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A loop for the gravel-curious: Gunners Lakes from Stub Stewart State Park

Posted by on July 17th, 2019 at 5:43 pm

Bacona Road swoops along a ridge as it alternates between clearcuts and dense forests.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

We’ve sung the praises of Stub Stewart State Park on this site several times in the past. It’s not only a great bike-camping destination from Portland (a MAX ride will put you about 13 miles away from a carfree path that leads to the park entrance), it also makes a perfect base camp for miles of excellent roads and trails.

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While the Northwest Trail Alliance and Westside Trail Federation have done amazing work on the singletrack trails inside the park, there’s also a trove of unpaved (a.k.a. gravel) roads just outside of it. I camped at Stub Stewart with a few other families over the Fourth of July weekend. On one of the days I led a few friends on a route that explored some of the best roads Columbia County has to offer.

The route features a bit of singletrack (up and down), memorable vistas of the Coast and Cascade ranges, carfree paths (both paved and unpaved), and even a few lakes few people have ever heard about. It’s a loop you should definitely put on your list.

We began the day with a trail climb up to the Unfit Settlement viewpoint, the highest spot in Stub Stewart State Park at 1,500 feet above sea level. From there we left the park and entered the realm of the local logging industry via Hoffman Road. Hoffman (named after Peter Hoffman who owned a nearby sawmill in the early 1900s) is a major artery for loggers, and because it’s relatively narrow and steep I only recommend riding it on the weekends.

We pedaled around Hoffman Hill and soon made our way onto Bacona Road, the main spine road that reaches 2,000 feet at its highest point and winds along an east-west ridge. Stay on it long enough and you’ll reach Scappoose to the east or it can drop you back down to the Banks-Vernonia State Trail (BV) to the west. The road is named after the old town of Bacona, where the area’s first post office was established in 1887.

The roads took us through a mix of clear-cuts where view opens up wide and thick forests where ferns, firs and alder groves towered overhead. It was a wonderful surprise to see so many wildflowers in bloom!

Road conditions started as annoyingly loose gravel (small, sharp and loose rocks) that gave way to the more interesting sort marked by larger, embedded and chunky rocks. There’s a good stretch where big tires (40 to 50mm) are a good idea. I’ve flatted up there many times in the past riding 38s and 40s. But on this day I was using a set of 650b Rolf Prima Hyalite wheels with 47mm wide tires, and it was the most fun I’ve had. I could pedal hard through the biggest rocks and rip up-and-down the rollers with carefree abandon!

After about seven miles on Bacona Road we headed north and dropped steeply down Pisgah Lookout Road. Our destination were Gunners Lakes, a place I’d discovered by accident a few years ago.

A relatively easy drive from St. Helens and Scappoose, Gunners Lakes are small and undeveloped. That’s probably why you don’t hear much about them unless you’re into birding, geocaching, or fishing. The name is plural because there are three lakes connected by marshy swamps. One friend of mine who grew up in the area said she thinks loggers might have created the lakes to store water in case the area was threatened by forest fire.

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We snacked on the shore of the largest lake — or as close as we could get to it. We feasted on jerky, fruit, and energy bars in a turnout before heading back to out to the main road.

Instead of heading directly east through roads I don’t have 100% faith in, I decided to head down to Scappoose-Vernonia Highway and get onto the reliable Crown-Zellerbach Trail. Similar to the BV except without the pavement, the CZ is a rail-to-trail that goes from Scappoose to the Nehalem River just outside Vernonia. Pisgah Lookout Road connects to the CZ at its high point so we got to enjoy about six miles of perfect downhill as we barreled westward toward Vernonia.

Can’t wait for the trail connection so we can avoid this stretch on Highway 47 north of Vernonia.

The only bummer on this route was the four mile stretch on Highway 47 from Pittsburg to Vernonia Lake. This well-known gap between the CZ and the BV is so unfortunate. It’s not terrible if you’re a confident rider, but there’s very little shoulder and people in cars aren’t always as courteous or careful as they should be. I can’t wait until this gap is closed with a carfree path so we can ride between Scapppoose and Banks worry-free. The good news is I hear folks are already working to make that happen.

Vernonia Lake was a highlight of the trip, as was the infamous graffiti-strewn walls inside the old sawmill fuel building. From the lake we picked up the BV and had a pleasant ride back to camp. In a last second fit of friskiness, I suggested a route change: Back up Hoffman Road so we could ride the Unfit Settlement View and Hares Canyon singletrack trails back into camp.

It was the perfect way to end a very rewarding ride. In the end, we tallied a total of 42 miles and 3,500 feet of climbing. I highly recommend this route!

Here’s a quick look at the gear I used…

My Eugene-made Co-Motion Klatch with 650b Rolf Prima wheels was a perfect tool for the job:

Have you heard of Kitsbow? They make very nice riding apparel that doesn’t look like riding apparel. Their new Backforty shirt and Lightweight Haskell shorts were very comfortable and functional. It was a bit cool at times and I could snap/unsnap the grippy buttons with and pull the sleeves up and down with one hand. The fabric is super soft, lightweight, and full of ventilation. The shorts have all types of stretch and I slipped my camera in and out of the front pocket with ease (and confidence).

Got any questions about the route or gear I used? Happy to answer them in the comments.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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ChampsJonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)jered bogliSamPaul H Recent comment authors
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Middle of the Road Guy
Subscriber
Middle of the Road Guy

Those trees in the first photo were standing 2 years ago. I loved that section of the trail.

mran1984
Guest

Charging through decked out in cargo shorts, or jeans? Your comment in regards to the mugging was flat out B.S.

Middle of The Road Guy
Guest
Middle of The Road Guy

I really think you should re-read that comment again. This time slower and without a preconceived notion in your head. You’ll see it was parody.

And no jeans or cargo shorts….spandex. Cargo shorts don’t look good on anyone, unless you are doing yard work. My preference for bibs is generally Eliel, Wattie Ink or Voler bibs. Just cannot fit into Castelli – my thighs are too large. What do you wear?

Finally, if you wish to have a face to face conversation, I can provide a time and location. I’ll even buy you a coffee.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Would you share more of your lynching jokes?

Middle of the Road Guy
Subscriber
Middle of the Road Guy

I used the word “hang”, not lynch. Please don’t attempt to put words in my mouth I did not say.

Thanks.

Sam
Guest
Sam

“Fine people on both sides”

Sam
Guest
Sam

Oh hey look at the tough guy wanting to “meet and have a conversation” (low key threat). Why the admins of this site keep letting you troll here is beyond me.

Middle of the Road Guy
Subscriber
Middle of the Road Guy

Sam,
it’s a friendly invite to have a conversation and a coffee.

You read into things way too much.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

I don’t know where you’re from, but “Let me buy you a coffee” is not considered a threat around here.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

Nor is “let’s talk”.

mran1984
Guest

I was not predisposed. I am encouraged that your intent was humorous, but so many folks on this site swallowed it in a completely different way. The offer for coffee is truly appreciated! I am certainly not fearful of it, ha. Summer is busy with weekly camping/mtb excursions, so maybe in the late fall a double breve is in order. Oh, mainly Rapha shorts these days. Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

Champs
Guest
Champs

Just my experience, but sizing a slightly above average height adult with a healthy BMI at medium/large is less “small” than it is accurate.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

Jonathan – thanks for sharing a nice mini tour…it brought back memories of our joint CZ ride years ago. (Though your product posing made me think I was reading an issue of BQ. 😉

[PS. Perhaps the lakes were set up for loggers needing flume water? Unless the elevation was too low.]

Josh McNair
Guest
Josh McNair

You can cross the hwy off the cz trail and it continues up over a hill that drops you into vernonia at the end of Knott St. Then you only have a bout a mile to the lake to get back on the BV trail.

Welsh Pete
Guest
Welsh Pete

Thanks for sharing. Really appreciate those of you who get out there and give the rest of us some routes to check out.

Pat Lowell
Guest
Pat Lowell

Jonathan – Thanks for sharing! You mentioned previously that you have an 11-42 cassette on the back. What kind of derailleur etc. do you have to get that kind of gearing to work? What do you have in the front?

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

Most MTB derailers can handle a 40t cog, though some will need to have the stock B-screw replaced with a longer one. I have 40t on both my main Minnesota and Oregon bikes, and even my cheap 8/9 speed derailers clear those big salad plates just fine.

Huey Lewis
Guest
Huey Lewis

Why not stay on Jeppeson from the lake? Does it go through? Not go through? I’ve definitely hit dead ends out that way that maps and Garmin don’t show.

X
Guest
X

Stub Stewart can be reached using the Wave bus to Tillamook for anyone who wants riding opportunities outside of town without using a car shuttle. If it works into your schedule a return is possible but you should book the ticket in advance. The bus drivers have been extremely accommodating in loading extra bikes when the rack is full.

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

That shirt had better be comfy and well-ventilated – for $155.

hotrodder
Guest
hotrodder

I don’t care how comfy and well ventilated a shirt is, I never get the chance to find out if it costs as much as 3 months of electric power to my house…

(Boy, did I ever choose the wrong career path.)

Mike Quigley
Guest
Mike Quigley

Well, the scenery doesn’t appear to be that appealing. But it does beat riding Central Oregon trails clogged this time of year with visiting, out of control, mountain bikers screaming at you to get out of their way.

Paul H
Guest
Paul H

They’re probably not out of control.

jered bogli
Guest
jered bogli

Jonathan – So to be clear this is an ADVERTORIAL post – correct? I had to go back and examine the box on the right hand side to find the sponsors which included comotion/rolf prima. Kitsbow didn’t pay but you gave them a full review or did you forget to add them to the sponsor box? I honestly don’t care, but I’d love to see “SPONSORED CONTENT” called out more directly when that is what is happening. I say this because I value your editorial perspective and more clarity around what is PAID CONTENT and what is JOURNALISM is always needed in our modern world. NPR always notes at the end of the story when a funder is mentioned in the story, I feel the box on the side is a device to physically separate the two items (I’m a graphic designer, that’s how I see things), so putting a call out in the body at the beginning or end would go a long way to keeping things clear. THX