Escape the City: In search of Hobo Joe

Escape the City: In search of Hobo Joe

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Just a few miles north of Hillsboro and Highway 26 are miles of unpaved roads waiting to be ridden.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Before we get to know Hobo Joe, I want to share a brief programming note…

When I started mountain biking back in the 1990s one of the things that really drew me into it was the solitude. In just a few minutes of pedaling (I was lucky to live close to mountains), I could get away from busy roads full of smelly and loud cars.

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This new Giant TCX-SX is nimble and fun whether
on the racecourse or on backroads.

These days I’m motivated to ride and stay in shape for that same reason. As our roads get more crowded and more dangerous, my urge to escape has never been stronger. And I don’t think I’m the only one. My hunch is that the huge surge of interest in “gravel grinding” and “gravel bikes” is coming from a desire to escape urban areas. It’s an urge that’s driven by a fear of traffic, a need to unplug from the insanity of modern American culture, and partly by a good, old-fashioned thirst for adventure and new experiences.

Many of us are drawn to roads less traveled (a.k.a. #roadslikethese) and they’re often unpaved.

Thankfully, advances in technology make escaping by bike easier than ever. Drop-bar “road” bikes now come with bigger tires and more comfortable frames and there are many digital tools and devices to help plan and discover new routes — and to keep us from getting lost once we’re out there.

Over the coming weeks and months I’ll be sharing some of my favorite escape routes. I’ll also introduce you to some great characters who I’ve come to think of as Portland’s escape artists — people with vast knowledge of unpaved routes that are off the beaten path. In addition to getting away from it all, we’ll also be getting into it on the race course.

This coverage is being made possible thanks to a partnership with River City Bicycles and Giant Bicycles. They’ve provided me with an excellent bike for exploring and racing, the new Giant TCX-SX (above). With just a month or so in the saddle, I can already report that my TCX has exceeded expectations on the racecourse and on some of the most remote backroads in the region.

Hope you enjoy the coverage.

Now, onto this Hobo Joe character…

Washington County recognizes 220 miles of unpaved roads on their official map and Beaverton resident Dan Morgan has ridden nearly every inch of them. (“Dyno Dan” is one of the escape artists I plan to tell you more about in an upcoming post.) When I asked him to share a favorite Washington County escape route last month, he emailed back a route named Hobo Joe. Hoping to find out why he named it that, I met up with him at Jessie Mays Community Center in North Plains (which is a great spot to know about if you ride in this area because it has a porta-pottie and a drinking fountain.)

To get there, I rode up and over the west hills via Springville Road and then skirted over to my favorite west-side-traffic-avoidance-alternate-route: Rock Creek Trail. By taking advantage of the ribbon of nine greenspace parks between housing developments it’s possible to avoid five miles of busy and stressful roads. Whenever going east-west north of Highway 26 I take the Rock Creek path between Kaiser Woods Park and the Rock Creek Powerline Park soccer fields.

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Rock Creek Trail near Bethany Lake. Sure beats riding on West Union.

Once I got to North Plains and hooked up with Dan, we rolled north onto Old Pumpkin Ridge Road. It didn’t take long before we hit gravel on Corey Road. A few turns later a big view of a valley opened up with farms and trees and mountains as far we could see. “In the winter there are so many white geese in these fields it looks like snow,” Dan said.

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Looking west toward Gumm Creek and Dairy Creek.

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Dan gritting out a short but steep climb on Corey Road.
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Hard to believe this is just a few minutes from Highway 26.

By riding on Corey Road and Keller Road (both of which are unpaved) we were able to avoid about five miles of riding on Pumpkin Ridge Road, which is paved, has poor sight lines and very little shoulder room to ride in. By the time we re-connected with Pumpkin Ridge we were so far out of town that we didn’t have to worry about other traffic at all.

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Pumpkin Ridge Road near Horning’s Hideout.

After four or so miles climbing up Pumpkin Ridge we headed east on Smoke Ranch Road at a locked yellow gate (it’s open for biking). On one of the gate posts someone had tagged “Hobo Joe” with a bicycle clearly drawn on both of the “Os” in Hobo. Who was this person? Dan has no idea and neither do I. Whoever it is, Smoke Ranch Road seems like the perfect place where a bicycle hobo would want to be. Overgrown with weeds and brush, it winds through thick groves of trees and crosses seven creeks on its way to Dixie Mountain Road and the highest point of our loop — 1,500 feet.

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Once atop Dixie Mountain Road we were treated to a stroke-inducing, 13-mile descent back to Shadybook Drive and eventually North Plains.

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Classic Washington County backroad.

The Hobo Joe loop is about 33 miles and 3,500 feet of elevation gain. If you’re looking for an escape from Hillsboro, Forest Grove, or Beaverton, I highly recommend checking this out. And if you ever find Hobo Joe, tell him I’d like to meet him.

Stay tuned next week for an escape to Gunners Lake, a hidden gem of Columbia County.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 –

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