, for awhile at the beginning of Stage 5, in the gorge. But the wind died down--mercifully--later that day, and on other days, heading in other directions, we were pushed along by some very handy tailwinds.

The Dalles is a city of several thousand with the big river and an interstate running past it, so it has all the usual tourist facilities, from lodging to dining. It's a nice town, with a fair amount of small-town charm and quaintness.

Stage 5: The Dalles to Troutdale; 78 miles, 4500'

The Dalles has one other thing going for it: it's the eastern gateway to the Historic Columbia River Highway. Riding the HCRH is the main reason this tour came into being. It was the keystone of the whole edifice. I grew up in Portland, and Sunday drives up the gorge on the old road to visit its many majestic waterfalls were a staple of my youth. In recent years, the road has received a great deal of attention in the form of recognition as an historic treasure and in the form of big bucks spent on preserving it in its original trim.

A scenic highway up the gorge from Portland was first planned in 1909, but only a few miles were built before the project ran out of steam. Then a wealthy Seattle lawyer and railroad tycoon named Sam Hill took it on as his personal crusade to see things completed. He spent years lobbying and boostering and barnstorming to make it happen, and between 1913 and 1922, most of the highway was completed. From the very beginning the goal was always to make this "the most beautiful highway in the world." Chief Engineer on the project was a man named Sam Lancaster, and he put his heart and soul and every waking moment into getting everything just right. He had been inspired by highways he had seen in Switzerland and Germany, and was especially taken with their fine old masonry walls. He vowed to replicate that style here. But he also vowed to harm as few trees and ferns and creeks as possible with the construction. To an astonishing degree, he succeeded. This was the first paved highway in the western United States...a marvel in its day and still a marvel today.

And it is especially bike-friendly. All of it has fairly low traffic counts and some has no traffic at all. That's right: in a couple of sections, they simply closed the gate and turned the old road into a bike trail. Unfortunately, there were also two sections where I-84 wiped out the old road entirely and no viable alternative exists except to ride on the shoulder of the freeway. It's a terrible shame that they lost those sections of old road to the bulldozer of progress. There's no way around them. You just have to grit your teeth a soldier through them.

Aside from those two sections though, this stage is all good stuff, and most of it is as good as it can possibly be. The far-off scenery over the river is of course spectacular, looking down from the vista points at Rowena Crest and Crown Point and elsewhere. But the close-up scenery is just as good, with lovely deciduous forest and many grand waterfalls plunging hundreds of feet down the sheer basalt cliff faces: Horsetail, Elowah, Multnomah, Wahkeena, Bridal Veil, Latourel...every one of them worth a stop and a brief hike. And then too the road itself could not be any better, with the original stone walls and wooden railings making it all look quaint and old-fashioned, but with brand new, silk-smooth paving. It's very nearly bike heaven.

There are a couple of short, stiff climbs and a couple of longer, more gradual ones--up to Rowena Crest and Crown Point--and a few very nice descents too. But this day is not about elevation changes, unless you want to consider the "descents" of those many wonderful waterfalls. The challenge today is not the climbs; it's the task of remembering to stop and look around and take in the wall-to-wall splendor. It's a day to savor.

And while it's sad to see such a fun stage end in the little town of Troutdale, you can take some solace from the overnight destination in store today. This is McMenamins Edgefield Resort, and I haven't got the column inches to do justice to this amazing facility. It was the Multnomah County Poor Farm in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and has now been beautifully restored as a hotel. But it's more than just a hotel. There are something like seven or eight different brew pubs on the premises, plus a winery and three or four restaurants and lovely gardens. But that doesn't adequately describe it either. Every available wall surface in every building on the site is lovingly covered in original art of the quirkiest, most intriguing sort. Look, you just have to go to the McMenamins website and take the tour. This is just one of several dozen properties the McMenamin brothers have developed around the northwest--including our dinner spot in Eugene--and it is one of the most refreshingly fascinating entrepreneurial endeavors in recent times. You really have to see it to appreciate it.

Stage 6: Troutdale to Silver Falls State Park; 95 miles, 9100'

This is by far the hardest stage of the tour, with one steep climb after another, from beginning to end...but of course with many wild descents in between all those brutal climbs. Some of our tour participants used sag wagon rides to shorten and soften this day, but many riders did the whole thing, and we all felt it was a good day, albeit a hard one. But I have an idea for making it a little less hard. That involves taking the two final stages--192 miles total--and splitting them up into three stages. I would like to finish that sentence with,"of about 64 miles each," but it won't work out in quite that tidy a set of splits. The first stage would be around 60, the next one shorter still, and the last one up around 80.

There's not a lot to say about this stage, nor Stage 7, in terms of special scenic attractions or points of interest. Both are very pleasant, passing south through the foothills on the west side of the Cascades, with the Willamette Valley spreading out to the west and softening the topography. It's all a mix of forests and farm lands, with a few towns dotted along the routes. Most of the roads are quiet and car-free, but a few are busier than we like.

The biggest problem with the length of Stage 6 and the severe challenge of its many climbs is that we arrive in camp all tuckered out and rather late in the day, and that is a special difficulty on this of all days, because the very best scenic attractions are at the finish, in Silver Falls State Park. Those would be the ten waterfalls for which the park is named. With folks so pooped from the long ride, nobody wanted to hike to any of the waterfalls, not even a couple very close to camp. It would have been a terrible shame to have come to this park and to have missed the waterfalls that make the place famous, but a good number in our group got up early the next morning and took in as many as seven out of ten falls before getting on their bikes.

By the way: this is a campground, but they also have log cabins. That's the good news. The bad news is the beds have mattresses but no bedding. It's not beyond the realm of imagination to picture someone sleeping on the mattress, bundled up in all their bike clothes. But if that prospect doesn't quite work for you, you may want to consider my alternative plan...the two-days-into-three plan.

In that scenario, you would go off the route we used at mile 55 and ride about five miles into the town of Mollala, where there are a number of inns. The next day you would ride from Molalla back to the course and continue to and through Silver Falls Park, heading for an overnight in the next town down the line, Stayton, which comes up at about mile 14 on Stage 7. The 40 to 45 remaining miles of Stage 6 and the 14 miles from the beginning of Stage 7 will add up to something around 55 miles. From Mollala, you would not have to go directly back to the point where you left the Stage 6 route. You could take a shortcut to the route, eliminating some miles and avoiding the steepest, nastiest climb of the entire tour (Trout Creek Road). Because of the many options available for modifying the route at that point, I have to leave the numbers a little fuzzy.

In any event, you would still ride through the state park, and the short stage becomes your ally then: you have plenty of time to stop and visit a few of the nice waterfalls before heading on to your next lodgings in Stayton. The falls really are worth a visit. Here, as in the Columbia River Gorge, they're spilling over basalt cliffs. But these falls, instead of being tall and skinny are shorter but wider, and the cool thing--literally cool--is that there are trails that lead behind several of the falls. It's a magical experience.

Stage 7: Silver Falls SP to Springfield; 97 miles, 4500'

Note that although the miles are almost the same as the previous stage, there is less than half the elevation gain. Big difference! This is comparable to a fairly easy, entry-level century. Very little in the way of challenge all day, except just to keep the pedals cranking around and rolling out the miles. That's both the good news and the bads news: no monster climbs but also no wild-n-crazy descents. There is an 85-mile short option on this day as well, and although the miles left out are some of the better ones on the day, it was an option chosen by several in our group, in particular some who had hiked to the falls in the morning and hit the road late.

Were you to start in Stayton, you would be looking at a stage of either 83 or 71 miles...a very easy ride overall.

As I have already noted in discussing Stage 6, there isn't a great deal of out-of-scale scenery along this route. But it is all very pleasant in a quiet, rural way. We pass through the small town of Stayton and the even smaller town of Waterloo, but aside from those brief bits of suburbia, it's all farmlands and woods, with pretty little creeks and rivers here and there. Speaking of which--creeks and rivers--we have returned to the native habitat of the historic covered bridge, and we get to visit more of them today: three on the short route and five on the long route. The difference between the long and short routes is two added loops that wander off into the woods to snag those two extra covered bridges. But getting to the bridges is half the fun and getting back is the other half. All those miles are quality miles.

The nice back road riding continues right up to the Springfield city limit sign, and then there are just two miles of city streets to negotiate before climbing off the bike back at the Village Inn. Get checked into your room and head for the very nice swimming pool. After a refreshing dip, head over to McMenamins North Bank brew pub. That's the north bank of the Willamette, and they have tables on the terrace, right along the river. Order up a pitcher of their Hammerhead Ale and settle in to rehash the doings of the week just past.

It's a long tour, whether you do it as seven long stages or nine shorter ones. (This is a long read too, and I congratulate you if you slogged all the way through it to this point.) But it is a truly epic adventure and one that most cyclists would enjoy, if they could figure out how to put the pieces together. I can help you with that, if you're so inclined...

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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