Tired of dodging Spandex-clad bikers yelling “On your left’’ as they barrel along Seattle’s Burke-Gilman Trail? No need to leave the state to find more peaceful, paved cycling trails, but if you happen to be traveling between the Oregon coast and Portland, the Banks-Vernonia State Trail is worth a detour.
Exit U.S. 26 — the east/west Portland-coastal link — in either direction, and you’ll find the shaded, mostly flat, forested trail along an abandoned railroad bed used in the 1920s to haul lumber from local mills to Portland.
The 21-mile stretch, now entirely paved, was the first “rails-to-trails’’ state park built in Oregon in the early 1990s. Over the years, it’s been improved as a family-friendly multiuse recreational area intended for slow-speed use by bikers, walkers and joggers.
Doing the 42-mile round-trip ride in 90-degree heat a few weeks ago was a stretch for my husband and me. But with no pressure to pedal faster, the biggest challenge turned out to be sitting on a bicycle seat for the better part of four hours. The payoff: A leisurely ride through a scenic slice of rural Oregon capped off with a lunch worth every mile.
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Most bikers start in Banks, 30 miles west of Portland, and ride to Vernonia, where a handful of cafes and restaurants cater to cyclists. The average overall incline is 3 to 4 percent, meaning the ride is slightly uphill going from Banks to Vernonia.
“It’s easiest to get the work out of the way first,’’ said Tonya Roerig, of Portland, who was using the trail one morning to train for an upcoming race. “It’s a nice, gradual descent on the way back.’’
When she’s “booking it,’’ Roerig said, it usually takes her one hour and 45 minutes out, making the return trip in 25 fewer minutes. We made a day of it, starting at 10 a.m. and returning by 4 p.m., with time out for lunch and lots of photo and water breaks.
Starting in Banks, blackberry bushes, wildflowers and farmland buffer the first few miles of trail from highway traffic. This is a flat, family-friendly stretch that draws walkers and kids either riding their own bikes or being pulled along in carriages by their parents.
The slight climb through shady forest land begins after crossing the first of 13 bridges, and passing by a small lumber mill in Manning.
“Water at the trailhead,” someone yelled. Wyatt Edwards, 11, wearing shorts and no shirt, was riding toward us, drumming up business for the refreshment stand he and his friend, Tyler Smith, set up to raise money for their youth camp.
We drank homemade lemonade from plastic water bottles while they pointed out a black-capped chickadee (the trail is popular with birdwatchers), and directed us onward to the curving, 80-foot-high Buxton Trestle crossing Mendenhall Creek.
With more time, we might have veered off onto one of the hiking or mountain-biking trails that wend through L.L. “Stub” Stewart State Park. Pacing ourselves to arrive in Vernonia for lunch, we were content to soak up the scent of evergreens and views of the Oregon Coast Range foothills.
The only real hill, so steep that signs warn cyclists to walk their bikes down, came about 14 miles out, at the Tophill Trailhead, where a series of switchbacks provide a detour around remnants of the fire-damaged Horseshoe trestle.
Skirting the highway again for the last few miles, the trail ends at Anderson Park, a few blocks from downtown Vernonia. Scattered among saddle-repair shops and stores selling custom-made vests and chaps on Bridge Street are some culinary surprises.
Finding the Blue House Mediterranean Cafe (bike parking provided inside) was like stepping into the home of an Armenian grandmother. Thirsty after our ride, we found it hard to decide whether to go for the house-brewed beer, lavender lemonade or mint iced tea. Nothing on the menu — from lamb burgers to vegetarian dolmades platters — is more than $10. A few doors down, cyclists pack the outdoor patio at the Black Iron Grill on weekends to refuel on wild berry smoothies before heading back to Banks.
Carol Pucci is a Seattle freelance travel writer, blogging at www.travel.carolpucci.com. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org