Destination Astoria, Oregon
From issue 82 • Words by Yuri Hauswald w/images from Kurt Wolfgang
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
The Graveyard of the Pacific, a treacherous stretch of Pacific Northwest coastline known for its unpredictable weather and rocky shores, has seen 2,000 shipwrecks and claimed more than 700 lives over the centuries. So it’s safe to say a lot of souls have washed ashore in Astoria, Oregon, which sits at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River. This boom-to-bust logging/fishing town, founded in 1811, holds the distinction of being the first permanent United States settlement on the Pacific coast and the site of the first U.S. post office west of the Rocky Mountains. To say that there’s a powerful confluence of nature, history and life here would be an understatement.
It’s quite possible that Astoria might be haunted, too—at least that’s what Barbara, who prefers to be called Barb, says. She’s lived here for 14 years and currently manages the Atomic Motel, a mid-century throwback that has decor hints of The Jetsons and the Rat Pack. The way Barb sees it, hundreds of souls have washed up, so why wouldn’t the town be haunted. And, by the way, what the hell am I doing here eating chips and salsa and enjoying The Alchemist, a tasty local beer from Fort George brewery, one of five top-notch distilleries in this small coastal town?
The idea was first hatched around riding gravel, lots of it. See, James, one of the masterminds behind that original plan, moved from Oakland, California, to Astoria in 2017 in search of a small-town lifestyle in a coastal environment. He also happened to discover copious amounts of gravel fire roads spidering east from town, and thought he might be able to connect them in a 100-ish-mile route to Portland, which sits in the Willamette Valley to the east, sandwiched between the Cascade and Coast Ranges. The only problem with the plan is that not all the gravel roads are public, and some require permits, so we’ve shelved it for the time being. But we couldn’t give up on the idea of a self-supported bike adventure. It may’ve been Kurt, a Portland native, who came up with the idea to turn it into a road-bike-packing trip. Why not cram 200-plus road miles, and consume as many calories as possible, into two days of riding between Portland and Astoria, carrying only a change of street clothes and some extra rain gear? Calendars were checked, routes were mapped, permission was granted and flights were booked.
Upon landing in Portland, I was promptly swooped up by Kurt in his trusty Toyota pickup and we sputtered off to Pine State Biscuits, where I fell in love with one of their breakfast biscuit sandwiches. The Reggie Deluxe is a delicious combination of fried chicken, bacon, cheese, gravy and an egg smashed between two ridiculously good country biscuits. I inhaled it as we drove to Breadwinner Cycles for a coffee and look-see at the cycling yard sale they were hosting. And for a brief moment I thought about pastries, specifically Pip’s Original Doughnuts, but resisted the urge before we left to finish packing the bikes for the weekend.
We had quite the pedalin’ posse for our Saturday morning lead-out, which included a brief coffee stop at Barista in Portland’s old warehouse district before we tackled the Leif Erickson Trail, a relatively well-maintained 6-mile gravel road that escapes the confines of the city very quickly through Forest Park. Kurt, James and I were the cycling cavalry of sorts, traveling light and fast for this two-day adventure, bikes loaded with minimalist packs, carrying only a change of street clothes, some cash, credit cards and a few other essentials.
Turns out we weren’t as light and as fast as needed, because Kurt suffered two early punctures before we even got to the pavement, leaving us critically low on tubes were it not for the kindness of someone in the group. Just the three of us bombed the Germantown descent, ripping a ribbon of country pavement that dropped onto the floor of the Willamette Valley, a patchwork quilt of fertile land, growing everything from grapes and blueberries to hay and sustainably managed forests.
We then zigged and zagged our way through bucolic backcountry roads filled with farms and barns to Banks, a sleepy little crossroads town that sits 26 miles west of Portland. Banks is the launching pad for many a ride for folks trying to escape the confines of the city, and it also happens to be the beginning of the 21-mile, multi-use Banks–Vernonia State Trail, whose tagline is: “ Where the railroad was once king, woods now reign again.”
Built on an old railroad bed, this well-paved path kinks and bends its way beneath a canopy of healthy trees, occasionally punctuated by gaping clear-cut scars of logging devastation, zones where you’d expect to see the Lorax bravely trying to speak for the trees. We ripped by mangled trestles and wooden bridges, a historic reminder of the mark the lumber industry left on the landscape, and pedaled through tunnels of ripe blackberry bushes bursting with fruit. When we spat out in Vernonia, a town of no more than 2,000 that sits along the Nehalem River, we stopped and grabbed a quick lunch at the Blue House Café, which is also where we met up with Molly Cameron, our tow for the remaining 60 miles to Astoria.
The Coast Range stretches 200 miles north-south from the Columbia River to the middle fork of the Coquille River, and it looks way more rugged on a map than it does on a bike. Highway 202 gently meanders through this mountainous area—considered to be some of the most productive timberland in the world—on perfect pavement. It wound us through Clatsop State Forest and over the shoulder of Elk Mountain before dropping to the coast. At some point, we said our goodbyes to Molly, who turned around, and we plummeted eagerly toward home for the night in Astoria.
So, after 125 relatively car-free miles from Portland, I was enjoying happy hour in the kitschy Atomic Motel, intently listening to Barb’s ghost stories: lore about dead babies and haunted houses; sightings of mysterious/menacing floating bubbles; bright UFO-type flashes coming from the river; and tales of unsuspecting bar patrons being shanghaied or kidnapped by coercive techniques. Speaking of history, the Triangle Tavern, one of the oldest bars in town, still has a trap door that was used specifically to capture ships’ servants.
Today, Astoria’s growing art and brewery scene, tourism and light manufacturing are the main economic activities. Logging and fishing have survived at a fraction of their former levels, but you can feel, see and smell their presence all around you. And, yes, the 1985 cult movie “The Goonies” was filmed here. (For all you Chunk fans out there, I didn’t do the Truffle Shuffle. Sorry.) We had dinner at Fort George’s Lovell Taproom, a hidden little spot that’s perfect for when the main brewery is full; and, after a long day in the saddle, there was still time for a post-dinner ice cream and a walk along the pier before bed.
I made it through the night with no ethereal encounters, but woke to Oregon’s version of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” You know, a typical “summer” day in Oregon, which meant it was socked in with fog and there was a light, coastal drizzle. But some tasty pastries and strong joe from the Columbia River Coffee Roaster boosted our spirits before we rolled into the morning mist for our 104-mile return trip to Portland. We settled into a quiet rhythm, bundled up in our wet-weather gear, all of us wishing it weren’t raining, all trying to dodge the sludgy rooster tails coming off the tires.
We backtracked on Highway 202 to Highway 47, and all the way past Pittsburg. When we got through the Coast Range the rain let up and the roads got real quiet. Occasionally, one of us would get “happy legs”—meaning long, hard pulls when all chatter went silent and breathing got more labored—and the miles would turn over quickly. We veered left at the Scappoose–Vernonia Highway on forested roads that could’ve been somewhere in rural Vermont and made our way to our lunch stop.
With 30 miles left in the day, I’m not sure how smart it was to eat a carne asada burrito in Scappoose, especially when we had a 3-mile climb awaiting us right out of the gate; but wisdom always gets trumped by caloric need. The drizzle turned to rain after lunch, meaning our slog up Rocky Point to NW Skyline Boulevard was a soggy one. We saw-bladed the ridge on quiet, perfect tarmac for 22 miles before ducking into a cemetery and cutting through a neighborhood portal to Kurt’s house, nearly six hours of ride time from Astoria. And to fill the caloric void, we finished the night off with a five-star meal from chef Chris Cosentino’s Jackrabbit PDX, one of the country’s premier dining experiences.
Leading busy lives shouldn’t stop us from getting on our bikes and doing adventurous things, particularly when these can happen in our own backyards. I dare you to set aside two days to cram as many miles, and as many calories, into experiencing a new place by bike, road or gravel. Pull out the map of an area you’ve always wanted to explore and begin plotting a route. Do some Googling, hit up others for intel, dust off those bike-packing bags, find a few friends to join you and start making plans. Who knows, you might find your own haunted city, new favorite pastry shop or perfect pavement to share with friends.