Thursday, March 23, 2017

Following the River, Part Two: Portland's Marine Drive

One river. Two airports. Three freeways. Four wetlands. Twenty miles of scenic bike trails. Welcome to Portland's Marine Drive. Popular with commuters and recreation seekers alike, this route follows the Columbia River from its confluence with the Willamette in North Portland all the way to Delta Park in Troutdale. The gentle grade and the lack of traffic congestion make this an efficient route for those exploring the northernmost perimeter of our state, whether as access to the river, a means of wetland-hopping, or simply for the thrill of the ride itself. This is one bike ride that would be almost as much fun in a car. But where's the fun in that?

We begin our ride in downtown Troutdale, where Highway 30 emerges out of the Columbia River Gorge. But wait, haven't we already pedaled Highway 30? Yes, actually, as you come down off the Historic Columbia River Highway and finish exploring Lewis and Clark and Sandy Delta Parks you drop down through the shops of quaint downtown Troutdale to rejoin civilization. But this is far from the end of our historic highway. It soon gets lost in the jumble of freeways, joining I-84 for awhile, splitting into a bypass on Sandy Boulevard, and apparently disappearing completely for a section before emerging anew like a phoenix in Northwest Portland to continue along the banks of the Columbia on its way to join the sea in Astoria. Marine Drive, however, cuts out the messy bit for us cyclists and can be used as an efficient and scenic link between these stretches of the highway. Perhaps another time we can do a Smell-The-Roses bike trip from Portland to Astoria. But back to Marine Drive.

Bike maps of the full, twenty-mile route are hard to come by, but this website's interactive map can be used for most of it. A limited but printable map can also be found here. From Troutdale, take 257th Avenue north towards I-84. You will pass under the freeway and continue northwest past the Troutdale Airport. Watch for small airplanes taking off and landing as you ride alongside traffic on an ample shoulder through two miles of industrialized area. If you brought along your fishing pole, Chinook Landing Marine Park can be reached by a short ride north on 223rd Ave. Shortly after this crossing, we get our first view of the river and the scenic part of our journey begins. Blue Lake Road off to the south will bring you to popular Blue Lake Regional Park, also worth a stop if you packed along a fishing pole or picnic basket. The tree-covered protrusions you will see out in the Columbia are McGuire and Government Islands, the latter of which is large enough to merit its own State Recreation Area. Both, however, are only reachable by boat.

After passing 185th Drive, watch on your right for a wide, paved path veering off the main road and towards the river. This is the start of our non-motorized, multi-use path, and while cyclists are certainly welcome to remain on the main road for the duration of the ride, the multi-use paths are far more pleasant and safe. The route here is simple and flat, so cruise along and enjoy the fresh air, smooth road, and exquisite views. Do watch for other traffic, as this route is popular with everyone. Be sure to be courteous and yield to pedestrians, strollers, roller skaters, and everyone else out enjoying the riparian air.

After about a mile the multi-use path crosses the road and you will ride past tree-lined industrial buildings for a short stint before rejoining the main road. Ride along the shoulder as you prepare to meet our second freeway: I-205 (note: it is possible to cross over to Washington on I-205's bike lane, which is safer and more clearly marked than the I-5 bike lane. To cross, watch for a paved path on the south side of Marine Drive leading to the multi-use path on I-205). Continuing on today's ride, stay on the shoulder and cruise underneath the freeway.

Shortly after crossing the freeway, and around nine miles into our ride, watch on the right for the entrance to our multi-use path. Follow along the river as Government Island ends and gives us our first true look at the Washington border. Suddenly our low-lying path climbs a small incline and we get our first clear view of Portland's PDX International Airport. This is a great place to pause, soak in the panoramic view, and watch some air traffic come and go. About four miles after I-205, the multi-use path will pass along popular Broughton Beach before crossing back over to the south side of the road. Shortly after this, there will be an underpass going under 33rd Drive. On the other side you will come to a T-intersection with confusing signage. It would appear that heading south would allow you to pick up the multi-use trail again, but such is not the case. All that you will find is a correctional institution and a salad factory. Learn from my mistakes. Head north and continue on the shoulder of the main road.

The scene becomes more urban as we pass powerboat retailers and yacht clubs on our way towards I-5, our third and final freeway. Branch off to the right on Bridgeton Road at Clemens Marina and continue along the waterfront. Full disclosure: the ride from here is much less scenic and mostly runs through industrial areas and shipyards, but it does give access to more wetlands and a beautiful riverside park. While the marinas of Bridgeton Road would be a worthy ending place for a fifteen-mile waterfront ride, those who choose to ride the remaining five miles will not regret it. Shortly before Bridgeton ends, turn onto Gantenbein Road and rejoin a vastly different Marine Drive as it runs through residential neighborhoods, small businesses, and waterfront hotels. Marine Drive here joins Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and passes over I-5, but watch on your right shortly before this for a bike path and follow the signs to a safer underpass.

Smith and Bybee Wetlands
Kelley Point Park
The underpass becomes yet another multi-use path that continues for just over a mile before rejoining the main road. After about another mile, a well-marked road off to your left can be used to access the Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area. Cruise the access road for glimpses of the wetlands, or lock your bike at the trailhead near where you came in to get a closer look. Back on Marine Drive, we have a mere two and a half miles left to ride. One final length of multi-use path runs between the Drive and the wetland; follow this until our beloved Marine Drive turns sharply southwest and becomes Lombard Street. Here you will find the entrance to our grand finale, the dramatic Kelley Point Park. Ride through the trees to the second parking lot and join the paved trail out to the very tip of North Portland to watch the Columbia and Willamette Rivers collide and join forces in their quest to find the sea. The trail loops around, so take your time soaking up the views as you ride through forests and meadows on the banks of these two powerful rivers. As usual, be courteous of others as you bike the loop trail, you certainly will not be alone here.

The Columbia River from the very tip of Kelley Point Park
And thus our ride is at an end. Rejoin Marine Drive to go back the way you came, or head down Lombard to visit the beautiful historic St. John's District and meet up with Highway 30 once more. We have now explored the two rivers that originally drew wagon trains to the area so long ago. So get a taste of urban life along the Willamette as it cuts through the heart of our state's largest city, or breathe the fresh, open air along the mighty Columbia that forms our northernmost border. Grab a picnic and inflate those tires. The rivers of Portland are waiting.

Back on the Troutdale side, the multi-use path begins.

Some of the many houseboats you will see along your way

Underpass at I-205

Note the airplane hangars on the south side of the road

The more industrial scenery on the west side of I-5

On the road to Kelley Point Park

The Columbia River near its confluence with the Willamette

See you on the road!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Following the River: Portland's South Waterfront Loop

It's that time of year again: spring is taking its sweet time getting here, trails are muddy, and the weather is unpredictable and sometimes downright ugly. We are in Oregon, though, so there is always something to do in between showers and downpours. This urban bike loop runs right through the heart of Portland, but it rarely leaves the riverside. It features parks, a wildlife refuge, two museums, a choice of bridges (both new and historic), and a walkway on the river itself. The loop can also be done as a day hike, or sections of it can be enjoyed from a wheelchair. These paths are popular, so the people watching is just as good as the bird watching during this easy urban excursion.

Portland was built on the banks of the Willamette, and the river was its lifeblood in the years before good roads offered other means of transportation. Today, the Willamette still defines Portland; in fact, it is the dividing line between Eastside and Westside, We will find the river nestled against the skyscrapers of Downtown, and we will find it skirting a peaceful wetland. Expect joggers, dogs, high-speed bicyclists, dragon boats, an occasional homeless person, and probably rain. Expect Portland.
Tilikum Crossing

The full loop totals eleven miles, crossing the river on the Sellwood and Steel Bridges. Taking the new Tilikum Crossing bridge cuts a few miles off the route and avoids the most congested areas, so this might be a good choice for families with children. While the shorter route is easier to negotiate, it misses the Eastbank Esplanade, a waterfront path that is well worth a little extra effort.
Sellwood Bridge

Our trip starts in the Sellwood neighborhood, known for its charming old houses, quaint shops, and popular restaurants. If you are driving, find parking on a narrow side street and bike to Tacoma Street (it should be noted that, while this is an excellent map, we don't follow the itinerary shown; we prefer to start on the east side).

Tacoma proceeds onto the new Sellwood Bridge. While the lovely old bridge is missed, the new structure boasts a wide sidewalk and generous bike lane. Enjoy your first view of the river, then turn right on the west side and head toward downtown. The path here is wide and easy to follow. Watch for a variety of waterfowl and listen for the shouts of the dragon boaters. Pass through Willamette Park, which offers picnic facilities, restrooms, a play area, and a boat ramp.

The silver potato that is the OHSU arial tram comes home to roost.
After Willamette Park, the path can be sketchy at times due to private property and ongoing construction. It finally ends abruptly near the Old Spaghetti Factory, so it's necessary to leave the river briefly and pedal along Bond and Moody Streets. One highlight of this section is OHSU's aerial tram. If the tram is running, the public is welcome to ride for a fee. A little further along you will find Tilikum Crossing, which offers cyclists and pedestrians a new and unique route over the Willamette. OMSI, an excellent science and technology museum, is next to this bridge on the east side.

Waterfront Park and the Oregon Maritime Museum
If you choose to continue on, you will notice that the riverside path has resumed for pedestrians, but cyclists must walk their bikes or stay on the street for a while longer. After rejoining the path, pass through Waterfront Park, where you will find ever-increasing numbers of people. This historic park can get very crowded, so be careful and courteous as you ride. Look for metal bollards used to tie up ships when they are in port. You will pass the Oregon Maritime Museum, a floating museum housed in a steam-powered sternwheeler.

Steel Bridge, note the pedestrian and cyclist path at the bottom of the structure
Now you will see it in the distance: a tall, black, medieval-looking structure. The Steel Bridge looms ahead, complete with its complicated arrangement of cables and pulleys. Assuming the drawbridge is closed, traffic will be zipping along on the narrow roadway high above your small, defenseless bicycle. But that is not where you are going; look below the hectic traffic to the base of the black metal framework. A wide path for pedestrians and cyclists will take you across only thirty feet above the water.

Upon reaching the opposite riverbank, a right turn puts you onto the Eastbank Esplanade. Here the walkway floats on the Willamette for 1,200 feet, so you can actually take a short ride on the river! Just past the Hawthorne Bridge you will pass alongside OMSI; be especially watchful for children on this section. The submarine moored in the river is the USS Blueback, one of OMSI's exhibits. The Esplanade ends just past Tilikum Crossing, but excellent signage will direct you onto Caruthers Street. Turn right onto 4th Avenue and connect with the Springwater Corridor.

The route quickly becomes less urban as you enter Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge. Ride along the muddy, brush-snarled riverbank past Ross Island and watch for a broad wetland stretching out to your left. Oaks Amusement Park appears on the right, then Sellwood Riverfront Park. There are picnic facilities and a boat dock here, as well as restrooms which always seem to be locked. Heading up from the park, you will find yourself back in Sellwood just north of Tacoma Street.
A dragon boat races along the mighty Willamette

It would be easy to make a day of this loop, pausing to shop, or eat, or tour a museum. Just riding the loop could take hours if you stop often to enjoy the views. Spend some time beside the Willamette. Watch the ducks, the dragon boats, the yachts, and the strange species known as "Portlanders." Soak up a little of Oregon's history. Watch the water flow by on its way to the Columbia, then the sea. It's almost spring. Come follow the river.