Southern Oregon’s Coastal Treasures: Riding Whiskey Run Singletrack

Last summer, a group of friends experienced a broad sampling of some of Southern Oregon Coast’s natural wonders and recreational outlets; in hopes of spreading the word to enthusiasts (from near and far) who are on the hunt for that next off-the-beaten-path destination.

Coastal Southern Oregon is quickly becoming a popular destination, with ample access to the outdoors, engaging community experience, and ever-expanding singletrack, like the Whiskey Run Trail Network. Continue reading below for an overview from Steven Smith, accompanied by Chris Hornbecker‘s excellent photography, of what this region offers…

For those of us who call the greater Portland, OR metro area home—and who also happen to check ‘off-road cyclist’ on our list of identifiers—we no doubt have had to stretch outside of the confines of the cityscape to seek out our mix of purpose-built trail systems, National Forest two-track, rural county road gravel routes, and overgrown BLM bushwacks to sate our two-wheeled fix off a beaten or paved path.

While traveling outside of the city to have these experiences is requisite, I would venture to guess that many of those journeys have us Portlanders traveling to destinations closer to Mt. Hood. Or maybe over to the Columbia River Gorge, the high deserts of Bend, and the towering old-growth conifer stands of Oakridge.

And while off-road riding in the Coast Range west of us can open up a host of appealing options—particularly for those of us looking to explore an endless labyrinth of gravel logging roads—the Oregon coast has generally lacked in notable destination riding unless you’re fat biking on the beach, or making a sojourn down the Pacific Coast Highway.

So when an invitation came through to venture to the Southern Oregon Coast outside of Coos Bay, to spend a weekend familiarizing myself with the Whiskey Run Trail System, and sample some of the other wonders of this perhaps less destined zone in our fair Beaver State, I was all in.

Coos Bay is roughly a four-hour drive from Portland. So, while not likely a spot you’re going on a day trip to from the city, it’s a worthy destination for a weekend or even an ambitious overnighter. With a manageable trek down the I-5 corridor and then a gorgeous winding road west across the Southern Willamette Valley through the Siuslaw National Forest, it’s just a quick jaunt down the iconic Hwy 101 through Florence while skirting the windswept Oregon Dunes National Recreation area. And you’ve arrived at the harbor town of Coos Bay.

The Travel Southern Oregon Coast organization had put together a thorough sampling of activities for the weekend for a group of us, based out of Bay Point Landing – a recently established RV campground, with resort amenities and airstream and cabin rentals on site.

Situated on the slough between the Pacific and the mouth of the Coos River, the property was well-appointed with modern communal spaces for remote work and socializing. There’s an enclosed saltwater pool and provisions for sale on site. The newer airstreams proved to be a comfortable and unique accommodation to base out of for a few days.

The afternoon we arrived at Bay Point, we were introduced to Dave Lacy, who owns the South Coast Tours Co. and leads kayaking tours on the Southern Oregon coast and some of its inland waterways, along with other regional tour opportunities. A few of us joined Dave on a brief but memorable kayak trip through the nearby South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve—a nearly 7,000-acre estuary that provides a protected habitat for innumerable aquatic, flora, and fauna species.

Dave’s intimate knowledge of the local waterways and his infectious attitudes toward stewardship and grassroots community engagement in protecting, while also recreating in, natural environments was inspiring for all of us who made the outing that day.

Coos Bay, like many Oregon coastal communities, is experiencing a shift in its local economy and demographics, while simultaneously maintaining strong ties to the timber and fishing industries, anchored by a port that still handles the largest volume of shipping containers along the Pacific coast between San Francisco and the Puget Sound.

However, with the uptick in digital nomads, the baby-boomer generation aging out of the workforce, and urbanites looking for desirable destinations to remote work and/or put down roots in up-and-coming communities, the need for recreational outlets, tourist experience operators, and service industry jobs is growing in communities like Coos Bay. Because of its location on the captivating Oregon Coast, within striking distance of both Portland and San Francisco, the community and surrounding area are poised for an inevitable swelling in their annual visitors. And those visitors are middle-aged, they’ve got resources and they like to play.

Organizations like Travel Southern Oregon recognize the opportunities that these factors play in helping to stimulate their local communities, grow local small businesses, and foster an environment where Coos Bay and the surrounding area can affirm itself as a regional hub for outdoor recreational tourism.

The Whiskey Run Trail system was conceived of, built, and expanded upon with this foresight. As we’ve seen in other purpose-built destination trail systems around the region, Whiskey Run is situated on a county-owned parcel of land that still operates as an active timber harvesting zone.

Through the dedicated work of organizations like the Wild Rivers Coast Mountain Bike Association who take on the responsibility of administering and maintaining the trails, as well as acting as stewards to the land, Whiskey Run is an expanding network of 30+ miles of trails that has something to offer riders of all levels.

Eddie Kessler, owner of Ptarmigan Ptrails a business focused on professional trail building work, has been responsible for a significant load of the trail building there at Whiskey Run.

This includes some of the network’s more notorious trails—like ‘Gnome Wrecker’, which happened to be the course setting for a stop on the open invitational enduro-style race series titled ‘Ride the Dirt Wave’ the weekend we were out getting acquainted with the area.

Thankfully, we had an opportunity to get out and ride with Eddie that Friday before the weekend race, and ride ‘Gnome Wrecker’, along with a thorough survey of some other favorites there at Whiskey Run. It was awesome to have a guide along with us who had such a stake in the building of and ongoing success of the trail network. And the riding surely didn’t disappoint.

Weaving through loamy forest, many of the trails here are modern and machine-built, offering that fast-and-flowy variety of riding that so many of us have come to seek out when looking to maximize fun with our trail miles. More recent timber harvesting operations provided some vantages to briefly poke our heads out of the forest and gaze out on the infinite blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

For a closer view on that Pacific expanse, our weekend itinerary also included a late afternoon watercolor painting session led by the humble and talented artist Chris McNally– who had gotten involved with the Whiskey Run system and Travel Southern Oregon earlier on to help them with some work for a system trail map, a label for the local Seven Devils Brewery, and a local tourism campaign.

Our time with Chris out at Shore Acres Park, just a stone’s throw from Whiskey Run was a gratifying change of pace from the attention required to safely navigate some of Whiskey Run’s more challenging terrain.

Basing out of the SF bay area, Chris has carved out a solid reputation for himself through the vibrancy of his art, as well as his focused work alongside a host of highly recognizable businesses and brands, particularly within the cycling industry. A natural educator, and a genuine pleasure to spend a few unwinding hours in a day with, Chris put us at ease and encouraged those of us with little to no watercolor experience (myself certainly included) to step outside of ourselves for a bit and work toward transferring some scenes from that gorgeous landscape down onto paper.

To cap off an action-packed weekend of MTBing, kayaking, and watercoloring, we culminated our festivities with a stop off at the Seven Devils Brewery in downtown Coos Bay to enjoy some live music, outdoor BBQ, and the release of their ‘Gnome Wrecker IPA’- sharing a name with the same trail that we had en masse, laid waste to earlier that same weekend.

Turnout for the festivities was impressive, and while some were certainly in attendance to imbibe and enjoy a beautiful evening outside- many were there to show their support for the work that had been ongoing at the local trail system. What continues to become clearer to me, through travels, and time spent in both small towns and big cities, both here in the States and overseas, is that bikes bring out good people in our communities.

And they’re not always even riders. They bring out the hard-working, the crafty, and the industrious bunch who celebrate that virtue of riding, and recognize that cycling has an inherent positive impact on communities that embrace it, create infrastructure for it, and allocate resources to foster its growth for locals and visitors, of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. I’m pleased to have found another place in Oregon that is evolving, and which seems to have gotten their arms around these ideals.