Sisters to Smith Rock Scenic Bikeway makes a great first bike tour
State Scenic Bikeway Coordinator Alex Phillips manages the 15 designated scenic bikeways in Oregon. The routes are some of the best bike rides in the state and showcase beautiful scenery, state history and local communities. They run past state parks on paved paths and roads, cross mountain passes and high desert plains, and meander through lush farmlands and covered bridges spanning sparkling streams.
Alex shares her passion for bicycling in this bike-alogue of her and a friend’s trip on the Smith Rock Scenic Bikeway.
The Sisters to Smith Rock Scenic Bikeway is the perfect introduction to the world of self-supported bicycle touring. The ride can be split in two 35-mile days with a rest day of hiking at Smith Rock State Park in between.
To test my assertion, I invited an old friend from our 1980s college days who is a hiker, but not much of a cyclist. Melanie traveled from Massachusetts to my home in Salem. To start her Oregon vacation off right, I took her out to sample Oregon’s wines. She fell in love with a pinot noir, which ended up making the trip with us.
The next morning we woke early for the two-hour drive to the “old west” town of Sisters, the start of central Oregon’s Sisters to Smith Rock Scenic Bikeway. We parked the car near Village Green City Park in the middle of town after checking that overnight street parking was allowed. Mel was impressed by the newly remodeled restroom with cheap, hot showers. Sisters is a town that caters to people who love to be outdoors, get sweaty and then want to clean up to check out the town.
We unloaded our bikes and loaded up our panniers packed with gear for two nights of camping. Then we tested out the load on the short one-mile ride to Sisters Creekside Campground to do what is known in bike touring lingo as the “shake down ride”: a short ride to test that all our gear was packed correctly and that we had what we needed and not too much. We had packed Mel’s borrowed panniers carefully, putting most of the weight in mine.
After setting up our tents, it was just a short walk through the campground for a delicious pizza piled with large, tasty green olives and fresh veggies. Sister’s restaurants, bakeries and coffee houses are popular with bicyclists and visitors.
The next morning we headed out under partly cloudy conditions. In central Oregon, this means that the huge, puffy clouds covering the mountains in the distance would blow off momentarily, exposing a fleeting blue-sky mountain view, before returning to obscure the snow-tipped peaks.
We passed views of the huge and hulking snow-covered Cascades and the smaller and distinct-looking Black Butte, a perfectly round cone that used to be the inside of an ancient volcano.
We took a break for lunch and snapped some photos of baby alpacas grazing in the field. Then, at about mile 27, Mel started to get tired. We just took it slowly, stopping several times to eat gooey electrolytes from tiny packets.
We rode into Smith Rock State Park about five hours (and 35 miles) after leaving Sisters, not exactly record time. We just wanted to have fun, and I wanted to share my love of bike touring. Smith Rock is a great destination with its towering, sheer ragged cliffs of red rocks framed by blue skies and nestled between the curves and crooks of the Crooked River. The park’s majestic rock spires attract climbers from around the world, and its rustic “bivouac” camping area is designed to accommodate them. I felt like we were visiting another world, being among all of those climbers—a world of zero percent body fat.
Spending the night at Smith Rock
After our long day on the bikes, we enjoyed the bottle of pinot Mel had so determinedly hauled. We sat on the edge of the camping area, dangling our legs off the rock that dropped off into the river canyon. Across from us was a solitary ponderosa pine, the home of a bald eagle’s nest. We watched one adult feed the babies while the other watched us and all around, serving as a sentry.
The next morning we were awakened by the strangest screeching and yelling I have ever heard. Later that day, as we headed out to hike Misery Ridge at the park, an Oregon State Parks wildlife biologist told us that immature great horned owls were responsible for that odd wake-up call!
She also told us that some of the climbing routes were closed for a few months to give space and comfort to the Peregrine falcons that lay their eggs on natural ledges in the rocks.
After our impromptu ornithology lesson, we started the moderately difficult 5-mile loop up and over Misery Ridge. The top of the hike—after 900-feet of elevation gain—offers incredible views of the towering Monkey Face, a rock formation popular with climbers. You can also get great views of the Crooked River.
That night, after hiking all day, I worried I had pushed Mel too hard on her first bike tour. We still had the return trip. But Mel woke up before I did and was ready for her second day of bike touring!
A new view
The elevation profile on the Scenic Bikeway map showed that Sisters was about 960 feet higher than Smith Rock. We were going to have to climb back to Sisters. But, we found that with all the rolling hills with long flat sections, the return trip felt no harder than the trip to Smith Rock.
About five miles into our ride, Mel asked if we had missed a turn, since the road looked so different. That is the beauty of an out-and-back: the return trip always offers a new experience. We now had time to really see the places we had zoomed past on the downhill, and what we had seen on the uphill was now just a blur of ponderosa pines, sage, rabbit brush and mountains.
Soaking in the scenery, we even spotted a Great Blue Heron. During one of our short rests on the side of the road, Mel commented on the silence. She said she could hear a mourning dove a mile away. To me, this is one of the best moments of bike touring: the quiet you could never hear from a car.
We stopped to chat with other cyclists also loaded with panniers. Everyone we met had trained more than Melanie and I, and all were riding more miles per day and more days overall. We didn’t care. In Melanie’s words, “Who has time for that?”
Heading out on a first bike tour and with little training at age 50 can be daunting. The bikeway map and directional signage on the route made route planning easy. Melanie paced herself along the way and accomplished her first bike tour, enjoying just a taste and views of Oregon’s bounty along the way.