I’m a mountain biker at heart. I love being in the woods on my bike, and I’ve completed a few long, multi-day off-road mountain bike tours, such as the Great Mountain Divide Bike Route, a 3,000-mile ride tracing North America’s Continental Divide. I’m more accustomed to having the solitude of singletrack and dirt roads, so as a newer “roadie,” I seek routes that quiet country roads, wide-open spaces and friendly towns in between. (There’s always room for ice cream stops on my road rides!)
A few years ago I jumped at the chance to ride the Old West Scenic Bikeway in Eastern Oregon with my girlfriends, and it’s now my go-to place in Oregon to ride my road bike. The scenery here is incredible, but it’s the little experiences in between pedaling that makes it one of my favorite places to cycle. These three Oregon Scenic Bikeways are my favorite, and make excellent multi-day ladies’ rides. Here’s how to round out a lovely trip to the northeast corner of the state.
Old West Scenic Bikeway
Go for: History, orchards and fossil beds
The Old West Scenic Bikeway is more than cows, cowboys and saloons, although our group saw all of the above on this route. We also went back in time to the Age of Mammals and the more recent history of Chinese culture in the region. This is a long ride, but there are numerous lodging and camping options along the route. Or you can base out of John Day or Prairie City for shorter rides.
The 174-mile ride starts in John Day, but be sure to take time to visit Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site, an Oregon treasure that I didn’t know about before riding this route. Tour this preserved home of a revered Chinese medicine doctor who lived and practiced in the region during the last gold rush and learn about one of the West’s largest Chinatowns of the past. I have since brought friends and family to this site to learn about some of Oregon’s most fascinating history.
From John Day, we climbed up into the mountains, then down the beautiful Middle Fork of the John Day River, into the lower elevations. Just outside of Monument, we made a brief stop at Thomas Orchards, where in the summer harvest months, you can buy fresh-picked cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, pears, and apples as well as delicious jellies and jams.
As you round back around towards John Day, we spent a few hours at the John Day Fossil Beds Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center.
Grande Tour Scenic Bikeway
Go for: Craft beer, mountain vistas and art galleries
At 134 miles, the Grande Tour Scenic Bikeway is a challenging ride with ample opportunity for fun. If you’re planning to ride the whole route, you’ll start in La Grande, so be sure to have a pre-ride kickoff at Side A Brewing (they have fantastic burgers), located in the historic fire station. Learn about the significance of fire in the region, then grab a bite to eat and an ale and enjoy live music on the patio.
From La Grande, you’ll ride south towards one of my favorite towns, Baker City, stopping in Union and North Powder along the way. I’ve been impressed by Baker City’s thriving art scene, so I recommend hitting the First Friday Art Walk, where downtown galleries stay open in the evening. Top off your evening with a nightcap at the historic (and reportedly haunted!) Grand Geiser Hotel, then make sure to pop into Sweet Wife Baking for a treat the next morning.
Fueled up, it’s time to head back to the hills to Catherine Summit, the highest point of the ride at 4,178 feet, and down to Union and Cove. Here you have the opportunity to ride parts of the Cove-Union Farm Loop, where farms and ranches are open to the public during summer months. Farms along the route offer everything from goat-milking demonstrations to fresh honey and fruit stands.
Since this bikeway route is a figure eight, with two connected loops, you could also take your time and ride each loop separately, staying either in Baker City or La Grande as a home base.
Blue Mountain Century Scenic Bikeway
Go for: Farmlands to forests and back
The variety of terrain and ecology that I discovered on the Blue Mountain Century Scenic Bikeway left me in awe, and left my legs feeling a wee bit tired. No matter, because there are plenty of reasons to stop and chill out on this ride. You’ll get stunning views of the Blue Mountains, the oldest mountains in Oregon, with the opportunity for watching wildlife such as pronghorn antelope, deer and elk.
This route traditionally starts in Heppner, 70 miles southwest of Pendleton. Founded in 1872 by Irish immigrants, evident by the giant shamrock on Main Street, I found Heppner to be friendly, laid-back little town. Arrive a day early to take a walking tour of town while reading the “talking rocks,” a series of interpretive plaques on local basalt stones. Then visit the Morrow County Museum, which recounts the giant flood of 1903. Before leaving for your ride, stop in at the Breaking Grounds Coffee Shop for coffee and one of their signature sandwiches to go.
The second half of this route takes you through Battle Mountain Forest State Scenic Corridor, known for birding. Keep an eye (and an ear) out for red crossbill, mountain chickadee, nuthatch, brown creeper, and a variety of woodpeckers, sapsuckers and bluebirds.
A shorter option for this route would be to arrange a shuttle to Ukiah (be sure to check out the Antlers Inn), then ride either direction to Heppner.
If you go:
Since these routes all go up to higher elevations, early fall is an ideal time to go, typically with lots of sunshine and dry weather. Spring and early summer are great too, after snow melts and before the mid-summer heat. Check the Scenic Bikeways page for detailed maps, GPS info, videos, photos, guide and shuttle companies, cycling events, attractions and bike-friendly lodging. Riders may customize a route by parking in a small town and riding in and out, or having a friend shuttle gear ahead. Before heading out, check weather and road conditions, and expect that cell service will be minimal or spotty, so carry paper maps and download the Oregon Scenic Bikeways Guide. If you’re unsure about logistics, the Heppner Chamber of Commerce organizes a guided tour each year in September, and Over the Hill Bike Tours offers summertime guided rides as well. It’s also nice to support local businesses and find a souvenir from each town to bring home, whether it’s a piece of jewelry, art or wine (many places ship home).