Bike Camping at Milo McIver, 14-15 April 2021

The Bantam at the overlook. Milo McIver State Park, 15 April 2021. Camera: Olympus EES-2. Film: Kodak ColorPlus 200.

It has been a dry April in these parts, possibly record dry. And around mid-month things warmed up as well. The week of April 11th started downright chilly for this time of year (highs in the low 50’s) but by the conclusion of the week we were scraping 80F/27C. In short, it was good “being outdoors” weather, a preview of summer. It was a good time to go bike camping.

I hadn’t been out since my Ainsworth trip last August, and lately I have been positively chomping at the bit. So over the April 10-11 weekend I booked a site at Ainsworth for Wednesday April 14. While this campground nestled in the Columbia Gorge has a hiker/biker site (meaning I had a guaranteed spot without needing a reservation) I did the booking for two reasons: 1) So I wouldn’t have to share my space during COVID times and 2) as an encouragement to not flake out.

I psyched myself up for the trip and on Tuesday April 13th I got ready, packing up my gear, making sure my bike was in order. Later that evening I decided to visit Trip Check, Oregon Department of Transportation’s traffic info website. And I made a not-so-pleasant discovery: The old Columbia River Highway was closed for a good segment that I’d be riding! I knew that there was a closure east of Ainsworth due to a landslide, but the slide west of Ainsworth was unknown to me, or perhaps I did hear about it and it slipped my mind. This sent me into panic mode, as the only viable way around this landslide was to ride the shoulder of I-84, which is indeed a freeway.* It is legal to ride here, and I have done it before. But I wanted my first bike campout in eight months to be somewhat pleasurable. Riding a debris-strewn shoulder of a freeway for at least ten miles isn’t my idea of somewhat pleasurable.

Panicking, I took stock of my options. While I’m not fond of losing the money I spent on the Ainsworth reservation (too late to get a refund), I also wasn’t bull-headed enough to push through with the original plan. And I didn’t not want to camp, but quick and easy options were scant:

  • Oxbow. It’s the closest campground, but they aren’t allowing walk-ins right now. The campsite with reservation fee would be at least $30 for a site, and the campground has turned off the water due to COVID. And that hill getting out, oof.
  • Battle Ground Lake. It is a favorite spot of mine, and there seemed to be availability without making a booking. But I just didn’t feel like crossing either bridge over the Columbia tp get there.
  • Stub Stewart. The “hike-in” campsites are still closed, not reopening until June 15th. None of the other sites excite me.
  • Champoeg. The hiker-biker sites were open, but I like going here when it’s part of a tour vs. a standalone destination. And I am hoping to do a Willamette Valley tour this year, so this most likely will be a stop.

With the options whittled down, the choice became apparent: Milo McIver State Park. Nestled across the Clackamas River from the town of Estacada, McIver also has a hiker/biker site, meaning I didn’t need to worry about a reservation. But the campground and park itself has never really excited me that much. I’ve been there at least three times: once in 2008 or 9, then in May of 2009 as part of a Clackamas River tour, then in 2012 as part of a “family camping” Cycle Wild trip. Nine years since I had last been there, huh. The only other 30 miles or under destino that I haven’t been to in as long is Paradise Point in Clark County, also last (and only) visited in 2012. (And if you read my report, you’ll see why I haven’t gone back.) Perhaps it’s time to give ol’ McIver another chance?

I left the house mid-day on Wednesday. In an effort to make this adventure as pleasurable as possible, I took the MAX to cut off some in-city riding. The Green Line dropped me off at Clackamas Town Center, and from there the first few miles were on bike paths. A couple miles followed on bike lanes or shoulders of busy suburban highways, then I crossed the Clackamas River at Carver. After a break at Carver Park, the next five miles were fairly pleasant country roads. Another crossing of the river at Barton and a break at Barton Store, I was ready for what I thought would be the crowning moment of today’s ride: The Cazadero Trail.

Part of the same rail line that is now the Springwater Corridor, this orphan few miles of path that parallels OR 224 will eventually connect to the main Springwater at some point in the future. For now, the emphasis is on “orphan”. While the trail got me off of a busy highway for several miles, it was by no means pleasant: loose, drifty gravel, blackberries and Scots broom lining the sides, powerlines overhead, no real scenery to speak of. And speaking of blackberries: at some point someone had cut down the branches encroaching onto the path. Cool, I guess. But what would have been cooler is if they had picked these branches up and disposed of them. No, these dead branches lay in the middle of the path, making avoidance impossible. Within a few miles, I noticed my back end was getting soft. Great, a slow leak. I pumped the tire up and then head out onto 224. Yeah, it’s busy and noisy (though you hear that noise on the trail), and being Clackamas County you’re almost assured to get “coal” “rolled” at you once or thrice. But at least I get a commodious shoulder and no blackberry thorns.

The city of Estacada appeared like a lighthouse over a foggy sea. It was 4 PM, so a good time to take a nice break. I headed to Fearless Brewing to enjoy a cold one and some late lunch or early dinner, and picked up a few cans o’ beer for camp. I pumped up the rear tire and finished the last three miles to camp. Cars need to enter Milo McIver via the main entrance on Springwater Road, but we bicyclists can take the “side entrance”: a gravel access road to the PGE-maintained dam. Peaceful, except for the token loose dog who is always right before the gate. (This is the only place that I ever got bit by a dog.**)

I headed for the hiker/biker site in the campground. Despite camping here thrice, I had never used the hiker/biker site: The first two times the single-occupancy hiker/biker site was full***, and the last time with Cycle Wild we were camping in the group site. They had changed the site in the intervening years, making it bigger and adding more amenities. But when I got to it, I felt underwhelmed. It indeed had a covered picnic shelter, fire pit, and bike fix-it station, but they were scattered along the edge of a field.**** It was implied to camp somewhere in the field, but no individual spots were demarcated, and the ground was lumpy and uneven. Plus, there were a couple walking paths that basically went right through the hiker/biker area. When I was scouting the spot one family walked through, while a couple plopped down at the picnic table. The fact that the water spigot wasn’t on and the bathroom was a distance away sealed the deal: I would pony up the extra cash and get a regular site. I wanted to have my own little space, not a spot where people would freely roam through.

After finding a tent site and paying for the stay, I set up my tent, then fixed my flat. Slow leaks are the worst, as it’s often hard to find the puncture, especially when you’re on the side of a noisy highway, trying to listen for a little hiss. Thankfully, I found the hole. Being able to patch in camp at my leisure was much preferred. I snacked a little, drew a comic, and as the sun went down I listened to distant AM (CBC 1010 from Calgary!) and shortwave (ah, Radio New Zealand!) while reading a rock bio on REM.

The night’s sleep was fitful: It was colder than I thought, and my bag wasn’t doing the best job of keeping me warm. And the first night of camping after a long spell is typically not that comfortable to me. I awoke around 8:30 and discovered that my front tire had gone flat, too! Ugh. I made some breakfast, took care of the puncture, and packed up.

I decided to go back a different way, sticking to the south-west side of the Clackamas River. This meant I needed to climb several hundred feet to get to Springwater Road which lines the rim of the canyon. At least the climbing was done on a quiet, shady road through the park. And near the top I took a good long pause at the scenic overlook. In alll the years I had been here I didn’t realize there was an overlook, but here it was: a great view of Mounts Hood, Adams, and Saint Helens, plus the Clackamas looking very much like a “mountain river” below. Raptors glided on thermals. It was all very pleasant and peaceful, the type of moment that makes these trips worth it.

Getting the climbing done first was great, as Springwater was mostly a downhill cruise back to Carver. I was coasting at 20 m.p.h for a good deal of it, whizzing by the big houses on the ridgeside. A pause for lunch at a taproom north of Carver and I doubled back on those suburban bike lanes and bike paths to get back to Clackamas Town Center, where the MAX took me home.

It wasn’t the bike camping trip I wanted, but it was still good. It was good to be out on the bike in nice weather, and it was really good to camp again. After not camping in a long time, I doubt myself, wondering if I could still do it. Trips like this are a confidence boost. And while I had two flats and not the best sleep, I had a nice night to myself and surprisingly didn’t forget anything. If all goes according to plan, it won’t be long before I get back on the bike again for another overnight! But will I head back to McIver? Certainly at some point, but it could be awhile. There’s so many more interesting destinations to hit up.

Waiting for the MAX. NE 60th Station, 14 April 2021

*Locals may ask, “What about riding Highway 14 on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge instead?” Well, that road isn’t great, would add time and distance, and I’d still have to ride the shoulder of I-84 from Cascade Locks to Ainsworth to get around the east landslide. So, no.

**Thankfully the dog was little and only scratched me, not breaking skin.

***The old hiker/biker site was definitely big enough to have multiple people, but was not set up that way for some reason. Maybe they never expected more than one hiker/biker at a time? Anyways, the first time I went the person who was already in the spot wasn’t around, and I didn’t want to impose so I found another open spot. The second time there was a couple already there, and I knew the guy since he was a mechanic at Citybikes. But before April (who was with me) or I could even ask about sharing the site, the mechanic informed me that the camp host “won’t allow more than one group here.” So again we found a different spot. Interestingly enough, I ran into that same mechanic at a party years later and he guiltily confided to me (without being asked) that his girlfriend at the time didn’t want to share the space, so he had to lie, even though he didn’t mind sharing.

****And unlike the other improved hiker/biker sites I’ve seen in other state parks, there were no food storage boxes nor power outlets.

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