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Riding the Banks-Vernonia State Trail

Updated: May 7, 2023

April 29, 2023—It’s been over 10 years since I last rode the Banks-Vernonia State Trail, so I decided it was way past time to ride it again. I’ve never ridden the complete trail from Banks to Vernonia but have ridden to the halfway point from both directions. This trip would be no different because of time constraints.

The Banks-Vernonia State Trail is a rails-to-trails bike trail that runs past L.L. Stub Stewart State Park at the halfway point. The trail was once the location of a rail line that transported logs and lumber from Vernonia into Portland but was abandoned in 1973. The Oregon Department of Transportation purchased the rail line in 1974 and transferred it to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department in 1990.

The first time I rode the trail was in the early ‘90s when much of the trail was still gravel. It would be over a decade before the trail was completely paved. Riding the trail back then was not easy as I rode the trail using a Schwinn Mirada hybrid bike. The bike was heavy and not very comfortable. Much of the ride was uphill leaving out of Vernonia, and riding in the gravel made the ride grueling.

Jump ahead to 2015 when I rode the trail from the Banks trailhead to Stub Stewart riding my Gary Fisher mountain bike. The travel was slow as the wider and smaller tires and different gearing made riding the trail very tiring for me. My mountain bike, though I loved it, was not the most comfortable bike to ride for any long distance. The ride from the Banks trailhead to the state park is 10 miles for a total of 20 miles out and back. By the time I returned to the trailhead, I thought my butt was going to file for divorce. That uncomfortableness is the underlying reason I haven’t ridden the trail again until today.

I wound up selling my mountain bike and years later bought a Cannondale Quick 3 CX and fitted it with a gel seat. I also invested in a good pair of gel-padded cycling shorts. Those two things made a world of difference in comfort on the ride. I found the gearing of my Cannondale also made the trip much more doable and pleasant.

If you are planning on riding the trail and leaving from Banks, you need to get there early. The parking lot isn’t very large, though there is an overflow parking lot, and some people also park in town. The large cycling crowd in Banks and in the parking lot is a testament to the popularity of the trail.

The weather was nice when I set out on the trail. It was a little cool, but the weather was expected to warm to 81° F later in the day. It was perfect cycling weather, and I wasn’t the only one who believed that. When I arrived at the parking lot, I was lucky enough to grab the last parking spot. I set out at 9:12 a.m. with Stub Stewart as my designated turnaround spot.

The first thing I noticed is that the trail is showing its age, especially between the Manning trailhead and the Buxton Trestle. At several locations along the trail, tree roots have started to buckle the trail. In some places those spots have been marked with white paint, but in many other locations they haven’t. There are also several bridge crossings over creeks. At many of those crossings, the trail is a few inches lower than the bridge. This can make for unsettling and jarring entrances onto and exits off the bridges. Parts of the trail have sloughed off, so it’s not as wide as it used to be, and the edge is rather abrupt. In some places, small patches of gravel have replaced sections of the trail. And just west of the Manning trailhead there are several long ruts side by side running parallel to the trail that could catch the narrow tires on road bikes and possibly cause a mishap.

The ride to Buxton Trestle is fairly easy, as the slope getting to the trestle from Banks isn’t too steep. The trestle sits at about 400 feet in elevation. Riding across the 600-foot trestle is one of the highlights of the trail. Be sure to exit the trail on the westside of the trestle and descend the 80 feet into the parking lot and adjacent picnic area for a nice view of the trestle. This is also a good spot to take a potty break.

Once I was back on the trail and heading west to Stub Stewart State Park, the ride got tougher as the trail slope increased. I dropped down several gears so I could remain in the saddle and maintain my normal riding cadence. At this point, I was now well into the forest.

After climbing another 300 feet, I reached the road into Stub Stewart State Park. My plans were to turn around and head back at that point. However, my legs and butt still felt fine, so I decided to continue to Top Hill.

The trail between the state park and Top Hill crosses over Hwy 47. The wayfinding sign said that Top Hill was about ¾ of a mile farther, so when I had gone the distance, I stopped at a bench and had a bite to eat and water to drink before heading back. My GPS showed I had reached the highest point of the ride, 908 feet in elevation, so this seemed a good turnaround spot. I didn’t realize it at the time that I was still maybe a half mile from Top Hill regardless of what that wayfinding sign had said earlier.

The return was certainly easier, and much faster, than the uphill journey. However, remembering all the spots past the Buxton Trestle where the trail was buckled caused me to slow down considerably once I reached the trestle. The busyness on the trail also required slowing at times because some people like to ride two abreast or in the middle of the trail.

On the way up the trail, I had made a mental note to myself of some rough patches on the trail to steer clear of, especially in one location where tree roots had buckled the trail at several places in a row. As luck would have it, I turned out to be unlucky. I managed to hit that series of bumps in the trail because a line of equestrian riders heading up the trail right at that spot made it impossible for me to steer of those bumps—bad timing on all our parts, I guess. Fortunately, I had slowed to avoid spooking the horses, but I wound up riding over every single one of those bumps, some a good two inches high and closely spaced. Not fun.

The rest of the ride went smoothly, though I did have to navigate around some walkers and joggers and the occasional child and dog on the trail. I only wish I had brought a clothes pin with me to pin my nostrils shut as I got closer to the Banks trailhead. The waft of cow manure scent from nearby farms was almost overwhelming. I hadn’t smelled it early probably due to the cooler temperature in the morning, but now it was warm, and the manure had heated up. It was a minor annoyance compared to the trail deformations from roots and the gravel spots in the trail.

My final takeaway from the trip was that the trail needs some much needed repair in spots. Still it was a fun ride, which I hope to do again in September when I once again ride for children’s cancer prevention. Only next time I hope to ride all the way to Vernonia and back. One of the nice features of the trail is that there are bike hubs along the trail where you can air up the tires or perform some minor repairs.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Banks-Vernonia State Trail, I recommend the following books:

Biking Portland by Oweb Wozniak and published by The Mountaineers Books

75 Classic Rides by Jim Moore and published by The Mountaineers Books

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