About the Dalles
Before the Oregon Trail terminated here in 1843; before Lewis and Clark camped on the riverbank in 1811; even before native peoples fished the nearby Celilo Falls for 15,000 years… there was a flood.
Several floods, actually — and bigger than you could possibly imagine. During the last ice age, the Missoula Floods unleashed a body of water the size of Lake Michigan as the ice-dam that created it yielded to its pressure. Glacial Lake Missoula thundered across Eastern Washington into the Columbia Gorge where it was funneled into a 1,000-foot wall of pure soil-smashing fury — scouring the surface off of volcanic rock features below and exposing them today. You can see the flood’s remnants in the bench-cut lines nearby and in the more dramatic basalt features like Horsethief Butte and the Rowena Crest, unearthed as the talus around them was ripped away.
Intersecting these dramatic features is a series of creeks that flow in a roughly-straight line from Mount Hood down to the Dalles — maintaining their independence as they stream parallel to one another, until they deposit themselves into the mighty Columbia.
During the boom years of the Oregon Trail, the “settlers” (or “genocidal land thieves” if you prefer) were faced with the “Decision at The Dalles” — where they’d either have to disassemble their wagon and attempt to float it down the river, or face the treacherous Barlow Pass around Mount Hood with its snow, steep grades and dense forests. Some settlers couldn’t decide — so they stayed and claimed large ranches in the rolling palouse hills and scraggly oak valleys above town. They burned in a network of roads. Many roads. Ad-hoc pathways. The kind of roads they don’t build in modern cities.
Today, that network of rustic roads still follows the same valleys and ridges and hillsides, with names like Roberts Market, Emerson Cutoff and Hastings Ridge. Like the ranchers these roads are named after, they find a way to go directly where they ought to go, while still managing to slow down and say hi to their neighbors.
Each road has history. None towers above the rest. Each road has a purpose. And with the exception of the one modern highway cutting through them all, each road offers an amazing ride.
You can point your bike in almost any direction from the Dalles and find wonderful roads. You can look at a map and create any arbitrary loop — and it will probably be good.
I offer this guide only to tell you that some of these roads are exceptional — and you should start checking them off your list.
What Type of Bike Should I Ride?
You probably noticed that I haven’t made much distinction between paved and gravel roads. I do this because both types of roads are great, and the best rides outside The Dalles include gravel and paved (and sometimes much more primitive roads).
I usually ride a dedicated gravel bike with 40mm tires with some little knobs. That said, I’ve ridden these roads on 25mm road slicks, 32mm touring tires, 33mm cyclocross tires, and 2.1” mountain bike tires. They all worked, with varying levels of speed, pinch flats and skull-rattling.
I recommend a bike with 40mm tires, or even something a little bigger for more comfort. But if all you have is a road bike with skinny tires, no problem! Check out some of the mostly-paved routes, create a route that minimizes gravel descending, or just ride slow on the gravel and bring a lot of tubes!