As the ice recedes and the sun beckons, there are a multitude of road rides around the Grande Ronde Valley to reawaken the legs and sitz bones to cycling. Dust off your bicycle, select your toastiest spandex, pump the tires and oil your chain in preparation for this 35-mile circle of splendor across the valley.
Start your leg stretch by exiting La Grande on Island Avenue, also known as Highway 82. Island Avenue hosts marvelous bicycle lanes maintained by the Oregon Department of Transportation. If by chance those lanes have more debris than cycling surface, do not hesitate to call 541-963-8406 to request a sweep. Many cyclists, commuters and drivers will thank you for making this busy section just a little bit safer by keeping everyone’s lane free of obstacles.
Swing out of Island City and continue east onto Highway 237 rolling toward Cove. Sloughs planted in wheat, mint and other crops frame Mount Harris, Fanny and Point Prominence as they rise up behind Cove as a gateway to the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
Eleven miles from La Grande a lone marker and gravestone epitomizes pioneer life. The brief town of Nibley sat majestically on the Sand Ridge, its main street now Highway 237, overlooking a tributary of the Grande Ronde River centered between the bustling metropolises of Cove and La Grande.
Nibley, formed in 1898 by a pair of Scotland-born, Utah-located business tycoons bent on sweet profits, was a for-profit venture. David Eccles, also influential in the Sumpter Valley Railroad and the Eccles Lumber Company in Baker County, and Charles W. Nibley created the Oregon Sugar Company. They built a beet processing plant in La Grande and sat back to let the profit roll in. The first year beet production was less than expected so the dynamic duo pulled in another partner and purchased the land around Nibley.
With the prospect of land and wholesome living, experienced sugar beet farmers from Utah converged to build a thriving community and attempt dryland farming. By 1902, barns, churches, houses and streets welcomed travelers to the Mormon settlement. The weather of 1905 was notoriously foul and followed by a typhoid epidemic. Broken by the wind, typhoid and the sugar beet production that never really performed as expected, the town was abandoned and the sugar beet factory closed by 1906. Numerous graves have since been relocated to the Cove Cemetery and the land reincorporated into farmland.
The company went on to succeed with sugar mills in Nampa, Nyssa, Burley, Lewiston and other locations. The landmark White Stag sign in Portland originally advertising White Satin Sugar, a derivative of the current day Amalgamated Sugar Company, is also part of that same legacy.
After tipping your helmet to the ghost on the hill, swoop south past the river and onto Phys Point Road. This short scenic connector puts you back onto Highway 237 heading south toward Union. The next six miles roll past beautiful marshy farmland on one side and dry rocky outcrops on the other. If you are lucky, newborn calves and lambs will be frolicking by the roadside and you can witness their curiosity and energy.
Union is great for a bit of a pick-me-up before returning to La Grande. This old railroad town hosts a historic brick downtown, Carnegie Library, museum, glorious park and the Eastern Oregon Livestock Show. Leave Union on Highway 203 traveling northwest towards La Grande. Highway 203 bisects the Ladd Marsh time warp, greatly influenced by which way the wind is blowing. Mounts Emily and Harris, made of Columbia River basalt, loom in the distance, enclosing the valley in majestic style.
Five miles from Union is the Historic Hot Lake Hotel. Touted as one of the most haunted places in Oregon, it has a long and interesting history going back to pre-European emigrant times. The reports of Native Americans encampments using the hot waters for healing and collecting camas are numerous. At the turn of the century, they were even spotted with tepees manufactured from the cloth filters used by the Oregon Sugar Company. Since then, Hot Lake has had a number of heydays including a stint as a sanitarium in the 1900s. The ghost stories and local lore surrounding the geothermic wonder are endless.
I frequently weave my way back into La Grande by way of Pierce Road and Gekeler Lane to avoid the traffic on Highway 30 but it is much more direct, and easy on the ischial tuberosity, to roll straight into La Grande on the highway. The final slight incline back to the county seat is on a surprisingly wide riding surface after passing under Interstate 84. The railroad, waving grasses, Smokey Bear and the coffee shops, welcome riders back into La Grande.