June 3rd, 2021

Discover gravel cycling in McMinnville’s back country

A man rides his bike on a gravel road.
All photos taken by Dan Shryock

I confess. This is my first gravel ride. I’ve cycled thousands of miles, but I have never set out in search of gravel roads. I know the advantages. There are fewer cars and trucks to watch for on rural, gravel roads. And, the remote routes deliver amazing views.

Aboard a borrowed bike designed for gravel riding, I hit the road with Philip Higgins, a lifelong Yamhill County resident and an experienced gravel grinder. We leave downtown McMinnville and within 10 miles find ourselves deep in the forest. The only sounds are chirping birds, a creek with its rushing water burbling over rocks somewhere just out of sight, and a gentle wind rustling elevated branches of tall Douglas firs.

A man stands with his bike, overlooking a vast valley filled with evergreen trees
Local cyclist Philip Higgins wears his McMinnville kit with pride.

Philip breaks the human silence. “Who would believe we’re so close to town?” he says. “These landscapes here are just stunning.”

He’s right. Gravel once spread by road crews now has scattered to the edges leaving hard-packed dirt tracks for smooth riding. Nearly every gap in the trees reveals another sprawling vista. This is easy, I think.

It is part of the time. There are steep rises and dips on this 10-mile stretch southwest of town. When the gravel is still thick across the road, the hard work begins. Traction is limited. Each pedal is an effort. This is not for the inexperienced bike rider.

But for those who are ready, it is something special.

“Gravel riding is such a visceral experience,” Philip says later. “Typically, these roads are in less-traveled places. You’re alone in the woods with the 1,000 colors of green Oregon has to offer, the smell from the creeks or the damp shady spots, the changes in temperature from sun to shade.”

When not riding through the trees, you pass “some of the most fertile agricultural land in the country, vineyards, fields of amber waves of grain in the most literal way,” he says. “The camera in my head takes 1,000 photos every ride.”

A cyclist takes a break with his bike resting against a rock behind him.

Philip knows the area’s back country roads better than most and he has some advice.

– Ride with an experienced gravel cyclist. Pedaling on rocks is far different than pavement. There are techniques to be learned and it’s best to have someone with you who can instruct.

– Cell phone service is spotty in some areas and non-existent in others. Take what you need in case of emergency. Extra food, water, tubes, a repair kit, and a first aid kit are obvious choices. I didn’t expect Philip to bring a water filter or a compact satellite tracking device for off-the-grid communication, but those items are recommended if you’re going deep into the woods, he says.

– Know your routes. Do the homework and make sure you plan for a distance and level of difficulty you can manage.

Our ride, the McMinnville Peavine Climb, loops for 40 miles from downtown south and west. Peavine Road turns from pavement to gravel at the 10-mile marker and, in time, tests endurance, bike handling skills, climbing ability, and confidence. The pavement reappears at 20 miles and it’s smooth road riding through the countryside and back to town.

Profile shot of a man cycling on pavement with a beautiful view beyond.

Here are some other routes to consider:

– The Carlton Bakery Gravel Loop starts in downtown Carlton and heads west before circling back to town. Most of the hard work is found in the early miles.

Loop the Reservoir delivers forest and lake views as you make your way around McGuire Reservoir over 34 miles. The sustained uphill on the way out is rewarded with a long downhill during the return.

“Yamhill County is an agricultural valley nestled up against the coastal mountains so you can ride flat roads at sea level, rolling vineyard-dotted hills, or super steep and challenging forested logging roads,” Philip says. “And it’s pretty easy to ride all three in the same ride. It’s a feast for the senses on the bike.”

Dan Shryock

Dan Shryock regularly writes about McMinnville and Yamhill County.