From Issue #37
A century ago, before the highway was built, there weren’t many options for traveling between the small port towns along the Oregon Coast. Stagecoaches and automobiles couldn’t navigate the treacherous wagon roads and footpaths or cross the countless inlets and river mouths that flow to the sea. The solution was to drive on the beach, and sometimes even into the water. The only way to access the community of Arch Cape was across a roadbed blasted into rock that was only exposed at low tide.
Meanwhile, property along the coast was being sold off to speculators and developers who had no intention of sharing their new private beaches. But in 1913 Governor Oswald West used some deft political maneuvering to designate the entire coast a state highway, which brought it under government control and preserved public access.
Now a century later, a new form of vehicle is reshaping the transportation landscape of the coast yet again. Over the dunes and through the sand, a new tourism boom is rolling in on four-inch tires.
Bringing more cyclists to the coast has long been a goal of Travel Oregon, the state’s official tourism commission, said Harry Dalgaard, a destination development specialist. There are few mountain bike trails and road riders must contend with traffic on the busy highway. But with hundreds of miles of beach available, fat bikes have plenty of room to roam.
“It was a way for us to look at our assets and what we had and monopolize new terrain that’s plentiful but wasn’t necessarily accessible beforehand,” Dalgaard said.
When the state invited tour guide operators on a weeklong scouting mission earlier this year, the social media exposure set off a tidal wave of interest, said Melanie Fisher of Cog Wild.
“With us posting everything, we had people begging to sign up,” she said. “We have four people, credit card in hand and ready, and we’ve had multiple other people contacting us as well.”
Cog Wild, the largest mountain bike guiding service in Oregon, is planning multi-day expeditions in 2016, but visitors today can rent a bike and get a taste of the coast right away. Daniella Crowder, the owner of Bike Newport, said she has to keep adding bikes to her rental fleet to keep up with demand.
“They’ve gone bananas. Everyone’s just crazy for fat bikes,” she said. She estimated that as many as a thousand individual rentals might be made by the end of the season. Groups and families of all ages are stopping in and heading out for a few hours of fun. It’s not just bike shops that benefit from the new visitors either. Fat bike riders are a hungry and thirsty lot, and Fisher said her tours always spend money in the communities they visit.
“We’re making sure all the meals are local in the area, it costs a little bit more for the tour, but I think it’s important,” she said.
While fat bikes usually leave little more than tire tracks in the sand, riders must still be conscious of their environmental impact. From March 15 to September 15, several sections of beach are closed to protect the nesting habitat of the Western Snowy Plover.
“This is a new activity on new terrain. I think it’s really up to us to set a good example and be good stewards of the land,” Dalgaard said. “With fat bike tires you can roll over everything, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily should.”
The state is working with tour guide operators and bike shops to educate riders on the do’s and don’ts. The guide companies must be certified and permitted by the state.
“What makes sense for us is to get with the retailers and rental companies and set expectations,” Dalgaard said. “What is good stewardship on a fat bike? What shouldn’t you do on the coastline?”
While some areas of the coast are protected, many are open to active recreation, with dune buggies and even regular cars driving on the beach in places. Putting together an unsupported tour may be possible if you don’t mind riding on the highway. There are few sections of coast with beaches longer than 10 or 15 miles before they are interrupted by mountains, rivers or other dead ends. Hiring a guide service that can shuttle you from end to end or simply exploring a smaller area on a day trip are your best bets.
From the wide, flat sands of Fort Stevens State Park, to the nooks and crannies of sea caves in Bandon, to the massive rolling hills of the Oregon Dunes, there are countless ways to explore the Oregon Coast on a fat bike.
“That’s our hope, to bring more people to the coast and have a rad, fun time.”
If you go
Earlier this year I joined Travel Oregon to explore the best spots for fat biking. We learned a lot (always ride with a tailwind!) And scouted some sections that we weren’t so sure about. These are some of the highlights:
Just Dune It
The Oregon Dunes extend 40 miles along the coast and tower 500 feet high in places, making them excellent terrain for fat bike riding. We took a few turns bombing down one of the largest hills, then found a natural bowl that we could roll into and shoot out the other side. It’s such a surreal landscape that a visit by science fiction author Frank Herbert in the 1950s inspired him to write the classic science fiction novel “Dune.”
There are nearly 200 breweries in Oregon and some of the best are located on the coast. Rogue in Newport is the biggest, with a selection of beers and spirits to suit anyone’s palate, including the Voodoo Donut Chocolate, Peanut Butter and Banana Ale. Pelican Pub and Brewery in Pacific City is another excellent stop to refresh after you’ve climbed up and over the massive dune at nearby Cape Kiwanda (highly recommended).
If you make it to Bandon you owe it to yourself to stop in the Face Rock Creamery for some of the best cheese anywhere. Made on-site from milk from its own nearby farm, the cheddar, Monterey Jack and cheese curds are an awesome treat while you’re exploring the rocks and sea caves on the nearby beach.
“It’s like a big tent”
Camping along the coast is great all year as the temperatures remain mostly moderate. One of the best ways to stay is in one of the yurts available in 15 of the state parks along the coast. They sleep four comfortably and have electricity and a built-in heater. You can reserve one ahead of time too at oregonstateparks.org.