[Story and photos by Russ Roca of The Path Less Pedaled]
(Photos © Russ Roca/The Path Less Pedaled)
Eastern Oregon is known for its dry climate; but there’s something taking root along its gorgeous backroads that could help grow the economy of its many small communities: bicycle tourism.
A makeshift meeting room in the Outpost Pub and Grill in John Day (pop. 1,744) is probably the last place you’d expect talk about the need of a bicycle friendly business program, community bike share or bike racks. However, this is the sort of quiet magic that a small, road-weary crew comprised of representatives from Travel Oregon and the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department have been performing through many rural Oregon communities over the past year.
Travel Oregon sustainable tourism expert Kristin Dahl, bike travel consultant (and former Bicycle Transportation Alliance executive director) Scott Bricker, and Alex Phillips from Oregon Parks and Recreation have been traveling throughout all corners of the state giving workshops about rural marketing and bicycle tourism. It’s all part of a coordinated effort to establish Oregon as a premier bicycle touring destination.
Oregon’s State Scenic Bikeway program has exploded in recent years, and there are currently nine officially designated routes in the system.
With the announcement of the Old West Scenic Bikeway, a 174 mile scenic loop developed specifically for cycling, community leaders and business owners from all over Grant County (which includes the small communities of Prairie City, Mt. Vernon, Monument, Lone Creek, Bates and Dayville) met this week to discuss how to make their area more appealing to bicycle tourists.
Mike Cosgrove, a local proponent of the new scenic bikeway, managed to pull in 50 people from throughout the county, making this, as far as anyone remembered, the largest meeting to talk about bicycling Grant County has ever seen. And it’s likely, just a sign of things to come.
After morning introductions and an overview of tourism statistics, Scott and Kristin led an energized room of community members through a series of exercises to identify their region’s assets and how they can better accommodate people who ride bikes. Suggestions ranged from providing craft beer, to installing secure bike parking, providing wireless internet, adding bike racks to regional buses and to creating a bicycle friendly business campaign called ‘Two Wheels Spoken Here’.
Oregon’s State Bicycle Recreation Coordinator Alex Phillips shared a map of the burgeoning scenic bikeway network she has helped bring to life…
Many community members also brainstormed on creative activities for people to do off the bike, including fishing, birding, horseback riding and geological tours of the area. One of themes that was emphasized was the importance of retaining the region’s character to provide a unique experience for visitors.
Some of these communities are not completely new to the idea of bicycle tourism. Adventure Cycling’s TransAmerica Trail has passed through a portion of the region since the 1970s. A church in Dayville, for example, which has been on the TransAm route for a number of years, offers indoor accommodations to passing bicycle tourists.
Local cycling advocate Christy Rheu operates the Bike Inn in Mt. Vernon which is also on the TransAm route. What is new, however, is that the Old West Scenic Bikeway is designed as a 3-day loop ride which guides riders through lesser known and quieter parts of Grant County. Its purpose is to highlight some of the best and most iconic riding within the state of Oregon, rather than just move them across the state.
Just how enthusiastic are folks in eastern Oregon about bicycle touring? Check out the cover of their visitor’s guide…
Although it was a long day of presentations and brainstorming many people stayed for the entire workshop. Kristin Dahl from Travel Oregon was impressed with the community engagement and remarked that it was one of the most successful bicycle tourism workshops they had given.
In the photo below, attendees prioritize next steps on the road to bike travel bliss…
Learn more at the Oregon State Scenic Bikeways website and stay tuned to The Path Less Pedaled for videos, photos, and more dispatches about traveling by bike in Oregon.
I can do without the craft beer & wifi. One of the nice things about a tour is getting AWAY from teh internet. And beer screws up your glycogen whatnots. Something to lock the bike to is always appreciated though.
I’d like to see things for those of us who would be traveling on cargo bikes with kids to do when we stop. I need to know that there’s a safe place for them to run around and stretch their legs. Maybe a place to do laundry too? Sorry, but I can’t turn off the mom-think.
I love the cover of the visitors’ guide, but we aren’t all solo riders on light bikes.
Heh, I would be interested to see the actual response from motorists when cyclists are riding two abreast, with one right in the middle of the travel lane. I also can’t help but notice there’s no shoulder there.
Having ridden the road in the photo (at least it appears to be the same route) on a few occasions, I can tell you it’s easy enough to slide into single file for the few cars that will pass you. Unless there’s headwind (not uncommon there) you can hear a car (or more likely pickup truck – observation not stereotype) well in advance.
Thanks for the article J – Eastern Oregon (and Washington) has plenty of great cycling! Incidentally, I broke a chain cycling in the gorge once and a couple on a tandem lent me a link and tool. They were from southern California and flew into PDX and were riding to Pendleton, said they fly up often to ride around various parts of the state. (Hearty pair – it POURED the next day!).
I can do without pretty much everything they discussed as long as the dining establishments serve generous portions and the motorists give me 3 feet or a bit more when passing. Everything else is gravy.
I want to jump in early on the tone of the comments here so far. Cyclist’s are inherently self reliant, this is true,and the politics that are perceived as cliche are that, ” rural dwellers” and ‘city slicker” cyclists are as adversarial as the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s! This is not just about Portland cyclist’s getting out for a weekend century ride, this is also about selling the state as a destination tourist attraction.Not every one wishes to bike tour self supported, or in wool or without amenities. This is the modern world, and cycle tourism is adverse as the people pushing the pedals. Europeans have been cyclo-touring for decades. So I would implore everyone of a cynical mindset to put their narrow viewpoints aside and embrace the growth potential here. Remember, you have people at 15th and Sandy that do not want to share the road with you. And BTW.. a lack of shoulders on rural roads is the norm all over the nation… “Car back, peel it in a bit.”
… I meant DIVERSE, not adverse. haha. oops.
+1 on oskarbaanks comments.
KYouell – Not mentioned in the article, but there was discussion of how to get families out to John Day and to provide educational daycare for kids. Many naturalists live in the area and there was talk about creating educational tours and walks for children of families.
I’m in John Day right now and am about to ride the Old West Scenic Bikeway. Perhaps it was my poor reporting that I didn’t get across quite how remarkable that this discussion is taking place out here. Many attendees came from very far away leaving their businesses to attend this meaning. Long Creek, which we will be passing through, has two businesses. Austin Junction Cafe in Bates is the only business. The fact that people took out an entire day to listen and discuss cyclists wants and needs was powerful to witness and deserves credit.
Although not mentioned in the article, there was A LOT of discussion as to how to reach other members of the community to treat cyclists with respect on the road. Some of the suggestions included organizing group community rides so people in the towns are knowledgeable about the route. This led to a discussion about how many people in town didn’t have bikes and perhaps they should work together for a community bike share program!
As for the beer and wifi, people have different wants and needs when they travel, but it is great they are considering pooling their resources to offer it.
Their market is beyond just TransAm riders that are passing quickly through the region, but people that are looking for a good multi-day loop rides. These riders may or may not want certain amenities, but at least they will have the option to choose.
I came away from the meeting just stunned at how the communities pooled together and how committed they seemed to turning an already good route into an even better experience.
Thanks Russ. Eastern Oregon is definitely committed to developing our “Two-Wheel Spoken Here”. We are trying to keep cyclists informed of the opportunities on the website: http://www.VisitEasternOregon.com and through the blog post by cycling expert, Evan Mackinzie at: http://www.VisitEasternOregon.blogspot.com.
Thanks Russ and Laura. I look forward to your footage on your ride around the Old West Scenic Bikeway – the stunning countryside and the great people.
Love the ‘Two Wheels Spoken Here’ campaign tag line. I could see that being used all over the state.
Attracting bike tourists to Eastern Oregon is a great idea. It’s beautiful, quiet country. My family has friends in John Day, used to go at least once a year for hunting…which I’m not big on, also, atv’ing…no thanks.
An important question probably is, how big could business from people bike touring become. Accommodations, food, entertainment are all basics, but hopefully the directions those things take would stick with simple, comfortable, good value for the money rather than a high end luxury route.
Outside of the I-5 corridor, most of Oregon is low populated areas. From a traffic standpoint, that’s good. There definitely might be a need though to work on ways of better enabling local residents traveling by motor vehicle to pass people traveling by bike. Maybe something like bike specific road turn-outs.
Totally selfish, but I just wish there was an easier way to get out there to ride without a car! Anyone know of a bus with a couple racks that heads that way?
Good question! Maybe not yet, but….
Even more specifically and selfishly, cargo bikes. We’d need more than a bike rack on a bus, but boy would I love to do it.
Maybe Amtrak or Greyhound? There’s a train stop in Bingen and a bus stop in Hood River I know of (though not exactly eastern Oregon).
Both Greyhound and Amtrak will get you there. Usually Greyhound will let you toss your unboxed bike into the cargo area, if there is room; you may want to wrap it up or box it to prevent scratches, however.
Amtrak requires full-size bikes to be in a box to travel, on the long-distance route to eastern Oregon. Shorter routes like Cascades and the trains in California are run by the State and often have racks for bikes, which can even take tandems and some shorter cargo bikes. But the Empire Builder to and Coast Starlight trains make you box the bike and check as luggage.
Clarification: Both will get you to eastern Oregon along the Columbia or 1-84, but neither will get you to John Day, the town mentioned in this article.
The only public bus to John Day is the Grant County People Mover, which only has one trip a day on Mon/Wed/Fri. http://www.grantcountypeoplemover.com/
I think a bike tourism or advocacy organization should consider chartering buses a few weekends each summer, to help people get to these great destinations car-free.
Unfortunately, getting out to Eastern Oregon without a car is a little tricky! Amtrak does not run to EO, but Greyhound is an option. Once you are here, a number of the communities have commuter-type buses that have bike racks. Particularly in NE Oregon and Wallowa County, where they have developed a great bike-friendly experience. Check out: http://www.wallowacountychamber.com or call 541-426-4622
Russ — thanks for your great reporting!!! I am very grateful for the commitment that these small businesses and volunteer community leaders are making to help make Oregon one of the best places to ride.
If anyone is curious about how a designated scenic bike route can economically benefit remote rural regions, I highly recommend watching The Path Less Pedaled video about the Central Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand:
The Otago Rail Trail is the signature cycle trail that prompted the New Zealand government to invest $50 million in the development of a national Cycle Trail network in 2009. (http://www.nzcycletrail.com/) New Zealand (a country that is just slightly larger and slightly more populated than the state of Oregon) has proven over the past 30 years that meaningful investments into recreation infrastructure actually pays off as demonstrated through their system of Great Walks through their National Parks and conservation lands. Its time for America to start making real investments that will make a real difference.
Thanks for the ‘shout-out’ and great comments! Eastern Oregon is wide open for cycling, and we appreciate all the feedback. Consider following our bicycle expert, Evan, as he writes about legendary rides, people, and bike-friendly stops at: http://www.VisitEasternOregon.blogspot.com
I’m thrilled to hear that folks in eastern Oregon are excited about bicycle tourism, and not buying into the us-vs-them hype. A lot of the roads out there are very quiet, and there’s plenty of room to share.
On shoulderless roads … those may indeed be the norm in much of America and my experience may not be typical, but Oregon is actually absolutely pathetic in this regard compared to other states where I’ve lived. Washington actually has shoulders on most of its state highways, even east of the Cascades; Oregon frequently lacks them. Even US highways in Oregon often have narrow shoulders that are completely unsuitable if there is heavy truck traffic: the most harrowing ride of my life was on the shoulder of US 97 in north central OR. Of course my native Minnesota blows away even Washington — snowplows would be slipping off into the ditches if it weren’t for the shoulders, even on county roads where the shoulders aren’t always paved, they are flat and wide so you can bail if someone isn’t giving you enough room.
That said, even without shoulders eastern Oregon is still a great place to ride because the traffic is so low.
One logistical question I have about these new routes, all of which I’m eager to try in the coming years: since these are fairly difficult to access by public transport, I will be driving. Is there SOME place in a town along each of these routes where I can safely park my car for 2-3 days while I’m out riding? Sometimes in the past I’ve called police departments in small towns and asked them where I could safely park a car for a few days (often ends up being in their own lot, which of course tends to also be fairly secure), but this isn’t always an option.
As for beer and wifi, to each their own. If you don’t want them, don’t use them. A lot of cyclists like to balance fun with absolute performance, and enjoy a cool brew after a long day’s ride. And this being the world that it is, a lot of people need to be able to check email.
Both beer and wi-fi should bring in tourists and be good for business.
Check out the Eastern Oregon “Beer Tag”…it’s a beer hunt out here! http://www.visiteasternoregon.com/beertag/
Whole foods fuel my body.
Beer fuels my spirit.
Bicycle tourism isn’t really a new thing for John Day. I stayed there on Bikecentennial’s inaugural year of the Trans-American Bicycle Trail in 1976. Adventure Cycling (nee Bikecentennial) has been running Trans-Am trips through John Day every year since ’76. The summer of ’76 there were one or two groups of a dozen cycle tourists staying in John Day through most of the summer. After all the east bound groups passed through by late June, the West bound groups started showing up in July and August.
Second the motion about suitable places to park a vehicle for a few days. We are gearing up for major hub-and-spoke tours when I (hopefully) retire soon. Having a new minivan for the purpose, we are naturally concerned about how to handle that.
One of the best things we found touring across central Washington was a couple of very small towns that had set up parks expressly available for cycle tourists to camp. Water, restrooms, and even places to plug in to recharge batteries. Keeping the electronics and especially the lighting batteries (a MAJOR safety issue) charged has been very problematic at times.
I toured thru east Oregon from Portland, around Steens mt and back. It was a wonderful trip. Traffic was not an issue at all; it did not matter how much shoulder the road had, as I remember it, because there was so little traffic.
At the McDonalds in John Day, after many days of camping and my 5 day beard, I must have frightened the staff by my appearance. I stood there neglected until the manager came out to take my order (visibly exasperated at the timidity of her high school aged employees). I highly recommend touring eastern Oregon, and plan to take another trip this summer. Did a blog posting about my ride here:
drew…also took opportunity to read parts of your blog. Very entertaining. Seems as though your hardiness for all conditions might be a lot more than most people up for cycle touring would have. It was a great overview though of some of the towns out there and the amenities and accommodations they have.
Wow, just read every word of your trip report Drew. Sounds like a great one! I’m familiar with most of the places you rode, but parts of the John Day country are blank spots on a map for me. Thanks for helping fill them in.
Another tip — the new Cycling Sojourner bike touring guide to Oregon has a great John Day route. http://cycletouringoregon.com
The Condon area (Gilliam County) and Sherman County (Wasco) is another great area to bike. For a small town, Condon has a movie theatre, great cafe-bar (Round Up Grill), a Drive In, Hotel and Motel, etc. Wasco has a great vacation rental for 1 night stays (Spanish Hollow). Condon has several “lonely” roads with great “Tuscany” views!
If readers are interested in suggested routes in and around Pendleton please feel free to visit the cycling page of our website http://pendletonchamber.com/visit/play/cycling/