My first bike tour since moving to Portland, OR, was a short trip down the Oregon coast, from Astoria to Cape Lookout south of Tillamook. I started and ended the trip in Portland. The Pacific coast is a popular bike destination, and for good reason: the scenery is beautiful, you’ll find lots of places to stop and visit, and the state campgrounds are excellent (most have hot showers, and hiker/biker rates around $5). If you’re trying to decide if you want to make the trip yourself, I recommend it! Traffic can be heavy at points, but I felt safe at all times, and the experience was definitely a positive one. This trip is best for those who have experience bike touring, though. Especially if you make this trip during the off season (I went in September), you’ll want to be well prepared for heavy rains and cold nights. You should also feel comfortable riding with traffic. Though there’s a shoulder most of the route, it disappears in some towns and gets uncomfortably narrow in some spots.
You have a few options for bike maps, but fortunately the best ones are free. Click here for a map detailing a few routes from Portland to the coast, and here for a complete map of the Oregon coast. Both include elevation and options for camping. There’s also Adventure Cycling’s route and the book Bicycling The Pacific Coast, but if you’re sticking to Oregon, the free maps are really all you need.
Day 1 - Portland to Fort Stevens
78.64 miles, 78.64 miles total
I decided to the start the day early, taking the MAX light rail from Portland to Hillsboro. This meant waking up early, at 4:30am— since I was leaving on a Friday I didn’t want to bring my bike on a crowded rush hour train, and I also wanted to give myself plenty of time to reach the campground before dark. I ended up starting my ride just around dawn, at 6am. Traffic was light all the way up to the start of the Banks–Vernonia Trail, about an hour into my ride.
The 21-mile Banks–Vernonia Trail turned out to be one of the highlights of the day. The trail is paved, away from any motorized traffic, and aside from a couple joggers, I was by myself in the woods. There were a few picnic tables along the trail, so I took my first break of the day to eat breakfast and have coffee.
I was sad to leave the trail, but the rest of my ride wasn’t all that bad. I took highway 47 up to highway 202, which took me most of the way to the Fort Stevens campground. I had heard warnings about logging trucks during weekdays, but everything went well for me. Shoulders were tight, but there was very little traffic. The few trucks I encountered were able to pass with plenty of room.
I decided to skip downtown Astoria and go directly to the campground via the 101 business bypass. The wind was really starting to pick up, and the bridge between Fort Stevens and Astoria seemed pretty intimidating (though I’ve heard it’s actually not so bad). The route to the campground turned out to be very bike friendly, with bike lanes on most of the roads and flashing “bicycle on the bridge” warning lights on narrow crossings. The campground was also great, with free hot showers and a nearly empty hiker / biker section set back into the woods away from the other campers. It was a chilly night once the sun went down, and I was glad I packed a fleece with me. I also discovered I was missing a bolt from one of the cleats on my clipless shoes. I’ll definitely remember to pack a spare for future trips!
Day 2 - Fort Stevens to Barview Campground
68.67 miles 147.31 miles total
I decided to take the morning to explore Fort Stevens and the surrounding area. First stop was the wreck of the Peter Iredale, a hundred-year-old shipwreck located a short ride from the campground. From there I went to Fort Stevens itself, a military fort used up until WWII. Fort Stevens is incredible for anyone who (like me) enjoys exploring abandoned structures. There are dozens of old concrete military structures you can explore by yourself, some of which lead into dark, unlit tunnels. There’s also a guided tour for a fee, and a museum that explains the fort’s history. I didn’t make it out onto the road until nearly noon.
I stopped at Seaside for a quick lunch out of the grocery store. While downtown is neat in a boardwalk kinda way, it wasn’t my first time there and it was way too packed with tourists for me to linger. When I passed through Cannon Beach just a little while later, I regretted not waiting to eat lunch there — some of the smaller restaurants looked pretty appealing. The scenery during this stretch was spectacular, with lots of great ocean views.
My plan for the day was to make it to Cape Lookout, skipping Nehalem Bay State Park. This turned out to be a mistake! By late afternoon I was worried about making it to camp before sunset, and the two big climbs along the route had tired me out. I ended up stopping at Barview Jetty regional campground, which was by far the worst campground I experienced. From the outside, it seemed nice. The area was pretty and the staff were extremely nice, letting me have a spot to myself (for the $5 hiker/biker rate) while they turned away car campers who didn’t have reservations. Once I was inside, though, everything started going wrong. My campground neighbors were playing loud country music from their car (and at one point, dancing on their picnic table). A random dog ran through my campsite, and while I was walking to the bathrooms a teenage girl ran by crying for some unknown reason. Random people were shouting and at one point a sheriff’s car made a loop of the campground. Fortunately, I had bought a small box of wine at the last grocery store. I finished it off, retreated to my hammock, and put in earplugs for the rest of the night.
Lesson learned! In Oregon stick to the state parks for the best campgrounds.
Day 3 - Barview Jetty to Cape Lookout
46.22 miles, 193.53 miles total
Despite how terrible the campsite was, I was glad I didn’t try for Cape Lookout the previous day. Even though Cape Lookout wasn’t very far from Barview Jetty, there was plenty to see and do along the way. First stop was the cheese factory just north of Tillamook. The Tillamook Cheese Factory itself is a fun (though touristy) diversion, and there are few things better on a bike tour then cheese samples and ice cream.
In Tillamook, the bike route leaves 101 for the Three Capes Scenic Route, a beautiful low traffic road which follows Tillamook Bay and the ocean. I took some time to explore Bayocean Peninsula, the former site of a beachside town that was literally washed away by erosion. There’s still a loose gravel path running the length of the peninsula, and although you won’t see much, it is a fun place to explore and enjoy a quiet lunch.
A few miles further down the road is Cape Meares State Park. I took a side trip to see the lighthouse (famously damaged a few years ago by two hicks who used it for gun practice) and the nearby octopus tree.
Up until this point, I’d had good luck with the weather, but that changed quickly (as it does on the coast) once I left Cape Meares. Rain came down in sheets that soaked everything. The road overlooked the bay, and the wind blew ocean water into my face. In a few cases, I was forced to come to a stop until the wind died down. I came prepared, though: when I finally reached Cape Lookout, I had a warm shower, put on several layers of dry clothes and set up my hammock and a tarp shelter away from the rain. It turned out to be a great night, with the rain stopping in time for me to enjoy sitting by a fire as the sun went down. The best part of the evening was reading a copy of The Postman I had picked up — used, for a dollar — in a general store a few miles back in Netarts. All day long I had been looking for a book, in case I got to camp early. The book store in Tillamook was closed on Sundays, and the grocery store only had yawn-inducing novels at full retail price, so I was excited when my last stop turned up something good. Besides being decent sci-fi, The Postman is set in rural Oregon. It felt like a very appropriate book for this trip.
Day 4 - Cape Lookout to Portland
85.1 miles, 278.63 miles total
After such a great night I was sad to leave Cape Lookout, but it was time to head back to Portland. Heading south, I faced one of the steeper hills of the trip, though I didn’t mind (my favorite time to deal with those challenges is in the morning, right after I’ve had a coffee). My plan was to take Nestucca River Road back to Hillsboro, which meant leaving the bike route and returning to 101. Shoulders were a little narrow here, but the ride was fine and soon turned off onto Blaine Road where there wasn’t any real traffic.
About five miles or so into Blaine Road, I faced the big surprise of the day: a “road closed” sign indicating a detour for Nestucca River Road. It took me some time to decide what to do. I already had a long day planned riding back to Portland, and a detour of unknown length on unknown roads made me imagine the worse. On the other hand, I did see a bike tourist coming the opposite direction on Blaine Road. I decided to push on and hope for the best. I hoped maybe the crew wasn’t working that day, or I could skirt around them by walking through the forest. It didn’t turn out that way! After several more miles I reached the construction area where there was a crew installing a culvert with no room to walk by on either side. By this time I had gone way too far to turn back and still reach Portland that day. I decided there was only one option: put on a big smile, look friendly, and walk through the construction area as quickly as I could before anyone said anything. My plan worked, though it involved walking my bike through a tall ditch filled with knee-high mud next to heavy machinery. I did get some weird looks, but everything turned out okay. I kept imagining a sheriff’s car at the end of the road waiting to arrest me, but the rest of Nestucca River Road was a spectacular ride made better by the fact that it was closed to cars. I stopped to make lunch at one of several campsites along the way. They were pretty primitive, but definitely a good option if I were to head to the coast and not feel like doing the entire trip in one day.
The afternoon was certainly less stressful, though still tiring. The last half of Nestucca River Road is mostly climbing, and temperatures rise once you descend into the Willamette valley. Despite nearly running out of water, I found myself back in Hillsboro after a few hours of riding through wine country and farmland. The MAX ride back felt a little anti-climatic, but I was glad to be back in Portland well before sunset. Thinking back on the trip, it’s clear one day I’ll need to head back and complete the rest of the Oregon coast route.
That’s it for this trip, though the rest of the Oregon coast is just as great! I’m working on a post about my next tour, which took me from Portland to San Francisco along the same pacific coast route. Check back!
67 miles / 552 miles total
Not more than a minute or two outside of camp I cross over the Tennessee River. The bridge offers a spectacular view of the river and speedboats down below.
Across the river I make my first stop, at the Rock Spring nature trail. I've only gone a few miles, but it's a good stop. The trail is beautiful in the morning sunlight and I spot a beaver along with other wildlife.
A few miles later I cross into Tennessee. The state line is especially significant since it also means it's time to switch to the fourth and final page of my map. Although I don't want the trip to be over by any means, it's still a nice feeling to know I've almost made it to the end.
As I'm eating lunch I meet an older, southern man in an RV who seems a bit amazed about my trip. He's shocked when I mention I didn't bring any full-length pants with me. If they had come anywhere close to fitting he would have given me a pair of his own jeans. Thankfully they didn't-- I appreciate the offer, but jeans aren't at all practical on a long bike trip. And how do you politely turn down an offer of pants?
Although I stop at a few more nature trails throughout the day I still reach the Meriwether Lewis campground early in the afternoon. I'm in the mood to keep going, but my body doesn't want to cooperate. The hills are starting to tire me out, and my right ankle had been giving me trouble all day.
The Meriwether Lewis site turns out to be the biggest campground on the trace, and also happens to be under renovation when I arrive. Construction vehicles are heading in and out, and everywhere I look there is evidence of new structures and improvements. It makes me happy to see the National Park Service still has funds for projects like this despite the poor state of the economy.
The campground itself is actually a good five minute ride from the entrance, past several picnic areas and hiking trails. I decide not to explore just yet; I'm looking forward to having plenty of time to relax in camp while the sun goes down. When I arrive the campground is already full of RVs, and although I can't find any primitive camping I do manage to snag one of the last RV spots. I feel a little silly taking up a full spot with just my bike and tent though, and decide to pack it in and scout around a little. I talk to the campground host, who invites me to set up just behind his RV. Fortunately it's also a much better spot than the one I had before! I have some soup for dinner, then read a book while sipping hot cocoa until the sun goes down.
99 miles / 651 miles total
I have a decision to make in the morning. The last campground before Nashville is only 20 or so miles from Meriwether Lewis. Ideally I'd like to have a shorter day, but I'm already behind schedule and 20 miles feels like I would accomplish nothing. So, I decide to go for the end instead. In order to have enough time I decide to skip most of the stops and hit them on my way back instead. One of the few I do visit is the Gordon House, one of the oldest historic houses in the region. Unfortunately it's no longer open for tours, but the area does offer a nice hiking trail. I also scout out the Shady Grove bike camp across the road, just in case I have to come back after dark.
When I stop for lunch I meet a motorcyclist out on an afternoon ride. He used to do bike touring when he was younger, and gives me his contact information in case I want to camp in his yard once I reach Nashville. It's a nice offer, but to be honest I'm more looking forward to finally taking a break from camping and staying in a motel tonight.
The hills become more and more difficult as I approach Nashville, and it doesn't help that I was feeling worn out to begin with. There are plenty of triathletes and road cyclists out training who pass me by up the hills. Of course I'm carrying four times their weight, but I have a feeling they'd still be speeding by even if I was on a light race bike.
The last big landmark before the end of the trace is the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge, an impressive double arch bridge that connects the road over the valley below. Although I'm excited to finally reach the end, I take 15 minutes to stop and enjoy the view from above.
Just after 12pm I reach my unofficial destination, the Natchez Trace Parkway welcome sign. It's about 15 miles outside of Nashville, identical to the one I had stopped at back in Natchez. That seemed like ages ago now. I wasn't prepared for any sort of celebration, so I sit down to rest and figure out my plan for tonight.
Now, I wasn't following any hard plan during this trip but I did have something in mind for when I reached Nashville. I'd rent a cheap motel room, celebrate with pizza and beer, maybe even ride downtown and try to find some of the live music the city is known for. Unfortunately it turns out this is more difficult than I expected. As I'm looking up hotel prices on my phone I realize the cheapest option is around $120, way outside my budget. I was hoping for something half that price, at most. I ask a couple locals about hotel options and they confirm there isn't anything else in the area.
So I decide to turn around and head back to Shady Grove, 50 miles away. I realize it's a little crazy, but most people would say the same thing about the trip in general. Maybe if I tried a little harder I could have found a place within my budget, but the truth is I'm not too concerned. I'm a little sad I won't be visiting Nashville, but the real point was the trip itself, not the destination.
I reach Shady Grove just before the sun sets, which surprises me a little given how tired I was. I'm expecting the camp to be empty (as most of the bike-only campgrounds are), but I couldn't have been more wrong. I count at least half a dozen bikes when I rolled in, everything from nice touring bikes to a single speed beach cruiser. It turns out I'd stumbled upon a group called A Ride Till The End. They're a band of veterans and artists riding bikes through the US to oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When I arrive they had already taken over the campground and were busy cooking dinner and setting up camp, but they're very welcoming. They offer me some of their freshly cooked meal; its good to have a meal that doesn't come from a box for a change. I don't have much of my own food left, but I'm glad to share some of my extra hot cocoa mix and Sriracha sauce.
After dinner we all share a campfire until late at night singing songs and telling stories. They're one of the most diverse groups of people I've met. The group includes young activists, old hippies and veterans among others. They told stories about LSD and spiritual experiences, going to war in Afghanistan, getting arrested at protests and living in a commune in the '60s. Ordinarily I would have wanted to go to bed early and get a long night's sleep, but this was too good to pass up.
Epilogue (Days 10 and 11)
149 miles, 800 miles total
The story doesn't end here, but sharing a camp with A Ride Till The End is more of a climatic ending than anything else that happened. I rode for the next two days, stopping only at sites I had skipped over. I met Sylvia Halpern (aka Myrtle The Turtle) who was doing her own tour of the Trace. She told me there was a budget crisis and the government had come close to shutting down for a day, which would have meant closing the Trace.
I decided to end my trip back at Tupelo, where I got a ride for the remaining distance back to Baton Rouge. At that point I was feeling a little out of touch with the outside world, and badly in need of a real shower and food. I ended the trip at just over 800 miles.
The Natchez Trace Parkway was a fantastic experience, something I won't forget soon. I'd recommend the trip for beginning and experienced bike tourists, it seems just the right blend of bike infrastructure, sightseeing and low traffic to make for a perfect adventure.
This is part two of my 800 mile journey up the Natchez Trace Parkway. If you're new, you should start with part one right here!
Day 5 - Kosciusko Bike Camp to Jeff Busby
46 miles / 331 miles total
I set out in the morning to ride into town for supplies. The first item on my list is tent stakes. Although my Hennessy Hammock doesn't need to be staked into the ground, I've found it can sometimes take time to find a location where there are two trees to tie the hammock and also something to tie the side supports and rain fly to. In a pinch you can use your bike or a heavy bag, but it's much more convenient to simply place a few tent stakes where you need them. The local sporting goods store doesn't have camping gear, so I head to Walmart where I get the tent stakes, a small compass to attach to my bar bag, and some extra food and provisions.
I've been eating camp food for five days now, and I finally give in to my temptation to stop for some greasy fast food. I find a McDonalds and buy a burger and fries for an early lunch. As I expected I feel like taking a long nap afterwards, but that burger is one of the best I've ever tasted! While I eat I charge my phone, but I feel conspicuous sitting in a busy McDonalds so I leave soon after I'm done. Kosciusko seems like a nice small town with a laundromat and many little shops, but it's getting late so I get back on my way. By this time I've already ridden about 12 miles.
There's little worth mentioning until I reach French Camp, about 20 miles further up the Trace. French Camp turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. It's part small town, part school, and part history museum. Its history strikes me as a little strange; apparently it used to be some sort of semi-religious school for troubled youths. The school is still in operation today, but it seems more a tourist trap than anything. There's a little cafe and gift shop, along with a boardwalk that passes several historical buildings, old farm equipment, and culminates with a two story museum.
The recumbent cyclist Dave is already here, and he tells me I have to try a sandwich at the cafe. It's only around 3pm and I'm not too hungry (I wish I had waited instead of visiting McDonalds earlier), so I walk around for an hour to see the sights and try to regain my appetite. When I get back to the cafe I order a BLT that's described on the menu as "famous up and down the trace." I figure they're exaggerating, but a few days and several hundred miles later I meet a stranger who asks if I tried the BLT at French Camp. Maybe they weren't being dishonest!
I reach the Jeff Busby campground a few hours prior to dusk. The campground itself is a short ways up a steep hill with hiking trails and a viewing area at the top. It's also the home of a closed-down gas station, formerly the only commercial service located directly on the Trace. Dave happened to arrive a few minutes before me, so we both head up together and pick two tent-only lots. I chose one with a great view of the valley and setting sun. Being a friendly guy, Dave doesn't take any time before chatting up our neighbors in RVs, but I take the opportunity to read a book on my iPad for a few hours. It feels great to have a short day with some time to relax at the end.
Day 5 - Jeff Busby to Tupelo Bike Campground
74 miles / 405 miles total
Before leaving I take half an hour and hike to the top of Jeff Busby park. The view is spectacular, especially with the rising sun. It feels good to stretch my muscles by taking a walk before getting back on the bike.
There are several historical sites along this section of the Trace. The Bynum Mounds is a sunny and relaxing place, so I stop to eat lunch and make a few small adjustments to the saddle angle on my bike. A few miles up the road is the Witch Dance bike-only campground. It's easy to find and seems nice enough, but I don't want to stop this early after yesterday's short day. The next campground at Tupelo is still within riding distance, so I push on.
As I near Tupelo traffic starts to pick up. Once again I had the bad luck of riding into a city near rush hour! I had planned on stopping at the Tupelo National Battlefield, but it was a long day and I was starting to get tired. Riding into the city with traffic, figuring out where to go and making it back to camp started to seem like more trouble than it was worth. However, I change my mind when I find an exit sign pointing out the exact route to the battlefield— it feels like it was there just to motivate me. Unfortunately, the battlefield isn't exactly worth the effort. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but a monument and some cannons on a lot opposite a strip mall wasn't that impressive.
Fortunately the detour isn't too far off trace. The battlefield is only a few miles down one of the main roads into Tupelo, and the shoulders are wide enough that traffic is fine. I pass a Walmart, and make a quick stop to top off my food supplies. There are several fast food restaurants and chains on the same road. The thought of getting dinner at Subway is tempting, but I figured I had spent enough on meals yesterday. Likewise I would have enjoyed stopping at a Starbucks to have a coffee and take advantage of WiFi, but I realize it would be dark by the time I left. When I first planned this trip I was expecting to stop every couple days at coffee shops to browse the web and check my email. As it turned out, there simply weren't enough daylight hours to do that and make it to the next campground.
Back on the Trace it's just a few miles to the Tupelo bike-only campground. This one is not as easy to find, but it was worth it in the end. I follow the instructions in my guidebook to a parking lot across the road from the visitors center, where I see a large "CLOSED" sign on the trailhead that's supposed to lead to the campgrounds. Not a good sign when you're on a bike and dusk is approaching. Ignoring the sign, I head up the trail and come across a clearing with some construction equipment, a port-a-potty and a pile of dismantled barbecue grills. Was this the campground? I decide to follow another trail, and I'm glad I did. In a clearing in the middle of the woods are five or six wooden cabins, fire pits with plenty of firewood, and even an outdoor amphitheater. It seems right out of a 1940s Boy Scout trip... or maybe a 1980s horror movie.
I put my bike and gear in one of the cabins but still sleep outside. Without a sleeping pad I decide my hammock is probably more comfortable than a plywood bunk bed, and I'm still a little nervous about the "CLOSED" sign I had seen earlier.
Day 6 - Tupelo Bike Campground to Tishomingo State Park
42 miles / 447 miles total
The campground has running water and a wash basin, so I rinse my dirty clothes the best I can after eating breakfast. Before getting underway I make a quick trip to the Tupelo Visitor's Center across the road. The park ranger is nice enough to let me charge my phone while I look around. She warns me about a weather advisory— I had no idea, but a bad storm was expected to roll in later that day. After my first day the weather has been nice, but my luck is about to change. The forecast calls for heavy rain, thunderstorms and even tornados! Normally I wouldn't take it too seriously (I've ridden through heavy rain and snow storms before) but I have no idea what to expect in this part of the south. Are tornados common here? The storm hadn't started yet and I figure there's no point in wasting a day just sitting around, so I head out to see how far I can make it before it gets bad. The park ranger gives me a list of shelters along the road just in case.
A few miles up the road I make my first stop, a grave site for 13 unknown confederate civil war soldiers. Further along are the Pharr Indian Mounds. Aside from a few drops of rain there isn't much sign of bad weather yet.
Around 2 or 3pm the sky starts to turn black with heavy rain clouds. A tremendous amount of rain comes down in sheets, driven by heavy wind. My rain jacket holds up admirably, but it doesn't seem like the storm is going to end any time soon. While I'm riding two cars even pull over to warn me the worst is still coming. I figure it's time to call it a day.
I'm just outside the town of Tishomingo, so I decide to try and find a motel for the night. Unfortunately there is nothing promising near the exit and I don't have cell coverage to look on my phone. I don't want to bike three or four miles into town if there isn't anything there, so instead I head to the Tishomingo State Park campground. It was just as well, I found out later the closest motel was 15 miles away.
The power is out when I reach the campground. The primitive camping lots are located on a hill, and the park ranger warns me to pick one near the top in case the road starts to wash out. I quickly choose a promising site and set up my hammock. Using my tarp, a tree and two carabiners I set up a lean-to shelter beside my hammock for cooking. I should note here that the one pleasant thing about this day is dinner. A few days ago I had picked up some vacuum sealed ready-to-eat rice, bean and steak burrito mix along with a pack of tortillas and Sriracha sauce. Although probably not the healthiest thing in the world, it tastes great (especially on a day like this). I consider making a fire to dry out a bit, but other campers had picked the area clean of firewood and all that was left was rotting and soaked with rain. Luckily there's a break in the rain while I set up camp, so I don't get too wet.
It's only late afternoon, but there's little to do besides climb into my hammock and read on my iPad. I pass the time until the evening when the wind starts to pick up. At this point I realize I hadn't done a very good job of setting up my hammock. The trees I picked out were too close together, there wasn't enough room to correctly tension the rain fly. A strong gust of wind would push it up, letting rain inside. Although it isn't too bad I'm worried I'd end up soaked if the storm got worse during the night. After a little debating I took down my hammock and found a better spot. The rainfly was better, but by the time I'm finished I had managed to get my clothes and sleeping bag just wet enough to make a difference. It was only dusk, but I already felt the cold. I've had a few chilly nights before, but this looked like it would be the worst of them.
The night was miserable, but I'm able to stay warm enough to sleep by filling my water bottles with hot water and bringing them into the sleeping bag with me. I had to do this three times throughout the night, but it kept me warm and was more comfortable than trying to sleep on the campsite's bathroom floor. Two lessons learned. Always bring some extra warm clothes, and don't trust the temperature rating on your sleeping bag!
Day 7 - Tishomingo State Park to Colbert Ferry Site
38 miles / 485 miles total
I'm glad to see daylight in the morning. The storm had stopped sometime during the night and there was enough sun out to dry my hammock and sleeping bag. Stopping at Tishomingo turned out to have one unexpected benefit, a hot shower! It had been a few days since my last one, and getting clean again felt great. There was no laundry available, but I was able to clean my dirty clothes pretty well by rinsing them in the shower.
As I leave camp I ask the ranger if there are any stores nearby. I have some rice and tortillas left, but I'm just about out of the fruit and candy I'm constantly snacking on while riding. The ranger directs me to a convenience store just outside the park. It's exactly what you'd picture when you think about a store in the middle of nowhere. The shelves are mostly bare except for dust, fishing gear and a few snacks and canned goods that look like they've been there for years. A grizzled mountain man in hunting gear sits at a table inside and smokes a cigarette while he reads the paper and drinks coffee. One corner of the store is set aside just for VHS movies to rent. I pick out the best looking candy and, since the store also has hot meals, order a cheeseburger to go for lunch.
Back on the Trace I cross into Alabama, leaving Mississippi for the first time. I find several nice nature trails and take a long lunch to let my clothes and sleeping bag dry in the sun. Luckily it wasn't still raining! When I finally get around to eating the burger I'm surprised how good it is considering it only cost $2 or $3. If I had known I would have bought two or three of them!
The campground at Colbert Ferry Site is only twenty miles away. I already felt behind schedule, but after getting a late start in the morning I doubted I could make the next campground before dark. Instead, I decide to ride into the town of Cherokee to find food, and more importantly, a foil emergency blanket in case I have another night like the previous one. The nearest grocery store is a Piggly Wiggly which is further out than I expected. The highway is easy to bike on though, with a wide breakdown lane and a rumble strip along the road. The food selection isn't great but I did buy some fruit and a bunch of $0.99 fruit pastries to snack on. Although I visit four different stores on my way I can't seem to find anyone who sells an emergency blanket like I'm looking for.
The Colbert Ferry Site bike-only campground is easy to find. There's a nearby nature trail, but I'm tired and it's late in the afternoon so I don't explore much of it. The campground itself is nice and secluded, and I quickly find two trees just the right distance apart for my hammock. It's a simple site, but I feel very comfortable there. I'm a little worried about another cold night, so I use my tarp as a sleeping pad inside my hammock to try to block heat loss through the bottom. I sleep fine, but when I wake up the bottom of my sleeping bag is wet with condensation. I've heard others say a sleeping pad will help keep you warm in a hammock, but it seemed like the tarp just did more harm than good.
This weekend is Portland's BikeCraft! Perfect for holiday shopping, BikeCraft has dozens of local vendors selling hats, bags, art prints, shirts and just about every bike themed craft you can imagine.
If you get lost on the way over, just look for an entire block of bicycle parking. Even the tall bikes were in attendance!
Inside there's an entire warehouse of vendors. All sorts of people had booths, from the more well known Portland companies like Black Star Bags to artists stitching and crocheting out of their garages and living rooms. You can find all kinds of products; one table might have professionally made messenger bags, and at the next punk-inspired items hand made from recycled materials.
Like any bike event in Portland there was coffee, beer and food carts in attendance. Surprisingly the coffee from Ristretto Roasters was some of the best I've had since moving here!
There weren't many bikes on display, but this re-built 80's steel road bike caught my eye. A Better Cycle was experimenting with some sort of steel oxidizing technique that resulted in a beautiful matte black finish with visible brazing around the lugs. I would love to have a bike that looks this good, but first the shop has to make sure it doesn't rust out in the rain!
Although there were some high-end goods there, most of the venders were very affordable. There were some great art prints and t-shirts for around $10, and I picked up an awesome hand made laptop bag for 50% off from an artist who was clearing out his old stock. I had a great time and bought several gifts. You can bet I'll be back next year!
This is the first of a series of posts about a bike trip I took in April of 2011. The tour covered 800 miles through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, most of which was ridden on the Natchez Trace Parkway. The Natchez Trace is a 440 mile paved road which roughly follows a historical route used by Native Americans and early settlers. Along the way there are nature trails, picnic areas, camping spots and signs pointing out historical sites; all maintained by the National Park Service. Traffic was light, the scenery along the Trace was beautiful, and every day there were interesting attractions to stop at. Whether you keep reading or not, if you're thinking about a bike tour in the south consider the Natchez Trace. It's a great ride, and should be pretty easy for anyone with basic equipment and a little time.
The Natchez Trace Parkway is unlike most other bike trips that go from town to town. Most of the land adjacent to the Trace is government owned, and there are no commercial services or advertisements allowed directly on the road. The scenery is beautiful, but this also means you'll have to plan trips into nearby towns to purchase food and supplies. The National Park Service provides free campgrounds and restrooms along the Trace, including several bicycle only camps. Along with nearby paid campgrounds, there are always places within a day's ride to stop and camp for the night. If you're okay going several days without showers or real laundry you can easily complete the Trace without spending much money.
During this tour I rode my Long Haul Trucker, equipped with Tubus racks and Ortlieb front and rear panniers. For camping I brought along my new Hennessy Hammock and EMS sleeping bag. My cooking equipment was a simple Coleman propane stove and one small cooking pot. I carried one rain jacket, two pairs of shorts and bike jerseys, three pairs of socks, padded short liners and undershirts. Along with my basic tools, personal items and sunscreen I brought my iPad so I could read a few books and keep up with the outside world when I came across wifi. I didn't think I packed too many luxuries, but when I weighed my bike the night before I was surprised to find it was 92lbs fully loaded. I've heard of people doing a coast to coast tour with less gear than that! I suppose a large portion of the weight was food, water and my heavy bike lock.
Day 1 - Baton Rouge to Natchez
100 miles / 100 miles total
The first day isn't as much about the Trace as it is getting there from Louisiana. I started from Baton Rouge, about 90 miles south of Natchez MS and the start of the Trace.
I woke up an hour before sunrise, knowing I'll need as much daylight as I can get for biking. I had packed and prepared everything the previous day, all that was left is to eat breakfast and wait for the sun to come up. I'm a little nervous about riding through Baton Rouge since I'm still unfamiliar with the city and what traffic I might run into. At this hour I don't have much to worry about though, traffic is light and I find plenty of room on the shoulders for riding. I make it out to "old scenic" highway 61, about 30 miles of uneventful riding past factories and undeveloped land.
Eventually I turn off where Google Maps had directed me to a mix of rural country roads. The scenery is nicer here. There are turns every two or three miles, and I had to consult my iPhone's GPS a couple times, but otherwise things go smoothly. There are a few dogs who start to chase me along the way, but fortunately none of them get close enough for me to have to use the pepper spray I brought along for this reason. Once they get close I yell at them first, and they mostly back away and looked confused. It's a warm day, and during the afternoon I start getting cramps in my legs when I'm riding up the hills. It's bad enough that I have to get off the bike and rest a few times. The horseflies were starting to get to me too. On the bright side, I did find the best bridge in all of Mississippi.
After 30 or so miles I turn back onto highway 61, where I immediately find a gas station. It's just what I needed. I had stopped for water in the late morning, but since then I hadn't come across anywhere to get supplies and I was running low. I filled my bottles in the restroom, bought a Gatorade, and pick up some candy to snack on. I feel great after a short rest, but unfortunately it doesn't last. This section turned out to be one of the worst parts of the trip. Outside of Baton Rouge highway 61 was a nice ride, but here the road seemed grow worse after every mile. The shoulders are narrow, and I'd frequently hit the rumble strip or slip off the pavement. The breakdown lane was all thick gravel stone, impossible to ride on and annoying when it spilled onto the pavement. Cars and trucks were usually nice enough to move over into the next lane, but traffic was too fast for me to safely travel outside of the shoulder. On top of that I was getting tired, and there was no shade from the afternoon sun. I was starting to regret not stopping to camp at an earlier state park, and considered trying find a spot of woods along the highway. I keep at it though, and after some confusion with the directions I find myself in Natchez. A few more miles and I'm at the start of the Trace!
It was a great relief to have made it. I had come 100 miles, and managed to finish with an hour of daylight left to set up my camp. Unfortunately the nearest campground was ten miles ahead, and even if I had enough energy to reach it before sundown I'd certainly miss some historical sites along the way. I decided instead to stealth camp near the start of the Trace. I rode ahead to get a sense of what the land was like, checked Google Maps on my phone, and decided on what seemed like a good patch of woods. There was a nice recessed area a few yards back into the woods that was hidden from the road and had some good trees for me to hang my hammock. It was my first time using the Hennessy Hammock, and it took a couple attempts to keep the rope from slipping and get the rainfly adjusted just right. I still managed to get everything comfortable before the last of the daylight disappeared.
That night a thunderstorm rolled in shortly after dusk and lasted until early morning. I got up a few times to check the rainfly and my panniers, but everything stayed dry. The night was filled with constant thunder and heavy rain. I was also a little worried about being caught stealth camping, since there was a residential area behind the patch of woods I was in. Between all the noise and my own nervousness I didn't get much sleep that night.
Day 2 - Natchez MS to Rocky Springs
60 miles / 160 miles total
I woke up with the sunrise. I'm eager to get back on my bike, even after yesterday's ride and my lack of sleep. After packing up camp I made my way back to the start of the Trace where I ate a can of corn beef hash and fruit for breakfast and planned my day. Using my phone I find a Walmart about a mile away, so I head out to pick up some more food (mostly fruit and snacks) and fill my water bottles before I begin.
The rain had stopped some time the night before and the weather was nice. Fortunately I don't feel very tired, even after pushing myself the previous day. There are lots of great places to stop the first day, including the old Mount Locust historic inn, Sunken Trace and Emerald Indian Mound. At Emerald Mound I stopped to have a cup of coffee and eat a couple donuts for a mid-morning snack. I managed to boil over the coffee and spill it all over my cooking equipment, but still end up with some left for drinking. While I'm eating I talk to a few other visitors about bike touring, including one man who told me about doing trans-America in his youth. He mentions he saw another cyclist on a recumbent about 50 miles north of me from Portland OR. Since I'm considering moving to the west coast, I hope I have the chance to catch up with him.
At Mount Locust Inn I stop at a ranger station where I find a "I bicycled the Natchez Trace" sew-on patch for sale. I had to buy it, even though it was still my first day. I figured now that I had that patch I couldn't make any excuses to turn back before I reached the end. While I'm there the ranger tells me about a great fried chicken place in Lorman, a small town a couple miles off the Trace. I considered stopping, but wouldn't get there until 3 or 4. Since I don't want to camp too late in the day I stop at a picnic area and make my own food.
That evening I camp at Rocky Springs, having gone a bit over 60 miles. I don't see any designated camping spots and the ranger station is closed, so I put my hammock up in the woods behind the RV campground. The ranger at Mount Locust had mentioned primitive camping and I see another tent in the general area so I don't feel guilty about it. Rocky Springs was one of the first free campgrounds maintained by the National Park Service, and was typical of the campgrounds along the Trace. There are bathrooms, cold water, and nearly everyone else there was "camping" in RVs. A shower and electricity would have been nice, but I don't need them. I fall asleep soon after setting up my hammock.
Day 3 - Rocky Springs to Timber Lake
60 miles / 220 miles total
I start the day early after eating breakfast at camp. I didn't explore Rocky Springs the night before, so I take a quick look around before leaving. It's not until later in the day that I realize I missed the old church and abandoned cemetery I had wanted to see there.
In the morning I run into another bike tourist just entering the Trace from an adjoining highway. He's heading to a route down the Mississippi and eventually to New Orleans. We talk for a few minutes, and he tells me how bad the road he was just on is. I can tell he seems a little frazzled. I wish him luck, knowing that he'll have an easy time with traffic on the Trace. It's been my experience that cars are extremely friendly towards cyclists here. Even though there are no shoulders and a 50mph speed limit, cars give you plenty of respect when passing. Most move over entirely to the other lane, even waiting patiently behind you when there's oncoming traffic. It seems like most motorists are there to enjoy the parkway, and know you're there for the same reason they are.
I stopped at the Clinton visitor center in the early afternoon to fill my bottles and use the restroom. The ladies in charge are very nice, and pleasant to talk to. They even offered me a cup of coffee while I was there. When I mention camping they called the Timber Lake campground up ahead in Ridgeland to make sure they still offered tent camping, since they had heard the campground was considering getting rid of those spots. After my chat I stopped at the closest gas station in Clinton to buy some food, but decide against heading further into town. I also picked up an extra lighter, which I kept in a separate bag for the remainder of the trip. After spilling coffee the previous day, my lighter and back-up matches were damp and didn't work. Fortunately breakfast was the only hot meal I missed, but I was still mad at myself for not having a better backup.
By 4pm I'm near Ridgeland, just north of Jackson. There's a bike path up the Trace that's not on my map, but despite heavier traffic I stay on the main road since I'm unfamiliar with the area. I stop at a ranger station, where they provide me with a map of the town and directions to both the local bike shop and Timber Lake campground where I'll spend the night. The bike shop is easy to get to. I take a quick look around but realize I need to get to camp if I want to make it before dark, so I plan to come back the next day. Making it to the campground wasn't as easy. It's at least four or five miles away, and although Ridgeland has a few bike lanes I still find myself having to ride on the street during rush hour when traffic is fierce. It would have been better to wait a few hours until the roads cleared up, but then I would have been riding in the dark through an unfamiliar area. Fortunately as I get near the campground I meet a local cyclist riding a mountain bike down near the reservoir area. She shows me a shortcut to the campground, avoiding two busy intersections on the way.
Timber Lake campground is disappointing. Tent camping costs $17, and the place is right near a busy intersection where you can hear traffic all night long. There are only a dozen or so trees near the campground, but I still manage to find a spot for my hammock. I can see why they were thinking of getting rid of tent camping, it seems more like an RV park than a place where anyone would want to actually camp. The good news is they had pretty much every luxury you could think of. Showers, electricity, laundry, even free wifi. With all the traffic it's a noisy night, but I brought along earplugs so it doesn't bother me.
Day 4 - Timber Lake to Kosciusko Bike Camp
65 miles / 285 miles total
The next morning I take my time leaving camp. I have a long shower and do two loads of laundry so I can leave wearing clean clothes. I had rinsed out my laundry the day before at Rocky Springs campground, but it just seemed cleaner to put them through a real wash. While I'm waiting I charge my electronics and take advantage of the wifi to answer a few emails on my iPad. This turned out to be the last time I used my iPad to do anything Internet related on the tour. I had expected to stop at a coffee shop every couple of days to catch up on things, but finding wifi turned out to be a challenge on the Trace.
After camp I take a few pictures of the reservoir and stop at a grocery store for food. In addition to fresh fruit and dry meals I end up buying half a dozen donuts. Probably not the healthiest meal, but my body was craving calories at that point. With very few restaurants on the Trace I often had a hard time getting enough to eat, especially since dried foods like rice or beans were too heavy for me to eat much of after a long day of biking.
On my way out of town I head back to the bike shop, Indian Cycle, to buy a new pair of gloves. My old ones were well worn, and never had that much padding to begin with. Indian Cycle seemed oriented towards high end racing and definitely not to a bike tourist on a budget. I ended up paying nearly $40 on a pair of Pearl iZUMi Select Gel gloves. It was more than I wanted to spend, but my hands were killing me at that point. As soon as I got back on the bike I knew I had made a good decision. With the new gloves nearly all the pain I was having disappeared.
By the time I get back to the Trace it's nearly 11am. I ride the bike trail until it ends at the main road, avoiding any remaining traffic near the Jackson area. The first half of the day takes me past the Ross Barnett Reservoir, a beautiful lake area. I stop a few times to eat and enjoy the view. I also visit a nice nature trail at Cypress Swamp. I see a few gators sunning themselves, although they're small compared to some I've seen in Florida.
Around 6pm I reach Kosciusko and find the bicycle only campground near the ranger station. There's another tent already there, and it turns out to be the recumbent cyclist Dave Van Gundy I had heard about on my first day. He's a little surprised that word of his trip had made it that far. We talk about bike touring and our various trips and gear while I prepare dinner. I'm glad I was able to catch up to him, considering he seemed pretty far ahead when I started.
Kosciusko seems like a large town, and one of the main roads runs by the campground. Traffic is noisy, but again with earplugs it didn't bother me.