Bike in the slow lane along Oregon's Banks-Vernonia State Trail

The 80-foot-high Buxton Trestle
Tired of dodging Spandex-clad bikers, yelling "On your left,'' as they barrel along big-city bike trails such as Seattle's Burke-Gilman? Peaceful, paved cycling trails await in many rural areas. If you happen to be traveling between the Oregon coast and Portland, the Banks-Vernonia State Trail is worth a detour.

Exit US-26 - the east/west Portland-coastal link - in either direction, and you'll find the shaded, mostly flat, forested trail along an abandoned railroad bed used in the 1920s to haul lumber from local mills to Portland. 

The 21-mile stretch, now entirely paved, was the first "rails-to-trails'' state park built in Oregon in the early 1990s, as I report in a story for the Seattle Times. Over the years, it's been improved as a family-friendly multi-use recreational area  intended for slow speed use by bikers,walkers and joggers. 

Doing the 42-mile round-trip ride in 90-degree heat a few weeks ago was a stretch for my husband and me. But with no pressure to pedal faster, the biggest challenge turned out to be sitting on a bicycle seat for the better part of four hours. The payoff: A leisurely ride through a scenic slice of rural Oregon, capped off with a lunch worth every mile. 

The route  

Most bikers start in Banks, 30 miles west of Portland, and ride to Vernonia where a handful of cafes and restaurants cater to cyclists. The average overall incline is 3-4 percent, meaning the ride is slightly steeper going from Banks to Vernonia than visa-versa.

"It's easiest to get the work out of the way first,'' said Tonya Roerig of Portland who was using the trail one morning to train for an upcoming race. "It's a nice, gradual descent on the way back.'' 

When she's "booking it,'' Roerig said it usually takes her and hour and forty-five minutes out and an hour and twenty minutes back. We made a day of it, starting at 10 a.m. and returning by 4 p.m., with time out for lunch and lots of photo and water breaks.

The ride

Starting in Banks, highway traffic along the first few miles is buffered by blackberry bushes, wildflowers and farmland. This is a flat family-friendly stretch that draws walkers and kids either riding their own bikes or being pulled along in carriages by their parents. 

The slight uphill climb through shady forest land begins after crossing the first of 13 bridges, and passing by a small lumber mill in Manning.

"Water at the trailhead," someone yelled. Wyatt Edwards, 11, wearing shorts, no shirt, was riding towards us, drumming up business for the refreshment stand he and his friend, Tyler Smith,  set up to raise money for their youth camp.

Trailside entrepreneurs

We drank homemade lemonade from plastic water bottles while they pointed out a black-capped chickadee (The trail is popular with birdwatchers), and directed us onward to the curving 80-foot-high Buxton Trestle crossing Mendenhall Creek.  

With more time, we might have veered off onto one of the hiking or mountain biking trails that wend through L.L. Stub Stewart State Park.  Pacing ourselves to arrive in Vernonia for lunch, we were content to soak up the scent of evergreens and views of the Oregon Coast Range foothills. 

The only real hill, so steep that signs warn cyclists to walk their bikes down, came about 14 miles out at the Tophill Trailhead where a series of switchbacks provide a detour around remnants of the fire-damaged Horseshoe trestle. 

The reward

Skirting the highway again for the last few miles, the trail ends at Anderson Park, a few blocks from downtown Vernonia. Scattered among saddle repair shops and stores selling custom-made vests and chaps on Bridge Street are some culinary surprises.

The reward at trail's end

Finding the Blue House Mediterranean Cafe (bike parking provided inside) was like stepping into the home of an Armenian grandmother. Thirsty after our ride, it was hard to decide whether to go for the house-brewed beer, lavender lemonade or mint iced tea.  Nothing on the menu - from lamb burgers to vegetarian dolmades platters - is more than $10. A few doors down, cyclists packs the outdoor patio at the Black Iron Grill on weekends to refuel on wild berry smoothies before heading back to Banks. 

If you go:

Traveling from either Portland or the Oregon Coast, follow US-26 to NW Banks Road. Find parking, restrooms and maps at the Banks trailhead at NW Banks Rd. and NW Sellers Rd. 

Trail information:
 For those looking to shorten the ride, there are other access points at Manning, Buxton, L.L. Stub Stewart State Park, Tophill and Beavercreek. Most have parking and restrooms. Download a trail map here.  

More information from Oregon State Parks

Bike rentals:

Rates start at $9 for the first hour, $35 for five hours at Banks Bicycles, 14175 NW Sellers 

Where to eat:

Blue House Mediterranean Cafe, 919 Bridge St. 503-429-4350. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.- 8 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m.

The Black Iron Grill and Black Bear Coffee,  831 Bridge St. 503-429-0214. Open Monday-Thursday, 6 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 6 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 6 a.m.-8 p.m.

Spending the night: 

Thirteen miles from the Banks trailhead in Forest Grove is the McMenamins Grand Lodge with 77 European-style rooms and a soaking pool. Rates vary according to availability. Phone: 877-992-9533.  

Closer to Vernonia is the Coastal Mountain Sport Haus, a four-room inn inspired by the owners' cycling trips in  Northern Italy. Rates start at $125 per person, including meals. Phone: 503-429-6940. 

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