Portland is about 70 miles from the Pacific Ocean, at least “as the crow flies”. Close enough that we all know its there,* but still just far enough away that it’s not the easiest place to get to regularly. By car it’s a 90-120 minute drive. By bus, maybe three hours. By bike? At bare minimum, one long day of a ride.
And anyone who lives in Portland and bike tours hears the clarion call of the waves at least once a year. So plans to “go to the Coast”** are made. Now, one can take a couple different buses with bike in tow to get out there, but there’s that itch that can’t be scratched, called “biking to the coast”.
As I said, at bare minimum it will take you the better part of a day to get out there, and if you want to take it easy, two. The big problem is there is no great route to the coast. The most direct ways are the most busy, so to avoid them, you’re either doing something circuitous, or hard, or both. Some people go for the Advanced Studies of figuring out an all-gravel route over the Coast Range using the tangle of unmarked logging roads criss-crossing the slopes. While rewarding in its own badassitude (and solitude), it’s not for the faint of heart or those without good GPS units.
The weekend of May 20 was turning out pretty nice in Portland, which was really nice after such a damn long winter. Several days in a row without rain? Sign me up! Originally I was going to have a “three day weekend” starting Sunday the 21st, but at the eleventh hour it remarkably turned into a four-day one starting Saturday! Pack the bags, it’s time for a mini-tour!
With four days to play with, I had the time to take a two day ride out to the coast, and even ride back if I wanted to. There were many different options, but I decided to go with this one: Ride from my house over the St Johns Bridge and north on US 30 to Scappoose, then take the Crown Zellerbach Trail over the Nehalem Divide, then follow the Nehalem out to the ocean at Nehalem Bay. I’ve only done the Crown Zellerbach once before in 2014, so I was ready for another expedition. I had never been down the Nehalem all the way, though I almost did in 2013.
I got a late start on Saturday, pretty typical. The ride through North Portland and over St Johns Bridge was pretty smooth for a weekend day. US 30 was okay for a bit, but Dirty Thirty lived up to its name, as a piece of metal pierced my rear tire outside of Scappoose. Ugh. Yeah, I don’t know if I’m feeling the supple tire action for these conditions. I replaced the tube with my spare and soldiered on.
The Crown Zellerbach Trail was tougher than I thought it would be! It’s an old logging railroad, mostly unpaved, and used for years as a logging truck road. I had to get my loaded bike over a downed tree in the first couple miles and worried that this would be a regular occurrence. Thankfully that was the only one, at least on the section of trail I completed. The rest of the trail alternated between peaceful and sublime moments interspersed with steep climbs and mud. I reached the top of the Nehalem Divide, saw the “trail closed ahead” sign (most likely because of logging activity, but I heard afterwards there’s more downed trees on this section), and decided to descend on the paved Scappoose-Vernonia Hwy instead.
I ended the night at Anderson Park in Vernonia, almost fifty miles in.*** The nice thing about this park is it’s right on the edge of this small town, so all those conveniences are readily available. I ate dinner at a nice Mediterranean place, and in the morning had breakfast at the cafe. And…there was another bike tourist at the campground! Robyn was heading from Portland out to the coast, but instead of going to Nehalam, she was planning a 90 mile day using the Westport Ferry across the Columbia and then eventually to Astoria! It was tempting to join her, but I didnt’ feel like a 90 mile day**** and really wanted to check out the Nehalem. (But man, I do need to get to Astoria at some point!)
The road ahead was mostly peaceful, as I was following a river down to the sea. The route (OR 47 to 202 to 103) was mostly quiet too, though there was a vehicle at least every couple minutes. The “store”***** at Birkenfeld was open, which was surprising, as it’s often closed. I had a nice cold lager, which was so refreshing at that point. I took a break at the store in Elsie (junction of 103 and US 26), then grit my teeth for a couple miles of 26 until the turnoff for the fabled Lower Nehalem River Road.
This road is a secret back door to the coast, not well known and lightly trafficked. It was closed for a few years due to a washed out bridge, but another reason why it’s off the beaten path is because about 20 miles of it is gravel. The first five miles from 26 were paved, and brought me to Spruce Run Campground. The campground was pretty nice and besides the Nehalem. I was already 50 miles in and considered staying, but fuck it! I really wanted to see the ocean tonight! So I pressed on. Also, since I haven’t ridden a real long distance for a real long time, I wanted to push myself and see if I was still capable for the long haul.
The first section of the gravel was actually pretty nice and level, which lulled me into complacency. However, when I crossed into Tillamook County by the Salmonberry River crossing, things changed. The gravel got chunkier, and there were several small but very steep hills that sapped my energy. Plus, I saw signs for a road closure at Wolf Creek. Am I on Wolf Creek Road? I don’t think so, but nothing is well signed here and damn, I haven’t seen a car coming in quite some time. So then I started to panic, and push on harder. A road closure would mean the promise of the coast would be denied, and I would have to turn around and come back the way I came.****** I was not in a good mental state. Eventually, a car approached from the opposite direction and I flagged it down to ask the question. Yep, the road goes through to the coast! My mood was lifted for a bit…until I noticed my front end getting squishy. Damn. Slow leak? I hate them, since sometimes you can’t find the leak. And I had no spare tube. (I typically repair the damaged tube at camp, but I had forgotten that the tube I pulled out the rear had sealant in it. No go.) Plus, getting the tire on and off the rear was a total pain. Would the front be the same?
I put some air into the front. It seemed to hold, so I pushed on. Thankfully, the pavement began back up, so I didn’t have to worry about another rock causing a pinch flat or something. I rolled into the town of Nehalem around 7 pm, and found myself at a pizza place where I devoured a small pie. Then I rode the couple miles to Nehalem Bay State Park and dumped bike and gear at the hiker/biker campsite. I ran over to the beach, where I just missed the sunset. But it was still great to see the Pacific Ocean in all its glory!
There were people camped in the hiker/biker campsite, but no one was present or awake, which gave the place an eerie presence in the twilight as I set up camp. Exhausted after an 80 mile day, I slept good that night.
I awoke Monday morning, May 22, with no real plans. I knew I wasn’t going to ride all the way back to Portland, so I just needed to be in Tillamook by 1 PM on Tuesday to get home on time. I could stay here at Nehalem Bay for another night, but I decided I wanted to explore. First things first: fix the front flat. Thankfully, the front tire was easier to remove and mount, and the leak was obvious. I patched it and I was good to go.
First I biked the couple miles into nearby Manzanita, a cute li’l beach town, where I got some supplies and got an underwhelming lunch. (My preferred option was closed.) I rode south along US 101 for about 20 miles to get to my destination for the night, Barview Jetty. Oh sure, I could have ridden another 25 miles to my favorite campsite on the coast, Cape Lookout. But I felt like taking it easy, and I had never been to Barview. Barview was a real nice campground, but expensive! I’m used to the state park hiker/biker sites costing $5 to $6 a night. But Barview is a Tillamook County park, and the site was $20! Yeeps! Still, I was really close to the beach, and I had a good sunset.
Tuesday morning I packed up camp, rode about 13 miles south on 101 to Tillamook and caught the bus home. My coast mini-tour was done.
All in all, it was a decent trip. But the ride to the coast was longer and tougher than I planned, at just about 130 miles. Since I hadn’t ridden anything that long in a long time, it felt harder. But it was nice to know that I could push myself to do this, especially with some good touring plans on the horizon. As it was, this was the first time I had camped two or more consecutive nights since my Vancouver Island-San Juans Tour in September/October. I had only done two consecutive nights then, so this trip was a good test of my touring setup and my ability to get a decent nights’ sleep on the road. And I did, at least after the first night. This shakedown gave me the confidence to go out on a longer tour soon.
And man oh man, I love the coast! It’s been too long, Pacific Ocean. At certain points in my life I was quite the “beach rat” and got to know some beaches on the Atlantic coast. The Pacific is more awesome in many ways, except for the fact I can’t swim in it. And I realize that I need to get out to the coast more often. Will I bike out the next time? Probably not. I’ll load my bike onto one of the buses to bring me most of the way, but the ride to the coast makes me realize how much I just want to be on the coast. The way out is nice at times, but there’s nothing spectacular, few points of interest. And there’s no perfect way. Yet.
They are working on the Salmonberry Corridor Trail, a path that would follow the abandoned Port of Tillamook Bay Railroad from Banks to Nehalem. This would mean a car-free way to the coast on a gentle rail grade. I’m really looking forward to its completion, though it’s going to take a few years. In the meantime, Washington State has the Willapa Hills Trail, and I need to get back there at some point. I can dream…
*Which is good for people like me who have never lived more than 70 miles from any ocean.
**If you say you’re “going to the shore” or “going to the beach”, everyone will know you’re from out of town.
***It would have been easier and more logical to end at Big Eddy Park, as going to Vernonia requires back-tracking. But Big Eddy was closed so I had to go with what was available. I passed by Scaponia Park on the way in, which I thought was closed, but it looked like it might be open.
****Of course, I ended up doing 80 miles as it was…
*****When I first visited it in 2001, it truly was a country store. Now it is basically a roadhouse/bar/music venue.
******Yeah, I could turn onto 26, but that road is too busy and narrow, and features some serious climbs.