Cycling the Willamette Valley
A three-day bike tour through the heart of the state’s most verdant valley.
Last year I learned there’s no better way to get to know a place than to ride through it on a bicycle. So when I heard about the 130-mile Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway, the first of its kind in the U.S., I jumped at the chance to turn the route into a three-day expedition that would give me the chance to explore my home valley beyond Portland’s borders. I’d ride with my husband, Tony Pereira, a bicycle frame builder who can fix anything; refuel in a flash with a hoppy IPA; and rely on my trusty and stylish Rapha jacket to keep me protected from anything Mother Nature might dish out.
Day 1: Champoeg State Park to Independence
The Scenic Bikeway starts about 30 miles south of Portland, in Champoeg State Park, the site of a former bustling pioneer town. We mounted our two-wheeled steeds and caught our first glimpse of the Willamette River, which we’d follow south to Eugene. Immediately we saw one of the dozens of green and white “WV” signs that would guide us through the valley over the next three days. In fact we would never miss a single turn, thanks to the signs, plus the maps and cue sheets from Ride Oregon Ride.
We warmed up on flat farm roads that cut through fields planted with hops climbing 20-foot lengths of twine. After stopping at the Willamette Mission State Park to admire the arching pathways through rows of hazelnut and walnut orchards, we continued into the town of Keizer, winding through neighborhoods of bloom-filled yards. We’d been talking about lunch for at least an hour by the time we reached Salem, so we happily dug into tacos, enchiladas and sweet Mexican Cokes at La Perla Tapatia—the perfect boost for the last portion of our day’s ride.
I followed Tony’s wheel along a twisting forested road bordering the rolling Willamette River, past acres of blueberry bushes at Breyman Farms. We vowed to return in August for pints of berries from the roadside fruit stand. After crossing the river on a sweeping bridge we arrived in Independence, a tiny town packed with historic buildings. One of those abodes, the Independence House Bed & Breakfast, which is an 1895 Victorian, became our home for the night. Owner Cheryl Gaston had wine and snacks ready when we arrived, which after a 45-mile day only stoked our appetites. We walked to the nearby Ragin’ River Steak House for some prime rib and a bleu cheese bacon burger, then hit the town’s modern movie house for a flick before bed.
Day 2: Independence to Albany
Accustomed to feeding cyclists, Cheryl got us ready for the 33-mile day with her grandmother’s latkes, a frittata, and fruit and granola (I stuffed her homemade marmalade muffins in my handlebar bag for later). Knowing there were 50 wineries within 20 miles, Tony and I had to wander among some vines. We decided to hit Ankeny Vineyards, which is located directly on the bike route seven miles south of Independence. Ankeny has grown pinot noir and pinot gris grapes since the 1980s, a fact we learned in the tasting room. The juicy 2006 Hershey’s Red Pinot Noir, for just $12 a bottle, made me want to add some weight to my panniers.
We rode onward, soaking up the solitude on the nearly traffic-free route, to the Ankeny Wildlife Refuge, where flocks of dusty Canada geese huddled in open fields and the sound of chirping filled the air. At 64 miles from Champoeg, the small town of Jefferson was the perfect spot for a quick snack and stretch before we climbed into a shockingly green valley overlooking the Coast Range. I took in the view from a postage-stamp-sized cemetery filled with pioneer gravestones.
We arrived in Albany, the city with the largest historical district in the state, and headed to the Pfeiffer Cottage Inn, a sprawling 1908 bungalow. With its beautiful period details, the inn seemed like the perfect ambassador for the town. Pfeiffer’s proprietors, Ray and Debbie Lusk, pointed us to Sybaris, a nearby downtown restaurant run by Chef Matt Bennett, who excels at using local seasonal ingredients in his dishes. After a hearty meal of crisp salad, braised beef cheeks, cassoulet and a few glasses of red wine, we happily called it a day.
Day 3: Albany to Armitage County Park
Fueled by another hearty home-cooked breakfast, we pedaled out of Albany into the farmlands and passed field after field of cotton-ball sheep and cud-chewing cows. Tony suggested we avoid an ominous gray rain cloud by pulling over in a town called Shedd—a brilliant idea, as it turned out. We watched the downpour from a covered bench. Once the sun reemerged, we rode west toward the foothills of the Cascades, a rolling barrier that transformed flat farmland into hilly challenges.
In Brownsville we stopped at the Corner Cafe, a creaky, high-ceilinged building that was once a pharmacy, and then a saloon. Our server told us a female ghost haunts the place but that she seemed content with the activity in the café. Maybe the ghost approves of the organic salads, thick sandwiches, slices of pie and—best of all—locally brewed Ninkasi beer on tap. With just 24 more miles to go, we embraced the route’s biggest climb, just south of Brownsville, and then cruised into Coburg, home to a pizza parlor and coffee shop. At last, we pedaled into Armitage County Park—the end of the route and 54 miles from where we began that morning.
Because Eugene is only five miles further south, we’d heard many riders continue the journey by riding into town for a meal and lodging. Some opt to take Amtrak home; the Cascades line runs twice a day from Eugene to Portland and bikes cost just $5 to carry on board. But Tony and I decided to act like purists (tired purists), saying that if the WV signs were finished then so were we. We called a friend for a ride. As we dismounted our bikes for the last time, I knew I’d uncovered a few new unknowns about the Willamette Valley. Now I know the sound that hop vines make as they rustle and sway in the sun and that farmers in pickup trucks will always tip their hats at cyclists.
About the Author: Lucy Burningham
Lucy Burningham is a Portland-based writer who covers food, drink and travel for a variety of publications. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Saveur, Bicycling and Lonely Planet guidebooks, and she frequently writes about craft beer. In 2012, she co-authored “Hop in the Saddle: A Guide to Portland’s Craft Beer Scene by Bike.”
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In this Itinerary
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