Seattle to Portland through the Backdoor

Recently, I had to return a Bicycle Quarterly test bike to MAP Cycles in Portland. I really don’t like boxing up bikes, and very much prefer to ride them. Boxing a bike takes half a day, riding to Portland about a day, so it was an easy choice to ride to Portland.

Seattle to Portland (STP) is a popular ride that draws thousands of riders every year. The 320 km (200 miles) ride goes through the densely populated Puget Lowland. It’s flat, but not what I would call scenic. I love riding in the mountains, away from traffic and civilization. So I designed an alternate course to the STP route, which minimizes the time spent on busy roads. (Click here for a course map.)

I left Seattle after dinner, and rode on empty roads through the city and the industrial areas of Renton. Then I continued on empty winding roads to Orting and Eatonville. I skirted Mount Rainier and stopped for a resupply in Morton just past midnight. In Randle, I turned toward Mount Adams on Cispus Road. With a new moon and cloudy skies, the landscape outside the beam of the MAP’s Edelux headlight was so dark that I rode through the hamlet of Cispus without noticing it. The gravel road up Babyshoe Pass was rougher than I remembered, but the MAP’s Grand Bois Hetre 650B x 42 mm tires coped very well after I had reduced the tire pressure. Daybreak saw me approaching Babyshoe Pass. I had not seen a car in at least 4 hours.

A huge grader was parked on the pass, so hopefully the road will be better next time I ride it.

The sun rose, and by 8:20, when I rolled into Trout Lake, it was the beginning of a beautiful day. I arrived in perfect time for breakfast at the general store.

From here, the back road to Carson winds through the forest, with occasional views of Mount Adams in the meadows.

There was almost no traffic. Soon, a sign appeared that delights riders of Allroad bicycles:

Unlike the gravel on Babyshoe Pass, Carson-Guler Road road was smooth. After the rain of the previous days, the gravel was soft, so once again, I let out some air from my tires to increase floatation. After a few hours, I was back on pavement, with a magic, twisty descent toward Carson. The MAP handled beautifully and the wide tires (re-inflated to their normal 40 psi) hugged the undulating pavement. Sunlight filtered through the trees, dappling the pavement with a beautiful pattern of light and shade. I could have continued to ride like this for hours…

After an early lunch in Carson, I crossed the Columbia River on the Bridge of the Gods. I huge wind was blowing down the gorge, but fortunately, the MAP’s geometry was not overly affected by the crosswind.

The name “Bridge of the Gods” stems from a Native American legend of an ancient stone bridge that crossed the river here. One day, during a quarrel between two gods over a beautiful maiden, the earth shook, and the bridge collapsed. Its stones fell into the water, where they formed the rapids of The Dalles. More recently, geologists have found evidence of a giant landslide that dammed the river, forming the “bridge.” Eventually, the mighty Columbia River breached the dam, and the bridge was destroyed.

On the south shore of the great river, a series of trails leads along Interstate 84. Going west, I had to travel about two miles on the shoulder of the freeway, the rest was on trails and then the beautiful Historic Columbia River Highway. This road winds its way through the forest, past the famous waterfalls, crossing bridges with art nouveau railings that are covered with moss: The road was built in the 1920s, and today sees little traffic as most drivers use the Interstate highway that now parallels it. The old road then climbs in a wonderful series of switchbacks to a series of scenic overlooks.

To think that most travelers to Portland drive on the freeway and never get to see these views… The old highway ends in the suburbs of Portland, but fortunately, Marine Drive along the river has a wonderful bike trail that got me close to the center of town. I arrived at Mitch Pryor’s MAP Bicycles in the afternoon, after 21 hours on the road. I had a little less than two hours to freshen up, buy dinner and walk to the train station for the ride home.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable ride. If you think of riding from Seattle to Portland, I recommend taking an “inland” route away from traffic. If your bike is ill-equipped to handle gravel roads, you can go from Randle up Forest Road 25 to Elk Summit, and then continue to Randle via Northwoods.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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35 Responses to Seattle to Portland through the Backdoor

  1. Jim Nachlin says:

    Congratulations on your new blog! That is quite a ride. Why did you leave after dinner? Is the strategy to get through the night, when you are less sleep-deprived, early on, and then to finish the ride (the hardest part, I’d imagine) during daylight hours?

    • I allotted 24 hours for the ride. By starting at night, I arrived back in Seattle the next evening, and was ready for work the next morning. Plus, the second half of the ride was on unfamiliar roads, which I wanted to enjoy in daylight. And there is less traffic leaving Seattle at night.

  2. Dan Plaster says:

    Aka, you liked the MAP so much you’d rather ride it that ship it eh?

  3. Franklyn Wu says:

    Jan,

    thanks for sharing this ride report on your newly minted blog. I did the 1-day STP in 2007 with my wife, and though we enjoyed the experience we both remarked the monotony of the suburban express ways, especially the last 10’s of miles on HWY 30 running into Portland. I’d love get up to Seattle and try your route one day. Both of us have Ebisu’s, though she will need to get up to a GB Cypres for the gravel section. How many miles is your route–I didn’t catch the distance in your blog entry?

  4. Nice beginning, Jan — please keep it up. We can see color photos here — to bad you can’t use them in the magazine. Patrick Moore

  5. Kathryn Hall says:

    Superbe! I really love this blog. Thank you!

  6. Bob Clark says:

    What a beautiful ride it must have been. This blog is a great supplement to the magazine. Excellent idea.

  7. Leaf Slayer says:

    Great ride report. I recently visited Babyshoe Pass on a 3 day bike camping trip with a friend into GPNP. I highly encourage anyone considering exploring GPNF by bike to do it. The FS roads there, paved and unpaved, are fanatastic. Photos from my trip can be found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/41335973@N00/collections/72157624841057329/

    Keep the ride reports coming.

  8. Chris Lowe says:

    Thanks Jan! I’ve lived in Seattle for 7 years now and long wanted to ride to Portland but knew the STP route was a bit less than scenic and the coastal route tends to have more cars than I care to deal with. This route sounds perfect though I’d probably split it into a more leisurely two day trip.

  9. John Caletti says:

    WooHoo!! Man, what a long ride! Way to “think outside the BOX!!” Amazing and cool that you’d head out for a 21hour ride, at night, to avoid packing a bike!

  10. Jeff Potter says:

    Cool new blog! Yes, now we can see your COLOR! : ) Connectivity and interaction, ahoy! –JP

  11. Excellent! This will be a great way to get my BQ fix in between the quarterly issues. :) Thank you!

  12. Jeff Potter says:

    PS: “Off the Beaten Path” and Seattle’s “Backdoor” are both great names and they have a simpatico ring to them with my OYB project! : )

  13. George S says:

    Inspiring ride report and a great idea to create a blog. I look forward to following your West Coast adventures and connecting with all of the other readers/riders whose comments will undoubtedly inspire as well. Cheers

  14. ghdurham says:

    Great new blog, Jan. Will look forward to your posts. It looks like a beautiful ride — may have to try it this next spring/summer.

  15. Jan,

    You’re welcome to ride my bike back to NYC if you want :-)

    I’d feel safer with you riding it cross country than if it was shipped via UPS.

  16. Jan,
    Sounds like a superb route. I’ve ridden many, but not all of those roads and stringing them together like this is a must for me. Soon!
    Keep up the good work.

  17. AllanInPortland says:

    “The old road then climbs in a wonderful series of switchbacks to a series of scenic overlooks.”

    Ha! Now, that’s an understatement. Though, having never “skirted” Mt Rainier, I can’t say how large an understatement it is. ;-)

    What I can say is a few years ago my wife and I rode our tandem from Hood River to Portland with a 35lb 2 y.o. in a baby seat on the rear rack. The ride went swimmingly until we passed Lautrell(?) Falls. As I remember it, after the falls it was an agonizing series of switchback with us actually stopping and walking for a switch or two. If I ever had to do it again pulling that kind of extra baggage I would deal with I84 from Lautrell Falls until crossing the Sandy River and pick-up Marine Drive at the first Troutdale exit.

    Anyway, great post. Loved the color photos.
    -Allan

  18. AllanInPortland says:

    John F, is the MAP yours, or are you speaking generally? I was just thinking, sheesh note to self: never to buy demo bike Jan’s had the pleasure of riding. :-)

    Seriously though, if it is congratulations!

  19. The MAP sounds like the perfect bike, ridden on beautiful roads. You’ve inspired me to get up and go on a (much much shorter) ride right now.

    Thanks for starting the blog, and I look forward to reading it regularly. I would like to see bigger pictures in the posts, though. I think the MAP next to the road grader is fantastic.

  20. Steve Palincsar says:

    If someone were inclined to follow your route, only wished to split it into two or more days of riding, are there any obvious places to stay overnight (other than next to your bike on a gravel road wrapped in a space blanket)?

    • Trout Lake is a good place. It looked like there was a campground and cabins for rent. If you take the paved route via Elk Summit, Northwoods is much smaller, but may also offer accommodations. Or you could go the other side of Mount Rainier via Cayuse Pass and stop over in Packwood and Carson. Many options!

  21. Bruce Hodson says:

    I am insanely jealous that the PNW has access to endless forest roads that are so devoid of motor vehicles. While we have some in the midwest ours do not afford the vistas available along the Columbia.

    Nice ride too.

    • Jeff Potter says:

      Bruce: “I am insanely jealous that the PNW has access to endless forest roads that are so devoid of motor vehicles. While we have some in the midwest ours do not afford the vistas available along the Columbia.”

      Hey, in up north Michigan (part of the midwest, I think) we have thousands of two-tracks and just as many unimproved roads (signed “Seasonal Road, Not Plowed” — my favorite road sign). More than we have paved roads, probably. I love both kinds! They sometimes go places, and offer nice, if smaller-scale, views…even of rivers! : )

  22. Rick Smith says:

    Jan,

    Are the fenders on the MAP the same ones you offer?

    Rick

  23. Very sweet post. Great to have more frequent doses of your real world testing!

    Good route for road testing my new lowrider front panniers. I guess I hadn’t been paying attention though: 40 lbs only only the Hetres? I’ll try lowering my pressure further and give it a try.

    And, welcome to the full color world, though I actually enjoy the B&W photos in BQ. I like both!

  24. Todd says:

    This post reminds me that all of my best rides have a destination other than where I start, either starting from home or ending at it, but not both. I need to work the train into more rides… It also reminds me how much I disliked randonneuring for the sleep deprivation part! This will make a lovely 2-day ride for me with a camping load on my Brompton, perhaps next summer.

  25. audaxing says:

    The ride looks loverly. I’m sure I would use the excuse of not having to box the bike to go riding along there.

  26. doug in seattle. says:

    I did a similar ride this past summer, starting in Portland. However, I spent a week doing it since I was on vacation and only rode 40-60 miles a day. Thus I had oodles of camping gear my merely 37mm tires certainly caused a few problems in the thicker gravel, but it was very doable! These roads are beautiful and fun to ride! My favorite riding, to be sure!

  27. Eric Shalit says:

    Hi Jan:
    Did you sleep before heading out on your night ride?

    I love the latest issue of Bicycle Quarterly.

    Eric
    in West Seattle

  28. beth h says:

    Great ride report, and beautiful shots of the Gorge. (Is that last shot taken from Women’s Forum? One of my favorite viewpoints from the seat of a bicycle.)
    More ride reports, please.

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