There’s a little-known secret about cycling in Oregon: Some of the best riding in the state isn’t in Portland or even along the Pacific Coast. You have to cross the Cascade Mountains and head into the open country of Eastern Oregon, where cows in the road constitute a traffic jam, and where the impressive scenery shifts between ponderosa pines and basalt rock.
Russ and I have traveled more than 15,000 miles by bicycle across the deserts and over mountains, so we wondered how Oregon’s new Scenic Bikeways would compare. We were also excited to share the trip with my brother, Matt, an experienced cyclist eager to try his first bike tour.
The Old West Scenic Bikeway is a beautiful, challenging, 174-mile loop through rural Eastern Oregon. It passes through 10 small communities and offers, in Matt’s words, “big-sigh riding; every time you round a corner, you take a big sigh and recognize how lucky you are.”
Day one, 30 miles
The Old West Scenic Bikeway can be ridden in either direction, but we decided to go counterclockwise. We started in John Day, leaving our vehicle in the parking lot of the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site (it’s OK to do this; just make sure you let the staff know). Before pushing off on our ride, we toured the historic Chinese apothecary and general store. Kam Wah Chung is now a living time capsule and the only remaining evidence that John Day once had the third-largest Chinatown in the United States.
One thing we love about bike touring is chatting with locals in small towns. In Prairie City, we stopped at Roan Coffee Company, a hip new coffee shop, and talked with owner Rhianna Bauman about her future plans for a mini bike shop in her store. For lunch, we ambled down to Oxbow Restaurant & Saloon, where a must-try is the house-made strawberry-rhubarb pie.
From Prairie City, we pedaled our way up the first of two long climbs along the route, enjoying the spectacular views of Strawberry Mountain. Our destination for the night was Bates State Park and its well-apportioned hiker/biker campsites. Before settling around the campfire, we stopped at the Austin House Cafe & Country Store, just a mile before the campground, for gourmet burgers (with an optional gluten-free bun) and microbrews. Owners Jeff and Christy Keffer, who were finishing a new porch when we rolled up, have been serving bike tourists since they opened in 2000.
Day two, 53 miles
We were awakened by flocks of geese taking flight from the nearby pond, and the day’s ride introduced us to the hidden natural wonders of Eastern Oregon. For 40 miles, we saw very few cars as we rambled beside the North Fork of the John Day River, passing thick forests and intensive salmon-habitat restoration. For lunch, we stopped at the Dunstan Homestead Preserve (circa 1888), which is now managed by the Nature Conservancy and offers a beautiful spot for a picnic.
As we intersected with Highway 395, we headed up the second long climb of the route. We left behind the river valley and forest and found ourselves surrounded by rolling fields and ranches. In Long Creek, we checked into the Long Creek Lodge Motel & RV Park and then shuffled across the street to the Stampede Restaurant. Restaurant owners Tammy and Mark Manning also run their own ranch (as well as a market and feed store). Tammy said she aims to make sure each cyclist who passes through town is well-fed. Her enthusiasm for the new bikeway was contagious, and we talked at length about bike racks and the best supplies for cyclists. Everything in the restaurant is homemade (including the ice cream), and the enormous burgers surely deserve some sort of award.
Day three, 32 miles
Just beyond Long Creek, we found the stunning descent that was promised by those who suggested we ride counterclockwise. The grassy landscape gave way to rocky outcroppings, and we soared downhill through a picture book of red-rock cliffs. We stopped often to marvel at the scenery and watch hawks circling overhead.
At the end of the descent is the town of Monument, where we discovered a local market stocked with fresh meats and vegetables, making it an excellent midloop stock-up point. We also met Philip Merricks, a longtime resident who was thrilled about the new bikeway. He gave us a tour of his riverfront garden and showed us the outdoor water spigot he installed for cyclists to use. (Monument is also an essential water stop, since there are no potable water sources for the next 30 miles.) We pitched camp for the night at the primitive Big Bend BLM campground and enjoyed a serene sunset beside the North Fork of the John Day River.
Day four, 30 miles
The next morning, we passed through the small hamlet of Kimberly and headed south into the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. We left behind the lush orchards of the river valley and wound our way into a dazzling array of colorful, rugged rock formations. We stopped at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, where you can learn the natural history of the area and watch diligent paleontologists uncovering fossilized mysteries.
After the fossil beds, we stopped in Dayville, deciding to linger one more night on the bikeway. Touring cyclists are welcome to roll out their sleeping bags at the Dayville Presbyterian Church, which has offered accommodation in exchange for donation since 1976. We decided we’d earned a night in a proper bed, so we stayed in one of the delightful rooms at the Fish House Inn and RV Park. The property is set back from the highway just enough that you feel as if you’ve discovered a small retreat, and we enjoyed our last evening on the porch.
Day five, 31 miles
Our ride back into John Day (and the real world) was fast and relatively flat. While we rode, we chatted about the incredible variety of the last four days. The combination of stunning, varied terrain and friendly, helpful residents made this trip a standout. While a hardy cyclist could ride the bikeway in a shorter amount of time, the shorter days let us savor the scenery. For experienced cyclists who don’t have the time to ride across the country, the Old West Bikeway will scratch the itch for adventure without eating up all your vacation days.
Laura Crawford and Russ Roca are the creators of The Path Less Pedaled, which inspires bicycle travel through storytelling with words, photos and video.