(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)
On Friday, the Columbia River Gorge put its best face forward, and the timing couldn’t have been better.
That’s because about 150 local and regional policymakers and assorted bigwigs from Oregon and Washington pedaled from Corbett to Cascade Locks and got an up-close look at the Gorge’s natural splendor. And best of all, the 25-mile ride was done without ever setting tires on Interstate 84 — a feat that was only possible because the group was given early access to a newly completed section of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail that will be open to the public next month.
As it does every year, this invite-only “Policymakers’ Ride” (organized by Cycle Oregon and sometimes referred to as the “Voyage of the Visionaries”) aims to give key decision makers the knowledge and inspiration they need to push for better bike bikeways around the region. Friday’s ride focused solely on the Historic Highway where riders were treated to jaw-dropping views of the Gorge and great riding thanks to exciting progress on sections of the State Trail open only to bikers and walkers.
The story of the Historic Highway, we learned Friday from opening remarks by Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel, began nearly 100 years ago when highway builder Samuel Lancaster started work on what became known as the “King of the Roads.” It was America’s first officially designated Scenic Highway and Lancaster described his approach to its design by saying he “laid the road lightly on the land.”
After McKeel’s remarks, Cycle Oregon co-founder Jonathan Nicholas stood atop a rock wall at Women’s Forum and with the sun peeking through morning clouds deep down on the Gorge’s eastern horizon, recalled that moment in 1913 when Lancaster and his crews began their work: “Exactly 100 years ago, a group of visionaries stood here and decided to make the Gorge accessible to everyone,” he said. Nicholas didn’t say it directly, but his intent was clear: He wanted the assembled politicians, transportation officials, and advocates to see themselves as today’s visionaries who will grab hold of Lancaster’s vision and restore his old road.
Today, many people aren’t even aware that the Historic Highway exists. Its successor, I-84, carries all the traffic. But unlike the classic curves and beauty of its predecessor, I-84 barrels through the Gorge on a straight and fast path with the brutalist form that was common during the Interstate Highway boom of the 1970s. Now, in a symbolic stroke of highway design coming full circle, the Oregon Department of Transportation is committed to restoring the old highway.
And as we cherished each mile on Saturday, it was easy to see why this has become such a passion project for our state’s transportation agency.
After a breathtaking sunrise breakfast at Women’s Forum, we pedaled east on the Historic Highway to Wahkeena Falls. Over the gurgling of Wahkeena Creek, we listened to state parks officials share the importance of recreation in the Gorge. Oregon Parks & Recreation District Manager Kevin Price pedaled alongside us the entire day. At Wahkeena, he told the crowd how he encourages visitors to bike on the Historic Highway: “I sell it to families [as an activity] all the time,” he shared, “What family with kids wouldn’t want to ride on a road like this in comfort without all those motor vehicles?”
Our next stop was the J.B. Yeon Trail Head, at the beginning of a brand new, $8 million, 1.6 mile section of carfree path that runs between McCord and Moffett creeks. Before becoming the first members of the public to roll on this new path (and cross over the new McCord Creek bridge) we heard from ODOT Region 1 Manager Jason Tell call the project “a huge milestone” that’s “worth every penny.” And with Saturday’s group of power brokers there to see it in person, Tell was confident about the project’s future now that, “We have the the policy army on our side.”
At the Yeon trailhead we also heard from mayors of four towns along the Historic Highway route: Tom Cramblett, mayor of Cascade Locks; Steve Lawrence, mayor of The Dalles; Doug Daoust, mayor of Troutdale; and Hood River Mayor Arthur Babitz. Each one was eager to share how they think bicycle tourism will be a boon for their cities.
Daoust, 61, who shared with us that he hadn’t ridden a bike for 25 years prior to Saturday, said Troutdale is fully on board. “We’re working on bike tourism, we’re getting more racks downtown,” he said. “And this project is key to connecting us all.” Mayor Cramblett from Cascade Locks said bicycling in his small riverside town is “just growing and growing and growing.” “For all these communities here,” Cramblett said, “the biking part of the economy is going to be huge… That’s the future for us.”
“We’re going to open our arms wide and welcome all the cyclists of the world.”
— Steve Lawrence, mayor of The Dalles
Hood River Mayor Arthur Babitz knows exactly what bicycling means to his city. “It’s not coincidence,” he told the crowd, “that a town of 7,000 has four full-service bike shops.” Babitz believes once the Historic Highway and State Trail are completed and people can bike safely on the 73-mile stretch between Troutdale and The Dalles, “We will see bike tourism on a worldwide scale.” And Steve Lawrence of The Dalles said his city will be ready for it. “We’re having a summit next month to make The Dalles adapted to cyclists,” he said, “We’re going to open our arms wide and welcome all the cyclists of the world.”
Sure, these are politicians at a public ribbon-cutting; but their optimism isn’t artificial nor is it based merely in hopes and dreams. A recent study by Travel Oregon found that the Gorge already rakes in $46 million a year in bicycle-related tourism (out of Oregon’s total annual haul of $400 million).
On Saturday’s ride, there was a palpable sense of celebration at this project’s progress, yet a clear sense of urgency to finish the 10 mile gap between Wyeth and Hood River that still remains. I’ve never seen ODOT more committed to such a non-traditional road project. Nearly all of their top brass did the ride on Saturday — from Highway Division Administrator Paul Mather and Transportation Development Division Administrator Jerri Brohard, to Oregon Transportation Commission Chair Pat Egan and we were even joined by Governor Kitzhaber’s new transportation policy adviser Karmen Fore (who I learned is an avid rider that often knocks out rides well over 100 miles at a time).
Jeanette Kloos, a former Gorge district manager for ODOT, knows this project better than anyone. She’s been working on it since the 1980s and back in 2007 she gave me a guided tour of the amazing bike path between Hood River and Mosier. At Saturday’s event, she said the final pieces to the puzzle will take “an extreme amount of work.” The remaining sections were even hard for Sam Lancaster, she shared, and he too finished them last.
If that final 10 miles of this project are to ever be built in time for the road’s centennial celebration in 2016 (that’s ODOT’s goal), the people on Saturday’s ride have to fight for it. I say fight, because at an estimated $47.5 million in construction costs (that includes a new tunnel through Mitchell Point and it’s nearly twice as much as the total amount spent on the project so far), the funding won’t be easy to come by. That’s why ODOT and Cycle Oregon’s effort to host this year’s ride in the Gorge was so brilliant: After a sunset cruise and lunch aboard the Portland Spirit Sternwheeler in Cascade Locks capped a perfect day of riding, networking, and inspiring, it’s a fight dozens more very powerful and influential Oregonians are now eager to take on.
— For more information about how to get involved with this effort, check out the Friends of the Historic Columbia River Highway.
If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at email@example.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.
here is a link to a good map of the project:
What do the numbers refer to? Is there a published maps that show the current gaps in the bike trail?
I rode this last summer but just to Bridal Veil. In 2001, I rode it all the way to Hood River and it was terrifying to be on I-84. As I crossed a bridge with a narrow shoulder, a semi rode by me and it was all I could do to stay on the road. I’m glad these danger spots are being knocked out of the ride!
The policymaker rides have been a great forum for people from different jurisdictions to see the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in bike regional infrastructure, to network, and to appreciate bicycling. The rides have been another quiet, but effective way that Cycle Oregon has been supporting bicycling throughout Oregon.
Yeah, I think it’s especially powerful to get people out there who might not normally be on bikes, but yet have influence over money/departments/projects/etc. that impacts people who do enjoy riding.
When you say “Saturday” throughout this story, you really mean “Friday”, right?
Editorial comments aside, nice article! Thanks for covering this.
Yep! That’s funny. It’s because the ride was so great it was hard to believe we were all “working.” 😉 Thanks. I’ve edited the post.
#5: Love the boots!
#11: Need to tighten helmet straps.
Steph, smile on !
Whoo hoo, hot damn!… No more 84!
I am psych-ed !!!
What’s the best route to get from… say NE Glisan and NE 43rd to Troutdale by bike? I am trying to think of the best route to bike all the way out there.
I suggest finding your way north to Marine Drive and taking that all the way east to Troutdale.
By the way, would it be a mad proposition to try and take NE Halsey all the way out, or is that road evil?
I rode Halsey between 205 path and Troutdale as a change of pace from the usual Marine Dr path. There is a bike lane the whole way, but you’ll catch a lot of red lights. I went back to using Marine Dr. Not a single stop sign/light between 205 and the Troutdale airport. On a clear day Mt Hood is in your sights for most of it. The headwind on Marine Dr. for your return trip may be a little soul-killing depending on your mood.
Ugh yeah. Marine drive is awesome when you have a tailwind and your legs are fresh.
Coming back from riding in the gorge, then having a headwind + hot sun + 10 miles to go back along Marine drive is a bit of a soul-crusher.
I occasionally take Halsey to commute home from Gresham to Portland, but I like Burnside better. It has only one lane each way, with MAX in the middle, so there is less traffic than Halsey out to 181st. You can take Burnside east to 181st to Stark, all the way out to the historic highway. It is also a little shorter if you are starting at 43rd and Glisan: http://goo.gl/maps/VBsut
Halsey is way better. Marine Drive means a ride north to get to it, then wind blowing one way or the other.
To get to the Gorge, I recommend taking the MAX all the way out to the end of the line in Gresham at Cleveland Ave MAX station, at about 242nd Ave.
From there, you are just a block from Division, which has a very wide bikelane. Ride that for just over ten blocks, til you get to 257th/Kane Drive. Make a left, and then make a right on NE 17th by Mt Hood Comm College. Follow this as it turns into Sweetbriar Road, and winds down to Stark Street. Make a right on Stark, and within a minute, you are on the Historic Highway.
The route is pretty pleasant and low traffic to access the Historic Highway, and it cuts out the majority of boring, boring, boring Gresham, which most days you couldn’t pay me to ride through!
This is great news. By far my favorite bike ride is the Bridge of the Gods loop. Looking forward to riding it again without the jaunt on 84. The whole project is pretty exciting. Can’t wait to ride to Hood River on this one day for a weekend trip.
I too am completely stoked to be able to ride to Hood River on my bike without touching I-84! There are so many stores there I will spend money at after riding 50 miles. The pizza store! The ice-cream store! The bike store! The brewery!!!
Eric Giacchino, of Vancouver, WA is completely underrated. He is truly a man amongst men. He encourages all the kids to ride there bikes to schools in Vancouver. There is nothing but an amazing heart in this man. There needs to be more said of this man.
I notice not one Official State representative from the bordering state of Washington! What’s up with that? I guess Clark County and the State of WA desire for coal and oil tanker trains running through the Gorge, and the approved oil terminal on the Columbia river (plus the undermining of Vancouver’s waterfront redevelopment) has blinded them to the beauty of this jewel in their backyard.
Oregon Native…Clark County resident.
Yes 3 cheers to ODoT, Cycle Oregon staff, and this year’s ride organizers for pulling off both an excellent ride AND the logistics of a ride further out than those we had organized in years past for the Policy Makers Ride. This was a fabulous opportunity to visit 4 new communities. There was no real Bad or Ugly on this ride just good and Great!
I am sooo looking forward to bringing the kids out here for the full ride and camping. This new segment now lets a cyclist avoid a very dangerous* section of 84 east of Ainsworth that I took last year in order to reach Cascade Locks/ Bridge of the Gods for my swing back through WA via SR-14.
And Stevenson WA is working on improving bike access to its downtown from their bridgehead on the WA side too!
*(I was sweating mixing with cars doing 70 mph over a viaduct with camping gear going up hill, as there was no hard shoulder there.)
So fantastic! Great to see so many influential people on the ground riding their bikes.
Two questions –
1) Was the Historic Highway closed to cars for this event? I didn’t see a single vehicle in any of your photos, which is highly unusual. You mention in your article that the Historic Highway is usually very quiet, and not many people know about it. I find this to be not exactly true. Ride it on any weekend, and it is pretty clogged with car traffic visiting the major falls along its entire route.
2) One photo shows the group riding along a multi-use path right next to the highway. It doesn’t look as if there is a fence or any kind of barrier between the path and the highway – only some giant orange plastic cones spaced 25 feet or so apart. Is the MUP not protected from highway traffic?
I have the exact same questions. From the photos it appears the group of dignitaries had exclusive access to the motor vehicle portions of the route.
I also strongly disagree with Mr. Price’s recommendation of the highway for a family outing.
“What family with kids wouldn’t want to ride on a road like this in comfort without all those motor vehicles?”
Answer: The family that values the lives of their kids on a two-lane road with no shoulder shared with cars, trucks, motorhomes, and travel trailers. The multi-use portions are ideal, but I’d avoid the motor vehicle sections without a doubt.
The ride started quite early, about 7:30 at Corbett. There were cars but not many in all the sections of roadway shared with bikes. In my experience there are more later in the day and on weekends.
The trail is not completed and we were warned about the segment without guardrail/fence. It was installed in other locations and is sturdy but attractive without blocking the view. We road through at least three areas were construction was underway but it looks as if it will be complete by the opening date.
According to the attached website, the official grand opening is scheduled for 9/13. I’ll be there!