Jun 092023

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I no longer have the bike miles in my legs I had back when Sweet Hubs and I biked the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal Towpath, or when we did our Northwest Washington loop involving bikes, ferry trips, and trains. This is a natural side effect of going to 100% teleworking when the pandemic hit and then moving to a different town; for over three years now, I haven’t been riding the miles I used to rack up going from our home between West Seattle and Burien into my Pioneer Square office. I now walk a lot more—five or six miles on a weekend trip to downtown, loops and laps during my work days to reset my brain between meetings, a walk in the woods at lunch. But I ride a lot less.

When I do ride I’m often on Zelda the e-bike. She’s 49 pounds of metal before I put butt and bags on the bike and I generally don’t use the e-assist on flat miles, so pedaling her gives me some level of work. But if I’m going to ride a bike that heavy uphill I’m often going to hit the button for at least the Eco helper level. My round trip to my workplace the three or four times I’ve gone in clocks in around 6.5 miles, whereas in Seattle it was 8.5 miles going, 9 miles coming back.

Hence the idea of designing a “re-entry” bike tour that would involve relatively short distances between small towns, recognizing that I would still need to build some mileage before setting off on this adventure. Reading a few guidebooks on various types of Washington state destinations sparked some ideas. Some of these books are pretty old, and after 30 years and a global pandemic the hotels and restaurants they recommend may be closed, but at least some of the destinations and attractions remain.

Every bike tour you’ll ever read sits at the top of a mountain of research that had to be climbed. My criteria for an enjoyable bike trip haven’t changed. I want to sleep in a bed and take hot showers. I want to stop periodically to rest my legs and have some coffee or a nosh. I want to stay in towns that have some appeal for a bike traveler and things to look at beyond a series of suburban strip malls lining six-lane high-speed arterials that I don’t want to ride on even though it’s legal. The challenge for some of the smaller places will be finding a place to stay and finding food sources that meet a variety of conflicting requirements (vegan/vegetarian for me, pretty meat-heavy for my Hubs).

While I’m at it, if I get to check off one or two from my list of Washington trails and counties I mean to ride, that’s great. Even if I don’t check those boxes, if I get to know a bit more about the part of the state I’m now living in, that’s also great.

Hence the South Sound Short & Sweet concept. I’d be riding in Mason County, so that’s one more checked off. Looking at days of the week that some of these attractions are open, this would require choosing which ones I really want to stop at because I couldn’t do them all in one trip. So many things are open only on Saturdays! That’s going to be the reality of a small-town tour with less demand for attractions to be open and fewer volunteers to staff some of these. Limited places to stay in some locations also mean the ability to do this tour really relies on moving parts coming together.

Posting this now as a draft concept in hopes of getting feedback from people who have ridden some portions of it.

Olympia to Steilacoom: 24 miles, +591 feet

This is a weird one to map. Google Maps wanted to send me through JBLM on roads I can’t even look at with street view that it tells me are restricted usage. Why?? So I rerouted to go over I-5 to the other side on Mounts Road and wind through some neighborhoods to DuPont. This is a stretch I get emailed about every so often in my day job, with bike commuters who want a good connection between Tacoma and Olympia. It happens to be legal to ride on the shoulder of I-5 in this stretch (How do I know? WSDOT map of segments of state highways closed to bicycling). This, however, does not sound like a good time.

Possible stops along the way:

  • Medicine Creek Winery
  • We’ve already been to the Billy Frank Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge but if you haven’t and enjoy birding you’ll want to make time for this. You’ll be walking through a preserve where the freshwater Nisqually joins the salty Puget Sound, making for an interesting mix of species. Open every day sunrise to sunset. (Note: I haven’t checked out bike parking facilities yet.)
  • Lewis Army Museum: Open Wednesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm; closed federal holidays. (This day’s route circles part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, known locally as JBLM.)
  • DuPont Historical Museum
  • Wilkes Observatory: A historical marker on a gravel trail marks where Naval Lieutenant Charles Wilkes set up an observatory. Wilkes led the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842; according to the City of DuPont website, most of the artifacts collected in this venture helped spawn the creation of the Smithsonian Institution. (I have complicated feelings about museums full of items taken from people who most often didn’t have a full and fair say in the acquisition.)

Places to stay in Steilacoom: Inn at Saltar’s Point: Requires a 2-night minimum. Above the Sound Bed & Breakfast: Website currently down; requires research. Sweet Woodruff vacation rental on Anderson Island, which requires a two-night minimum stay and catching the Pierce County Ferry from Steilacoom to Anderson Island. That could be fine, though. With no hotels or motels actually in Steilacoom, I’d have to consider staying in Lakewood in a hotel near I-5 if these places don’t have a room and if I can’t find an AirBnb or VRBO option (and there weren’t a lot when I did a quick search on some random dates). A lot hinges on this first stop. It’s either book a room when it’s available, or redesign.

Places to eat in/near Steilacoom: Steilacoom Pub & Grill, Topside Bar & Grill, more options toward Lakewood (Hunan Garden, Mis Tres Amigos Mexican, Kin Ja Teriyaki, Oaktree Food & Drink Company). The only breakfast game in town appears to be The Bair at the historic Bair Drugstore, which fortunately looks like real food, but they’re only open Fridays 8am-1pm, Saturday-Sunday 8am-2pm. If we’re not at a B&B we’ll have to pack food or go to one of the grocery stores near Fort Steilacoom Park in Lakewood. (This is why I do so much research in figuring out whether a trip is feasible; food is fuel.)

Things to do in Steilacoom:

Steilacoom to Gig Harbor: 15-19 miles depending on route options, +771 feet


Things to do in Gig Harbor:

Places to stay in Gig Harbor: Lots more options than Steilacoom. The Waterfront Inn (complimentary kayaks!). The Maritime Inn. The Inn at Gig Harbor. Best Western Wesley Inn & Suites. Or stay on a boat! Fleet Suites @ The Boatyard, houseboats and other options along with luxury homes.

Places to eat in Gig Harbor: Quite a few; enough that I don’t need to list because I’m not worried about finding something.

Gig Harbor to Shelton: 40 miles, + 1,053 feet (a longer day now that I’m warmed up), or 47 miles, +1,483, if we take a longer route

Stops along the way:

Things to do in Shelton, or on the way there:

Places to stay in Shelton: Limited options, as in, Shelton Inn, Super 8, potentially an AirBnB outside of town.

Places to eat in Shelton: Several restaurants.

Shelton to Olympia: ~27 miles, +1,434 feet (last day is a little hilly, apparently)

Google wanted to take me across SR101 to ride on the Old Olympic Highway for a stretch. That seemed unnecessary looking at the map; there’s a little side road that goes by Taylor Shellfish. I’m hoping that option is okay, although the map again says there’s some restricted usage on the road.

Things to do:

Well, we live here, so…. But seriously, for someone who might decide to take Amtrak to the Olympia-Lacey Station and start from there for this multi-day loop, a few things you could do if you stay in the state’s capital:

  • Tour the Capitol, which is named the Legislative Building
  • Pick up locally grown or produced foods, crafts, and art at the Olympia Farmers’ Market, open Thursday-Sunday, 10am-3pm, April-October, with a Saturday market in the off-season
  • Shop in the downtown at the locally owned businesses; no chains here (possibly the only state capital city that doesn’t have a Starbucks near the capitol building?)
  • Walk or roll the loop around Capitol Lake
  • Check out public art with the help of the city’s map and a mini poetry and art bike tour of Olympia I designed that gives you more ideas, like sitting at the marina watching the boats, or maybe you’ll be there on a day the tall ship Lady Washington is in port
  • Ride the Chehalis-Western Trail out to Woodard Bay Preserve with a picnic; great birdwatching, and if you’re there at the right times you’ll hear the racket from the heron rookery and see harbor seal mamas with their pups. If you’re going, be sure to read the page with information on Woodard Bay from Dept. of Natural Resources on what not to do so you don’t disrupt the creatures who live here.
  • The Chehalis-Western also features Washington state’s only bicycle roundabout (so far) at its intersection with the Woodland Trail.
  • Ride out East Bay Drive Northeast along the harbor; you’ll have a bike lane that at some point becomes a wide shoulder. You might want to stop at Squaxin Park, not far from downtown, and walk through the woods or down to the shore, or keep going to Burfoot Park, or go farther, out to Boston Harbor Marina where you can get a sandwich or burger and sit and watch children playing on the beach, sailboats, and kayakers bobbing about.
  • More ideas from Experience Olympia
  • Ride the 60-mile “Bountiful Byway” loop of area farms and food producers
  • Really, just plan to stay several days and ride, play, shop, eat.
  • Plenty of great restaurants, bakeries, and coffee shops for refueling! We gravitate toward downtown because it’s so easy to get there from our NE Olympia home.
    • Some of our favorites: Cynara, Mercato Ristorante, Wayside Cafe & Deli for vegan comfort food, Swing Wine Bar, Cascadia Grill, Uptown Grill (with a long list of causes they support posted on a wall that’s great to see), Lemongrass for Thai, New Moon Cooperative Cafe, worker-owned with plenty of vegan and non-vegan choices for breakfast/lunch, Equal Latin with amazing tortilla chips and a line-up of dipping sauces to fill up on, but save room, Quality Burrito (again, great vegan options). (Our research project on this topic continues.)
    • Bakeries and coffee, the two major food groups: Our nearby neighborhood favorite San Francisco Street Bakery also has a booth at the Farmers’ market. The Bread Peddler isn’t far from the market and has a tasty mix, with Sophie’s Scoops Gelateria right next door. Left Bank Pastry moved to a new location a bit farther from downtown but, y’know, French pastries are well worth the ride. The twice-baked almond croissants at Olympia Coffee Roasting are the best and it’s a great space to sit a while right across from City Hall. The Owl’s Nest, with vegan baked goods. Bar Francis, a tiny hole in the wall that makes their own vanilla syrup. Dancing Goats with a tasting room near the Farmers’ Market featuring a statue of—you guessed it—dancing goats outside, and a couple of other downtown locations. Burial Grounds Coffee Collective, worker-owned with an explicit welcome for everyone (meaning everyone) and a hangout space with books, magazines, and games; they’ll ask you how many stars’ worth of heat you want in the Mayan Mocha. Rhythms Coffee, with fun music posters on the wall and live performances, conveniently right next to Juju’s Iced Cream and Custard with a big multi-rack bike parking space between the two. (If you guessed that we’ve been working our way through downtown coffee shops since we moved here, you’d be right.)

Future modifications to this route

From the same starting point this could become a good bit longer: Olympia-Steilacoom-Tacoma-Vashon-Port Orchard-Gig Harbor-Shelton-Olympia. It would be easier to find places to stay in Tacoma and there’s lots to do there; we make day trips every so often.

Reading List

No matter what small town we’re in, I check out the bookstores. That’s where I’ve found the resources listed here, so in their own way they already represent trips taken. This tour design doesn’t represent information from all of these but they form a starting point for designing your own short and sweet, medium and manageable, or long and lovely/laborious.

  • The Best Bike Rides in the Pacific Northwest, by Todd Litman and Suzanne Kort, 1992 so everything needs to be confirmed and a lot of infrastructure has changed
  • Washington Off the Beaten Path: A Guide to Unique Places, by Todd Litman & Suzanne Kort, 1993
  • Wine Trails of Washington: A Guide for Uncorking Your Memorable Wine Tour, by Steve Roberts, 2007
  • Exploring Washington’s Backroads: Highways and Hometowns of the Evergreen State, by John Deviny, 2005
  • The Great Washington Birding Trail, Puget Loop, by Audobon Washington
  • Footsore 4, Walks and Hikes Around Puget Sound, by Harvey Manning, 1979: Dated, with some delightfully opinionated takes on
  • Take a Walk: 100 Walks Through Natural Places in the Puget Sound Region, by Sue Muller Hacking 2003
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