We decided on the Bicycle Adventures Crater Lake tour for this year while we were still on the Glacier-Banff-Jasper BA tour last year. This is our third trip with BA, and each has been a great vacation. One of the guests on GBJ suggested the Crater Lake tour, and we booked it in October last year. Not that we were filled with anticipation or anything. Still, BA will let you book in a calendar year at that price for a trip the following year, saving any cost increase. Something to keep in mind for 2009, of course. More on that later....
We took the CA Redwoods tour in 2006 and GBJ in 2007. We noticed there were some subtle differences between the trips. The 2008 trip had little differences too. The Redwoods tour begins in Santa Rosa, near the CA Napa wine country. The accommodations seemed opulent - we even returned in February to Healdsberg because we liked the hotel so much - as compared to the GBJ itinerary. The latter is definitely more geared for lodging in national/provincial parks. The difference is simply apples/oranges. Neither is better or worse, but each was uniformly nice in its own way.
Crater Lake seems to sort of split the difference. The layover day at Sunriver Resort tends to the opulent/plush quality, and the last two nights in the Crater Lake Lodge more reminiscent of National Park accommodations. Oddly, the best restaurant on the trip was the Crater Lake Lodge restaurant.
The trip started for us in Portland. We drove down late Friday, and stayed at the pickup hotel, the Marriott Courtyard, Portland Airport. One thing to note however - we were going to leave our car in Portland while on the week long tour, and I specifically asked about it when I confirmed our reservation with the hotel directly. The response from the hotel clerk at the time was "just park in the back, and it will be fine." On arrival, another clerk said they didn't have the "park and fly" option anymore, but would accommodate our request. For $5/day. Not a bad deal, it is just I dislike "surprises." This one wasn't a BA issue, for sure. And with one small exception, the only unpleasant surprise we had. The other one? Yeah, I had a flat.
There for sure weren't any surprises from the BA folks; I had some advance email correspondence and had talked on the phone at length with one of our guides, Mark Wojahn. Mark has been with BA for nearly 15 years. He has this whole thing down to a science, yet it never seems like "just work" for him. Things just run so smoothly with someone like this on your side. You knew even before the trip started that you would be Taken Care Of.
The BA van and trailer pulled up Saturday morning at the appointed time. Tracey, another of the guides, hoisted our bikes onto the trailer for transport to the start in Eugene, and loaded up our bags into the trailer. We had already met a few fellow travelers, and had breakfast with one, Steve. I knew there would be 2 vans, one trailer, 3 guides and 19 guests on this trip in advance. But this too would be a change from our previous trips, both of which were 2 guides, one van and trailer, and 13 guests. Again, an apples/oranges thing, and more later. Most definitely a consideration for our next trip selection. But I am again ahead of myself....
We all loaded into the van for a few hours south to Eugene. On the way, we met up with the other van that had picked up more guests in Downtown Portland. This one was driven by our third guide, Wilder. We stopped again in Eugene at the Red Lion to pick up the last of the guests, and then it was time to get down to cycling! We all vanned to a picturesque park near Fern Ridge Lake. Mark gave us the low-down on the entire upcoming trip. He had great maps, with each route marked. He went over the bikes and equipment, along with the dos and don'ts. It was great to note that he had everyone's attention. No one was taking safety lightly - this was going to be a great group to cycle with. Tracey made a gourmet lunch of pitas and salad, along with trimmings of m&m's (a BA tradition) drinks, dessert cookies...well, you get the idea.
We set off on the bikes in the sunshine. This route on the first day was a bit different than the usual tour. BA had been unable to book the Westfir Lodge for this trip. Apparently, there was a family reunion using all the accommodations there, so we had a slight change from the brochure. Here's one of the kinda cool things about BA: they can handle just about any contingency. We cycled to the King's Estate winery for a short visit, and sampled their wares. A few bottles purchased went into the van. One thing to watch for on this route: the ride up to the winery is really nice, but the driveway up to the wine tasting shop is upwards of 16% grade. It's only a few dozen yards, and you'll see it coming. Gear down and be ready. The wine is worth it!
After a short stay, we zoomed out the driveway, and back out the road. The route is through Oregon county roads, past old farm houses. The van picked us all up in a finishing park, and we vanned over to the Valley River Inn. The traditional beer cooler was there and waiting. "Luggage Magic" commenced - another nice feature of the BA trips. Your bags aren't delivered to the curb, they're delivered to your room. All you need to pick up is a key. The Valley River Inn was nice, and had a pool and hot tub. It was a bit of a departure from the usual selection by BA - they tend to prefer smaller inns, but this one was borne out of some necessity. It was nice; the view from the outdoors restaurant along the river was perhaps the nicest of all the dinner locations. The food was tasty (I had prime rib) but a group of 22 seemed to tax the service crew. One of things to keep in mind is that the larger the group, the more likely it is that dinner will take a longer time. The flip side of that is that you get more time to socialize and visit with your fellow travelers.
We met up Sunday morning by the vans, loaded up, and headed out to Oakridge. We gathered up near a covered bridge for the route talk, swaddled on sunscreen for another sunny day, and headed off. This was perhaps the most pleasant ride of the trip. We cycled next to the McKenzie River along the Aufderheide National Scenic Byway, and there was very, very little traffic. What little cars that came by were mostly Forest Service trucks, and they seemed to know we were there. The road was really great, well maintained. The only stiff climb was right before lunch, and even then it never pitched greater than 8%. Funny, but as I was sort of grinding up the last mile or so, Tracey came over to keep me company. It was hot, and I was finishing up for lunch. We came around a short bend, and saw Drew had a flat. Tracey jumped ahead like a bird-dog to go help! Bang! On a 8% grade she jumped up the road a quarter mile, dropping me like 3rd period French. Remind me to never race her. Yikes!
A few notes on BA route directions. These are really, really good. You really can't get lost if you pay attention to the route directions and maps. But as you might have noticed, I carry a Garmin Edge 705 GPS tracking unit. I had planned to program the routes each day into the unit, but...I got lazy. I've uploaded the routes to the Garmin Connect site, and you can email me directly for the courses for days 1,2,3, 6 and 7. The file for day 5 got corrupted, and day 4 was a layover. Beware though, that BA does change the routes now and then, and there were places that I hopped a BA van ride (the climb out of the Pinnacles and the descent off Mt. Bachelor.) I think having the routes on the GPS unit on the handlebars would be nice, but honestly, if you think you're not in the right place, you need to pull over and check the map. Maybe I think this because I'm not totally familiar with all the 705 does yet. Oh well. I think there is little lost in paying attention to what's around you, and periodically stopping to read a map. Still, the 705 doesn't get soggy in my back pocket, and fairly though, dropping the paper map on a trail and losing it might be less expensive that doing the same to the 705.
Ah, back to the road ahead....
Mark made us lunch at the top. It was a great oriental chicken salad, with the usual trimmings. As we rolled in, Mark had his recorder out, and we glided up to perfect notes in the green forest. Cool drinks on a hot day in the forest. Yum.
The downhill after lunch was fast, fast, fast. We got out to the Cougar Reservoir, and there was no mistaking the "cover shot" from BA's brochure as we came around the bend in the road. A few more minutes at the bottom took us in to Holiday Farms, our lodging for the evening. Beer cooler first, and then we discovered our bags inside a nice, spacious cabin by the river. These were really great accommodations; just the place you'd want to visit in the winter to curl up next to the fireplace (!) with a book by the river. Very quiet, very tranquil. Dinner at the lodge was very nice, but beware - the full rack of ribs is a *lot* of ribs.
Overnight, we got the expected change in the weather. The rain I saw coming for the previous week arrived. I do think we got just the southern part, and the rain in the morning was mostly just heavy fog. It was essentially dry when we started out from breakfast.
Ours was the first Crater Lake group in 2008 to be able to take on McKenzie Pass. The road had been closed for repairs all summer. And next year, it may be closed for construction. Just before we got to the road for the climb, we stopped at a ranger station. This was perhaps the most beautiful ranger station I've ever seen. Stone bathrooms, fine wood furnishings, and exhibits perfectly displayed.
Knowing this was going to be a longish climb, mostly alone for me (Cindy usually climbs faster,) I put on some music to help me. But this was one of the most even, beautiful climbs I've been on. Even though the weather was bad, the road was well maintained, and there was no traffic. Max grade was 7%, but mostly real even at 5-6%. Lots of switchbacks to the top. And you'd think I'd know this by now, but as altitude increases, the temperature drops. The rain was really light, but definitely keeping my glasses wet. It stopped by the top, but it was kinda cold. Fortunately, Tracey made delicious tomato basil soup, with tuna melt sandwiches. Perfect for the blustery mountain pass. Sadly, the views of the Sisters was washed out in the weather, but we got to do this great climb.
Downhill on the other side meant we needed to be careful. The road was not exactly dry, but there was only a light mist in the air - not really even rain. We jetted downwind downhill into Sisters for the pickup at the park. We had time to visit Anabelle's, a great coffee shop in town. We got souvenir jerseys at the bike shop in town, and shopped in the antique and art shops. We even found a new print for home: Robert Bateman's "Lone Raven."
The van ride from Sisters was to the layover place at Sunriver Resort. Dinner was at the resort golf club. Sunriver is something of a monolithic golf-ski resort. Lots of things to do, for sure. Plenty to choose from. But there's something a little....incongruous about all the real estate offices around. A spiffy place, definitely a nice change of pace for BA. If you dig golf and skiing, I'm thinking you'd plan many returns.
The layover day was relaxing. We took in a canoe trip down the river. The resort has canoe rentals with return van to the marina. It was about 2 hours, and we had the whole river to ourselves on a beautiful sunny day. We roamed the village shops, and had some Italian food for lunch. We had made spa appointments ahead. Even though our appointments at 5:45 conflicted with the planned wine and cheese party, we were able to join the party afterward. The spa appointments ahead are a must, but check with BA ahead on any plans they have for the layover day. Fairly, this was the first trip we took that didn't really have an activity on the layover day. There are plenty of bikes at Sunriver, but the trails are all for transportation. I don't think the road cycling options at Sunriver are numerous, but fairly, I didn't inquire too much. We met up with Mike and Jen at the pub that evening for drinks. The band was really, really loud. We moved to a quieter table when the guides joined us. It is fun to chat with the guides - they are all fun people, but practically all of the time, they are working. They work *really hard* out on the road and even on layover days and late at night. They work long, long days, and it makes such a huge difference. It was lots of fun to relax with them just a bit, even if it took me 4 days to discover I left my credit card there. Fortunately, once I found the number to call Sunriver back, they had it in the lost and found, and mailed it back to me. Whew!
We chose to opt in on the early morning additional ride from Sunriver to Mt. Bachelor, a 21 mile climb. This was another really great climb. And somehow, I totally blew the weather forecast. I again forgot in the sunshine yesterday that temperature drops with altitude. I had planned to be stripping legwarmers and layers halfway up the climb. Didn't work out that way. But the rain held off until about a mile from the drop-off/pickup place on Dutchman Flats. By the time I got there, the rain was steady, but not torrential. Mostly just light rain, but the wind had picked up and the temp was 43 degrees. Ugh. I was having a hard time seeing, but the climb was really great. Again, good road, very little traffic. But the road ahead was wet, it was cold, and I really needed to warm up. So I opted for a van ride down. Not far off the top, we came onto dry road, bluing skies, and warming temperatures. I caught up with Cindy, and we dried out quickly.
Not far up the road, our route directions pointed us on to a road marked "closed - fire." Ugh. Oh well; we saw most of our group up ahead, so we followed. After some confusion, we caught up with Mark, and he had a map for an alternate route to lunch. The weather, while still a bit chilly, was getting better. We rode in to lunch by a lake, and even spotted a pair of bald eagles in a tree. Lunch was bagels and salmon, again with all the trimmings. We vanned to the north entrance of Crater Lake National Park, and cycled up the side of the cone. The first view of the Lake was a literal "Wow!" I knew it was coming, but nothing prepares you for the reality. This is what we came for, and it didn't disappoint. The climb was steady, on good road, and it had become sunny. We were now getting to some serious altitude. I was trying to be careful with both heart rate and sun exposure. I think I saved myself some real problems by doing so, even though we were at about 8000 MSL. Even though the air was cool, the sunny sky made it feel warmer. We pedaled in to the lodge and nightly beer cooler.
We had the million dollar view of the lake from our room. A real change from Sunriver, but the room was very comfortable. The restaurant was the best on the trip. The seafood Linguine Alfredo was really good, the huckleberry ice cream even better.
One thing you don't want to miss. We noticed on the clear night at Runriver that a glance up at the night sky is definitely worth staying up do do. For sure Sunriver is away from any real population center, but Crater Lodge is even higher, and even further away from the lights. Find some time on a clear night to get away from the lodge lights and look up at the stars. The galaxy awaits. Those of you that haven't seen "the backbone of night" are in for a treat.
For breakfast, the biscuits, eggs and gravy with sausage was excellent. I usually stay away from Big Breakfast like this, but for our ride around the Lake, I wanted some extra calories. The morning was cool and clear, but no need for legwarmers. A couple layers worked well in the sunshine. The ride was only slated for 34 miles, with an up-down option for another 15, but the terrain was going to make this very much an interval day. The real problem wasn't the climb and descent of the road, but it seemed that every few hundred yards was a new viewpoint, and a new picture of the Lake. It looked different from every angle. Hard to imagine the cataclysm that took place here to create the crater.
We pedaled toward lunch at Cloudcap. Mark had made pesto tortellini and salad with the usual trimmings. Cindy and I decided to take the side trip down to the Pinnacles. The road was a little rough at the top, right where it splits off from the rim road. The descent is a bit steep, and I got a flat - the only one of the trip for either of us. It was likely a pinch flat, as the road there was pretty rough. I took it too fast. Anyway, I got the tube replaced just as Wilder came along in the van with the floor pump.
The Pinnacles are really cool. It was worth the trip. I decided to take a 7 mile van boost back up to the rim road. I was trying to make it back to the gift shop at the lodge before they closed. The folks at the lodge told me they closed at 5pm, which isn't true - they're open to 8pm. But still, the boost was welcome. Cindy said the climb was kinda steep. Once I got to the rim road, the ride back to the lodge was really great. Lots of steady, even climbs, with nice descents. The switchback climbs were a little different from what I'm used to. These leveled out some in the turns. Most switchback climbs I'm used to pitch up in the climbs. The road was great. Perhaps some of the nicest cycling I've ever done. There are less viewpoints on the south side of the lake, so while it was pretty, you're not tempted to stop every few hundred yards to see a new view of The Lake.
Back at the lodge, I did make it to the gift shop. Cindy and I collect posters of our travels. I got one of the lake, but when I got it home, I discovered it was *huge*! Check the dimensions on those rolled tubes. A quick stop at the beer cooler (Tracey had my favorite brews well-stocked) and Cindy rolled up shortly thereafter. We had plenty of time for a shower and clean up before dinner. Again, the lodge dinner was excellent.
On Friday, it was a little sad to think this was the last morning ride briefing. Mark lead us through the details of our descent off the crater, complete with where to stop for the best vistas. There is a short climb out of the lodge, then it was essentially downhill all the way out to Diamond Lake. There is a great bike trail around Diamond Lake, and the views are amazing. The trail crosses Silent Creek, and the ride is very, very pleasant. The trail is a bit narrow, so you need to pay attention and not go fast at all. Best to spread out some too - travel in groups here is a little uncomfortable.We just pulled aside and took some pictures, and really enjoyed a sparkling day.
Down, down hill to lunch. Wilder had prepared wraps with salad, along with the traditional, but no less yummy sides of nuts, fruit, m&ms, and fresh guacamole and chips. Lunch was at perhaps the most picturesque stops of all, next to some gentle falls in a secluded park. It was very relaxing. We discovered one of Mark's traditions is root beer floats on the last day with Umpqua ice cream. Man were those yummy!
The guides loaded all the bikes up on the trailer, and again, there was something of a sadness knowing it was all done. We had our "graduation ceremony" the traditional send-off by BA, complete with swag in the form of hats and socks and a completion certificate. Everyone gets a $100 discount certificate for their next trip. Way cool, as we are already planning our 2009 BA trip.
We had a longish van ride back to Portland. We stopped at a small town along the way and had rhubarb pie a la mode. We stopped in Eugene to drop off some of our group, and it was time to say goodbyes. One van went on to downtown Portland, and we went back to the Courtyard to pick up our car. As it turns out, we discovered one of our small bags with bike supplies was in the other van. Tracey went out of her way to retrieve it the next day, and drop it at our hotel.
This is the part where I really have to say something about all the BA guides. These people really work hard. I really can't imagine them not accommodating any reasonable request (and heck, probably most of the unreasonable ones too) from any of their guests. They are entertaining, fun, knowledgeable, and dedicated to doing what it takes to make sure you are Taken Care Of. And here's the funny thing: you know you're in good hands, but you never have to go look for assistance from them. It just suddenly appears, and they look as if they are having fun just traveling with you. Your questions are answered seemingly before you ask them, your needs are anticipated, and you're never, never, ever in doubt as to whether you'll have what you need. There is never any stress on a BA trip. It just isn't allowed. It is so well-planned, and so meticulously executed that there just isn't room for that kind of baggage. Leave it at home, go for a ride, see the most amazing sights, and revel in the joy of being cared for on a bicycle.
Back in Portland, Cindy and I discovered that a really good thing to do is to take an extra day at the finish location to take in an easy day to transition back to the real world. At the suggestion of the BA office, we stayed a couple of nights at the posh Heathman Hotel in Portland. It is very, very nice. We shopped around Portland, and simply relaxed before the drive back to Seattle. Portland's downtown has a very usable public transportation system, so it was easy to choose to see different sights. We toured an art show in the Pearl District that apparently happens each summer weekend. Lots of very talented artists displaying their wares. We've been to Portland, but never with enough time to look about. I recommend it.
The drive back to Seattle on Sunday was rather familiar, and uneventful. On the way, we chatted about our next BA trip. The Crater Lake trip was 7 days, and the GBJ trip in 2007 was 8. The REdwoods trip in 2006 was 6 days. We like the longer trips for sure. One really nice thing about Crater Lake was there were 2 layover locations - Sunriver and Crater Lake Lodge. It is a small thing, but not having to pack up in the morning to move is nice. Still, I really like inn-to-inn travel. Our preference is to avoid the van transfers as much as possible. It seemed that the Crater Lake trip had more of these. I asked Mark about it, and he pointed out it is something of a balance between doing as much inn-to-inn travel as possible, but eliminating "dead miles" where you're cycling in places where the cycling is merely transportation. BA does pick great routes for sure. I'd be hard pressed to really say there were more hours in the van on this trip. Perhaps it was just a perception, and the one day we diverted from the usual Westfir Lodge.
One other thing to consider is how popular a trip is. This was our first 2 van trip with 3 guides, and it is nearly the largest number of guests BA will accommodate on a trip. One the good side, it is clear the guides have more flexibility with 2 vans. They can send one van up the road to set up lunch while 2 other guides provide van support and a rider on the road to check on everyone. They are much more spread out, and can accommodate a wider range of cyclist's abilities and desires to make side hikes and sightseeing. There is never any rush, but with 2 vans it seems like there are more options. With 19 guests, it was harder to get to know everyone as well, and to spend time sharing traveling together. And there was simply a lot more for the guides to do. Dinner tended to take a little longer in the evening, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. I think it is really a matter of taste. Cindy and I are used to being reasonably self-sufficient, and thankfully didn't need much SAG, so we generally prefer the smaller 1 van trips. Still, it wouldn't really matter. It is fun to be in a bigger group too.
We really like taking our own bikes. There are shipping options to and from the start and end locations. Traveling on an airline with a bike box is doable, but I think not particularly desirable. BAs rental bikes are nice, for sure. I'd really like an option to rent, perhaps from another vendor, a really high end bike for one of these trips. I've never done any serious miles on a carbon or titanium frame. Wonder if BA could partner with someone to provide such a service?
We had a great time, and will again write to Bob Clark, the owner of BA, personally again to thank him for all his folks have done for us. Once again, his guides have beaten us to the punch: not but two days after we returned home we received a hand written, personal thank you from Mark (as we did for each of our prior tours.) This is such a nice touch, and it boggles the mind to think that your guides don't stop working to make sure you're Taken Care Of even after you get home.
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