Every place we visit in Oregon adds a different bit of history, a new plant or animal, and a lot of character to the story of this great state. Every piece of the story we gain enhances our sense of place as residents and explorers of our chosen home.
The Banks-Vernonia Trail
The Banks-Vernonia State Trail (BV trail) is Oregon’s first rails-to-trails linear park, converted from railroad to multi-use trail in 1991. It runs 21 miles from the town of Banks on the southern end to Vernonia on the northern end, cutting through the thoroughly beautiful L.L. “Stubb” Stewart State Park, between Portland and the Coast range. The trail criss-crosses several creeks, includes 13 bridges, and offers some fabulous views along ridges between valleys that give you a bird’s eye view of the land below.
Last year we biked the southern half of the trail (Banks to Top Hill) a few times and enjoyed views of serene farm fields, red barns, cows and creeks. It is a spectacular ride anytime, but is especially nice on a cool spring or warm summer day when flowers are blooming and fields are green.
Signs of Flooding
Today, we biked the northern half of the trail from the Top Hill Trailhead to Vernonia and spent a little time exploring the town of Vernonia. On this cool, winter mid-week morning we had the trail all to ourselves. Here it parallels Route 47 for most of the way north, so we were never very far from car traffic, though it wasn’t constant or annoying. Because this section of the trail also parallels Beaver Creek and the Nehalem River, we noticed many signs of the recent December (2015) floods.
The high water mark was obvious in some areas where riverbank grasses up to 20 feet from the creek were flattened in the direction of water flow. Debris piled high on banks and there were lots of downed trees due to soft soil and wind, I suppose. In one place we saw rocks and dirt near the trail from a landslide on a steep uphill slope. At two other places the integrity of the trail had been compromised by a landslide on the downhill side of the trail and an outflow pipe directing water onto soil near the trail, causing the soil underneath it to give way.
Even today, farm fields were still inundated with water and the creeks and rivers were full and flowing, carving out deeper curves in the riverbanks and cascading down rocks and over dams fast enough to make you think twice about getting too close. When we crossed the Nehalem River just downstream of where Beaver Creek empties into it, we jokingly said it would take less than 2 hours to float all the way out to Wheeler near the coast (not true, of course). But it looked like it was running that fast!
The Sword Place
The BV trail dumps out into the town of Vernonia at Anderson Park where a bridge crosses over the Nehalem to private land called the “Sword Place” which was purchased in 1887 by Scottish-born homesteader Alexander Sword. Today, it is the home of his grandson, retired logger Bill Sword. We ran into Bill’s caretaker there, and he told us about the bald eagles that live there and fly from treetop to treetop, about seeing a Roosevelt Elk standing tall on the ridge behind the house and about finding old wagon wheels and other artifacts of the western movement along the river banks near the homestead.
The Sword family got into the timber and logging business in early 1900’s, as workers for various timber companies, including Oregon America – the biggest timber company in the area at that time – and later by starting their own small logging company. Vernonia feels like a logging town. Log trucks travel the roadways, clearcuts are visable from the bike trail, homes are built of and heated with wood. The people seem down-to-earth and practical.
Rock Creek flows into the Nehalem River near downtown Vernonia. This confluence has combined to flood the town on more than one occasion. The 1996 floods put five feet of water downtown, and the 2007 floods destroyed the middle and high schools. This past December’s flooding wasn’t nearly as bad, but Hawkins Park was under water and several homes and businesses flooded.
We explored a few streets by bike, cute little stores on a quaint strip of Rte. 47, the only major road that passes through town. Up the hill on Madison Avenue we spotted a sweet looking hotel called the Ride Inn (apparently the renovated old Vernonia Inn). It looked inviting and could be a great place for an overnight sometime. We especially liked the supersized bug sculpture near the back parking lot.
We parked our bikes at The Black Iron Grill (and Black Bear Coffee Company) and were quickly warmed up by in-house-roasted hot coffee and hot chocolate (with cream AND chocolate syrup on top). Country music played in the background while locals finished up late breakfasts. A stuffed black bear stood in the corner watching us while a canoe hung upside down from the ceiling over our heads.
On our way back to the trail we passed Mariolino’s Pizza, one of the only places in town that opens early enough for retired loggers to have their morning coffee. Cruising Maple Street to Jefferson Avenue, we hooked up once again with the BV trail and headed south. On the trip back the sun ALMOST broke through the thick cover of clouds and tried hard to brighten our way. The lichen coated limbs of maples flanked the trail while raindrops twinkled like Christmas lights on every twig of shrubs along the way. We saw house finches and varied thrushes flitting through the underbrush, and Stellar’s jays and ravens called out as we pedaled past.
Our 20-mile trip out to Vernonia and back helped us appreciate one more story in Oregon’s history book. The sights, sounds, coffee and hot chocolate were special bonuses!