Bikes, Beers and B&Bs - The Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway
As spring isn't far off many people are starting to think about vacations, weekend trips, new adventures and in particular, how to make their bicycle a part of it all.
Not being much of a road rider (too much fun on dirt!), 10 months ago I decided to try my hand at what I dubbed "soft touring", 2 panniers each and evenings spent at B&Bs. Climate, amazing food options, new places, new people and world class pinot noir to name a few perks, we decided to set our sights on Oregon.
The ride would take us from just outside Portland, 125 miles south to Eugene via the lush and very scenic Willamette Valley and river of the same name. Along the way we would pass through many small communities including Salem, Independence, Buena Vista, Albany, Lebanon, Brownsville and Coburg. Though relatively small, these places were packed with character, charm, friendly help and smiles.
Day 1 consisted of an insane wait at the border and an entertaining and unique meal at Country Cousins on the I-5 before we finally arrived at our first destination, Portland.
The next day a friend kindly dropped us at the ride-start in Champoeg State Heritage Area, just west of Portland. We had about a 40 mile ride ahead of us. For a lot of people this may not be much of a challenge but at the start of my riding season after a couple months off the bike, it was definitely a distance that would qualify as a respectable start to the 3 days on the saddle. What I like to call a "Spring cleaning" ride.
This first day touring was absolutely amazing! I never thought I could be so relaxed, happy and carefree on a bike, especially on the road. It didn't hurt we were both on beautiful Brodie Elans. The route we took was one already published on another cycle touring blog and it kept us off main roads for probably 95% of the trip, for which I was very grateful. Passing through forests, by small and large fields, rivers, some lakes and small communities it was hard to keep the smiles off our faces. It didn't hurt that the weather was stellar as well, at least for the first day.
As we ticked off the miles along the backroads west of the I-5 we came across another local rider who was on an out-and-back ride. She was headed into Salem like us and offered to ride us into town. She also made an excellent recommendation for lunch and we stopped at McMenamin's Pub in the old Boone Treasury building. This was the first place I really took note of the overall theme in this area of Oregon when it comes to libations. Sure, the Willamette Valley is the proud heartland of world class, premiere American pinot noir wine but what most people don't know is that virtually the whole way from Champoeg to Salem we saw more fields full of hop plants (BEER!!!) than you could ever shake a ginormous stick at! So it was that I had my first of a great many delicious, lovingly made local craft beers on this trip, the McMenamins Ruby Ale with raspberry purée. Perfect after about 2.5 hours in the saddle!
A solid lunch and a couple ales down, we still had about a 45 minute ride ahead of us to complete the first day. To say we were uninspired to get back on the bikes is definitely an understatement but as always, once back on the bikes we were just fine. Winding our way along the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway we rolled into the town of Independence, Oregon. Nestled beside the river and on the small side, it was super relaxing and inviting. We stayed at the Independence House B&B. Cheryl Gaston, the Inn's owner and our host was brilliant! Providing wine and snacks upon our arrival (and the rest of the bottle at our leisure), she made sure we were comfortable and relaxed and definitely well fed. The breakfast the following morning was astonishing and delicious. Between the homemade bread, handmade hot items and the lunch she sent us on our way with, we still had a small snack left over the following day! Cheryl was wonderful and we happily recommend her B&B to anyone in the area.
The next morning with full tummies and a rainbow to start us off, we departed Independence for Albany. The shortest riding day of the trip at about 25 miles, it gave us plenty of time to really enjoy the beautiful, twisting, treed country roads along the river. This was also probably the day with the most consistently varying terrain but I would be surprised if our overall elevation gain was more than a couple thousand feet for all 3 days riding.
It was this day that the weather shifted to overcast and cool. Everything was damp but we hadn't actually seen any rain yet. That all changed as we pulled into Albany and the Pfeiffer Cottage Inn. The rain literally started to pour down so hard just after we put the bikes inside that it was bouncing off the ground, gutters were overflowing and the street had a mini-flood! The nice thing is that this only lasted about 20 minutes so we cleaned up and proceeded to walk a couple kilometers over a bridge to one of the only restaurants still open on Easter Sunday. Fortunately for us they had a few TVs and were happy to put on the Vancouver Canucks playoff game!
The following day we set off bright and early to complete the final leg of the tour, Albany to Eugene. At around 68 miles it was the longest day in the saddle and provided us with the largest sustained hill-climb of the ride, which lasted about 20 minutes - haha! Making our way through Lebanon and then down to Brownsville we realized there were other riders doing the same route in the other direction and using Brownsville as one of their overnight rest points. A small town just east of the I-5 and about half way through our day to our final destination, we decided to stop for lunch just as the skies opened up, more amazing timing with avoiding the rains. Lucky for us we stumbled upon one of the tastiest food spots of the trip, Randy's Main Street Coffee, and some of the friendliest people (hard to imagine they could be any nicer than everyone else we had met to this point!).
Once fed and back on the bikes we made our way over the big hill which was obviously awesome because it meant some downhill! Pretty amazing how a 40+ pound touring bike can really get going on the descents.
At one point we stopped to check the map. Apparently we were within spittin' distance of (at least one of) Sam Elliot's acreage and house. It's beautiful country down here and the peace of the backroads and fields was so relaxing.
In the top photo in the triptych below there is a dark hill in the background on the upper left (north). That's where the hill was that we ascended and descended about 20 minutes before on the eastern flank of the I-5. The grin on Andrea's face is testament to how long and fun the downhill was. The second shot is a wide-angle looking east towards the mountains in the first shot from the west side of the I-5. The 3rd shot is a south-easterly perspective, roughly in the direction we were heading, Eugene. The cool thing about the storm you see in that shot and the others we came across, none of them actually passed over us! So as wet as it may be threatening to get in some of these photos, we were never actually rained on the entire trip. What you don't see in any of the photos is how ecstatic I was at the fact that Andrea pulled me for about 80 or the 115-or-so kilometers this day!
By the time we hit Coburg we were close enough to notice things which confirmed we were getting close to Eugene; an increase in traffic, more noise, more people and larger satellite towns. With the longest day in the saddle of my life nearing completion we rolled into Armitage County Park. A very convenient and cool thing about the park is that it's close to an Amtrak stop. The authors of the blog we used to map our way through this whole trip used Armitage County Park as their final destination and if I recall, one of them hopped the train back to Portland that day! They mentioned the option to continue into downtown Eugene as well. As that is where we were staying, after having a short celebratory rest at the park, we rode to the last Inn of the trip, the Campbell House.
Of course, the fun wasn't over. We managed to limp down to a delicious, you guessed it, local craft brew pub, the Steelhead Brewing Company. It's amazing to be in these towns you've heard of only to discover they're way smaller and much more fun than you could have imagined! We spent most the evening celebrating with tasty food and great beers. I guess it doesn't hurt that Eugene is a college town - Go Ducks!
The following day was our first day off the bikes but they had their own adventure waiting. Rolling 3 blocks to the Amtrak station we caught the train back to Portland. On the way we enjoyed the sights as we rolled north past everything we rode over 3 days in a scant 3 hours by train. Seats were comfy and man did they make it easy. Our bikes had their own compartment which came with the purchase of the regular ticket, so no boxing up the bikes, awesome!
Wrapping it all up back in Portland, we spent a rough 5 days eating and drinking our way all around the place with many highlights but one of my easy favorites was Big-Ass Sandwiches! A foodcart in downtown Portland proudly operated by the owners. If you are EVER in Portland don't miss it. There are lots of other places your friends will suggest, all with their own merit, but Big-Ass Sandwiches is unique unto itself (Sorta like Voodoo donuts if you can hack the line-up!).
Well, until the next adventure I hope this short story inspires some to search for the quieter, friendlier open road with their bikes and someone they love to ride with!