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Saturday, March 23, 2013

How Tours are Born: Super Gorge

Hello friends, yes, it is officially spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Now many of you in North America west of the Rockies have been dealing with some pretty nasty winterlike conditions this March, so the change of official seasons may feel like a joke to you. But out here in Cascadia, where the Maritime climate dominates, we've been feeling spring for, oh, a month. Yeah, there has been still rain, but we've passed the 60F/16C a few times. Oh yeah, no snow.

This is a great time of year for me to start really thinking about bike camping and touring. Originally April and I had even hoped to bike camp last night, but my body decided to catch a cold and the weather conditions not so good, (can we say hail?) so we're holding off until next week. But being at home I can do my second-favorite thing next to bike camping and bike touring: thinking about bike camping and bike touring. And upcoming tours are on my mind.

I'm still working my job at the hostel. Because summer is obviously our busiest season, it's really hard for me to take extended breaks during June, July, and August. I'll be still able to do some overnighters and three day jaunts, but anything longer than that is tough. So I try to take a little time off in May, and a little more time off in September.

I've already have a vague idea of taking the second half of September off and doing some touring around Cascadia's Inland (or Salish) Sea, the interconnected body of water that encompasses the Puget Sound, Strait of Georgia, Strait of Juan De Fuca, and other "lesser" bodies of water. I've explored parts of this area over various tours through the years, but I hope to do a grander tour encompassing a lot of what I've seen and some of what I haven't. And September is a great time for bike touring around these parts, possibly my favorite time as the weather is still gorgeous (while there is always the possibility of rain, "the rains" don't usually show their face until about mid-October) and the tourist areas less crowded. The one downside of September touring is the shorter days, but it's not that big of a deal.

This leaves May. I've requested a week off around the middle of the month, which will give me some time to explore. But where? May is an okay time to tour around these parts, but the weather is a crapshoot: it can either be really nice, 70s and sunny, or rain and 50s. The bigger issue if one was to do an extended tour is the issue with mountains. Many of the mountain passes will still be snowy in May, and the ones that have seasonal closures (like Rainy/Washington and MacKenzie) will most likely still be closed. So I turn to the lower elevation areas instead. This leaves four different areas to explore: the Coast, the Willamette Valley, north towards the Puget, or the Columbia Gorge. I just did a tour up towards the Puget last year (and will be going up that way in September) so I'm not up for that right now. The Coast is always worthy, but the weather will be the crappiest out there, and I just am not feeling it right now. The Willamette Valley is a place that I haven't explored as much as I should, but a week almost seems like too much unless I did a really extended loop. Anyways, it's not exciting me that much either, and I can just do a two or three day tour down the valley sometime later in the season and hop Amtrak back from Albany or Eugene.

So that leaves one option: The Columbia Gorge. Yes, an area that I've explored many times during my bike camping/touring career, and will continue to explore. But there has been a Gorge-based tour a-brewing in my head over the past couple years, a concept I call the "Super Gorge". Y'see, while I've been out to the Gorge many times on a bike since 2006, I generally get only as far as Cascade Locks/Stevenson, about 35 miles east of Portland. I've only been out as far as Hood River (the next town east) two or three times, the last time during the Hood-Adams-Helens Tour last year. And I've only been east of that once, out to The Dalles (about 70 miles east of Portland) in 2006. And there still is more "Gorge" to see east of that.* I've seen this area from The Dalles to Pasco, Washington from the window of a train (when it's daylight, which it often isn't) but never from a bike.

And it's a dramatically different landscape when you get east of The Dalles. The familiar green forests one associates with this area of the world give way to a near-desert environment of sagebrush and grasslands. This part of the state (or states when you include Washington) is "the dry side", so the rains I might have to battle with on the West side of the Cascades will be less a problem out here. This area gets pretty toasty in summer, too, but May temps should just be right.

The approximate distance between Portland and the Tri-Cities is 250 miles. Broken into 50 mile days, that's five days of riding, a manageable distance for a week. I plan on doing some side trips too. If I had more time, I might attempt to ride all the way to Spokane, but that adds another couple hundred miles, and that would be tough for a week. Travelling west to east means I should have a tailwind the whole way, and I can take Amtrak home from Pasco.

So the maps have been out, and I've been poring over them all. I'll let you fine folks know the progress of all this tour planning.

*The area generally referred to as the Columbia River Gorge is between Troutdale and The Dalles, a sixty mile stretch where the Columbia River cuts through the Cascade Mountains. The Columbia River still cuts a "gorge" east of The Dalles, but its just through the Columbia Plateau, so it's not as dramatic.


  1. I'm in the same boat as you with the brunt of work happening during the summer. But also like you, I've found that September and (sometimes:) May are excellent touring months:)

    Just a thought, though: every time I count on things like "oh, I'll be on the dry side" or "I'll probably have a tailwind," I ultimately end up deciding that whoever posits these theories is full of shit. heh. But that being said, I bet mid-May would be an excellent time for a super-Gorge trip. If you biked out on the Oregon side I think they've even been adding more of a bike path so you don't have to do even that little bit on I-84..?

    1. Yeah, you never really want to count on the "fer shure" thing, as it will bite you in the ass if you do. That said, it seems that wind direction in the Gorge is one of the few reliable weather phenomena in this area.

      As for the Oregon side, there is the new trail link they built between Dodson/Yeon State Park and Bonneville Dam, which alleviates about three miles of 84 riding. There still is all that 84 riding between Cascade Locks and Hood River, which is unavoidable unless you take 14 on the Washington side. But that brings other issues, like shoulderless stretches of road with heavy traffic and those tunnels. And if you do that, you can't cross back over at Hood River because of the bicycle prohibition on the Hood River Bridge. So 84 it is.

      And on top of that, the section of Historic Columbia River Highway between Women's Forum and Latourell Falls will be closed from mid April to Memorial Day, so I either have to use 84 from Troutdale to Bridal Veil, or take 14 over Cape Horn and come back to Oregon via Bridge of the Gods. I haven't decided completely yet, but will probably do the Washington side there (but use Washougal River Road instead of going over Cape Horn.)

  2. We used to camp along that road along the mouth of the Deschutes River. I liked the oprey and soaring hawks (nighthawks?) along the canyon rim. Near Biggs, I recall some free camping at a dam(?), I think. But bring your ear plugs, Trains every hour were a pain. I also recall a nice organized camping place across from Biggs on the WA side, called Peach Beach. This was a gem, but somehow we only stayed there once. It borders the peach orchards and overlooks the river. Should be a swell time of year and dry weather for your trip. Happy scheming! Like you, the planning and dreaming is half the fun

    1. Thanks for the tips! And yeah, train noise is one of the unavoidables of the Gorge.

  3. I'm with you, daydreams are of doing some touring,Brother. Been going through my gear both in the workshop and my mind's eye for weeks now,LOL! Looking forward to your doing this one and posting all about it :)

    The DC (or is that "The SS" now with the new acount? :p )


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