Cycle Exploregon: Going off-highway between Bandon and Gold Beach

Cycle Exploregon: Going off-highway between Bandon and Gold Beach

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Riding near Chismore Butte, 2,600 feet above the Coast Highway in the Roge River-Siskiyou National Forest.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Welcome to Cycle Exploregon, our annual adventure done in partnership with Cycle Oregon to explore beyond their official route. See other stories in this series here.

CO-sponsorsI love the Oregon Coast Highway — a.k.a. “The People’s Coast.” It’s a national treasure and also one of the most famous bicycle routes in the world.

But it has a dark side. It has stopped being the “Scenic Byway” it was intended to be and now it’s also a major thoroughfare used by commuters, commercial truckers, and oblivious RV drivers. I’ve ridden its narrow shoulder many times since my first ride down it 20 years ago. When I ride it these days, my main goal is to get off the highway as much as possible and leave the loud and smelly motorized traffic behind.

This is easier said than done. Because of rugged cliffs and steep mountains, backroads are few and far between — especially ones that loop back onto the highway eventually. And much of the land around the highway is privately owned by ranchers and farmers who put gates up on their roads to keep people out.

On Sunday, day three of my four-day journey, I rode from Bandon to Gold Beach. Along the way I made three attempts up three different canyon roads only to be forced to turn around by a locked gate and “private property” signs each time. I should have known better. My digital maps showed the roads looping back to the highway, but upon further inspection (after arriving home) my paper maps show the gates and dead-ends. (*Protip: Always consult multiple maps before committing to a route.)

Even though I had to turn back three times, the explorations where well worth it. Fourmile Creek Road led me into small canyons so quiet it seemed like I could hear every ripple in the creek and every bird in their nest — a stark contrast to the Coast Highway just a few miles away.

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Fourmile Road is a dead-end but it’s worth exploring.

My explorations in Fourmile also led me to a chance meeting with a hardscrabble fellow, Steve Miller.

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Steve Miller, a sheep rancher born and raised in the canyons above the Oregon Coast Highway.

I flagged down Miller’s dusty, beat-up pickup truck to ask if any of the roads would connect to Langlois Mountain Road — my connection back to the Coast Highway that I knew was paved and open to the public. From the moment he cracked open his door I wanted to know more about him. Thankfully he was happy to share.

Miller is 75-years-old and he and his family raise about 180 sheep on the adjacent 320 acres. The Miller Ranch has been in continuous operation since 1886.

“Back in the day, we were just trying to survive,” he said, with his truck door propped open to talk to a random guy on a bicycle. “Everything revolves around surviving winter.”

Miller seemed to know that he was a bit crazy to still be “chasing sheep around” at 75. He shared with me that his mom died after herding the sheep well into her 80s. “I think people out here live a long time because they haven’t got time to lay down. Gotta’ keep goin.”

“And the animals don’t care if you want another cup of coffee in the morning or if it’s raining. They just need to be fed,” he continued. “And besides, if you have animals you have a moral obligation to take care of them.”

Pondering how different Miller’s life is than mine, I pedaled up two more canyons only to be forced to turned back, crestfallen, after private gates stopped my progress.

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I was told by a neighbor that Mr. “CW” Waterman would probably let me through if I could just chat with him first. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to meet him. Maybe next time.

Then I tried Bethel Mountain Lane/Bethel Creek Road. I met a man tending his land at the bottom and asked him if I’d encounter any locked gates. He said there might be one, but it was intended to keep livestock in more than people out. With that in mind I pedaled on. The road became gravel pretty quickly and it went straight up for about five miles and 1,200 feet. The 360-views of mountains and golden-grass-covered canyons at the top were unforgettable.

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Glad I had 35mm knobby tires.
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Then I looked up and saw yet another locked gate.

I double-checked my map and realized I was only about one mile from Langlois Mountain Road. So close! I looked around to assess the situation: nothing around but rocks and plants and sheep; no “keep out” or “private property” signs on the gate; no indication of closure on my (digital) map. I used my intuition and decided this gate would be OK to hop over. (*Note: After returning home I realized the land between the two gates is marked “private” on one of my paper maps. In hindsight I would only do this loop again if I had expressed permission from the landowner.)

Eventually I made it to Langlois Mountain Road. Wow. The perfectly smooth paved road drops down from 1,300 feet to sea level in just four miles. I careened down, reaching a top speed of 44 mph while peeking over my bars from a tuck position to soak in breathtaking views of the Pacific. And like a cherry on top of a sundae, the road comes out right at the excellent Langlois Market, a prime refueling stop.

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My next foray off the highway was just a few miles south on the Coast Highway at Elk River Road.

Elk River Road is part of a new Oregon Scenic Bikeway. It clings to the winding river and gets more interesting, quiet, and remote with each passing mile. There are swimming spots galore that will tempt you with crystal clear water and deep blue pools.

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Elk River Road.
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The official route is an out-and-back that follows the river for about 22 miles each way. I wanted to make it a loop so I turned onto National Forest Road 5502 at about the 10-mile mark. With gravel and dirt under my wheels I left the Elk River canyon and climbed for about six miles and 2,000 feet of elevation gain over buttes and mountains. The climb was tough, but the rewards of solitude, high-mountain views, and a 14-mile descent through the forest more than made up for it. I eventually popped out on the pavement at Euchre Creek Road and then met back up with the Cycle Oregon route on Squaw Valley Road.

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Can’t resist the dirt and rocks!
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Views well worth the climb.
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Euchre Creek Rd.
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Squaw Valley Road just north of Gold Beach and the Rogue River.
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Gold Beach and the Patterson Bridge from Rogue River Road.

After a full day of explorations I finished well after sunset with a roll over the Patterson Bridge into Gold Beach. I rode 100 miles from Bandon to Gold Beach with only 20 of those miles on the Coast Highway. Mission accomplished.

Here are a few more photos from the ride:

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Bandon is full of great seafood joints. This one is right on the waterfront.
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Yard art in Bandon.
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Coquille River Lighthouse.
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Tsunami fears have led to new bike paths to high ground in Bandon.
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Special thanks to Western Bikeworks for sponsoring this series.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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