A Mountain Adventure

The Oregon Manifest in Portland was a great opportunity for another long ride in the mountains. The Bicycle Quarterly team took the train to Portland, rode in the Oregon Manifest, and then rode back to Seattle the next day.

We left Portland just before 7 a.m. on Sunday to head back to Seattle via the unpaved mountain roads of Panther Creek and Babyshoe Pass. We thought we’d arrive just after midnight. (The popular Seattle-to-Portland ‘STP’ ride takes a more direct route through the densely populated Puget Lowland that is less scenic and sees much more traffic.)

Instead, we turned eastward and rode up the Columbia River. The Old Columbia River Highway is one of my favorite roads.

The road was built a century ago to access the beauty of the Columbia Gorge and the many famous waterfalls. The road has a beautiful rhythm. According to locating engineer John Arthur Elliott,

The ideals sought were not the usual economic features and considerations given the location of a trunk highway. Grades, curvature, distance and even expense were sacrificed to reach some scenic vista or to develop a particularly interesting point. All the natural beauty spots were fixed as control points and the location adjusted to include them.

Today, the “economic considerations” prevail, and most travelers take the Interstate. On this Sunday morning, we had the road almost to ourselves.

At Multnomah Falls, we had a copious brunch at the historic lodge. We knew this would be our last “civilized” meal before we headed into the backcountry, where diners, gas stations and convenience stores often are the only food choices.

We had skirted the rain until we crossed the Columbia River at the Bridge of the Gods and headed into the Cascades. Before we even started climbing, the skies opened, and steady rain fell. Even in the rain, Panther Creek Road is a lovely backroad that climbs the slopes toward Mount St. Helens.

The Cascades are big! We had ridden for over an hour from Carson when we reached the end of the paved road. The next town, Trout Lake, was 30 miles away. The gravel road over the mountains was smooth, but the rain started coming down harder, and as we gained elevation, the temperature dropped precipitously. We added layers of clothes, and Hahn wished for a better rain jacket.

Approaching Trout Lake, we reached pavement again, and not just any pavement! The road resembled a rollercoaster, and we enjoyed the descent at speed.

In Trout Lake, we stopped for a long time at the diner. Hahn had told me for hours about the huckleberry milkshakes that supposedly were a specialty there, but now we ordered hot tea instead. As a vegetarian, my only food choice was huckleberry pie, and I ate two slices.

The rain had stopped when we finally left the cozy warmth of the diner, and we enjoyed the long climb out of town. However, after an hour of climbing, I realized that we were on the wrong road! Instead of heading to Babyshoe Pass, we were climbing straight up the slopes of Mount Adams. I had wondered why the road was steeper than I remembered it!

The return to Trout Lake took only 10 minutes, and we found the Y-junction that I never had noticed when I was riding the other way. As a result of our scenic detour, we arrived at Babyshoe Pass at 7 p.m. On the uphill, the gravel road’s washboard surface had been extreme, much worse than I remembered it. The low-hanging clouds parted only briefly to reveal the snow-covered flanks of Mount Adams across the valley. At least we only had steady rain, and no snow. The light was fading rapidly as we embarked on the 10-mile gravel descent.

A washboard gravel descent in the dark and in the rain could be a nightmare, but with the right equipment, it actually was a lot of fun. We had reduced the air pressure in our Grand Bois Hetre tires to about 25 psi. We adjusted our Schmidt Edelux lights to provide a long beam for the speedy descent. The beam was wide enough to illuminate the entire width of the road, and so low that the washboard showed up as shadows, helping us to pick a line on the smoothest part of the gravel surface. Our wide tires provided remarkable grip on the loose gravel. While we had to brake for the turns, there was little risk of overheating our (water-cooled) rims. Only once or twice did I misjudge my line and found myself on the rough washboard, with my bike shaking violently until I got back onto smoother surfaces.

After half an hour, we reached pavement again. I asked Hahn: “This was either awful or a lot of fun – which of the two?” He replied that it was fun. Indeed, I had not had this much fun on a bike in a long time. From here, it was another 35 miles to Randle. We had the road to ourselves, except for the occasional small frogs that were hopping out of our way when the beams of our headlights hit them.

We decided to spent the night in Carson. The first hotel was full, the bed-and-breakfast was closed, but we finally found accommodation in a motel. Our only food option was the convenience store at the gas station, but we didn’t care. After a quick shower, we both were fast asleep in minutes.

Instead of being back in the office Monday morning, the day started with breakfast at the motel in Randle. On the way out of town, we had no option but take Highway 12. In the rain, the spray from passing trucks was unpleasant even if we rode on the very edge of the shoulder, so it was with relief when we turned off the highway in Glenoma. I had scouted a route that would lead us straight into Morton.

A lovely road it was, but to my surprise, “Bridgeover Road” turned out to be a logging road that clearly had not been used in years. At first, it was smooth gravel (see photo at the top of this post), but soon it turned into two tracks with grass growing in the middle. No problem for us, but if you are on a “road” bike, you may prefer to use Kosmos Road and then jump back on Hwy 12 before taking Davis Lake Road. The latter road is a lovely backroad that leads straight into the center of Morton, bypassing the gas station/supermarket sprawl that separates the town from the highway.

From Morton, we took familiar roads back to Seattle. (There are no photos from this section, because I had shot all my film, and Hahn’s digital camera had stopped working in the rain.) The rain had stopped, and we were making good progress, with only one more stop at the bakery in Eatonville.

Pushed by a strong tailwind, and after a few more off-pavement excursions due to construction sites, we arrived just after dinnertime. It was a memorable adventure and a hard test for our almost-new randonneur bikes. The bikes passed the test with flying colors: Nothing fell off or even needed adjustment, except for Hahn’s SRAM rear derailleur. (My Nivex has friction shifting, so there is nothing to go out of adjustment.) However, Hahn’s chain was squeaking at the end of the 24-hour, 450 km ride in the rain. He needs a mudflap on his front fender!

Most of all, despite the challenging weather, having the right equipment made all the difference between a miserable experience and an enjoyable ride.

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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18 Responses to A Mountain Adventure

  1. Alistair says:

    Jan, I really enjoyed this write up. Thanks.

  2. mimi says:

    Great ride report! Thanks for sharing your adventures and your enthusiasm.

  3. Hal says:

    Excellent report, you make me want to try it despite being 1000 miles away.

  4. Awesome report. I rode over these same roads in a much more leisurely, loaded fashion, taking a few days rather than hours. The scenery is amazing and Babyshoe Pass was the only place I had to walk my loaded camper with 38mm tires.

  5. Rob Harrison says:

    An inspiring story Jan–thanks!

  6. Chris Lowe says:

    I would really love to see you publish a book of your rides in the PNW. You seem to pick some excellent routes.

  7. Chris Lowe says:

    What was the route from Trout Lake over Babyshoe and into Randle? Looking on the map there seems to be a lot of small roads going through there.

  8. Austex says:

    “…test for our almost-new randonneur bikes…”
    More about the bikes, please.

    Tom

  9. Brad says:

    You know it’s a good ride when you finish a day late. Nice work!

  10. Scott says:

    Fantastic write-up. I rode down to Portland from Seattle for the Manifest on a very similar route. I ended up taking Forestry Route 25 as I was travelling alone and didn’t have a decent map. I’d love to do it on these back roads; looks amazing.

    • Forest Road 25 is great, too. I came back that way from the Manifest two years ago. Was the store in Northwoods open for resupply? Two years ago, I had counted on getting water there, but it was closed for the winter…

      • Scott says:

        No, that was closed so I filled up from a tap. As I was about to leave, the manager emerged from the woods with a fishing pole and wading pants. He was just about to head out for his morning fish.

  11. While good equipment certainly increases your chances of success and fun, a good attitude about the conditions carries the day!

    • You are right, a good attitude is all-important. However, it’s easier to have a good attitude when your feet are only slightly wet because your aluminum front fender reaches down far enough and its profile and attachment methods keep the water inside, rather than having a constant drip and spray onto your feet with a too-short plastic fender.

      • Ryan says:

        Good equipment always makes a difference!

        Great ride report, it makes me want to take a trip out there sometime and do that route.

  12. Ian says:

    Great write-up Jan, it’s getting me excited for riding dirt and gravel roads through a rainy Bay Area winter.

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