By Jen Sotolongo
I awoke several times throughout the night to the sound of the rain beating on our tent like a drum. I had foolishly hoped that the unseasonably warm spell we’d had the previous week would stick around. But as a native Pacific Northwesterner, I knew better than to believe such nonsense. Everyone knows summer officially starts after the Fourth of July. June had only just begun.
The rain abated while we packed and ate breakfast, but no sooner had we finished our final bites than the rain returned. It would last throughout the day, coming and going in strong waves. The next several days would deliver chilly, cloudy days as we made our way along the the 134-mile Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway from Champoeg State Park to Eugene, Oregon.
I thought I knew Oregon fairly well. After choosing it as my adopted home in 2010, I made an effort to explore where I lived rather than seek adventure elsewhere.
I knew the I-5 corridor, having driven its length from north to south across the state several times to Ashland and into California. An avid hiker and trail runner, I was also well acquainted with I-84 East toward Hood River in the Columbia River Gorge. I’d spent long weekends in Bend and camped in small towns along the Oregon Coast. Heck, I’d even driven the eight hours east once to check out the Wallowa Mountains for a four-day trip we’d taken on a whim. I felt confident in my intimacy with my state and that I had done a fine job adhering to my deal.
After leaving for two years to pedal across Europe and South America with my husband Dave and our dog Sora, I realized I didn’t really know Oregon well at all. What I knew was the freeway system and its adjoining cities.
Shortly after we returned from our cycle tour, I got to planning the “Oregon Rode Trip,” a triangular route that would take us to some of our favorite destinations, this time by bicycle.
Departing from Portland, we’d pedal along the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway 134 miles to Eugene. From there we’d head toward Bend via the 38-mile McKenzie Pass Scenic Bikeway and then complete the triangle back to Portland on the Cascading Rivers Scenic Bikeway winding 71 miles along a tranquil forest road.
We departed Portland just before noon, coasting along the Springwater Trail, a popular path that cuts through the city. Our destination that evening was Champoeg State Heritage Area, which would mark the official start of the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway.
In the four days we spent pedaling to Eugene, the terminus of our first bikeway, our path wound through the Willamette Valley, the lushest part of the state. We cruised past hops fields, vineyards, berry patches, and hazelnut groves, and I dreamed of the beer and food we’d consume later using those very ingredients.
We stayed in larger cities like Salem, Corvallis, and Eugene, becoming better acquainted with these places we had visited previously only for work conferences or brewery stops, this time learning the neighborhoods, bike paths, and local businesses.
We also visited smaller towns like Brownsville, somewhere we would never otherwise visit if we were traveling by car. Seventeen hundred people call the town of Brownsville home. Made famous by the film Stand By Me, Brownsville is a pioneer village with vintage charm that invites cyclists to sleep in peaceful Pioneer Park.
From Eugene we made our way to Rainbow Bridge, a blip of a town servicing the McKenzie River recreational area, a 26-mile trail famous for a sapphire blue pool and mountain biking. In preparation for our ride up the McKenzie Pass Scenic Bikeway, a 38-mile stretch that ascends to 5,325 feet at the peak, we picked up provisions as the surprisingly well-stocked Blue Sky Market and devoured veggie burgers from Takoda’s, one of the few restaurants in town before turning in for the night at Belknap Hot Springs where we’d soak our tired bodies in the thermal pools.
The following morning, we finally awoke to blue sky and set off toward the McKenzie Pass Scenic Bikeway, anticipating the clear 360-degree views of Cascade peaks at the top.
The last day before the road opened to cars for the season, we passed groups of cyclists unloading their bikes from cars, preparing to head out for a day of car-free bliss.
Dozens passed us, cheering us on as we chugged along, the only riders tackling the pass with loaded gear and a dog. They asked about Sora and what it’s like to cycle with a dog. They pressed about our trip, where we had come from and where we were going. They wondered about our panniers. Question after question. It was cycling happy hour.
Abandoned bikes littered the volcanic rocks set below Dee Wright Observatory while their riders climbed to the observation deck and snapped selfies with the Three Sisters peaks standing proudly in the background. After a few photos of our own, we pointed our bikes downhill and enjoyed the wind in our faces as we glided into Village Green City Park in Sisters, where there were clean pay showers, water, and benches where we sat and snacked, enjoying the warm sun on our faces.
The most isolated stretch of our journey, the Cascading Rivers Scenic Bikeway, drew us away from cars, and our companions instead were the Clackamas and Breitenbush rivers and the bright-pink foxgloves and purple lupine that lined the road.
We spent the night midway at a practically abandoned campground alongside the raging Clackamas River that lulled us into a deep sleep.
Returning to civilization the following afternoon, we entered the adorable town of Estacada, an ideal launching point for outdoor adventures ranging from hiking to whitewater rafting. After lunch and a grocery stop, we made our way to nearby Milo McIver State Park where we’d spend the evening.
We had the hiker/biker meadow completely to ourselves. This hidden gem of a park features Clackamas River access, lake swimming, heaps of hiking trails, and a 27-hole disc golf course all within a day’s ride from Portland.
I thought back on the past three and a half weeks as we packed up for our final day of the journey. The remaining portion of the Springwater Corridor Trail would take us back home, one of the few sections of the route we knew well. The Oregon Rode Trip took us past breweries and wineries, across the Willamette River on a cable ferry, led us past the farmland that provides the bounty for our state, and into towns we’d otherwise have deemed insignificant had we been traveling by car. We’d slept in city parks, discovered new restaurants, and explored parks and towns skipped over on account of their proximity to Portland.
Feeling more satisfied on my mission to get to know my state after this trip, I know there still remains much more ground to cover, and I’ll chip away at it bit by bit.
Jen Sotolongo is a freelance photographer and writer from the Pacific Northwest. You can follow Jen’s adventures on her blog longhaultrekkers.com or on Instagram @longhaultrekkers.