So often while driving down Interstate 5 south of Portland my mind wanders: Could I ride to Eugene? What would the roads be like?
I began to ask myself those questions again this past weekend as the date for the Cycle Oregon Weekender event approached. This year it was held on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene. I’ve ridden to Salem a few times via backroads on both sides of Interstate 5 — for the Fresh Hop Century and the Salem Gravel Grinder rides just to name a few — but until last weekend I had never gone further south.
Like with all my adventures, my first stop was RideWithGPS.com, the Portland-based route-finding, recording, and planning service. Simply typing in “Portland to Eugene” in the search bar got me started on my research. If found a route that looked interesting, did a bit of editing to make it more windy and to follow the smallest roads possible, then synced it up with my GPS device.
With frame-bags packed full of overnight gear, my plan was to bike down to UO to check out the Weekender. Would I ride back to Portland? That was still up in the air. My first priority was getting to Eugene.
The 145-mile route to Eugene was great. It passed through small towns, broad valleys, many rivers and creeks, and even through fern-covered forests (with much-needed shade on a day with a high temp of 100!). The highlight was discovering a small town called Sodaville, home of the first-ever officially designated State Park in Oregon. A sign posted near the corner of Sodaville Mountain Home Road and Maple Street said a mineral spring was discovered there in 1848 by a local man who was looking for his oxen who had gone astray. The water was thought to have medicinal qualities and soon bathhouses, hotels, and vibrant small town developed around it. Sodaville reached its apex in the late 1890s. By 1953 the spring was found to be contaminated and it was closed off for good. Today there’s a basketball court and small park where the spring once spouted.
The road south of Sodaville was by far my favorite part of the ride. It’s a beautiful climb that rises 1,000 feet in five miles on the western edge of the Santiam State Forest. An eight mile descent into Brownsville — including a good chunk of luxury-grade gravel — was the reward. I enjoyed Main Street in the historic pioneer town of Brownsville before the final push into Eugene.
1,500 people attended the Weekender, which Cycle Oregon describes as simply, “Great rides and good friends.” On Saturday I rode the 76-mile route: a loop northeast of Eugene that featured a steady climb on Marcola Road along the Mohawk River to Crawfordsville. The second half of the route was on the same roads I used on Friday with the added fun of riding the bikes paths along the Willamette River into downtown Eugene. I found a nice little spot to take a swim a few miles from the finish.
By Saturday afternoon I’d made up my mind to ride back to Portland on Sunday. I was grateful to find a friend to haul my bags back for me so I could be much lighter for the ride home (thanks Tom!). I didn’t want to take the exact same route so I browsed RideWithGPS.com once again to find something interesting (and with a bit less climbing than the way down). I was very happy with how it turned out.
The highlights of the 145-mile route were Brownsville Road (north of its namesake town) and Gilkey Road. Gilkey is fantastic. The 10-mile stretch between Crabtree (Highway 226) and Scio was almost traffic-free and I was treated to many memorable vignettes of farm life.
On rides like this my head is always on a swivel. When I’m not glancing over my left shoulder to acknowledge and scan other road users, I’m peeking at yards and farms and porches. I love seeing the farm and country lifestyle unfold as I roll by: a retired couple playing cards in the shade, a man baling hay, a dad driving a tractor with his young son in his lap, a woman sitting in a chair picking blueberries, and a horse show that look so cool I had to pull over. Hosted by the Scio Buckaroos, the part of the show I saw featured teenage girls competing in barrel-running (not sure if that’s the official name). As these capable riders flew around the course, a man offered play-by-play and encouragement in a classic country drawl over a loudspeaker. “That’s it. Look where you want to the horse to go. That’s how you do it.”
At about mile 100 I came to one of my favorite places in Oregon: Front Street in Woodburn. This part of Woodburn owes its classic main street-style development to the busy railroad that runs along it. On Sundays, all the locals come out to get food and treats and it feels like a street in Mexico. People wait in the always-long line for ice cream and other sweets at Paleteria Y Neveria El Paisanito, or they find fresh-made corn and other specialities from street vendors. Since I was ready for a break, I settled into Luis’s Taqueria for some cold Jarritos Mineragua and tacos. The tortillas at Luis’s are fantastic. Huge and soft and made by hand, they cradle a healthy serving of veggies and meat.
After filling up my tanks the rest of the ride was mostly a formality as I wound my way on familiar roads back to Oregon City and Portland.
I’d highly recommend using these routes if you want to venture down to Eugene. With Amtrak and plenty of parks, camping and hotel options, this could also make for a fun 2-4 day trip. I stitched both routes together on RideWithGPS to make a complete loop. While there are definitely some miles of highways you’ll share with a good number of car drivers, the vast majority of the roads are quiet backroads where the only vehicles you’ll see are tractors.
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