The Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee of the City of Walla Walla worked with the City of Walla Walla GIS department to publish an amazing cycling map for riders interested in exploring Walla Walla and surrounding area, including parts of northeast Oregon, on two wheels. We couldn’t have done it better! Seriously, we have no GIS skills, so this is pretty amazing. The Walla Walla Valley Bicycle Map depicts approximately 580 miles of road route options and an additional 35 miles of suggested area rides. They have even graphed the elevation change for all 12 of the identified routes.
In additional to some pretty fantastic rides, the map also shows riders points of interest, which turns a lovely day on the bike into a chance to tour some pretty special places in our valley. Head west to Whitman Mission, or go on a grain elevator tour. Head east and ride up to Ski Bluewood, or follow Mill Creek to the state line. There are also a number of surrounding communities that would love to help you fuel up for the ride home. There are countless way to create your own adventure that best fits your interests and comfort level.
Part of what makes these rides so special is the fact that they wander through rolling fields of wheat, barley, peas, and garbanzo beans to name a few crops–not to mention the backdrop of the Blue Mountains, as if the view wasn’t impressive enough. In the spring, the sprouting plants are so deliciously green, and, as summer fades, the golden hues of a bountiful harvest really steal the show. As magical as that seasonal promise of routine and tradition truly is, it also means there is some really, really big farm equipment on the road. The share-the-road mantra is next level in the Walla Walla Valley.
This warning is not to deter your inner cyclist, but rather prepare you for the fact that during certain parts of the year, wheat that was casually blowing with the breeze finds itself in the back of a large truck going at least 50 miles an hour. As someone who can put harvest driver on her resume, I implore you to realize that it is incredibly hard to ask a fully loaded truck to respond in a timely fashion. Enjoy those more agricultural-centric rides, but please stay safe. Realizing that seasoned road cyclists likely face such challenges on a daily basis, let’s talk about the fun stuff–the routes.
Since the current Outside Walla Walla contributors are not seasoned road cyclists, our contribution beyond being mesmerized by an impressive display of GIS data that literally leads users down the road to outdoor recreation is to show those who might not be as familiar with the valley what to expect. In other words, we took some pictures (and are working on some pretty cool video)!
Noted on the map are six routes: Mill Creek Route, Cottonwood Loop, Milton-Freewater Loop, Whitman Mission Route, North Wheat Fields Loop, and Harris Park Route. In addition to those named routes are suggestions for city routes, area rides, and expert-level rides. When you open the map, it will be overly clear that if you are hanging out for the weekend and want to try a route, you’ll have plenty of options. Guess you better start planning the return trip. If you are from the area, you have some peddling to do.
This route heads east and follows Mill Creek to the Washington/ Oregon border, the Mill Creek Route is 30 miles out and back and gains a little over 700 feet of elevation. Although there really isn’t much of a shoulder to speak of once the road passes Walla Walla Community College, this is one of our favorite ways to quickly head into the mountains. A few of the hiking trails and areas to enjoy a winter sport or two is found not far from the point of return for this route. Town turns to farmland. Farmland turns to mountains. While the river is tucked behind the Willow trees, riders can expect a glimpse or two as the road heads up the canyon. The forest becomes more dense as well. Perhaps the view is more dramatic because of the golden fields and grasses against the deep greens of evergreens. Morning and evening light do wonders to this area.
Just a few miles east of Walla Walla Community College, buildings and houses give way to farmland and wide-open views. The road climbs steadily, and as it bends south the forest begins to creep down the hillsides. This ride is worth the challenge. Take advantage of a sunrise ride in the spring when all the fields are bright green.
This loop might marry the perfect balance of near-town convenience and the freedom of rural roads. Clocking in at just under 20 miles and a total of 500 feet elevation gain, the Cottonwood Loop is a favorite of local riders. In recent years, improvements to widen the road, making a generous shoulder, have encouraged even beginner riders to utilize the loop. The scenery is just spectacular, especially when the fields are green and the air is clear in the spring. During harvest, take extra care to be mindful of farm equipment traveling to and from the fields. Mix it up–reverse the loop every now and then.
The Cottonwood Loop begins just a short ride from downtown Walla Walla. A great ride to quickly escape the city, this route winds through farmland at the base of the Blues. Leave the stoplights behind. Take a break every few miles to enjoy the view. And since this route is so close to town, head back downtown and enjoy any number of restaurants for breakfast and a cup of coffee.
To venture into Oregon to the south, the Milton-Freewater Loop takes riders through quite popular wine country on its eastern path and the old highway and orchards to the west. This route is approximately 20 miles long with total elevation change of roughly 250 feet. If you aren’t in a huge hurry, enjoy a few attractions in Milton-Freewater, such as the Blue Mountain Cider Company, Saager’s Shoe Shop, the farmers market on Wednesdays (June through September), or Dragon’s Gate Brewery. If you are really feeling ambitious, connect into the Harris Park Route and add more miles to your ride. Sticking to the Milton-Freewater Loop, know that there is heavy traffic in this area. Many wineries have set up their tasting rooms in this section of town, which is a great excuse for a pit stop, but also means lots of people who might not be as familiar with the area are navigating country roads. Consider driving this loop before venturing out on your bike.
The Milton-Freewater Route takes riders on busier roads, more than the other featured routes. Traveling toward the state line, a few wineries are located along Powerline Road. Otherwise, it is farmland until the route approaches the highway and the town of Milton-Freewater, Oregon. On the journey back north on Highway 339, many orchards and farms line the road. This ride will definitely keep riders alert, but it is an excellent way to experience the valley in ways you might not normally seek out.
This National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service recounts the inevitable tumultuous relationship between the missionaries and the Native Americans. Visitors can learn about the settlement through interpretive signs, movies, and viewing the grounds where the mission stood. The route takes riders on a 16-24 mile excursion that passes by Whitman Mission, offering outdoor enthusiasts a chance to take a rest and appreciate local history. Since the ride stays in the valley, there is very little elevation change, under 200 feet in fact. There isn’t much of a shoulder on the roads listed on this route, so take caution. If heading out at sunset, know that Whitman Drive lines up perfectly with the summer fading light, and it is extremely difficult to see other cars, much less riders, during this part of the day. As yet another route that shows off how multifaceted our valley truly is, the Whitman Mission route is great for mind and body.
The west side of town is actually quite different than the east side. Surprisingly, the climate varies greatly. East of Walla Walla receives significantly more rain as weather tends to slide up the Blue Mountains from the south. Alfalfa is an abundant crop on the dryer, west side. Along the ride, you might notice the leafcutter bees hard at work pollinating the fields. Mill Creek joins the Walla Walla River near Whitman Mission, and some of the valley’s first wineries call this side of town home.
This loop is likely nearest and dearest to my heart as my brief career as a wheat truck driver was mostly spent on these roads. The 14 mile loop, as expected, meanders through gently rolling farmland. With options to extend the ride to HWY 124 and beyond, this ride is truly a gateway to the northern areas of the county, and even potentially into neighboring Columbia County. There aren’t any places to stop by way of refueling or facilities, so make sure to plan accordingly and bring lots of fluids. There likely isn’t a single tree along this route–sunscreen. Some of the best viewscapes are just north of town. The slight elevation gain and angle on the mountains really makes the Blue Mountains appear more dramatic than the view from town. Consider a spring ride to capture the verdant green of all the new growth, and then give the fields a few months to turn golden yellow and really show off. Just make sure to share the road with all those harvest trucks.
This ride exemplifies rolling wheat fields. There really is nothing like it, which means it is a one-of-a-kind ride. Geology meets agriculture meets cyclist. This is a popular road that connects Prescott and Waitsburg to Walla Walla. It is frequently traveled, and in the summer it becomes a race track to the grain elevator. Enjoy verdant green fields in the spring, and then ride the route again just before harvest–you won’t believe what a few months of sun will do.
Like its Mill Creek counterpart, the Harris Park Route takes riders into the Blue Mountains. Many outdoor enthusiasts utilize this area to hike, fish, mountain bike, and camp. This area is known for its unique geology, making the soils ideal for vineyards and orchards. If you’ve ever heard of an area known as the Rocks, this is the spot everyone is referring to while sipping on a delicious glass of wine, of course. Again, not much shoulder to speak of on this road but significantly less farm equipment traffic. This route will make you work, climbing almost 1,000 feet to Harris Park. Stop at the day-use area and enjoy the South Fork of the Walla Walla River before cruising back down the road, and connect to the Milton-Freewater Route to add additional miles. Overall, a fantastic out-and-back that really teases all the wonderful outdoor recreation activities in the Blue Mountains.
Another opportunity to ride into the mountains, the Harris Park Route travels through orchards and vineyards along the South Fork of the Walla Walla River. If you aren’t riding for time, take a moment at the park to enjoy the scenery and eat a bar or two.
Connect with local groups for organized rides, events, and workshops happening throughout the week. Allegro Cyclery and Bicycle Barn run a number of group rides around the valley that take riders on and off pavement depending on preference. Join a more competitive group to challenge yourself, or take on a recreational ride to unwind from a day at work. In winter months, Bicycle Barn evens offers riders the opportunity to train as a group indoors, so between the two shops there is plenty to keep everyone busy. Consider adding these shops to your favorite social media hub to stay up to date on the latest ride announcements.
Both shops are always incredibly helpful, encouraging, and inviting, so don’t hesitate to walk in and ask all your newbie questions. They will get you rolling. On summer mornings, downtown breakfast spots are often full of riders in their gear, clanking to their table, and enjoying a few carbs after a ride. Don’t hesitate to rock your spandex around town–recreate as you are!
A few major biking events are hosted in town every year that are definitely worth marking your calendar to either spectate or participate. For over 20 years, the Tour of Walla Walla combines the best the valley has to offer–rural routes winding through farmland and an action-packed town race that always draws many cheering fans. The Walla Walla Grit race celebrated its inaugural ride in 2018, and folks are coming back for more! Riders enjoy all those beloved gravel mountain roads that lead to such amazing outdoor recreation opportunities, not to mention the view. Two very distinct opportunities to compete in the valley. May the best rider win!
In addition to marked routes, Community Council, a local organization that focuses on enhancing the quality of life in the valley, spent three years studying outdoor recreation access in our area and prioritized trails connecting communities as a way to improve the health of the community and promote outdoor recreation tourism. While much of this plan is in the fact-finding state, the momentum is strong. Many agencies, organizations, businesses, and individuals are working hard to enhance existing opportunities and even create new opportunities. As part of that discussion, bike paths connecting many communities were discussed. We know that scale of project is a tall order, but there are few better places than this valley to enjoy a long ride.
There are so many different opportunities to enjoy the area on two wheels. Thanks to the City of Walla Walla for their technical skills, local shops who supply riders with gear and steward opportunities to put that gear to good use, and locals who continue to advocate for more bike-friendly paths and connections to neighboring communities, the biking community in Walla Walla is truly exceptional.