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Family bike camping: Portland to Stub Stewart State Park

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

Our family flotilla riding the gorgeous farm roads on the outskirts of Hillsboro.
(Photos © J. Maus)

What would happen if eight adults and 12 kids (ranging in ages from just under four months to 14 years old) pedaled their bikes 41 miles from Portland — with bikes loaded full of food and camping-gear — to enjoy some summer camping?

This weekend my family and three others found out. And it was good.

In something of a sequel to a trip we did back in 2009, our flotilla of 11 bikes (four Xtracycles, two tandems, three trailers, two tag-alongs and three single bikes) went up against narrow and high speed roads, steep hills, rude people in cars, and crying babies.

All strapped in… and he even
survived a flipping incident!

Not only did we live to tell about it, we had the time of our lives!

Our destination was Stub Stewart State Park, located about 18 miles northwest of Hillsboro. We chose that destination in large part because the park is located along the Banks-Vernonia State Trail, a 21-mile, award-winning paved trail that was just completed last fall.

But before we could experience the bliss of a carfree trail we had 30 miles of roads — and a major climb — to deal with.

Taking a full lane on the St. Johns Bridge was a real treat. Despite a TriMet bus driver blaring on his loudspeaker, “The law says you must ride single file!” — we got over without incident.

Taking a lane on the St. Johns Bridge.

Next up was the Big Climb up and over the West Hills. Thanks to some route planning help from PBOT’s Jeff Smith and route guru Michael Wolfe, we decided to take NW Saltzman Road through Forest Park. Some members of the group were worried about riding a dirt and gravel road, but Saltzman turned out to be quite nice. It was shaded, had just a gradual incline, and most importantly, it was completely carfree.

Everyone loved riding on NW Saltzman.

Getting through the rural roads of Washington County was much less enjoyable.

With a constant refrain of “car back, car back,” our group hugged the edge of the road on NW Springville and NW West Union Roads. We had one guy yell “Idiots!” and “This road isn’t made for family riding!” Unfortunately, I agree with his second point. It sure would be great if Washington County could either widen the roads to include a shoulder for bicycling, and/or enforce safe passing and slower motor vehicle speeds.

Riding on NW West Union Road in Washington County is stressful, especially with kids. It would be great to improve conditions and open up this area for low-stress bicycling.

Eventually we made our way to the B-V trail head in Banks (after some painful rolling hills on Banks Road and a nerve-wracking crossing of Highway 26). After the stress of narrow roads, everyone was relieved to be on the trail. We took a well-deserved break for treats (with this many kids, treats are a must) and then rolled out.

A kid pow-wow during one of many breaks.

The trail heads due north from Banks, through farms and fields, then points upward. You can feel the air cool and see the trees thicken as farmlands are replaced by forest. Like a guest in a foreign land, the paved trail pierces swaths of deep green ferns and dense groves of timber. Tall trees stand like a fortress against the bright sun, letting only a fraction of its light through.

When we finally reached the state park, we were greeted with one last grueling climb up to our cabins (no tents for us this trip!), which just so happened to sit atop the park. It was a harsh way to end the day (perhaps they can build a more gradual bike path?), but the views, the setting sun, and a road lined with wildflowers helped brighten our moods.

On Sunday, we saddled up and ventured north about 12 miles to the town of Vernonia. With completion of the B-V Trail and the presence of a state park, Vernonia seems on the cusp of something big. The newly completed B-V Trail and the growing mountain bike trail network at Stub Stewart could combine to give that town an economic boost it hasn’t seen since the timber boom.

Rolling on Vernonia’s main street.

I was impressed with the crowds on the trail. Parking lots at the main trail heads were jam-packed — and so were parts of the trail. (On our way home, I counted 174 people on the trail from Stub Stewart to Banks.)

Many people who do this trip take the MAX train to downtown Hillsboro. From Hillsboro, it’s an easy pedal to the start of the B-V Trail in Banks. On our way home, we had someone who wanted to take the MAX back to Portland. The ride from Banks to Hillsboro — on scenic and nearly empty farm roads — turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.

The quiet farm roads just outside of Hillsboro were splendid.

After Hillsboro, we weaved our way east on a combination of bike lanes and multi-use paths. The climb up and over NW Springville to Skyline was tough; but it was a bit easier given that we were lighter without several kids (five of them took MAX) and with less food in our bags.

The descent down Saltzman Road in Forest Park brought our only mechanical of the trip. A buckled front fender sheared three spokes off one rider’s front wheel (luckily, a few zip-ties sufficed as a quick fix). After Saltzman, we were treated to an inspiring ride across the St. Johns Bridge. Being the 4th of July holiday, traffic was minimal and we all soaked in the view and the feelings of accomplishment for an epic weekend of family riding.

Descending Saltzman
On the St. Johns Bridge, a perfect way to end the trip.

If you have questions about any aspect of the trip, I’m happy to answer them in the comments. Check out more photos in the gallery. You can see detailed maps of our routes both there and back via Ride With GPS.

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