Though impossible to please everybody at once, it's hard to imagine anyone but the most technically minded adrenaline junkies feeling anything short of amazed by the Banks-Vernonia State Trail (Northwest Sellers and Banks roads, Banks). Completed in 2010, after two decades of improvements, the 21-mile path that replaced an abandoned rail line is like a greatest-hits album for cyclists—the journey is comforting and triggers nostalgia, yet provides perspective. And you'll want to keep repeating it because the scenery really is that good.
The trail begins in Banks at a kitschy mock rail station and parking lot that's guaranteed to be full by 10 am on most temperate days. Young families and small groups in matching kits mill about outside the restroom and in the overflow parking across the street, affixing copious amounts of safety gear that's surely recommended but probably unnecessary considering how smooth the majority of the trek is.
From there it's all uphill, but the grade rarely breaks 3 percent, creating a gentle resistance that will help burn plenty of calories but not leave you panting in the process. On our trip in early April, we shared the path with a handful of MAMILs who were clearly hauling ass for the sake of fitness, but even their presence wasn't enough to harsh the mellow of the trail as it ascends from the bucolic farmland of Washington County to the verdant foothills of the Coast Range. This is a course for Sunday drivers, those of us who'd rather be stopping to smell the roses than working up a sweat.
The first opportunity for one of those prolonged pauses comes about 4 miles in, at Blue Jay's Restaurant, where you can grab a pint of beer and a quesadilla, or load up on snacks at the adjacent jerky store in case you forgot. After that, hang out with the posse of goats that assembles on the corner of a farm bordering the trail just outside of Manning. Though not exactly a petting zoo, it's clear these animals know exactly where to go for a bit of attention and handfuls of grass from kids who'd much rather be playing with the pint-sized pack than being schlepped through the woods by their parents.
After passing through a long clearing with rolling hills on the horizon, the trail retreats into the woods and begins a northbound climb. You'll ride over an old railroad trestle that feels like a refurbished wooden roller coaster track spanning a ravine, and about 7 miles along the route is where you'll begin to share space with bike campers and equestrians from L.L. Stub Stewart State Park. The horse people have a handful of offshoot trails that you can divert to on foot to pay a visit to any of the neighboring creeks or even a disc golf course. It's worth it to check your pace at this point and account for the fact that you're technically only a quarter of the way finished with the round trip.
The remainder of the excursion offers a display of natural splendor that only gets more lush and classic Pacific Northwest as the miles wind on. The scent of fir needles cooking in the sun fills the air while you pedal over Beaver Creek on a bumpy wooden overpass, and at about 15 miles in, the trail meets up with the Nehalem Highway for the majority of the final leg. You're nearly home free when you cross the Nehalem River, at which point the course begins to hook east, eventually nearing its terminus at Anderson Park in Vernonia. Halfway through the victory lap around Vernonia Lake is what's left of the Oregon-American Sawmill, a roofless concrete building caked in surprisingly vivid and tasteful graffiti courtesy of rogue artists who defied the "No Trespassing" sign in the name of creative expression. If you're on pace to make it back to Banks by sundown, it's worth stopping in Vernonia for a Reuben and a pint of beer at the Black Iron Grill.
Perhaps the most appealing feature of the Banks-Vernonia Trail is its gradual climb the first half, which translates to a moderate workout on the way out and an almost pedal-free trip back to the trailhead. We completed the return in almost half the time it took to get to Vernonia, which meant there was plenty of time to celebrate the day's work in Banks at the recently opened Hop Cycle Brewing, which is one errant contractor away from producing beer. But until then, it's still a fine place to sit at a picnic table and enjoy a burger or a sausage with a guest pint of pFriem IPA. Few things are as satisfying as a meal felt earned.