Two-Wheeled Connections: New Scenic Bikeways Reaching Rural Oregon

By Craig Beebe, Communications and Development Coordinator

As it has so many times, Oregon has done something pioneering recently: designating, mapping, and marking official state Scenic Bikeways, which some of the state’s most inspiring landscapes and interesting communities.

The Scenic Bikeways range from the broad Willamette Valley and the covered bridges of Lane County, to the sweeping vistas between Sisters and Smith Rock, to rugged climbs from Heppner to Ukiah and over McKenzie Pass. They are are an opportunity for anyone—Oregonian or not—to plan adventures ranging from less than a day to a week or more, (re)discovering the many sides of a state that never lacks for variety.

Managed by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department and a volunteer steering committee, the Scenic Bikeways program is a unique collaboration between a variety of statewide and local partners. As of this writing, nine official routes cross a variety of terrain and difficulty levels, from mild to moderate day rides near the Metolius River, Bend, and Cottage Grove, to challenging 100+ mile rides in remote eastern Oregon. (See a map below).

Read a personal account and see photos from my trip riding two eastern Oregon Scenic Bikeways, the Grande Tour and the Old West Bikeway.

The idea originally emerged from Cycle Oregon, the organization best known for bringing 2000-plus cyclists out every year for weeklong tours of Oregon’s countryside. More than just a big ride, a major part of Cycle Oregon’s mission is to provide grants for rural economic development and active transportation. Executive Director Jerry Norquist says the Scenic Bikeways are a perfect opportunity to provide a lasting benefit to rural communities, long after the big ride has come through town. That’s why Cycle Oregon was willing to help seed the program with a $50,000 grant in 2009.

“The better the route, the smaller the community, the bigger impact we can have,” Norquist says of the organization’s dedication to the concept.The program is also contributing to proactive, locally-driven economic planning in many Oregon communities that are in need of new economic opportunities. The Scenic Bikeway program is ultimately about making connections, working collaboratively for sustainable economic development, and capitalizing on some of rural Oregon’s best assets: stunning scenery, quiet roads, and friendly people.

Defining Scenic Bikeways

Oregon has hundreds of miles of great roads for biking. But just pulling out a map and putting up signs isn’t much of a service to the communities that the Scenic Bikeways are intended to serve, or to the cyclists meant to ride on them.

That’s why the Scenic Bikeways program uses a bottom-up approach to designating the bikeways, says Alex Phillips, who coordinates the program for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. Local business owners, advocates, and community leaders must come together to create a detailed proposal for a statewide Scenic Bikeways Committee to consider. They must show they have sufficient services and support locally, a detailed marketing plan, and, of course, a worthy ride.

The eleven-member Scenic Bikeways committee takes each application very seriously, with a stipulation written into state law that at members of the committee must ride each proposed Scenic Bikeway before a designation is made, rating the experience based on several criteria, including traffic level, road conditions and safety, presence of local services, and of course the natural and manmade scenery along the proposed route.

The rigor of the assessment means that some well-known bike tour routes, such as the Oregon Coast Bike Route, do not actually meet the criteria of the State Scenic Bikeways, due to traffic or other concerns.

“We’re looking for the best of the best bikeways,” Phillips says. Of thousands of miles proposed in the initial round of scenic bikeways designation, only about half were accepted.

Reaping the Rewards

Once a Scenic Bikeway is designated, Travel Oregon steps in to help market the route and provide trainings to locals on effective strategies for attracting cyclists and providing an enjoyable experience.

Kristin Dahl, who conducts these “Bicycle Tourism Studios” for Travel Oregon, says that local jurisdictions are really perking up to the vast potential of attracting more bike tourists, particularly given the relatively low investment. “When you articulate the trends, they get really excited about it,” she says. 

And evidence is mounting that cyclists can play a major role in keeping the doors open at small cafes, markets, and motels in remote corners of the state. That’s why Travel Oregon has taken a keen interest in the program, Dahl says.

Bicycle tourism is becoming a big business in Oregon. In 2009, Travel Oregon reports, 1.3 million trips in Oregon included cycling as an activity; from 2009 to 2011, 26% of the 17.4 million U.S. adults who visited Oregon rode a bike. Together, these cyclists spent $223 million in Oregon, primarily on lodging, meals and retail. And among these cycle tourists, overnight riders are particularly big spenders: they spent 8 times more than day travelers.

Clearly, the potential impact is huge, and it’s already being felt along the bikeways. Mike Cosgrove, a retired John Day educator who serves as the volunteer chair of the Scenic Bikeway Committee and is the key proponent of the 175-mile Old West Scenic Bikeway in Grant County, cites the little restaurant/store at Austin Junction, high in the Blue Mountains between John Day and Baker City. The store is many miles from the nearest real settlement, but it has a prime location on the Old West Scenic Bikeway, coming just after one of the highest passes on the route, when cyclists are ready for a rest and a cold drink or milkshake. “The owner of the store has told me she’s been getting 3-4 more visitors on an average day,” Cosgrove says. While that may not sound like a lot, for stores in very rural places, it can make the difference between a profit and a loss for that day.

“In our small communities, [cycling] is becoming very precious,” Cosgrove says, noting that even once-skeptical locals are beginning to understand the economic benefit. “They’re starting to look at cyclists as if they have big dollar signs on their backs,” he says.

Working with Travel Oregon, Cosgrove has organized and connected local businesses in Grant County to learn more and work to provide tourists of all sort with the best possible experience, recognizing the potential they have to bring more money to the county’s restaurants and stores. “Two Wheels Spoken Here” signs have sprouted across in small settlements and rural stores across the county, giving cyclists a sense of welcome and drawing in business. A recent article in the Blue Mountain Eagle described the program and leaders' hopes for it.

Norquist, who lives near the Sisters to Smith Rock Scenic Bikeway, says he’s heard similar things from rural neighbors in that area. “It’s working,” said one of his neighbors after the bikeway’s signs first went up last year. Phillips and Dahl share similar stories.

Gearing Up: Oregon’s Potential

Ellee Thalheimer, an experienced travel writer and cycle trip leader, has pedaled thousands of miles on Oregon’s roads. Many of her favorite rides are collected in Cycling Sojourner, her attractive new guide to multi-day touring throughout Oregon. Thalheimer believes Oregon is on the brink of something really big with bicycle tourism. “Other states aren’t doing what we’re doing. Oregon is becoming a destination spot for bicycling,” she says. The reaction to her book has helped prove that.

Dahl agrees, noting that great cycling (on- and off-road) is one of the best reasons to visit rural Oregon, and the agency is finding success attracting cyclists from all over the nation using resources like the trip planning website and the Scenic Bikeways map. “We need rural tourism to be sustainable,” Dahl says. Travel Oregon hopes to make cycling a big part of that strategy.

While the partners have not yet been able to track the number of riders using the Scenic Bikeways, OPRD’s Phillips says that interest has boomed recently, citing evidence like a huge spike in visitors to the program website and anecdotal conversations with riders and locals alike. “This summer, I got the most calls I’ve ever had,” she says.

Around the Next Bend: The Future of Scenic Bikeways

As successful as the program’s implementation has been thus far, it’s still growing. Another four to five Bikeways are in the pipeline, and applications are still being accepted for further designations. Phillips says that family-friendly routes are in especially high demand.

And the program’s organizers are working hard to keep building connections—between people and between great rides. Trainings and organizing are ongoing in the communities along the bikeways, and Travel Oregon is working hard to promote the program all over the state and country. There is a lot to do. “We’re still figuring out how to take full advantage of the program,” says Cosgrove.

All agree that one of the key issues to be addressed is a stable funding source, particularly as the Cycle Oregon grant money is spent. It doesn’t take much money to administer the program, but there are real costs to putting up signs and providing the necessary training to help the program reach its goals. Travel Oregon is working on a detailed study to demonstrate the Bikeways’ payoff, in terms of rural jobs and spending, which advocates hope will help make the case for more permanent funding.

Bicycles aren’t going to save eastern Oregon’s economy by themselves. “I’m not out to replace logging trucks,” says Cosgrove, and that’s right. As it has been, so it needs to be in the future: these areas depend on the land and its resources for their economy. Such resources—whether tangible, like timber and water, or more conceptual, like views and the land itself, need to be managed carefully and, as the Bikeway example suggests, collaboratively.

“It has to be community-led,” Cosgrove says, noting that just getting together and talking about a positive vision for economic development has been a huge thing for his community in Grant County.

With committed partners, a solid vision, and—of course—gorgeous, enjoyable rides, the Scenic Bikeways program is just beginning to make its impact clear for rural Oregon. It is a sustainable form of tourism that doesn't trade away these areas' best assets. And as Jerry Norquist points out, bringing more Oregonians to the beauty of the state's rural countryside will likely help improve awareness of threats that could harm its long-term productivity and beauty, and help build a sense of common interest in the health of rural economies. (Learn more about our work for Healthy Rural Economies here.)

Scenic Bikeways Resources: