“We should go check out the Corvallis waterfront,” I said to my office deskmate, Ben, as I scrolled through images of different urban waterfront projects on my computer. I was doing some research for a project and realized that I hadn’t been to downtown Corvallis in several years. It was time to revisit.
“Ok,” he said. “Should we ride our bikes?”
I looked over at him and grinned.
One week later, we left work and rode our fully-loaded bikes two blocks to Union Station to catch the 6:15 PM Amtrak Cascades train to Albany ($23, plus $5 bicycle ticket).
We mapped out a route that generally followed the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway and planned to visit towns and sites that sounded interesting to two urban planning
nerds professionals. Part work, part play, we would ride about 125 miles over two days through one of the most beautiful and productive agricultural valleys in the Pacific Northwest. Over the course of 48 hours, we rode along sparsely traveled country roads, through small towns, into the heart of our state’s capitol, along heavily trafficed suburban strips, and back to downtown Portland. We crossed the Willamette River six times, swimming/wading in it once.
Hello, from in the Willamette River!
We used heavy rail, light rail, intercity bus, and our own legs to take us on this journey. (We wanted to take a ferry or two but they were all out of service.) We couch surfed in Albany and camped at Willamette Mission State Park ($5/person), which – within the last two years – has developed several hiker/biker camps. We frequented local restaurants (Hasty Freez, The Broken Yolk Cafe, Ovenbird Bakery, The Bankers Cup), except in Wilsonville, where that seemed impossible (Taco del Mar).
85 degrees and sunny, we made special note of splash pads and shade.
sucking up the shade at Bush's Pasture Park, Downtown Salem
We carried our own gear, each self-sufficient with our own tent, sleeping bag, mat, cook set, fuel, and food. I managed to stuff everything into a pair of Arkel XM-28 panniers (850 cu in each), with a little spare room for additional supplies.
fresh berries and craft beer, two of the many perks of cycling in the Willamette Valley in the summer
Including side trips, we rode 75 miles the first day; 50 miles the second day. The valley is essentially flat, with short climbs up minor river bluffs and occasional rolling hills. In theory, it’s all downhill (Corvallis, elevation 235 feet; Portland, elevation 40 feet). Good weather typically blows from the NNW so we had a 8 – 10 mile an hour headwind / crosswind most of the trip. This route is easier ridden from north to south, but riding north worked better with the train schedule. If you have an opportunity, do this route. It was the first designated Scenic Bikeway in Oregon, is an easy and accessible way to try out bikepacking (loaded touring), and supports the regional economy in a sustainable way. It’s also hella fun.
cruising along River Road near Salem
We handed our unloaded bikes to the Amtrak luggage handlers to hang in the baggage car and climbed aboard southbound train #507 to settle in for the 1:45 trip to Albany. Once we got rolling, we headed to the bistro car and lounge for dinner and an after-work libation.
Everyone winds down after a hard day of work in a different way
The miles rolled by quickly and we soon found ourselves walking towards our bikes at the beautifully restored historic train station in Albany, where the handlers had unloaded the bikes and leaned them on the platform railing. We reloaded the bikes and pedaled off to a friend-of-a-friend’s house a few blocks away. We took our host to ice cream at the Hasty Freez and chatted into the night around her backyard campfire, burning down sea logs and drinking the earthy Willamette Valley pinot noir we brought as a thank you.
We were up early the next morning, pedaling through the cool morning to Corvallis ten miles south, the thought of breakfast in our heads.
early morning fog and moon near Corvallis
morning shadows at speed
It was early enough to qualify for the Early Bird Special at The Broken Yolk in downtown Corvallis, and we got a special side of smack talk from our waitress as an added bonus. After tucking into a plate of eggs and potatoes shiny with grease, we lumbered off on our bikes to check out First Street along the Willamette River.
(*start* Boring planner alert! *start*) Corvallis arguably has one of the most successful small town downtowns in the Pacific Northwest, firmly anchored by the Willamette River and a historic core, and fueled by Oregon State University and tech companies. First Street and the Riverfront Memorial Park are a fine examples of how to turn a back-of-house location into an active and lively gathering place for the community – successfully mixing public spaces and private investments. (*end* Boring planner alert! *end*)
Downtown Corvallis was awesome and we wished we could linger, but there were other urban planning wonders calling us from up the valley. Like, the EE Wilson Game Management Area!
The EE Wilson Game Management Area (EE Wilson Wildlife Area) was once a World War II military training facility and German and Italian POW camp, called Camp Adair. It was only in operation between 1942 and 1946 and was allowed to revert back to its somewhat-natural state of braided marsh, meadows, and woods after the government was done with it. It’s operated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and has a couple of public education stations, including a barrio of wild birds and a kiosk on what not to do to native turtles.
Camp Adair, nee EE Wilson Game Management Area
Don't mess with the basking habitat.
observing pheasants at the EE Wilson Game Management Area
After a brief stop to do some pheasant observation in the game management area, we wended our way east and north on bucolic country roads, following signs that said “Big Black Cherries” to the small waterfront park / boat launch / cherry farm in downtown Buena Vista (considered a ghost town by some guide book authors).
one of the small hills we conquered
We lounged in comfortable chairs outside the Ovenbird Bakery for over an hour on Main Street in Downtown Independence ($4 sandwich, $2 wedge of lemon cream pie, $2 espresso). The town was setting up the second phase of their enormous 4th of July celebration in the large waterfront park, the air already thick with the smell of fried stuff on a stick.
chillin' on Main Street, Independence
Downtown Independence street life
We backtracked to cross the Willamette on a narrow bridge, stopping mid span to enjoy the view and watch a juvenile eagle try and catch a fish. We also saw – from our perch 50 feet in the air – a giant salmon trolling the shoreline. Prehistoric size.
It's the Willamette, dammit.
Steady on the narrow bridge sidewalk
The miles flew along beautiful River Road as we approached Salem, the state capitol. The traffic got a little hairball during the last mile, so we pulled off at the first opportunity and consulted the map to see if we could find a mellower way through town. Noticing a big patch of green a few blocks away, we wandered over to check out Bush’s Pasture Park and ended up lounging in the shade of the 100 year old Willamette white oaks.
resting in Bush's Pasture
We cycled away from the calm serenity of the park and into the crush of Friday afternoon traffic in downtown Salem. We made our way to Front Street and then circled back to check out the Union Street bridge, an historic railroad bridge that the city converted into a bicycle and pedestrian bridge in 2009. It provides a critical link between two popular riverfront parks and is a glorious piece of engineering. It was also really popular. Ben loved it, despite the face.
Union Bridge, Salem
We continued north along Front Street, eventually tracking into riverside residential neighborhoods in Keizer. Just as the landscape started to transition from suburbia to farmland, we pulled over at a roadside farm stand and bought some raspberries.
“Is there a convenience store around here?” we asked the young woman at the stand.
“Um, yes!” she said. “It’s just around the corner. Go down that road and then turn left. You can’t miss it.”
“Thanks!” we said, and then proceeded to go “just around the corner” 2 miles to a grocery store to stock up on some beer for the evening. The Albertsons on River Road and Lakefair has a very nice selection of 22 oz bottles of craft beer and is the last place to get groceries before the park.
riding up this hill was harder with the beer
We got to the entrance of Willamette Mission State Park and looked for signs that indicated where the campground was located.
“There’s camping here, right?” I asked Ben, who had been in charge of confirming such details.
“Uh, yeah. I think so,” he said. “I couldn’t really get the map to download so I never actually saw the campground.”
"There's camping here, right?"
We rolled into a secluded bicycle camping area, outfitted with picnic tables, a water spigot, and fire pits. We arrived hot, sweaty, and feeling great but pooped after 75 miles of riding.
our own little slice of heaven
First thing’s first: eat the raspberries and drink a beer.
a poor ratio
Then swim. Or wade.
wading out for a swim in the Willamette
so cool, so slimy
Then go for an educational after-dinner bike ride. (Willamette Mission ghost structure, largest Black Cottonwood in the world, cougar information.)
ghost structure of the Willamette Mission
Wonder where all the people are.
Hello? Anyone home?
I wish I could tell you that I had a deep and restful sleep at the Willamette Mission State Park. Alas, it was not so. In true state park fashion, I was kept awake until 3AM by a loud band of yahoos camped over in the group tent area. Par for the course with public campgrounds. I was again reminded why I prefer wilderness backpacking. Or motels.
all packed up and ready to go
My camera battery died the next morning, which is why I only have a photo of us on public transit from this point forward.
waiting for MAX in Beaverton
hanging out on MAX
But you can imagine the lush hop farms and wheat fields of the French Prairie, the bluffs of the Willamette River near Champoeg Park, the throngs of recreational cyclists out on a beautiful Saturday morning in the country, and the quaintness of St. Paul the weekend after the big 4th of July Rodeo, the town looking a little worn and hungover – in a good way.
You can probably also imagine the abrupt transition that is the Urban Growth Boundary – an invisible line dividing urban and rural, the harrowing ride on the shoulder of I-5 to cross the Willamette once more, the lovely and strange place that is “Downtown” Wilsonville, the lovelier and stranger place that is Villebois, and the randomly dropped bike lane between suburban cities.
I wish I could tell you that we rode every mile back to Portland. But, alas, there is a nexus between 87 degrees and suburban traffic, and that is the Tualatin Park-n-Ride. For $2.40, you can take your bike on a bus eight air-conditioned miles to the Beaverton Transit Center, hop on a light rail train for a few miles to the top of the West Hills, and ride down familiar city streets to the nearest splash pad that is not completely overwhelmed with people under three feet tall (Holliday Park, free). From there, it’s an easy ten minute ride home.
This trip was the perfect blend of work and play. We got some continuing education about some of the projects and communities in our region, and had a ton of summery Oregon fun in the process. We also got a good workout and enhanced our tan lines. Hands down, it was the best workcation I’ve ever taken.
Or, as Ben would say, “That was the best vacation I’ve taken in July, 2012.”
It is, isn't it?