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Bike camping Vancouver Island/Salt Spring Island

I’ve been to Salt Spring Island many times, primarily as a kid in the backseat of my family’s car as we trekked our way north from California. We camped along the way, but once on Salt Spring we always stayed at my aunt and uncle’s house so I’ve never had the pleasure of camping there before now. I have, however, biked there once before: four years ago I borrowed a three-sizes-too-big bike and panniers and left early in the morning for a one-night journey to the island and back. It was quite the whirlwind trip, but very worth it to visit with my aunt and uncle before their health failed. The visits (by car) bringing kids of my own were rewarding, too, of course, but it was nice to have a very focused visit this one time.

I started a blog post about that trip, but never finished it. I don’t think I discovered anything that I won’t write about for this new trip other than: consider not doing a big trip on a bike three sizes too big because it might really hurt your back. And wash your old water bottle out well because you can food poison yourself–which is really not fun on top of an aching back. Here’s a photo from that trip. I also learned brown bikes with brown panniers don’t photograph well in woodsy settings.

Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada. June, 2013.

And back to the present-day trip. Photos are here:
Flickr album: Vancouver Island, Salt Spring Island – 7/28-7/30/2017 – 218 photos · 1 video

My friend Velotron joined me and it was awesome to have company this time. It was also awesome to do it on an appropriately-sized bike and with clean water bottles. Unfortunately, Velotron’s commuter bike was out of service so he was on his too-small bike he uses for hauling his cargo trailer. And I think his back was bugging him on account of that. By the way, Velotron is my friend from Bike camping in Iron Horse State Park, take two last year. I had been pretty bummed out we weren’t going to get a chance to do a repeat John Wayne Pioneer Trail trip, but with my broken foot still on the mend, I haven’t been much for planning big trips. I’d certainly call this trip big, but I didn’t need to do planning in the sense of deciding on a destination or date. My aunt died last November and my uncle the year before. This was the weekend of her birthday so on the Friday friends and relatives scattered their ashes at sea (unfortunately I couldn’t make it all the way to the island in time for that) and on Saturday we had a memorial luncheon.

Maps. Or, my love letter to Ride with GPS
I want to interrupt my trip report with a love letter to Ride with GPS. Four years ago I did my routing at home with Google maps and hand wrote turn by turn directions on a piece of paper. It was a nerve-wracking experience, wondering if I’d made the correct turns on the trails of Vancouver Island while racing the clock to catch my second ferry.

I still use Google maps as my initial route planner, but if I want to save a route, I use Ride with GPS. For this trip, I saved eight routes, one for each leg of the trip: Ride with GPS – My Routes. I’m too frugal to invest in an international data plan when I visit Canada so I downloaded the maps of those eight routes for accessing offline. Now what I didn’t realize ahead of time is that even in airplane mode, I could get turn-by-turn navigation! It didn’t occur to me that GPS is independent of internet despite having used my Garmin GPS bike computer to record rides (stored until I’ve found wi-fi and then transferred to my phone via Bluetooth and ported over to my Strava account).

So yeah, turn-by-turn navigation! In Canada! Impossible to get lost! Note: I have a Ride with GPS paid Basic account, but you can still do a lot even with the free account: create routes, download routes, and record a ride (I rarely record with Ride with GPS because I’m already used to my Garmin/Strava system for when I want to keep track of things, but I imagine I’ll do more Ride with GPS recording in the future). What the free account doesn’t do is turn-by-turn navigation. And I see the premium account (fancier than my basic account) also gives estimated times. I got estimated times from Google maps and included it in the name field–for example, “Ruckle Provincial Park to Twig and Buoy (1.5 hours)”–but for long field names like that one, I had to click to edit it in order to see all the way to the end of the title on my little phone display. Another note: I had a discount code when purchasing my Ride with GPS account for being a Cascade Bicycle Club Ride Leader.

Ooh, and I found the screen with elevation profile! I’m not sure if following my blue dot slowly climb the hill was all that helpful or if I was just punishing myself. Maybe Chris Froome Looking at Stems isn’t missing out on the experience after all, because I still had a great time even as I grunted constant reports about how close we were to the top and what came next.

Itinerary
Since I had to bring my kids to summer camp at 9:00 a.m., I couldn’t catch the 7:30 a.m. Victoria Clipper ferry like last time so we took the 3:15 p.m. one. It’s a passenger-only (no cars!) high speed ferry–less than three hours to get from Seattle to Victoria. It’s pricier than Washington State Ferries, but it’s so convenient! Bikes are $20 (cargo bikes and tandems are $40) each way and they’re parked outside under a tarp, but still exposed to salt spray so some people don’t bring bikes for that reason.

The ferry to Salt Spring Island’s Fulford Harbour leaves form Swartz Bay which is two hours north of Victoria. I found a campground right next to Swartz Bay, McDonald Campground – Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, and was able to make a reservation over the phone–$27.20 CAD, $13 of which was the reservation fee. Our boat arrived late and we stopped for dinner in Sidney along the way so it was dark when we arrived. The campground has pit toilets and no running water (that I could see during our very short stay), but the location can’t be beat!

We set our alarms for 6:00 a.m. to roll out at 6:30 a.m. for a seven-minute ride to the ferry terminal and catch the 7:00 a.m. ferry to Salt Spring Island.

I couldn’t reserve a campsite at Ruckle Provincial Park ahead of time. There are only 10 reservable spots and 68 first-come, first-served spots. I called and was told they don’t turn bikes away so even if we couldn’t find a spot, we’d be OK.

UPDATE: We met a couple on bikes on our return ferry who had been turned away! They said there’s a new guy at the park who turns bikes away if it’s full. They found a place to camp in Ganges and paid $24 CAD rather than $20 and had RVs for neighbors.

Check out is at 11:00 a.m., but I wanted to try our luck finding a vacated spot at 8:30 a.m. so we could dump our stuff. Salt Spring is hilly and I wanted to ride to lunch and back without camping gear. We got incredibly lucky and scored an empty site right on the water.

Ruckle is gorgeous. People who arrive by car have to park in a parking lot and then bring their stuff in with wheelbarrows. So the campsite area is free of cars and despite being packed with tents, doesn’t feel overly crowded. A gravel trail runs through the campground and to get to our waterfront site, we had to follow a narrow trail through a couple other sites. I was worried about finding our way if we returned after dark, but it was still light when we got back.

Lunch was in Fernwood, 15.5 miles from Ruckle and our biggest leg on the island. It was hot and hilly, but we made it with some time to spare before noon. I was too tired to do any exploring of the small village, but just beyond Twig & Buoy was the water.

Twig & Buoy is usually just open for dinner, but this day they accommodated our special event and it was terrific. I heard many wonderful stories about my aunt and uncle and shared my own. Some of the old photos on display I hadn’t seen before, but my favorite will always be this one, from a bike tour they took all over Vancouver Island:

Our route to and from Fernwood took us past St. Mary Lake and I wish we’d brought suits for a quick swim after lunch.

Instead we biked straight to Ganges, the biggest village on the island. We had an hour to kill before dinner with my dad so I lazed in Centennial Park while Velotron explored. The Saturday Market had just closed up for the day, but it was still packed in the park and all over the village. Then despite needing to search around for a dinner place with seating, we were done eating and back to Ruckle before the sun was down.

Have I mentioned Salt Spring is hilly? I was exhausted and fell asleep before anyone else in the park.

Sunday was structured around us being back to Victoria in time for the 7:00 p.m. ferry. So as not to be rushed, we met my dad for breakfast at Rock Salt by the Fulford Harbour ferry at 10:00 a.m. and took the 11:50 a.m. sailing. We saw so many more bikes getting off and on the ferry as we had the previous morning! And then once we were back on Vancouver Island there were bikes everywhere! We kept crossing paths with the same people as we stopped for water, shade, and blackberries and had progressive conversations. The couple that had been turned away from Ruckle warned me off my plan to swim in Beaver Lake due to E. coli the last few years. And later they recommended our Victoria lunch spot: Tacofino. And we met the sponsors of the drinking fountain at one of the bike rest stations.

We ended up with tons of time in Victoria. So we immediately found ice cream.

And then we found Tacofino. I second my ferry friend’s recommendation.

After lunch we found a shady spot near the Clipper terminal and were so early we could watch the Clipper before our Clipper set sail. I don’t think I would have enjoyed rushing to catch that earlier boat and I didn’t have energy to do anything but rest and read, so hanging out in the shade with a view of water taxis, seaplanes, and the MV Coho coming from Port Angeles was just great. However, Victoria is a blast if you’ve got the energy–the kids and I had a terrific time three years ago: Victoria, BC with family bike and saw a lot of Victoria two years ago during our camping trip at Goldstream Provincial Park Campground: Spring Break 2015 Recap.

I’m not sure I’ll visit Salt Spring Island again. It is a beautiful place, but it’s just not the same without my aunt and uncle there now. If you haven’t been yet, though, I highly recommend you check it out. My whirlwind visits were well worth it, but know that one is allowed to camp at Ruckle for up to 14 days. Also, I have a feeling most people bike from Fulford Harbour to Ruckle Provincial Park and then stay put rather than go bike an additional 30+ miles. That seems like it would be pretty nice.

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Kidical Mass Bike Travel Weekend 2017 Recap

We had a great Kidical Mass camping trip for Adventure Cycling Association’s Bike Travel Weekend!

* All the photos here: Kidical Mass Bike Overnight to Illahee State Park – June 3-4, 2017 – 201 photos
* Details on timing and routing here: Kidical Mass Bike Overnight June 3-4, 2017
* Our group numbered 35: 16 kids and 19 adults (and one dog). Four kids were on their own bikes!

Good eye if you noticed the kids’ bikes all look similar. All four are on Islabikes. They’re light, geared (for 20-inch-wheel sizes and up), and have strong brakes–all great for big hills! It helps that the US factory is close by in Portland, but they ship all over.

This was our first time bringing a group to Illahee State Park and it worked very well. All previous (six year’s worth!) Kidical Mass camping trips, like last year’s Bike Travel Weekend trip, have been to Fay Bainbridge Park.

The bike ride to camp from the ferry is shorter–3.7 miles to Fay’s 6.9 miles or 7.1 miles–but it feels hillier to me. I’m not good at comparing elevation profiles so feel free to tell me how hillier (or not) it is down in the comments.

Most of our riding was in the street, though with a blocked lane (by a parked car) for the uphill block away from the ferry, I took the wide sidewalk so my kids would follow me there. All in all, it was very calm riding. The Manette Bridge arches up over the Port Washington Narrows and has a bike lane, but I chose to have us ride over on the wide sidewalk.

Just off the Manette Bridge we ran into Patty of VisitKitsap.com, camera in hand. She snapped some pictures of us as we pedaled off the bridge and then caught up with us a block away while we rested and regrouped in the R K Mart parking lot. It was fun to happen upon a local VIP while just starting our adventure! Here’s her post to the Visit Kitsap Peninsula Facebook page:

Seattle Kids love Kitsap! A big group from Kidical Mass is on a weekend cycling adventure to Illahee State Park. We spotted them crossing the Manette Bridge and snapped a few photos. Thanks to Madi Carlson of Wallingford for arranging the party!

I reserved three sites (11, 12, and 13) ahead of time–spacious sites I chose during a test run. Upon arrival a few families added adjacent site 16 to our batch and we all fit quite well. It’s not the same as being all in the big clearing of Fay Bainbridge Park, but it was amazing being amid the trees.

Most of our campers made the trek down to the beach. It’s a great half-mile hike starting just across the street from the group picnic shelter parking lot. The trail ends with a street crossing to the beach parking lot–something to keep in mind for little hikers who run ahead.

The swings and teeter totter have been removed from the playground, but the slide is still there and the kids seemed satisfied. A new playground is coming at some point. During our stay we saw volunteers clearing the fallen tree that crushed the group picnic shelter this winter. The picnic shelter would normally have been a terrific place for charging of e-bike batteries and will be an option again next summer. As it was, e-people had to make do with the outlets in the bathrooms–there’s one at the campground and one down at the beach.

Everyone was pretty quick about packing up and heading home Sunday morning. Since my kids were on their own bikes it was pretty important we didn’t stay and play too long lest they become too tired to make it home cheerfully. The very organized campers rolled out around 9am and caught the 9:45am ferry. the rest of us set out for the 11:10am ferry. Even with a stop at Saboteur Bakery in Manette (recommended to us by Patty of Visit Kitsap) the families not stopping for lunch grabbed the 11:10am boat while 11 of us stopped just above the ferry terminal for lunch and caught the 12:20pm. A sandwich shop, European fry house, and quick Mexican food place are all in a row and have outdoor seating for keeping an eye on the bikes and are conducive to wiggly kids. A couple parents crossed the street to get good coffee.

I’m so happy with how well the brand new camp spot worked out! We’ll definitely do this again as a group.

In the meantime, if you’re a family biker and want to come camping, we’re going again soon: Swift Campout Kidical Mass June 24-25, 2017! This trip will be to Fay Bainbridge.

Swift Campout Kidical Mass June 24-25, 2017

Let’s go camping! As part of the global phenomenon Swift Campout: Solstice Bike Overnight we’re doing a family bike camping trip Saturday, June 24th through Sunday, June 25th at Fay Bainbridge Park.
New this year, I’ve reserved the three sites next to the kayak-in camp area so we can stay in our favorite section without worry of displacing anyone.

Important:
Register (free) on the Eventbrite event so I can keep track of our numbers and know if we should reserve more sites.
Facebookers can RSVP and connect in the comments on the Facebook event page, too.

Here’s a recap of a June 2016 family bike camping trip at Fay or go straight to the Flickr gallery of 194 photos.

Price:
Hiker/biker sites are $7 per person so we’ll plan for $7 per family or tent to cover the cost of the three sites. This will be paid while camping.

Timeline:

9:15 a.m. Saturday, June 24, 2017 – meet outside Fremont PCC Natural Market or earlier if you need last-minute groceries (kids get a free piece of fruit!) or want to go in for potty visits.
9:30 a.m. we ride! Promptly at 9:30 a.m.! (Which means 9:40, but for real we are leaving by 9:40!)
– or –
11:00 a.m. meet us at the ferry (pay in the kiosk, get in line).
11:25 a.m. Seattle-Bainbridge ferry sets sail (ARRIVE AT LEAST 20 MINUTES EARLY).

Routes:

Ferry information:
From the Bicycles on Washington State Ferries webpage:
“Bicyclists should arrive 20 minutes prior to departure time to be loaded at the beginning of loading process. If a bicyclist arrives after vehicle loading has begun, they will be loaded at the end of the load.”

So arrive by 11:05am. BUT if you’re late, they’ll still put you on–just after the cars load. I love how versatile they are with bikes! But it’s so super fun to roll onto the empty ferry so be early if you’re meeting us there. Plus we can socialize in the bike lane before loading.

If you have an Orca card, there is an automated tollbooth at the far right–no waiting behind the cars! But otherwise you need to wait in the rightmost car lane to pay. Current fares are $8.20 for adults, $4.10 for kids six and up, and $1 for bikes (sometimes big bikes cost extra, though I’ve never been charged extra for the cargo bike or tandem + trailer bike). The Bainbridge-to-Seattle direction is free.

Once on Bainbridge Island, we’ll ride about a block uphill within the ferry terminal area to Bike Barn Rentals and hang out while the car traffic clears. Generally, we push directly onward to the campground, but there’s a grocery store in Winslow for any forgotten items. During our June group trip, we used this stop to divide into three groups:
– Group hitting grocery store and then taking scenic route
– Group taking scenic route
– Group taking direct, highway route (this is the group I, Madi, will lead)

Fay Bainbridge Park
Fay Bainbridge Park features a great playground (!!) and BEACH. There are outlets in the bathrooms and picnic shelter (which might be reserved) for those who need to charge e-bike batteries or other things.

Showers: Bring quarters if you might want showers. Each quarter buys 1.5 minutes of hot water. (I’ll bring a ton of quarters to share because I know how it is to have miserably sandy kids and no quarters.)

Cars/”Supported” camping
Since we’re paying for three sites with parking spots, that means three cars can come. Past trips have see a couple families with various levels of supported bike camping, with half the family on bike and some or all of the gear meeting them via car. Or a van carrying everything. So indicate if you want to nab one of those car parking spots.

Note: We’ve been doing group summer camping trips to Fay for several years now and we’ve gradually been seeing more kids riding their own bikes–we had four last June! Bainbridge Island is very bikey with drivers used to seeing bikes on the roads, but it’s definitely busier (even the quiet, scenic route) and hillier (even the flat highway route) than my own Seattle kids are used to…however, they’re going to ride their own bikes for the first time this trip! I’ll take my cargo bike just in case I need to carry one or both of them and their bikes for part of the way.

Sunday
At this point no concrete plans for when to head back Sunday. We’ll most likely have an early crowd and a later crowd. I’ll probably be part of the later crowd. We can try to have energy to head to Peddler Brewing Company or Fremont Brewing for a Seattle-side hangout before going our separate ways. Our route from Fay to the ferry is a backtracking of our Saturday route over and here’s the route from the Seattle Ferry Terminal to Peddler Brewing Company and the route from the Seattle Ferry Terminal to Fremont Brewing.

Extra night?
Fay Bainbridge Park has a two-night minimum for reservations so I’ve paid for Sunday night, too. Stay an extra night if you can! We’re bummed about the Seattle Public Schools snow make-up day on Monday or we’d stay, too.

Questions?
New to bike camping or bike camping as a family? Feel free to ask questions in the comments or contact me. The Seattle Family Biking Facebook group is also an excellent resource–many families have borrowed gear via that group! Do you want to come, but don’t have the right bike? Check out the Familybike Seattle Rental Fleet.

Social-media-inclined campers should use #swiftcampout

Kidical Mass Bike Overnight June 3-4, 2017

Let’s go camping! As part of Adventure Cycling Association’s Bike Travel Weekend we’re doing a family bike overnight Saturday, June 3rd through Sunday, June 4th at Illahee State Park.
There are only two tiny hiker/biker campsites, so I’ve reserved three big sites for us.

Important:
Register (free) on the Eventbrite event so I can keep track of our numbers and know if we should reserve more sites.
Facebookers can RSVP and connect in the comments on the Facebook event page, too.

Illahee is new for a Kidical Mass trip, but I’ve camped there a few times without a big group. Here’s a write-up with lots of pictures from a camping trip the kids and I took last year: Family bike camping at Illahee State Park.

Price:
Hiker/biker sites are $12 so we’ll plan for $12 per family to cover the cost of the bigger sites. This will be paid while camping.

Timeline:

8:00 a.m. Saturday, June 3, 2017 – meet outside Fremont PCC Natural Market or earlier if you need last-minute groceries (kids get a free piece of fruit!) or want to go in for potty visits.
8:15 a.m. we ride! Promptly at 8:15 a.m.! (Which means 8:20, but for real we are leaving by 8:20!)
– or –
9:40 a.m. meet us at the ferry (pay in the kiosk, get in line).
10:00 a.m. Seattle-Bremerton ferry sets sail (ARRIVE AT LEAST 20 MINUTES EARLY).

Routes:

Ferry information:
From the Bicycles on Washington State Ferries webpage:
“Bicyclists should arrive 20 minutes prior to departure time to be loaded at the beginning of loading process. If a bicyclist arrives after vehicle loading has begun, they will be loaded at the end of the load.”

So arrive by 9:40am. BUT if you’re late, they’ll still put you on–just after the cars load. I love how versatile they are with bikes! But it’s so super fun to roll onto the empty ferry so be early if you’re meeting us there. Plus we can socialize in the bike lane before loading.

If you have an Orca card, there is an automated tollbooth at the far right–no waiting behind the cars! But otherwise you need to wait in the rightmost car lane to pay. Current fares are $8.20 for adults, $4.10 for kids six and up, and $1 for bikes (sometimes big bikes cost extra, though I’ve never been charged extra for the cargo bike or tandem + trailer bike). The Bremerton-to-Seattle direction is free.

Once off the ferry, we’ll ride just over to the right (to the Bremerton Marina/Bremerton Boardwalk) rather than up the hill to congregate while the car traffic clears. Generally, we push directly onward to the campground, but this is when we will discuss if anyone needs to stop at the grocery store or mini mart at the half-way point. Sometimes part of the group stops for a sit-down lunch in town.

The ride
It’s less than four miles to the campsite, but it’s mostly all uphill, though not steep. There’s a bike lane on the Manette Bridge, but we will probably want to take the very wide walkway single file.

Perry Avenue is a long, uphill slog. We’ll take rest breaks as needed, if needed. It flattens out at the middle school, and taking a break on the grass might be nice. However, I couldn’t locate a drinking fountain when exploring the school so it’s just a rest spot, not a water-filling spot.

It’s all flat after the middle school and we’ll pass two mini marts, a Franz Bakery Outlet (open 10-6 Mon-Sat and the Saturday special is 4 doughnuts for $5), the Perry Market grocery store, and a drive-thru/bike-thru coffee kiosk…here’s its menu:

Illahee State Park
Winter was not kind to Illahee State Park–several big trees fell and hadn’t been cleared away during my April visit. One crushed the large picnic shelter near the the campground, a spot I formerly thought would be nice for those with e-bikes to charge their batteries. And the swing set was swing-less, but the slide and teeter totter are intact. I’m waiting for a call back from the park to find out if the swings will be replaced and when the picnic shelter will be back.

There’s a big playfield attached to the campground (the two hiker/biker sites are against it) and the playground is a one- or two-minute walk.

The beach is a fun little hike downhill. There’s a pier to walk along, a great view of Mount Rainier, and tons of tiny crabs hiding under rocks.

The women’s restroom has four outlets…but also a sign to not leave cell phones charging unattended. E-bike batteries are probably safer to leave in there, but perhaps the camp host would let people use the outlet at the camp host site.

Showers: Illahee requires paper money (ones or fives) to buy shower tokens. Each dollar buys two tokens that are good for three minutes of hot water each. The token machine is next to the campsite pay station, close to the camp host and restrooms.

Cars/”Supported” camping
Since we’re paying for three (or more) sites with parking spots, that means three cars can come. Past trips have see a couple families with various levels of supported bike camping, with half the family on bike and some or all of the gear meeting them via car. Or a van carrying everything. So indicate if you want to nab one of those car parking spots. Don’t forget to look into getting a Discover Pass, I think your car will need one to join us in the park.

Sunday
We’ll decide when to head back home come Sunday. There will likely be an early crowd and a later crowd. I’ll probably be part of the later crowd. The later group will head to Peddler Brewing Company for a Seattle-side hangout before going our separate ways. Our route from Illahee to the ferry is a backtracking of our Saturday route over and here’s the route from the ferry terminal to Peddler.

Don’t despair if this weekend doesn’t work! There will also be a Kidical Mass camping trip for Swift Campout June 24-25 and maybe one in August, too.

Note: Social-media-inclined campers should use #adventurecycling #biketravelweekend #bikeovernights

New to bike camping or bike camping as a family? Feel free to ask questions in the comments or contact me. The Seattle Family Biking Facebook group is also an excellent resource–many families have borrowed gear via that group! Do you want to come, but don’t have the right bike? Check out the Familybike Seattle Rental Fleet.

Family Bike Camping at Manchester State Park (but not on Sunday)

I found a bike camping spot easier (sort of) to get to than our old favorite Fay Bainbridge Park & Campground–welcome to Manchester State Park.

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It’s flat and calm enough that the kids rode their own bikes camping for the first time ever! There are three considerations, though:

  1. The second of two ferries doesn’t run on Sundays
  2. The elevator to the second ferry doesn’t fit long bikes
  3. The second ferry is too small for big groups

Comparing briefly to Fay Bainbridge:

We took two trips this past summer so we’re not total pros, but we learned quite a bit.
All my photos are here:

For comparison, here’s the photo album from a trip to Fay Bainbridge from this past summer:

This two-ferry, never-on-a-Sunday route isn’t the only way to get to Machester State Park. One can also take the 40-minute Fauntleroy-Southworth Ferry. I made this longer-but-simpler trip two summers ago to camp with a dozen other adults. It’s a 17-mile ride to get to the ferry (versus 6 to the Seattle Ferry Terminal). Once off the Southworth Ferry, it’s 7.6 miles of rolling hills. It’s hard for me to imagine how those hills would feel with passengers and/or more gear, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed them…and I’m pretty sure the kids would have hated them. Side note: we’ve biked/water taxied to Lincoln Park (by the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal) as a family once, but deemed it too far away so we haven’t been back in six years.

manchester-rollinghills

machester-bikes

For our first Manchester State Park family bike camping trip, a Thursday to Friday, I rode the Big Dummy and the kids rode their own bikes–each with two little panniers containing sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and small camp pillow. They were not a fan of riding with panniers so they only carried them a mile to Gas Works Park where we started our day with #coffeeoutsideforher.

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My cargo bags were packed full, but the four panniers fit atop my deck. I made a deal with the kids that I’d carry the panniers, but they’d have to ride the whole way because it would be difficult to squeeze them and their bikes on my bike with the extra stuff. (Totally not true, of course I could have carried the whole show on my bike, but they fell for it and never asked to be carried!)

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The Bremerton route allows bikes to ride aboard, just like Bainbridge. Super fun!

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This is the same ferry we took for family bike camping at Illahee State Park, by the way. But rather than climb climb climb four miles to the campground, we biked the equivalent of one flat city block to the foot ferry. This was where I ran into trouble because the foot ferry is accessed by 17 steps or a small elevator.

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I carried the kids’ 18- and 20-pound bikes down the stairs and a foot ferry employee very kindly helped me get my 75-pound (plus gear) bike upright in the elevator. (Mind you, this was all after initially freaking out and trying to convince the kids we should hit Illahee instead.)

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The foot ferry is small, but it was possible to maneuver the Big Dummy aboard.

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This was our first time in Port Orchard and it looks adorable, but we didn’t linger to explore before heading for the park. Bay Street and Beach Drive are both flat and have a great coastal views. Two-lane roads aren’t my favorite, but we didn’t see many cars. Most of the way had shoulders and the few cars that passed us gave us a lot of leeway.

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There was a bit of climbing once we left the coast, but at least this was in the shade. Then it flattened out just before the hill into the park and THERE ARE CAMELS AND HORSES next door. The kids were too hot and tired to appreciate the camels, but I’ll play them up before we head back. There’s one hill before the camels and one hill after so I hope to use the camels as incentive to get up the first hill this summer.

Unlike Fay Bainbridge with its convenient kiosk, we had to pay at the entrance which meant we couldn’t skip the line of cars. We chose one of the three hiker/biker spots–$9 each and no fire pits. They’re not right by the restroom, but it’s right by a nice trail and blackberries.

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None of the campsites are right on the beach like at Fay Bainbridge, but that means it’s not completely exposed on hot days and it doesn’t feel like a big parking lot. The beach was a quick bike ride from our site (and is also walkable for those so inclined).

The most easily accessed beach is STINKY, but you get used to it after a while. The kids enjoyed piling up the stinky seaweed, but we didn’t go into the water because there were jellyfish. I have a feeling it’s not always jellyfishy here. Note the Bremerton ferry cruising by in my photo below–fun view!

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This is a great campground if you have a camper into old military stuff. There are several structures, like the torpedo storehouse pictured below, all with interpretive signs.

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We were surprised by unexpected rain overnight which was good in that it got us on the road early. I sent the kids to stay dry and warm in the restroom while I quickly packed us up.

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The foot ferry back was easier thanks to knowing ahead of time what I’d be in for in terms of wedging the cargo bike onto the boat, plus this time I was able to tilt my bike upright on my own for the elevator. However, I’m still of the opinion that I don’t want to do this with the big bike ever again.

We skipped the soonest Seattle ferry to have lunch at Fritz European Fry House in Bremerton (just up the hill from the ferry terminal) and then explore the area around the USS Turner Joy.

The ride home from the ferry is all slightly uphill so we took lots of water/rest breaks (and one crash/rest break), but the kids made it without complaint!

Our second trip was double the fun. I didn’t even try to convince the kids to use their panniers and I was somehow able to fit all the stuff on my Surly Straggler. I needed my front basket for gear which meant I had to wear nine-pound Pixie in her backpack, the Timbuk2 Muttmover, which I wouldn’t want to do for a big trip, but was just fine for this short one.

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This time we went with Brad and his two kids, our frequent camping buddies. They also have a Big Dummy and a tandem plus trailer bike, but I convinced Brad to carry all the gear on his Surly Long Haul Trucker and put his kids on their own bikes so we’d all easily fit in the elevator.

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The elevator was so much easier like this! I took our three bikes in the elevator while the kids walked down the stairs.

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One thing that was trickier with our bigger group was the varied speeds and personalities of the kiddos. Brad rode ahead with the two speedsters (his big and my little) and I hung back with the two who appreciate a slower pace.

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We didn’t get too far from one another and met midway for a roadside blackberry snack.

Having friends along was encouragement enough that my kids biked up the last hill–Hillsdale Road just after the camels–that they had both walked up on our first visit.

This time we opted for a $25 economy spot and chose one fairly close to the beach. The hiker/biker spots are big enough for two tents, but we wanted a fire. We still chose to bike down rather than walk, but everything is all close together with no fast roads to cross.

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We ventured beyond the stinky beach to hit the tide pools. This meant biking along a gravel path and narrow trail lined with poison oak warning signs. No one got poison oak and we found tons of tiny and big crabs to play with.

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Having friends along meant we hung out at the campground for quite a while on day two–laps and laps were sprinted around the campground, a dead snake was thoroughly examined, and fellow campers were befriended. Next time I’ll try to time our visit so we can stay for two nights and [hopefully] more easily hit the road early in the day with fresh legs.

The first 90% of the journey home went well: great ride to Port Orchard, successful foot ferry and foot ferry elevator rides, tasty lunch at the fry house, and restful ferry ride back to Seattle. Once on the Seattle side we stopped to play at the beach, visited an outdoor bike commuter happy hour, parted ways with our friends, and then slowly clawed our way home with quite a few tantrums, some angry bike walking, several water break stops, and one blackberry picking session. Definitely too big a day. That said, WE CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK!

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Bike camping in Iron Horse State Park, take two

Funny story, while busy biking around Mount Rainier I missed a chance to respond to an email about being outdoorsy and car-free. Fortunately I still got mentioned in the Seattle Weekly article Do Urbanists Have a Wilderness Problem?: Density foes argue the whole point of being in Seattle is the ability to get out of it…with a car.

There are the bike enthusiasts, such as Seattle Bike Blog creator and anti-car urbanist Tom Fucoloro or family bike expert Madi Carlson, both Seattle residents who frequently journey to the forested outlands by bike alone (and in Carlson’s case, with two kids in tow).

The article posted sandwiched between two bike camping trips on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail. Neither trip was with the kids, but I did have Pixie along both times and that’s almost the same…though 100 pounds lighter.

With the one stint of bike camping in Iron Horse State Park under my belt, which was extremely fun despite taking a route out of Seattle that was less than ideal, I was ready to try again. This time my friend Velotron came along and we made it a three-day/two-night trip to make it even bigger and better than last time.

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Pictures: Iron Horse Trail with Velotron – Labor Day Weekend, 2016 (268 photos)

Routes:

  • Day 1: 66.4 mi, 6:58:35 moving time, 9:36:55 elapsed time, 9.5 mph avg, 37.8 mph max,
    4,426 ft elevation gain
  • Day 2: 54.8 mi, 4:40:12 moving time, 7:17:06 elapsed time, 11.7 mph avg, 23.0 mph max,
    1,853 ft elevation gain
  • Day 3: 63.0 mi, 5:28:50 moving time, 8:04:46 elapsed time, 11.5 mph avg, 32.9 mph max, 2,487 ft elevation gain

I still didn’t take the perfect route between Seattle and North Bend, but it was much better than last time and I’m sure with a bit of preparation I could figure out the perfect route for my “Third time’s the charm” attempt.

I had hoped to completely avoid the road-kill-strewn 202, but my chosen route followed it for a short bit. I chose a route by searching Ride with GPS for keywords “seattle iron horse trail” and ended up choosing this one: Seattle to Keechelus Lake. There were several options, some even without any 202, but many were there-and-back routes and I thought that would be more confusing to follow. I don’t find Ride with GPS the easiest way to navigate (the Google Maps app with upcoming turn warnings is my favorite), but it’s still a great resource.

Just to keep things interesting, we ignored the map 31 miles in, shortly after the Preston-Snoqualmie Trail spit us out onto Preston Fall City Road. We’d spent a lot of the trip on trails — I-90 Trail, Pickering Multi-use Trail, Issaquah-Preston Trail, and Issaquah-High Point Trail — so when Preston Fall City Road headed uphill and we noticed the Preston-Snoqualmie Trail picking back up on our right, we thought it’d be fun to get adventurous and hop on the trail. And if coming face-to-face with a series of steep switchbacks to walk is adventurous, then we were in luck!

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Once we got up the switchbacks the trail was great! After a while we saw a sign that warned the trail ended ahead. Velotron worried that meant we wouldn’t be able to get through, but I was optimistic that it meant we’d have to get back on a road. Before we got all the way to that dead end (which has a great vista point and is worth a trip if you’re not on your way somewhere–see Biking Bis: The surprise on the Preston-Snoqualmie bike trail) we looked more closely at the map and realized the dead end was really a dead end and we turned back…but not all the way back, just to the previous cross street, Lake Alice Road. So we skipped some of busy Preston Fall City Road and I got that great switchback photo. And we met some nice bike tourers on the switchbacks, too, whom we saw the following day on the Iron Horse Trail. I have a feeling they intentionally took the trail and knew to turn off at Lake Alice Road.

Lake Alice Road connected us up with the 202–but for much less of the 202 than I experienced on my first trip out. Unfortunately, I’d stopped paying attention to my pinned Ride with GPS route so I didn’t realize we could have turned off the 202 after a mile and accessed the Snoqualmie Valley Trail (!!) but we turned off even earlier to take Fish Hatchery Road. Remember, this is the road I avoided last time based on a friend’s advice. Fortunately for us, we met a guy on a road bike who guided us away from a wrong turn suggested by my Google Maps app. He also told us about Strava Routes for future route help. It was nice to avoid part of the 202 and still go by Snoqualmie Falls.

The rest of the way to North Bend was the same as I took before, but we stopped in town for groceries, at what must be the most beautiful QFC in the world, tucked in the shadow of Mount Si.

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We also hit a bike shop for Velotron to pick up a spare rear tire in case his old one didn’t survive the gravel trail (but it did!) and Pixie and I met a biking family with an adorable toddler who were planning to move to the area.

We ate our grocery-store-bought lunch at the Northwest Railway Museum somewhere I’ve only previously been by car so of course it was SO EXCITING TO BE THERE BY BIKE!

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Soon we were back on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, which was so much better than the busy road I took last time, but starting the slight uphill gravel this early was a bit tiring. It was incredibly fun heading back down two days later, though!

Our plan was to bike to Roaring Creek Campground at milepost 2109, the eastern-most campground in Iron Horse State Park, but it was getting late and would be dark by then and we were tired so we decided to stop at Carter Creek Campground at milepost 2123 and save the Snoqualmie Tunnel for the morning.

Carter Creek Campground was great! There were several other bike campers there, but it’s divided into three sections so we had our own picnic table and three tent squares. I think Carter Creek and Cold Creek (milepost 2113, where I camped last time) are my two favorite campgrounds in Iron Horse State Park. The creeks are right there for easy water collection and they’re pretty. Alice Creek Campground (milepost 2127, the closest to farthest west) is very exposed and the creek is on the other side of the trail. We checked out Roaring Creek Campground the next day and didn’t explore enough to find the creek, but it wasn’t right by the campsites. It was pretty, though.

Alice Creek Campground

Alice Creek Campground

Carter Creek Campground

Carter Creek Campground

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Carter Creek Campground

Roaring Creek Campground

Roaring Creek Campground

Day two was supposed to be a day trip without gear from Roaring Creek Campground to Cle Elem for award-winning BBQ at Smokey’s Bar-B-Que, but after much consideration (Should we pack up and then ditch the camping gear at Roaring Creek before going to Cle Elum? Should we leave the tent at Carter Creek and go to Cle Elum and back? Should we pack up and carry everything to Cle Elum and decide where to camp in the evening? Should we ditch the gear at Roaring Creek and just go to Easton? Should we leave the tent at Carter Creek and just go to Easton?) We eventually opted for what we figured was the most reasonable choice and left our tent at Carter Creek so we’d have a smaller day three and see how far we could make it to lunch–Cle Elum if we felt ambitious or just Easton if we wanted to take it easy.

We were right to hit the tunnel Sunday morning rather than Saturday evening. It was packed! We saw at least 70 people in there (and three other dogs), more people were on bikes than walking, but there were plenty of both. This was Velotron’s first time in the tunnel and I think he may have been a bit disappointed that we couldn’t find a spot dark enough to turn off our lights and appreciate the total dark. But I thought it was fun and festive.

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We ended up stopping in Easton for a 55-mile day rather than an 80-mile day. Mountain High Hamburgers was perfect. Over 40 flavors of milkshakes and each hamburger named for a pacific northwest mountain. The bathroom was full of framed photos of Mount St Helens erupting and several outdoor picnic tables meant it was easy to eat with Pixie.

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Had we made it to Cle Elum we would have bought dinner supplies at a big grocery store, but in Easton we had only the gas station RV Lounge. That worked well enough, plus we got some of Leo’s THE BEST SMOKED SALMON for breakfast.

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As we headed along Lake Easton Road between the trail and Mountain High Hamburgers, we noticed what we thought was the trail through the trees. So on the way back we found a little path through the trees and found a short cut to…not the Iron Horse Trail. But it was a great little low-traffic road Google Maps called Old US Hwy 10/Iron Horse Trail.

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I got a little worried when I saw a DEAD END sign considering day one’s Preston-Snoqualmie bike trail whoopsie, but this was the good kind of DEAD END that featured a gate closing the road to cars, but not bikes.

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And then we saw signs for the John Wayne Pioneer Trail ahead and transferred to a great trail (also called Iron Horse Trail by Google Maps) that connected us back up to our trail. I really liked this little detour because it meant we biked along the south side of Lake Easton on the way to lunch and along the north and west sides of the lake on the way back. And we saw a lot of families with bikes past the DEAD END gate, presumably parked at Easton Lake Beach.

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And then Brad (Brad of my Mount Rainier trip) found us on our way back! Oh, I should mention that I know Velotron because he also has a cargo bike (an Xtracycle EdgeRunner named the 7XL). I checked with him the night before our trip to make sure he really wanted to bring small bikes rather than longtails. Brad was also on a small bike instead of his Surly Big Dummy. He’d driven with a friend to North Bend and biked up through the tunnel as a day trip.

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Upon arriving back at our campsite we met family bikers! They had parked at Hyak (just east of the tunnel) with their bikes in their van and biked the eight miles downhill to Carter Creek. The mom was on a regular bike, the dad was on a Bullitt longjohn carrying the littler kid and the gear, and the older kid was on a 14- or 16-inch Islabikes (same brand my kids have). They were hoping the biking kid could make it the whole way on her own wheels because they hadn’t saved room for her and her bike in the Bullitt box. We made it a bit past Carter Creek on our Iron Horse Trail trip with Brad two years ago and I remember the uphill ride taking FOREVER.

The ride back was fun! Slight uphill gravel is OK, but slight downhill gravel is AWESOME. We mostly followed our Saturday route in reverse. I belatedly noted the turn off for getting to the Snoqualmie Valley Trail and and avoiding the 202, but it was steep so we stuck to the 202, knowing it’d be better on a holiday Monday than on a real weekday. And this time we stopped at the Snoqualmie Falls.

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We stopped for lunch in Issaquah and made it home before it started raining. Hooray! I think that’s it for camping for me for the year, but the kids just expressed interest in bike camping again so we might try to squeeze in one more trip on a nice weekend with no other plans.

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Bike camping in Iron Horse State Park

The kids and I have been on a little bit of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail/Iron Horse State Park twice: five years ago with the old mama bike and balance bikes and two years ago with the Big Dummy and kid pedal bikes. Both super fun and epic by our standards. But with the kids away on a vacation and a couple days to kill before my Mount Rainier and Mount St Helens trip with Brad (yes, same Brad from the Iron Horse trips of yore), I thought it’d be fun to ride all the way to and through the tunnel with Pixie.

In a nutshell, it was awesome, but I took a not-so-nice route to get to the start of the start of the trail so I need to try it again.

Pictures! Flickr: Iron Horse Trail – August 7-8, 2016 (261 photos, 1 video).

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I did a teensy bit of research before heading out, but when I don’t bring the kids along I tend to be a little more fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants since I’m only responsible for myself.

I was inspired by Seattle Bike Blog: Bus-bike-backpacking on the Iron Horse Trail is simply unreal, but my Surly Straggler has a front rack and doesn’t fit on our bus racks and I kind of wanted to ride the whole way for fun (and save bus fare). And this Biking Bis: Washington state lists parks with bike/hike campsites helpfully listed the four campsites (lower numbers are farther from Seattle):

  • Alice Creek – Milepost 2127
  • Carter Creek – Milepost 2123
  • Cold Creek – Milepost 2113
  • Roaring Creek – Milepost 2109

so I knew ahead of time I wanted to ride to Cold Creek Campgrounds just past the tunnel.

And the night before my trip was the Dead Baby Downhill so I was able to ask a few friends for route advice in person…because discussing routes while watching adults on tiny track bikes in a mini velodrome adjacent to tallbike jousting is the best way to figure out a trip 10 hours before the fact.

Here are my DO-NOT-TRY-THIS routes for my own future reference:

Since I live up in Wallingford, it sounded nice to go over the top of Lake Washington rather than head south for the I-90 trail. Not to mention much more flat. And the beginning was great: Burke-Gilman Trail to Sammamish River Trail to Marymoor Connector Trail. But then roadkill-strewn Redmond Fall City Road / highway 202 was not very nice. Granted, it was better on Sunday than Monday–there were many more big trucks on the weekday trip home. One little bonus: this route took me to the top of Snoqualmie Falls so that was pretty cool! I’ve been there once before, years ago, in a car.

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After that it was pretty nice and quiet, but following the Google Maps app on my phone took me away from the all-trail route I should have taken and I had a lot more climbing that I should have.

And that meant I didn’t find the grocery store in North Bend mentioned in the Seattle Bike Blog post and ended up at a small golf course market.

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But soon enough I was at Rattlesnake Lake and on the Iron Horse Trail!

The 2% railroad grade gravel is awesome. I knew from our first family biking trip there that other people were surprised by how slowly they moved–about half the speed they had expected to tour at. My normal alone biking speed is slowish so I had a great time. Not having to worry about tired and hungry kids or keeping up with faster friends makes for a relaxing trip. I’ve done a couple other solo trips, to Illahee in April and to Fay Bainbridge last summer. But those were a lot smaller than this. Side note, Bicycling Times posted a nice feature, ALONE, a week after this trip.

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My Surly Straggler has Compass Barlow Pass tires–700c x 38mm kept at fairly low tire pressure: 30 psi when not loaded for camping, and they were probably at 40 psi for this trip, but looking back I realize I didn’t bother checking ’em, oops. I didn’t see a ton of other people on the trail, but it’s OK with any sort of bike. I saw quite a few people on mountain bikes, some on cyclocross bikes, but having been on it previously on my city bike and my cargo bike (I guess the Big Dummy could best be compared to a rigid mountain bike for these purposes), don’t let not owing the “right” type of bike stop you from checking it out. I didn’t find any patches of loose gravel on this big trip, but there are doubtless periods when new gravel has been placed in sparse spots making it not as easy to bike through those particular small areas while it’s fresh.

Cold Creek Campground was really pretty. It was too cold for swimming and I forgot my mosquito repellent so I didn’t do any exploring, but I will in the future. There’s no running water so being alongside a creek in which to use my Sawyer MINI Water Filtration System was good.

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I discovered one trick on this trip and utilized it on my way home: hang your mug on the outside of your bike (or at least don’t bury it at the bottom of a pannier) to help fill water bottles at drinking fountains that don’t easily accommodate bottles. This would have been helpful on day one at Wilmot Gateway Park in Woodinville, a popular stopping spot judging by the number of people on bikes there and did come in useful at the Three Forks Off-Leash Dog Park on day two. Also, it’s a good way to clue in onlookers that you’re bike camping and not just out for a little ride. Displaying your tent poles helps with that, too. For real, though, packing your tent poles separately is a great way to better fit the rest of the tent in a pannier.

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Pixie did great for the long trip. She’s quite the homebody and would ideally have us all stay home with her all the time, but her second favorite thing is to chill in the bike basket. She’s seven so she doesn’t require a ton of exercise, but I took several breaks for her to stretch her legs at parks and she ran alongside me for part of the trail on day one and that was awesome. She also isn’t much on eating away from home, but I was able to entice her by putting treats (lamb lung!) on top of her food. However, she ate a lot more than I thought she would and we almost went through all her food so I’ll have to pack a lot extra next time. This has happened on our Fay Bainbridge trips, too, so I thought I had packed extra, but apparently not extra enough!

Heading home I decided I’d reverse my route over since it felt mostly uphill and the thought of mostly downhill seemed nice. But as I mentioned before, the 202 was even worse on Monday. So I won’t make that mistake again. But I will most definitely do this trip again. And perhaps next summer with the kids on their own bikes, letting the bus take us part of the way there!