Distance: 77 miles one way
Elevation gain: 3590 ft
A modified version of this ride is included in Jim Moore’s 75 Classic Rides Oregon: the Best Road Biking Routes from Mountaineers Books.
The country between Highway 101 around Coos Bay/Florence and Highway 5 near Eugene is beautiful and has lots of nice roads that follow rivers from the coast inland, but they’re all a little too trafficky for me, except this one. Here you’ll have the river and the lush forests pretty much to yourself. Highway 38 running parallel just to the south siphens off everyone except the few people who live along Smith River Road.
This ride is all about the scenery—except for the one store and a few houses, there is basically nothing in the way of human development along the route. The first 42 miles are especially beautiful and almost effortless. The lovely Smith River is smack on your shoulder much of the way, the road is small, and you’re often riding in a canopy with mottled sunshine peaking through the maples. This stretch of road is that rarity in this list, a flat ride—in the first 20 miles, all upstream, you climb 650 ft, as the river rises a grand total of 30 ft. But don’t expect it to be “downstream” when you turn around if you’re riding an out and back—it’s just about the same 650 ft.
(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)
Between Gardiner and Reedsport, turn off Hwy 101 onto Lower Smith River Road, aka Hwy 48 (signed, but understated), park at any turnout, and start riding. In the beginning, the river is very wide and the landscape very open, but in a few miles the river narrows and the foliage closes in. From there until you leave the river, the canopy comes and goes, and the river, when it isn’t right next to you, is often bordered by marsh or meadow. The view keeps alternating among canopy, meadow, river vista, backlit riverbank maples…you won’t be able to decide which is prettier.
When I first rode this route a few years ago, the sense of solitude was intense. As with all pretty back-country roads in the West, people have realized that living on Smith River Rd. would be pretty cool, and you won’t be alone until well into the ride. As evidence of this, there is now a large country store and RV park just after North Fork Rd. (which is Hwy 48, surprisingly) takes off to the L, just past 14 miles in. But we’re talking about the difference between “car-less” and a car every mile.
At first the road surface is pristine. Around 14 miles in, there’s a sign reading “End County Maintenance” and the surface turns to moderately rough chipseal. As meager compensation, someone has painted mileage markers on the road beginning there.
About 31 miles in, West Fork Smith River Rd. takes off to the L, and you keep east along the main river. 39 miles in, you leave the river (actually, the river leaves you, bending sharply south at a Y, and taking Smith River Road with it) and continue straight ahead/east. The road changes its name to South Sister Rd. (There’s a North Sister Rd. taking off to your L just before the Y, and it goes to the same place, but I think it’s dirt.) Now everything changes—you start climbing and the land dries out. If you’re here for the river ambience and the flat, this is the place to turn around. Frankly, the rest of the ride, while rewarding, can’t match what you’ve just done.
Fifty-seven miles in you reach Alma, which is merely an intersection with Siuslaw (pronounced sigh-OOH-slaw) Rd. Go R on Siuslaw about a mile and take Wolf Creek Rd on your left. At the end of Wolf Creek Rd there’s a jog and you continue on Crow Rd into Eugene.
Once you get to Alma, there’s an alternate route with better riding. Instead of taking Wolf Creek Road to the north, stay on the road going east, which is now Siuslaw Road. You soon pick up the Siuslaw River and follow it to Lorane, then continue east on Cottage Grove-Lorane Rd. to Cottage Grove. The riding is lusher and prettier on this route, but it does leave you in Cottage Grove. If that’s OK, that’s the way I’d go. It’s a pleasant little town with a good BBQ joint (Big Stuff).
Adding miles: The area southwest of Eugene you’ve just ridden through is a network of small, pretty up-and-down roads. Briggs Hill, McBeth, and Fox Hollow are particularly nice. If you’re in Eugene with a car, north of town is the classic McKenzie View loop: McKenzie View Drive>Hill>Sunderman>Marcola>Old Mohawk>McKenzie View Drive.
Riding in this area definitely requires a good map, and luckily there is one, the Lane County Bicycle Map, which is an absolute work of art, with designated ride routes, traffic levels, and degree of pitch all marked out for you. The LCBM covers the entire route of the Gardiner to Eugene ride, even though the first half of the ride is not in Lane County. I don’t think there’s a downloadable version, but you can order it for $3 on the Internet.
On the ocean end, you’re close to a ton of good riding if you can stand some traffic. The ride north on 101 from Gardiner to Florence is supposed to be particularly nice, and in fact all of Oregon 101 is a legendary route for bike touring, less trafficked, more laid-back, and much more dotted with coastal towns and hamlets than California Highway 1. As I mentioned before, Coos Bay, Reedsport, and Florence all have nice, mellow highways running inland along rivers, but they’re all a tad more trafficked than I like. From Eugene it’s a short car trip to the Alpine to Alsea ride.
Afterthoughts: Water is hard to come by on this route. Once you pass the store, you may be without a resupply until you beg water from the ranches near Eugene. There’s nothing at Alma. Time to break out the camelbak.
There are rudimentary bathrooms at National Forest Service launch ramps along the first 20 miles.