Tuesday and Wednesday, typically my “weekend”. I had been looking at April 29 and 30 for some time. After the failed attempt at bike camping at Stub Stewart a few weeks prior, I knew I wanted to attempt something out that way soon. And I realized that with my busy schedule, lack of days off in the near future, and my upcoming vacation out to the Middled West in Middled May for the Lake Pepin Three Speed Tour, I knew that April 29-30 may be my only bike camping chance for some time. And the weather would be agreeable: sunny and quite warm. What better time to go bike camping? Oh sure, I always have “Something I Should Be Doing”. But it’ll rain again soon, so that’s when I could be “Doing” that “Something.”
So on the morn of Tuesday April 29 I departed home and hit the MAX for Hillsboro. I arrived there around 1 pm, yep, later than I wanted. And the sun was beating down. While it was only in the 70’s, I wasn’t exactly used to this type of warmth yet. (It would get to 77F/25C.) I found some mediocre fast food and hit the open road.
The routing idea was to follow the Tualatin Valley Scenic Bikeway (TVSB) from its start at Rood Bridge Park in Hillsboro and meander through farmland to the Banks-Vernonia Trail and either camp at Stub Stewart State Park, 40 miles in, or in the town of Vernonia, 50 miles in. With the late start, I was prepared to camp at Stub.
The first ten miles of the route was pleasant in that farmland bucolia way, rolling landscape, low traffic, a vineyard or farm here and there, views of Chehalem Ridge or the Coast Range. Nice. Then it started to suck as I closed in on Forest Grove. The “scenic” became less so, road conditions dropped, and the traffic picked up. I got buzzed by a truck. Not so pleasant. The heat of the day was wearing on me.
And the worst thing: I realized that I was having discomfort. I just got the new Brooks B-17 so I was still braking, er, breaking it in. And the saddle position/height just didn’t feel right, so I started feeling pain in all my “contact points”, especially my hands. No matter where I rest my hands on the mustache bars, they would ache after a few minutes. Now I can’t totally blame the bars, as I’ve ridden long distances with them before. But being pressed for time, and issues with the seatpost (more about that on another post) prevented me from doing anything immediate about it. I just suffered through the pain.
I took a quick break in Forest Grove, then rode the much quieter farm roads north to Banks, taking a shortcut from the main TVSB route since now I was more concerned about time. I got into Banks, the “last chance” town before the Banks-Vernonia Trail a little after 4 pm. I stopped at the Thriftway, the traditional grocery stop, and made a decision: since I was doing good in the time department after all, and sunset was around 8 pm, I’d ride the 20-ish miles into Vernonia after all. It would give me a “jump” on the next day as I wanted to ride the Crown Zellerbach trail to Scappoose and then head home. Going all the way to Vernonia would give me less impetus for “wussing out” and simply returning home from Stub Stewart.
The rest of the ride wasn’t as good as I hoped. The heat made me feel like I was going to wilt or puke (or both) at times. My discomfort didn’t help. And while the Banks-Vernonia is a “rail-trail”, it’s an old logging rail trail, which means steeper grades than found on mainline operations. There’s a good 3-4% grade for a few miles, which is nothing compared to a mountain pass, but in my condition, it was something.
I got into Vernonia around 7 pm, about 50 miles of riding. Anderson Park is right on the trail, which makes it convenient for camping. There was only a few RVs there, no tents, and no camp host on duty, so I paid the “primitive” site fee ($12) and set up on what I thought was an appropriate spot near the bathroom. The only action in the area was people on the trail and some kids at the playground. And the bathroom. Seemed like a lot of people drove up to the bathroom, some of them to shower? (Maybe there’s a lack of showers in Vernonia?)
After about an hour, I got a surprise in the form of another bike camper! And someone I knew, too: Kai from UpCycles, which happens to be my local bike shop. Kai comes here frequently and went over to a spot by the Nehalem River, down the hill, to set up camp. I decided to join him, mostly prompted by a flood light that turned on after dark that was right above my campsite. (Note to self: check these things better next time.)
After Kai set up, we decided to walk the couple blocks into “town” to get a beer at a local watering hole. The big benefit to Anderson Park is that it’s right in Vernonia, so easy access to grocery and places to eat and drink. The big drawback to Anderson Park is it’s right in Vernonia, so easy access for everyone else, including bored teenagers. I had been warned about them from other folks, but nothing bad happened (besides someone leaving fried chicken and Nutella in the shower. Ah, small towns.)
I had a decent night sleep. Being right by the river I went to sleep with the white noise of the Nehalem flowing by the park. Despite the warmth of the day, it did drop quite a bit overnight, so a chilly morn while making pancakes and veggie sausages. I hit the open road around 10.
It was about 5 miles on road (OR 47) to the tiny non-community of Pittsburg where I hoped to pick up the Crown-Zellerbach Trail, or at least a forest road connecting to it. I saw the road in question just before the junction with Scappoose-Vernonia Hwy, but it was gated, and there wasn’t enough clearance around the gate to get the bike through, nor did I feel like lifting the bike over the gate. Instead, I took Scappoose-Vernonia for about a mile or so where I got to another gate that was more easily passable.
This wasn’t the Crown Zellerbach, but another forest service road for the next mile or so. The Crown Zellerbach and service road follow another logging railroad that connected Vernonia to the Columbia, but this corridor had been used as a logging road for decades, so it was a well-worn double track of gravel and dirt, mostly decent, somewhat rough in spots. The road took me through the familiar landscape of the Coast Range: hills and small mountains, creeks lined with deciduous trees, hillsides lined with conifers, the occasional field and clearcut, and no people. Another mile or so and I hooked up to the “actual” CZ Trail* which would bring me all the way into Scappoose.
The first half of the trail was the climb up to the Nehalem divide, and the trail mostly paralleled the East Fork Nehalem River and Scappoose-Vernonia Highway. The riding was a bit rough in places, but generally okay, until I got to the last mile or so of real climbing, where the trail surface was squishy and wet. I got to the top of the divide and pondered whether I should get back on the highway and bomb down the hill instead. Adventure called, and I stuck to the trail.
Thankfully, the second half of the trail was much better in surface quality, though it didn’t feel as remote as the other half due to a number of houses and small non-towns that were along the way. It appears that this side is the more used and maintained bit. And whoever currently owns the trail (the county) has repaired the missing bridges and culverts that were an issue a few years ago, so no hike-a-bike or having to jump on the highway.
And while there was some rough patches, most of the trail was suitable for my 700X42C tires and my moderate camping load. Sure, it would have been nicer to have wider tires, but the Crested Butte is more an urban cruiser than mountain bike these days, so the XO-3 is what’ll have to do. Still, the trail was rough enough that I got a flat right at the end.
I got into Scappoose around 2 pm, now fully feeling the heat of the day. (It got up to 83F/28C.) And now I was in Scappoose, a town with few charms. It’s not necessarily the town’s fault, as US 30 cuts a swath of four heavily-trafficked lanes through the heart of town. And in a highway widening project decades ago they basically wiped out all the buildings on one side of the road to make “room”. Thankfully, Scappoose has a decent amount of services, so I had some lunch in an air-conditioned chain fast food joint.
And here is where the real suck began: US 30, the busy highway leading back into Portland, nicknamed “Dirty 30” by some cyclists due its wide but debris-filled shoulders. It was hot, rush hour was starting, and I had 15 mostly flat but unfun miles to get to the St Johns Bridge. I complain, but I knew what I was getting into when I decided to come out this way. Sure, there are a few alternate routes, but they require steep climbing back into the hills, and with the combination of heat, weariness, and discomfort from riding, I just wanted to get back as fast as possible.
I crossed the St Johns Bridge (headwind!) at 4:30 and wound through the peninsula back to my house in Woodlawn. I collapsed into an exhausted heap, done. 45 miles.
Overall, this trip was OK, maybe 3 of 5 stars or somesuch. On the positive side, I did get out of town for a couple days, the sun shone the whole time, I got to finally ride the Crown-Zellerbach Trail, I checked out a new-to-me campsite, I actually ran into another bike camper (and I saw two older gents with fat bikes and bikepacking gear heading up the CZ Trail on Wednesday), and I continued to test the abilities of the XO-3 and my camping equipment.
On the negative side, it was just a bit too hot for me (come July, I’ll be well acclimatized to ride in 80-degree weather), the camping experience itself was sub-par, there were some pretty gnarly sections of riding (parts of the TVSB, US 30), and finally, I need to tweak the comfort of the XO-3 so I’m not in pain and discomfort.
But really, while most bike overnights are pretty good, there’s always the chance one can be sub-par. The best thing to do is go out again, and hope for the best next time.
*Apparently the trail goes towards Vernonia via a different route, though the reports that I’ve receive indicate it’s pretty inhospitable for a touring bike.