Oregon Scenic Bikeways designations could lure visitors, aid local economy

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer September 29, 2010 12:32 pm
Union County and Northeast Oregon a mecca for bicyclists from throughout Oregon and the United States?

It could happen, and sooner than you think.

For the past year or so, a local group has been working to get three routes certified as Oregon Scenic Bikeways under a new Oregon Parks and Recreation Department program.

The effort is close to bearing fruit. Out of three local applications reviewed, one route has received a positive evaluation and another is close to getting the nod.

The next step for the group is to build local support and start to develop a management plan.

“We need to be talking it up, taking rides, forming a club and getting the city and local tourism groups on board,” said Anita Metlen, leader of the group and also an owner of the Mountain Works bike shop in La Grande.

The Oregon Scenic Bikeway program is designed to build a system of cycling routes that showcase Oregon’s natural wonders and cultural history, while providing economic and social benefits for communities.

Oregon Scenic Bikeways are identified by the state parks department as the best rides in the state. It is hoped they will attract domestic and international tourism dollars, and provide recreational and promotional value to the communities they pass through.

The routes are evaluated and selected by an OPRD committee set up for the purpose. To date, only one route — a 132-mile ride through the Willamette Valley — has been established.

Metlen said she has high hopes for local routes respectively designated the Grande Tour and the Goldrush. The Grande Tour shows special promise and stands a good chance of being included the system.

“Actually, 1,000 miles of bikeways were submitted statewide for consideration this year. Six hundred and fifty were approved, and of those, the Grande Tour is 130 miles,” Metlen said.

The Grande Tour route, which basically follows the path of the already-established Grande Tour Byway motor route, would begin and end in La Grande.

The ride would take cyclists by Hot Lake on Highway 203, then pass through Union, Pyle’s Canyon and Telocaset, North Powder and the Powder Valley, and Baker City.

On the way back it would hit Pondosa, Medical Springs, Catherine Creek State Park, Cove and Island City.

“Basically, it makes a big figure 8,” Metlen said.

Judging criteria include scenery, man-made features, historical attractions, route conditions, traffic volume and more. The 11-member Scenic Bikeway Program committee rode the route in June and liked it, though it thought there should be a different starting point.

“Originally, the route started at the Flying J Truck Stop, just because there was a lot of parking there,” Metlen said. “They wanted something that was located closer to the community and had public amenities like water and bathrooms. We picked Riverside Park in La Grande.”

The Scenic Bikeway committee also liked the proposed Gold Rush route that begins at Hilgard Junction State Park and heads south toward the old gold-mining communities of Granite and Sumpter before ending in Baker City.

But at the time the committee tried the route, a stretch between the North Fork of the John Day Campground and Granite was being paved. The committee decided to continue its evaluation of the route to another time.

“This is within a hairsbreadth of being approved, but they have to go out and look at it again,” Metlen said.

Metlen’s group also proposed a Scenic Bikeway route that travels along Highway 30 from the Spring Creek exit on Interstate 84 to Mission and Pendleton in Umatilla County.

 The state committee considered but rejected that route, Metlen said. The big problem was that the route closely parallels the freeway.

“Remember, these rides are supposed to be the best of the best. I think they thought the freeway is too visible from too many places,” she said.

Metlen said the Scenic Bikeway program likes routes that go along roads that are already being marketed as attractions.

She said that her group is helping the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association develop a bike route that runs along the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, which is recognized by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration as an All-American Road.

In the meantime, there is plenty of work to do on the Grand Tour application.

The local group will continue to marshal public support, and refine a management plan that will eventually be reviewed by the state committee at a public meeting.

From there, the committee makes a recommendation to the Oregon Recreation Trail Advisory Board, which in turn gathers public comment and forwards a recommendation to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department director.

Final approval is given by the OPRD Commission.

Metlen, an avid cyclist herself, said she thinks a Scenic Bikeway designation or two can’t help but attract visitors and boost the local economy.

“The idea is to show everybody that we have something really good here when it comes to road riding,” she said.