Bicycle Geographies: A Personal Reflection from Eastern Oregon
Part One: Eden Before Eden

Photos and Story by Craig Beebe, 1000 Friends Communications and Development Coordinator. Opinions are my own. 

Note: This is part one of a two-part story describing my recent cycle touring adventure on two of Oregon's newly designated Scenic Bikeways. Read Part Two: John Day Discoveries here.

It began with a simple question. My friend Charlie, about to move away from Oregon after about a decade, wanted an opportunity to see some more of the state and to do something big before he left. “Why not go east?” I’d asked. I had been eyeing two of Oregon’s newly designated “Scenic Bikeways”, a program created by a diverse group of local organizations, state agencies, and cycle advocates.  (Learn more about the Scenic Bikeways program here.) Though we’re both confident riders in the city and have done some long day rides, neither of us had been on a multiday bike ride before. We knew we were in for a challenge, but in the weeks leading up to the journey, we bubbled with excitement.

Growing up in eastern Washington, and as someone who enjoys traveling to new places, I'd been to a lot of these places before. But I knew that cycling would provide a completely different perspective. Compared to a car, when you bicycle all day, you don’t cover many miles. But you see more of the miles you cover. That’s what a good friend and I discovered on a recent pair of multi-day bike tours in eastern Oregon. There is a world of stories and a texture of landscape one sees from a bike saddle that just flies by too quickly in a car. 

And the trips delivered. Here is a bit about what we saw and what we learned.

Eden Before Eden: The Grande Tour

We began with the Grande Tour Scenic Bikeway, a figure-8 route through Union and Baker counties, with the town of Union as its crux, a 134-mile tour through two of eastern Oregon’s most significant valleys: the Grande Ronde and the Powder River (or Baker). This three-day tour on mostly quiet state highways and county roads links several towns possessing considerable charm amid productive wheat fields and extensive ranches, filling the valleys beneath mountains like the imposing Wallowas and Elkhorns. The climbing is moderate, the traffic light, and the broad vistas unceasingly spectacular.

The Grande Ronde Valley might be called an Eden on the way to Eden. As thousands of families and adventurers streamed west on the Oregon Trail, having just crossed the sage desert hills from the Snake River and facing the arduous climb ahead in the Blue Mountains, they passed through this remarkably circular valley. Perhaps they paused to water and maybe let the oxen graze, but nearly all moved on quickly, over the Blues and down toward the Umatilla and the Columbia.

Yet a few hardy souls stayed or returned to the Grande Ronde Valley. Within a decade of settlement in the 1860s, the valley was well populated and sending its produce to mining settlements across Oregon and Idaho. And today it is still a lively, productive valley, with several small towns at its edges anchored by the “Hub of Northeastern Oregon,” La Grande. Here you’ll find Union, “the City of Victorian Heritage” named in a patriotic fervor amid the Civil War (as was the county); Island City, a crossroads community with an unlikely name given that it is in the middle of a valley; and tidy Cove, tucked into a corner of the valley beneath Mount Fannie and the Wallowa Mountains.

It’s the same for the Powder River Valley in Baker County, reached after crossing windblown sage hills from Union. Here too, early pioneers were impressed by the beauty but not enough for most to remain. After gold was discovered in the Elkhorns in the 1860s, however, the valley quickly populated and Baker County was created. Farmers, logging mills, and railroads followed soon. The valley is smaller than Grande Ronde, but possesses a more intimate kind of majesty, with the Wallowas and Elkhorns facing off over the towns of North Powder, Haines, and Baker City.

Just like those early pioneers, most travelers in these parts still move quickly through the valleys. The Oregon Trail has been replaced by the Old Oregon Trail Highway, a slightly oxymoronic name. It’s better known as Interstate 84. Slower roads like old Highway 30 and the Medical Springs Highway provide alternative options between the valleys, which the Grande Tour employs.

Riding this tour, we were struck by the centrality of agriculture to each community we passed through. The vast fields, where the green wheat was just turning golden and herds of cows munched on thriving grasses, seemed to penetrate right into the heart of every town, with much of the local commerce geared toward supporting farming operations. There is no doubt that agriculture continues to be a huge asset for these communities, and its viability a major concern for local leaders and residents.

We felt the grand isolation of the Medical Springs Highway, where high sagebrush desert descends to narrow strips of green along the lower Powder River and patches of isolated ranches on the climb back into the Blues. We got our first taste of what the heat can do to a road cyclist: asphalt baking beneath a pounding sun, while small balls of boiled-up tar popped beneath our tires. And we felt the relief of a real oasis as we reached Pondosa, an all but deserted company logging town that closed over 50 years ago yet still has a quirky general store. Owned by a kindly elderly couple, this store was a salvation like no other after 20 miles on parched blacktop—cold drinks, air conditioning, and friendly faces, enough to get us over the pass into the Catherine Creek canyon leading back to the Grande Ronde.

In Union County, we saw evidence of a battle over the county’s energy future. Nearly every home seemed to have a sign either celebrating or denouncing wind energy. Some windmills in the hills between the counties were already spinning furiously in the strong winds we faced riding through there, but scores more have been proposed along other ridges and hills. This has fueled a strong debate in the county, which culminated in an advisory vote last November in which local voters expressed opposition to further wind development in their area. Evidently, the debate continues. Without taking sides in this particular debate, it occurred to us that we’re glad to live in a state where ordinary citizens feel they can stand up and express opinions about the future of their community. It’s the foundation of Oregon’s land use system, and a fundamental part of a healthy democracy.

Altogether, the Grande Tour was a relatively moderate introduction to bike touring. Over two days of biking, we grew accustomed to the feeling of cycling all day, to finding a pace that’s enjoyable yet efficient, to the frequent waves from local residents driving on county roads or pleasant conversations in a bakery or store. We were hooked almost immediately.

Read Part Two--John Day Discoveries: A Trip on Grant County's Old West Scenic Bikeway.

View a Slideshow of the Grande Tour here:

Learn more about the Scenic Bikeways program and find additional resources to plan your own trip here.