This October, one of America’s best supported bike rides will do something they’ve never done in their 30-year history: Take the show off-road.
A few weekends ago I rode about 50 miles east of Portland to get a closer look at one of the routes that will be featured as part of Cycle Oregon’s ‘Gravel’ event coming October 5-7th. The two days of riding (or three if you choose to ride out there) will be based at Reeher’s Camp, a site built on a historic Civilian Conservation Corps camp a few miles west of Timber (population 130) at the eastern edge of the Tillamook State Forest.
The roads around Reeher’s are quintessentially Oregon; active logging sites bordered by deep forests with rivers and creeks working their way through canyons in every direction. Also nestled among thick stands of berries and ferns are remnants of the old Port of Tillamook Bay Railroad that will soon morph into a new and improved Salmonberry Trail.
Those who sign up for Gravel will get two days to explore this area — with all the comforts of Cycle Oregon including hot showers, live music, catered meals, massages, cold beverages, and so on. To give you a taste of what to expect (sans those creature comforts), I asked Cycle Oregon for the route coordinates and headed out.
Since the Gravel basecamp is relatively close (55 miles) to Portland I opted to bike to the start. If that sounds like fun to you, the folks at Cycle Oregon have arranged a bag delivery service so you can bike out on Friday (October 5th) and have all your weekend gear waiting for you at camp.
There are many ways to get to Reeher’s Camp from Portland. I chose one that’s about 50/50 paved/dirt.
My route took me on familiar roads north to the southern edge of Scappoose and then west via Dutch Canyon/Bacona Roads. After traversing a rocky ridge that affords views of the Cascades and the Coast Range, I made my way to the highest point of Stub Stewart State Park. I entered the park off Hoffman Road and connected to the Shoo-Fly Trail — a delightfully challenging singletrack created and maintained by the Northwest Trail Alliance in partnership with Oregon State Parks.
I was still pumped with trail-induced endorphins when I emerged from the woods and rolled back into civilization at the Buxton trailhead of the Banks-Vernonia State Trail. From there I crossed Highway 47 at Fisher Road and connected to NW Strassel Road which hugs Burgholzer Creek. Strassel is a keeper. It was a quiet, winding and smoothly-graveled six miles and 1,000 feet of climbing that delivered meet right onto NW Timber Road.
It was nice to be back on pavement, especially a road like Timber. I headed north before coming to Cochran Road, which is sort of a main street in the small, unincorporated community of Timber.
Gravel’s basecamp will be set up just a few miles west of Timber off Cochran Road.
OK, so what’s the route like?
Cycle Oregon has three routes to choose from on Day 1: 15, 29, or 43 miles. No matter which one you choose, you’ll experience some of the challenges and rewards that gravel riding is known for.
Setting out from camp you’ll head uphill and follow the Nehalem River on Wheeler Road for a 3.5-mile, 1,000-foot climb. Your hard work will be rewarded as the road eventually rises above the tall stands of Douglas fir and offers inspiring views of the surrounding forest. The smooth, sweeping corners will also put a smile on your face — just watch for potholes that pop up every once in a while. Speaking of smiles, I was pleasantly surprised to see two other people out riding these roads. As I began to descend from the highest point on the route (at the intersection of Wheeler Pond and Salmonberry roads, 2,500 feet above sea level), two guys were pedaling the opposite direction. They’d come out from Portland and — as a testament to how good the riding is out there — it wasn’t their first time.
While the topography is challenging, the terrain on the Day 1 routes was tame as far as unpaved roads go. The gravel was hard-packed and there weren’t any sections with ruts or big, chunky, sharp rocks to worry about. (Keep in mind these roads are used by private timber companies (only on weekdays of course) and conditions can change.) I had 45mm tires on my bike and they were overkill. Cycle Oregon’s Operations Director Tom Simonson says some of the other roads (ones I didn’t ride) have larger and looser rocks and he says 45mm tires would be a great choice.
Here’s the bike I took:
All the Day 1 loops end with a downhill on Cochran Road back to camp. As you roll in, I recommend doing some exploring to find remnants of the Tillamook Bay Railroad. About 3.5 miles west of the finish — between the South Fork of the Nehalem River and Reliance Creek is the old railroad bridge. You’ll have to park the bikes and do some bushwhacking to find it. Then about 1.2 miles east of the bridge, keep your eyes peeled on the right (south) side of the road and you’ll catch a glimpse of the old tracks. Those tracks are the future location of the Salmonberry Trail — a project that is making steady progress thanks in large part to donations from Cycle Oregon.
This was my first time riding these roads and I definitely want to go back. If you’ve already signed up for the Gravel weekend, you’re in for a treat. If not, it’s worth considering. These are great gravel roads and it’s practically in our backyard!
One more thing. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the routes aren’t easy. If you’re a pure roadie who has never ridden gravel, I’d strongly suggest getting some hours in to test the waters and practice before coming out to the Gravel weekend.
Learn more about the event at CycleOregon.com.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: Cycle Oregon is a long-time supporter of BikePortland and a current advertiser. I was not offered any special compensation for this post.
Never miss a story. Sign-up for the daily BP Headlines email.
BikePortland needs your support.
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.
I’m very curious as to how this turns out. Personally, I think it will be a bit of a bust. I mean, nothing is preventing folks from riding these areas now – they are pretty close and accessible.
Also, October…I’d expect rain. Not many folks like camping in the rain.
In my experience gravel riding is best either in the spring or fall. Too warm and dry and the gravel is loose, dusty, and more prone to washboard from vehicles. Hopefully it does get some moisture before then, but I do agree about camping in the rain.
While it is “close” that is still a pretty committed day trip to go ride gravel roads. As evidenced by 100+ folks showing up in January and February to ride this area some comradery makes all the difference.
Also a note regarding attendance… this is the same weekend as the most popular cyclocross race weekend in Portland. Not to say the gravel and cx racing demographics totally overlap but it is definitely a factor in peoples options for riding that weekend.
plenty of folks like camping in the rain. witness the bustling trade in “high performance” rain gear, tarps, rain flies for tents, &c.
I would consider that gear more of an aversion to being soaked.
and I would consider it evidence of a predilection for conspicuous consumption.
how about “plenty of folks like camping and don’t dislike rain enough to keep them from camping”?
Same is true of riding paved roads, yet CO is immensely popular. Gravel riding has exploded in popularity, so I predict it will be a success.
west of Portland, buddy. west.
I was out that way recently and noticed those “Rails with Trails” signs, and I’m still a little confused what they’re trying to say. Are they opposed to removing the old rail line? Or positive about the new trail? Or somehow both?
Both, they want rails w/ trails, so build new trail along side existing rail line, not replace it.
you know, at first glance I thought these were supportive of the trail. And after reading your comment I took another look. Seems to me they are saying they want the trail — BUT they also want to keep the rail.
I just cant get past the price tag, 265.00 a person?
The berry bush photo at the top of the article shows thimbleberries. Which are much more delicious than salmonberries (they look like blackberries but colored yellow/orange)!
Indeed it does Drew! Another reader kindly pointed that out to me and I edited the caption a few minutes ago. ;-). Thanks.
Thimbleberries are more delicious than anything.
Hi Jonathan, It is great that you were able to do a pre-ride for the Cycle Oregon folks. Your article makes us want to get out there to experience that ride. We have been doing a lot more gravel road exploring in Columbia County and have some great gravel options for cyclists who want some adventure gravel road riding in our 2019 season.
Great to hear that Sandy!
And for anyone curious, Sandy runs the fantastic Coastal Mtn Sporthaus just north past Vernonia on Nehalem River Hwy.
I would have picked a weekend outside of deer hunting season in the Coast Range. Wear your blaze orange.