Introduction - Willamette Valley Covered Bridges - CycleBlaze

Introduction

Covered Bridges

This is a 12-day theme tour to pedal to 26 covered bridges in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, USA. It's sort of a treasure hunt because the covered bridges are widely scattered and mostly on remote roads with complex navigation.

It was easy to learn the location of all the covered bridges. I simply went to Google Maps and entered Willamette Valley covered bridges in the Search window.

Google Maps search result for Willamette Valley Covered Bridges. 7 more bridges show up when zooming in.
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Oregon once had 500 covered bridges but only about 60 remain. They are built with wood which is cheap and locally sourced, but needs to be kept dry for long life. Oregon doesn't have have much limestone for making concrete, and Oregon doesn't produce iron and steel. So it made economic sense to build bridges with locally available materials. Especially during the Depression.

Nearly all covered bridges are built with the Howe Truss design which was invented in 1840 by William Howe in Massachusetts. The design was widely used for wood and iron/steel bridges well into the 20th century.

Willamette Valley

The Willamette Valley is Oregon's largest valley, centered around the Willamette river which is a major tributary of the Columbia river. The Willamette river is fed by large tributaries flowing out of the Cascade Range to the east. And by smaller tributaries flowing out of the Coast Range to the west.

Willamette river watershed. The valley is near the Willamette river between the brown shaded hills. Source: Wikipedia.
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I live in the Umpqua river valley which is immediately south of the Willamette Valley. The Willamette Valley is close to home but I seldom go there. In fact I deliberately avoid the Willamette Valley because it has 70% of Oregon's population and has more traffic than the rest of Oregon. My route avoids the Portland metro area which has more than half of Oregon's population, but still goes into big towns such as Salem, Corvallis, and Springfield.

The Willamette Valley is heavily developed with farms and towns, so it has a grid of paved back roads that doesn't exist in the rest of Oregon. The back roads offer excellent cycling but have complex navigation. 10-20 turns per day instead of my usual 2-5 turns per day.

The Willamette Valley has many busy state highways and county roads, but they are more likely to have a shoulder than in other parts of Oregon. Urban areas in Oregon have bike lanes everywhere, but most rural highways in Oregon do not have a usable paved shoulder for cyclists.

The middle of the Willamette Valley is mostly flat but the edges are hilly. The eastern hills are part of the Cascade Range. The western hills are part of the Coast Range. Most of the tour route is in the hilly region because that's where the covered bridges are located.

Ancestral Home

The Willamette Valley is the ancestral home of the Kalapuya tribe. Their territory spanned from the northern Umpqua valley all the way north to Portland.

Map of Oregon before white settlement. Lines are tribe boundaries. Colors designate language groups. Names are bands/dialects within each tribe. Source: PSU C-GEO Student Atlas of Oregon.
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Today the Kalapuya tribe is one of 9 tribes forcibly assimilated into the Federally-recognized Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde.

The Route

The start/finish point of the loop is in Cottage Grove which is the southernmost town in the Willamette Valley. Only 35 miles north of my house.

It took some effort to design a practical cycling route to all the covered bridges with lodging every night. I reserved the lodging in early April, which was barely soon enough. Prices were very high and many places were already almost fully booked.

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The meandering 460 mile (736 km) loop stays in a small geographic area that spans only 100 miles north to south and 50 miles west to east. Elevation varies from 100 feet (30m) at the northernmost point to 1750 feet (534m) at Silver Falls State Park.

The route includes detours to interesting places that don't have covered bridges. First is a detour to the historic town of Brownsville which I have never seen. The biggest climb takes me to Silver Falls State Park to hike to 3 huge waterfalls. The northernmost part of the route is a big detour to see the Willamette river and learn about Oregon pioneer history at Champoeg and Willamette Mission state parks. And I went through Salem to see the state capitol.

Timing

I wanted to do the tour in July to have reliably warm and dry weather, low chance of wildfire smoke, and cherries and marionberries at fruit stands. May and early June were exceptionally wet and cool, so there isn't much chance of wildfires in the near term. I settled on late June because of unusual circumstances.

July 2022 is not a good time to do the tour because I want to avoid the July 2-4 holiday weekend and the July 8-10 Oregon Country Fair which has 35,000 visitors per day in the small town of Veneta. I also need to avoid the July 15-24 World Track and Field championships in Eugene because lodging would be impossible to get in most of the Willamette Valley.

Cyclist and Bike

I turned 61 years old two weeks before the tour started. I'm not a gifted athlete, not a nutritional role model, and not disciplined about training. The route is far from flat but it has no big mountain climbs and few steep grades. It's a good match for my abilities. This is my 50th independent bike tour since 1988.

Start/finish point in Cottage Grove.
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The bike is a 2007 Bacchetta Giro 20 short wheelbase recumbent with Euro Mesh seat and Ventisit seat pad. Under the seat are a Terracycle underseat rack and faded Arkel RT-40 panniers that are two years older than the bike. I use 40mm wide Schwalbe Marathon Racer tires. The lowest gear is a 24 tooth chainring and 34 tooth rear cog driving a 26 inch wheel.

Getting There

Easy! My wife dropped me off and picked me up, only a 40 minute drive from home. I appreciate the simple logistics of a local tour compared to the previous 3 tours in faraway places that required a total of 8 days of driving.

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marilyn swettI'll be looking forward to reading your journal Wayne! We have biked in that valley a couple of times and seen a few covered bridges. I agree about the fruit stands and remember picking wild blackberries and apples from the side of the road. We'd love to go back and tour there again. Do they have the country fair and track and field championships every year?
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2 months ago
Wayne EstesTo marilyn swettMarilyn, Oregon Country Fair is every year, but was cancelled in 2020 and 2021. It had 50,000 people per day before the pandemic but this year it is limited to 35,000 day.

The IAAF World championships is also an annual event. 2022 is the 15th incarnation of the event, but the first time it's been held in the U.S. It was also cancelled the previous two years. The previous IAAF World championships took place in Doha, Qatar in 2019. The Eugene event is expected to fill hotels from Roseburg to Salem.

Back to your question, I think July is usually good for touring. Cherries and marionberries are in season. The weather is reliably warm and sunny. The chance for smoke is minimal because the Willamette valley is usually upwind from fires in the Cascade Range. The Coast Range doesn't have many big fires because it has lower temperatures, higher humidity, and less lightning. You would probably want to avoid 4th of July period but late July should be no problem. Oregon Country Fair is not a problem if you stay more than 50 miles away at the time.
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2 months ago
Rachael AndersonGreat country to bicycle in and the covered bridges are wonderful!
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2 months ago
marilyn swettThanks for the info Wayne! In 2018, we had biked down the coast of Oregon and had planned to bike north from CA through the Willamette Valley to return to our car that we'd left in Scio. The wildfire smoke was so bad that we had to rent a UHaul at the border and drive back. I think that was likely in August? I think the smoke was from CA fires and maybe some in Oregon.
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2 months ago
George HallLooking forward to following along. In 2015 I rode through the valley on the Transam route in August - it was a good ride then, your journal will help me recall some memories.
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2 months ago