It was a week before spring break in Washington County, Oregon. The weather forecast on the TV in the other room called for a 70-degree day the following week. I looked over at the television with the number 70 beamed above the graphic of a sun on a Tuesday and my mind raced…
What cool outdoor adventure could I share with our six-year-old on that beautiful day? I immediately thought about bike camping.
Should we go camping for spring break? Yes! I looked up the website for Stub Stewart State Park and reserved a tent camping spot. Now it was time to dig in the shed for that gear that has been stored for three years. Did we even have a tent? A sleeping bag that still fits the kid? The search was on. As the pile of camping gear grew the days ticked by. Rain. Rain. Rain. The forecast still showed sun and 70 for Tuesday, but Wednesday was slipping towards showers. I considered taking our small bike trailer that has a waterproof tub but we wouldn’t be able to tow the kid’s bike bag-and-drag style. I decided to leave the trailer and canopy at home but attach a large milk crate to the rear rack for additional storage capacity.
I’ve biked the Banks-Vernonia trail many times but I’ve never biked to the Banks-Vernonia trail. I referenced a 2016 BikePortland story where there is a Ride with GPS route link. I modified the route to start in Tigard and to stop for supplies at Universal Cycles in Beaverton, but used much of the original route from Bethany on.
Tuesday morning presented us with clouds and drizzle. The meteorologists all promised that it would burn off by noon as I scanned the local news channels. We donned our rain gear and started on our 45-mile adventure. The mist was minimal as we rode to Beaverton. We had 30 minutes before the bike shop opened so we stopped at Cedar Hills Park to run around. That’s when I remembered (from previous e-bike adventures) that there is a power outlet on the back of the bathroom building at the splash pad. We could top off the battery from the seven mile ride so far. We plugged in and played at the playground before heading to the local bike shop for extra tubes and a patch kit. A quick lunch nearby and we headed west on Jenkins Rd to intersect the Waterhouse Trail. The kid jumped on her bike to pedal North on the path with a short stop at Pirate Park as motivation. We detoured from the path near NW Cornell Rd as there are many narrow wooden bridges in this area. It’s easy to bypass them on neighborhood streets. Passing over US Hwy 26 is not difficult, but a lack of wayfinding signage and poor bike infrastructure make it easy to miss the “secret” neighborhood connector at NW Bronson and 156th.
The clouds parted and the sun shined brightly in the blue sky. It was 1:00 and we still had 30 miles to go! The kid jumped in the box bike and pedalled west on the Rock Creek Trail.
This was unexplored territory for us. A quick conversation with a passing cyclist revealed that we would be riding through Rock Creek Country Club. Maybe we should have brought the rain canopy after all? Would that stop a golf ball? Perhaps full face shields? (Writes Golf PPE on bike camping list.) We made it through just fine. Passing through the edge of Hillsboro and heading to North Plains there is another walk/roll/bike-only connection to look out for at NW Meek Road and Brookwood Parkway. The next couple of miles are low-traffic streets with beautiful views of farmland.
After passing NW Jackson School Road the route along NW Scotch Church Road becomes less pleasant with sporadic shoulders full of gravel and car parts. If Washington County wants to attract more bike tourism we must make this section of road safer for people outside of cars. I was glad to see our turn at NW Kerkman Rd as the route changed back to low traffic farm roads. The next turn at Salzwedal Rd took us on gravel. The deep gravel on the edges felt too soft for our heavy bike but the middle of the road felt ok. We only saw one car driver on this section. I was worried the whole time that a sharp rock would damage our tires. (We ended up taking NW Harrington on the way back to stay on the pavement)
Stopping in the town of Roy we took a snack break at a church. I spotted two power outlets behind a sign and pulled out my handy outlet tester. No power. Oh well. It was time to switch to our second e-bike battery as the first was depleted. This is where my range anxiety starts to rise because we are on an unfamiliar route with no knowledge of available public power. As we munched on our apples someone came out from around the church. We chatted about our bike and our route for a few minutes. Along came a slow freight train with a single engine pulling a few cars. The person from the church asked our kid, “You want to hear the train whistle?” as they waved at the conductor. CHOOO! “Here comes two more!” they said. CHOO! CHOO! The kid thought that was pretty cool.
[Check out a video of our trip below.]
Banks Vernonia Trail
As we entered Banks (gateway to the Banks-Vernonia State Trail) we stopped at Jim’s Market to purchase camping supplies and take another break. They still have a quarter operated mechanical horse out front! The kid laughed and laughed as we fed that horse quarter after quarter. She had never seen one of those before. I couldn’t help but to notice the power outlet that the horse was plugged into and of course took advantage of a quick charge while we shopped, even if we only gained a few miles of range. Stopping at the bathrooms at the Banks-Vernonia trailhead we were met with all sorts of folks asking many questions. “Where did you start?” “Where are you going?” When people see that much gear on a bike they have many questions.
The kid found a button on the train crossing bell over the trail. It’s more of a muffled clank than a ringing bell but the kid thought it was fun to watch it operate. Still having 11 miles to go we had to pedal. Jumping back on her bike for a few miles saved us some juice in the battery but it was four o’clock, which is check-in time at the campground. The last six miles to Stub Stewart are slightly uphill and we needed to make some time. The kid hopped back in the cargo bike to enjoy another snack as we headed towards the finish line.
Trying to pick up the pace on an uphill trail with tired legs is a recipe for high battery consumption. The last few miles seemed to take forever as I watched the estimated range drop quickly.
Setting Up Camp
Finally we could see the sign marking the entrance to the State Park! That’s when the climbing really started. (Gulp) The road leading to the welcome center was steep. I watched our range drop from 1 mile to zero as we rode up to the building. The office was closed with a sheet of paper posted on the wall confirming our reservation. Now we had to climb up to the campground loop. When the battery is critically low the bike computer will automatically reduce the level of assist to Eco mode, the lowest setting. That meant I would have to increase the level of muscle power to maximum for the last hill. I had to really pay attention because the assist will completely shut off at any moment in this “limp mode”.
We climbed up and crested the hill just as the bike shut off! (Whew!) We used every bit of the power that we gained in those short charging sessions earlier in the day. Coasting to the tent camping area I immediately noticed a power outlet on an outbuilding. (I’ve developed a keen eye for power outlets over the last couple of years.) After parking the bikes at the campsite we immediately took our first battery and charger over to the outlet. Our handy outlet tester showed good power. We plugged in the bike battery and my cell phone as we breathed another sigh of relief. I wasn’t sure if power would be available for people at the tent camping sites. Sure there was power at the RV sites but could we use it?
As we walked back to our site a tent camper said, “I like your setup!” pointing at our bikes. Later another tent camper expressed interest in our e-bike as they were looking for more transportation options for them and their kid. Next task: transport firewood! We unloaded the gear from the bikes and rode to the camp host’s site. I had to giggle as we watched a driver load one bundle of firewood into the bed of their pickup truck as we loaded three bundles into the box of our cargo bike. Back at the campsite we gazed at the pile of gear spread out on the picnic table. All that was on the bike? Wow! We set up the tent, made dinner, watched the stars, swapped the bike batteries on the charger after three hours and toasted s’mores on the campfire before going to sleep.
4:30 am comes fast and loud as the sound of big rig engine brakes woke me up. It seems truckers get an early start in timber country. I tried to go back to sleep but the sound was continuous. (Writes earplugs on bike camping list) I got up and got our campfire going. It was a cool morning but not cold. I opened my can of coffee and got caught up on news and social media. The kid woke up a few hours later and we made breakfast. After playing catch we loaded up and headed out. The first six miles is all downhill and the kid enjoyed every minute! No pedaling at all as we coasted through tall trees with the occasional Trillium blossom. We stopped at the trailhead in Banks and had to push the button to ring the bell a few more times. The kid jumped back in the bike and we made another stop at Jim’s Market to purchase a dinosaur stuffie that we saw the day before. Of course she also had to ride the mechanical horse again. Next we enjoyed Main Street Pizza for lunch spending a good share of our bike tourism dollars in Banks, Oregon.
Heading home definitely seemed faster and easier, possibly due to that first six miles of downhill and bypassing the gravel road. (Our Strava did show 600′ less elevation gain on the way home.) There were lots more conversations with people that were interested in our trip and our bike. Two people took detailed notes about my recommended bike shops in Portland that sell e-cargo bikes. (More sales sent your way!) Encountering one rain shower in Beaverton was no big deal since we have good rain gear, especially after stopping for a hot chocolate. We made it home on two batteries without having to charge.
This was an amazing experience and I look forward to doing it again with more people. Thanks for following us on our first (93 mile) e-bike camping trip! Please join us next time!
Shawne is a prolific urban rider who has put thousands of miles on his e-cargo bike, often with his young daughter in tow. He lives on Portland’s southern border with Tigard and is a member of the City of Tigard Transportation Advisory Committee. Follow his adventures on Twitter @RescueEwe