Exploring Oregon’s Scenic South Coast Bikeway

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 edition of Cycle California! Magazine. The article no longer is online.

 

By Dan Shryock

Ocean waves crash against the rocks as we saddle up to begin our ride along the southern Oregon coast. The six of us drove for hours to get to this remote part of the state, ready for exploration. We clip into our pedals expecting plenty of ocean vistas. We’re about to discover two distinct experiences packaged as one rewarding day on the bike.

The Wild Rivers Coast Scenic Bikeway, one of Oregon’s 16 officially designated scenic routes, starts and ends in the tiny coastal town of Port Orford. The bikeway includes a 38-mile out-and-back ride into the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and an excursion out to the westernmost point in Oregon and a historic lighthouse.

Port Orford is located 60 miles north of the Oregon-California line and 30 miles south of Bandon, a popular seaside town. The coastal area is known for its many state parks and waysides that provide access to beaches and tidepools. Highway 101 slices through the center of town and passes right by the route parking lot at Battle Rock Wayside Park.

We arrived the night before and prepped with a warm-up ride and dinner at the very casual Crazy Norwegian seafood restaurant. That satisfying meal and the good humor of the restaurant staff set us in good spirits for the next day.

Battle Rock State Park with its expansive ocean view sets the tone for our ride. The route can’t be any more beautiful than this, one rider says, unaware how often we’d be stopping throughout the day to take in the scenery.

The 61-mile Wild Rivers Coast route begins with a quick ride through back city streets and a one-mile stretch along Highway 101. Our reconnaissance the day before puts us at ease; the highway’s road shoulders are more than adequate for our comfort. With a short little hill behind us, we head east on Elk River Road for a pleasant ride into the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

The southern Oregon / northern California coastal area is promoted as the Wild Rivers Coast by state and local tourism agencies to highlight the beaches and the several area rivers that flow to the sea. While the popular Rogue, Smith and Chetco rivers get much of the acclaim, the smaller Elk River gets our attention on this ride.

“The Elk River is amazing,” says Alexandra Phillips, Oregon’s scenic bikeways coordinator. “It glows this green blue. It’s spectacular. It always takes a me a long time to ride that road because I’m always stopping to look at the river.”

This route, rated as moderate, was included as a scenic bikeway, in part, for its diversity.

“It’s anchored in the quite quirky town of Port Orford,” Phillips says. “In just a few miles you can take in a wild and scenic river and then be right on the sand looking at the ocean. It really shows off the Oregon coast.

“It’s not super challenging,” she says. “It’s quite doable.”

Our group makes the same discovery. We cruise along the bending, isolated two-lane road under a canopy of trees as it follows the river upstream into the national forest. We stop to watch rushing water spill over rocks and small waterfalls and then flow down through an increasingly narrow gorge where, once calm in pools, turns emerald to the eye. There is no rest for the camera phones.

We anticipate some uphill climbs along the way. The official route information calls for slightly more than 3,000 feet of climbing on the day and elevation charts show a steady uphill until we reached the Elk River Road turn-around point at 22 miles. It becomes happily apparent that these initial grades are easy, small stair steps.

Little recovery time is needed at the turn-around, Butler Bar Campground. We enjoy our stop on a small bridge, taking in the views and chatting with other riders passing through. It’s not unusual to see wildlife both in the water and in the sky, locals say. Bald eagles, for example, live in the area and the steelhead make their way upstream to Butler Bar.

While the ride into the forest seemed easy enough, the return along Elk River Road rolls by even faster.

“Every kind of person and bike can make that ride (to Butler Bar),” Karl Maxon, owner of South Coast Bicycles in Bandon and a local route proponent, says later. “It’s largely a false flat to start and you come back 20 minutes faster than you go out.”

As we near the Highway 101, however, ocean winds blowing up the river gorge slow our pace. Back at 101, we head north for another mile before turning west toward Cape Blanco State Park and its 147-year-old lighthouse. It’s not always an easy ride. The five miles are buffeted by shifting winds.

“(The wind intensity) depends on the time of the year,” Maxon says. “There are microclimates everywhere here. The advantage is you’ll get a boost when you head south.”

There are escapes from the gusts as Cape Blanco Road passes through a stand of trees – and over a hill – before finally opening to the windy headlands, the lighthouse, and the ocean.

“There are cranberry bogs and coastal vegetation in that last half mile and then you climb and you can see up and down the coast for so many miles,” Phillips says.

Four in our group briefly shed their bike shoes for a lighthouse tour and a staircase climb to the top of the 59-foot tower. There they take in panoramic views up and down the Pacific shoreline. Others choose to take refuge from the saddle and the wind at a sheltered picnic table.

The 13-mile return to Port Orford is both downhill and, on most days, wind-assisted. After three miles on Highway 101 the route turns again toward the ocean for a leisurely tour to both Paradise Point State Recreation Site and Port Orford Heads State Park. Before reaching Port Orford Heads, however, a physical price is paid with a mile-plus climb that at one point includes a 10 percent grade.

After a brief stop at the park for one more ocean view, there’s a modicum of payback moments later with a descent down the same steep hill. A mile later, Battle Rock and the parking lot reappear.

Etc.

Camping: Cape Blanco State Park features hiker-biker camping with picnic tables, a fire pit and charging outlets for phones. Set up your tent, meet other cyclists and get some rest. The camping fee is $5 per person and no reservations are required. There’s no vehicle parking at this site.

For those with vehicles, there are 52 regular state park campsites (first come, first served) and four cabins available with reservations.  The campgrounds include hot showers and flush toilets. More information: http://bit.ly/2sRrI5F

Route Information: Find a route map, elevation chart and additional area information at RideOregonRide.com

Bike Support: Two bike shops on the southern Oregon coast participate in Oregon’s “Bike Friendly Business” program. They are South Coast Bicycles (www.southcoastbicycles.com) in Bandon and Moe’s Bike Shop in North Bend (www.moesbikeshop.com).

 

 

 

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