My first bike ride from Portland to the coast was awful. I rode the MAX to Hillsboro, then pedaled out to the busy Oregon Route 6 to Tillamook. My enduring memory was the sound—a distant rumble, a whoosh, and more rumbling. I rode along the narrow shoulder, next to loaded-up logging trucks flying by at 60 miles per hour. Rumble, whoosh, rumble. One slip by a guy driving a lifted truck and tossing empty cans of Busch out the window onto a forest floor and my death would be instantaneous. Rumble, whoosh, rumble.
I was shell-shocked by the ride. When I got back from that trip, I went straight to River City Bicycles and bought the brightest cycling clothing on the shelves.
"I rode out to the coast last weekend, and now I'm scared of cars," I told the clerk.
"Bruh," he said, "next time you gotta take Nestucca."
Nestucca River Road is one of Oregon's best-loved bike routes. It starts as Meadowlake Road in the wine country town of Carlton and winds through the mountains, passing along the titular river, several camping areas and McGuire Reservoir, which is managed by the city of McMinnville. After about four hours of riding, you emerge from the forest in the farm town of Blaine. From there, it's another hour to the town of Beaver, where you join U.S. Highway 101. From there, you can go south to Pacific City or north toward Sand Lake, Tillamook and Cape Lookout.
Look closely at a map, and you'll see that Nestucca is the most direct route from the valley to Tillamook. It's rarely traveled by passenger cars, though, because it's a steep and rugged road. Much of it is paved but narrow, with one-lane bridges over the rushing creeks and waterfalls feeding the river. Several miles of potholed gravel further dissuades speedy traffic.
Ever since I heard about Nestucca, I'd been a little obsessed. On one of my trips to the coast, I even drove the road to scout it—definitely not recommended if your car sits extra low or just got a wash.
By bike, Nestucca is everything the cyclists say and more. It is the best bike route I've taken in Oregon—55 miles with 2,500 feet of vertical gain to churn up and bombable hills where you can spray gravel on the way down. It's a lot of fun, but also a brutal day for your legs.
So I cheated—sort of. I ended up borrowing an electric-assist fat-tired bike from Cynergy E-Bikes on Southeast Powell Boulevard, equipped with a battery that gives you a little extra push as you pedal. That push basically makes it feasible to attempt this ride on a hefty mountain bike weighed down with supplies and oversized tires. With the pedal assist on its lowest setting—which is the only way to complete a ride like this—the beastly bike is just a bit easier to pedal than my everyday ride, a commuter bike with an internal hub gear.
I set out from downtown Carlton at 8:15 am on a sunny Saturday morning, with two fully charged batteries, 3 liters of water and a box of granola bars.
The first 20 miles are a steady uphill climb, from the farmlands of the valley into open fields and slowly into the forest. I used the mid level of assistance for a few steep stretches and made fantastic time, averaging about 13 mph. But I also wore through the first battery pretty fast. It conked out at only 16 miles in, leading me to become far more conservative with my electricity. That was fine. No need to rush—Nestucca has scenery worth savoring.
By the time you get to the reservoir, you're firmly in the forest. The road is narrow and the trees come to the edge of the asphalt. Every half-hour or so, pull-outs offer outlooks on the Coast Range. The sky disappears, and the moss gets thick on the fallen trees. After you enter federal forestland, there are several unimproved campgrounds with pit toilets perched alongside the rushing green river, which grows stronger and stronger as more little creeks and waterfalls feed into it.
After five hours on my bike, the enduring memory was again the sound. No rumbling, thankfully—just the whooshing of the water and the wind blowing in the trees. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.
From downtown Carlton, take Meadowlake Road until it turns into Nestucca River Road and follow it to the intersection with U.S. Highway 101 in the city of Beaver.