Biking Oregon: It's Not Just Coasting

Oregon's coastline is bicycle friendy, with marked and well-tended bike lanes that are usually at least three feet wide.
Most people travel by car down the spectacular coast of Oregon, gobbling up the 370 miles or so in a couple days, depending on how much time they want to devote to roadside ooohs and aaahs, and whether they stop in Tillamook for cheese.

But for those who choose to strap a week's worth of underwear and a bag full of Gatorade, Power Bars and Bengay across the hind end of a road bike and pedal for hours and hours, 60 miles a day delivers memories that the 60 mph crowd never experiences.

Like sudden Pacific wind gusts that can blow you over, lumber-hauling trucks that can run you down and narrow mountain tunnels where cars are supposed to slow to 30 mph and allow bikers some road clearance but quite often don't. Like running over orange, plastic highway pylons because you're distracted by coastal scenery.

And, as my older son Andy and I discovered when we biked the physically taxing U.S. Highway 101, there's no shortage of people along the way who cheerfully question your sanity. One kindly waitress near Depoe Bay offered to pick us up down the road after we'd finally come to our senses. All we had to do was call. (We never did.)

No Better Bike Trip

Some will certainly argue the point, but there may be no better bike trip in America than the southbound leg of Oregon's U.S. 101. On the right is a largely uninterrupted view of Pacific Ocean splendor and easy access to unspoiled beaches, lighthouses, shimmering white sand dunes, huge rocks that seem to be belched from the sea and, if you're lucky, gray whales the size of buses.

On the left are towering, dense mountains, covered by evergreen forests. Both sides of the road offer stunning wildflowers. From beginning to end, the route is 16,000 feet of up and down, up and down, with stretches of welcome moderate terrain in between.

Provided you're in good shape--and that's an important condition that cannot be overlooked--the road from the mouth of the Columbia River at Astoria to the beginnings of the redwood forests at Brookings is a pathway to exhilaration, exhaustion and, because food is fuel, six days of unqualified, guiltless eating. There is even relief for the caffeine-addicted--espresso shacks, some no larger than a two-seat outhouse, dot the route.

The entire coastline is accessible to the public and, in contrast to movie star housing excess and restricted-beach access on the California coast, the Oregon coast--which locals refer to as "The Edge"--has an almost Lake Wobegon quality to it.

While Oregon is the land of Pendleton shirts and Nike shoes, the clock on the unpretentious coast is turned back a few years. Cool temperatures--highs generally in the upper 60s to low, low 70s in the peak of summer--effectively regulate traffic and limit swimming to those equipped with rubber suits.

When explorers started poking around the Oregon coast nearly 500 years ago, they were driven by commercial interests--fur trading, lumber, salmon and the pursuit of the Northwest Passage, the storied sea route connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. While centuries of natural resource exploitation have left their mark on the state, the rugged coastal beauty has changed little since Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo's fleet sailed into southern Oregon waters in 1542.

The Oregon coast was attacked by the Japanese during World War II, at Astoria, Brookings and a small village of Port Orford, just up the coast from Brookings. Since the Alaskan earthquake of 1964, the big coastal concern is tsunamis, and highway signs mark the escape routes.

Bike-friendly Roads

Today Oregon tries hard to live by the gas-saving and cardiac-protecting credo of bicycle promotion. After the oil shock of the 1970s, the state legislature earmarked one percent of the state's highway budget for bike lanes and other programs intended to advance bicycle use. The fruits of that commitment line the entire coastline, with marked and well-tended bike lanes that are usually at least three feet wide and often more. Along the 370 miles Andy and I spotted maybe a half-dozen dangerous potholes.

That's not to say that drivers and bikers coexist blissfully, even with marked lanes. Moon Handbook's Coastal Oregon, a must-carry item for anyone traveling the coast, notes that "bicyclists have the right of way, which means that cars and trucks are not supposed to run you off the road...but remember that there are also motorists whose concepts of etiquette vis-a-vis bikers were formulated elsewhere."

We found several from the group, including a deputy sheriff in Depoe County and a pickup truck driver in Bandon, with whom we foolishly exchanged obscene gestures. "This is my road! I don't see lane," he declared angrily before moving on.

My son and I are not hardened, Spandex-clad bikers. We were looking for an adventure. As it was our first visit to Oregon, Andy and I asked lots of folks what we could expect from the terrain. Unfortunately we talked only to people who had driven the coast, not biked it. They told us it was a pleasant downhill ride, a pedaling piece of cake, a journey that would allow us ample time to enjoy the lush, green seaside golf courses and tip a few at the local microbreweries before hopping back on our bikes.

We overlooked the left-hand column of the bicycle map, displaying cardiac-arrest-type markings measuring topographical changes. The five to six hours of daily biking we anticipated turned into seven and eight hours because of mountain climbs.

It's best to make lodging reservations ahead of time, once you figure out how far you can reasonably travel in a day. We did between 50 miles and 75 miles a day and were ready for ice packs for the knees and a big meal at the end of the day, when we checked into our motel.

Campgrounds are a plentiful and less expensive option, but why lug all that extra stuff around? No doubt there is a special place in heaven reserved for those who sleep under the stars, and it's probably a campground with pit toilets and people in the next site singing John Denver songs. But there is no shame in pulling into a motel, where prices start around $45 a night.

A caveat about bridges: The crosswinds can be fierce, especially the Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport. When signs advise you to walk your bike across, walk your bike across.

In six days of riding, there will be some time--but not a lot--for touristy stuff, like the cheese factory in Tillamook. But you can do that on a driving trip. This was a wonderful father-and-son adventure. If you can find a better one, take it.

But you probably can't.

If you go

Bring this informative bike map, which details distances, terrain and alternate routes. Also Coastal Oregon by Elizabeth and Mark Morris (Avalon Travel, $16.95) was indispensable.

It's best to make hotel reservations. Google the towns for motel listings, depending on how far you think you can travel daily. An exceptional stop was Sunset Lodging, in Bandon, with rooms overlooking the Pacific. Prices range from $52 to $110.

Fly to Portland and either bike to Astoria (90 miles) or take a bus ($17).

Carefully plan the transportation of your bike. Airline shipment is iffy, and there are no guarantees of what shape the bike will be in upon arrival. For about $45 per bike, our bike shop sent ours UPS to a bike shop in Astoria, where mechanics made the necessary fixes. Shipping to Chicago from the bike shop in Brookings, the end of our trip, was not a good experience. It took way too long, and the cost was roughly $155 a bike. Consider the shop in Crescent City, Calif., 30 miles south.

Fog can be a problem, especially in the early morning. Don't bike at night. That's the time to relax.

Author Tim Jones can be contacted via e-mail at .

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