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Historic Ferries Offer a Premier Gateway to Endless Road Cycling in the Willamette Valley

By Geoff Nudelman

At one time, ferries were an essential part of Oregon transportation, dating back as early as 1850. More than 500 ferries were in operation throughout the state well into the 1900s, mainly along various points of the Willamette River before larger connecting roadways were built.

Once modern highways and roads were built throughout the early and mid-20th century, that number dwindled to three, but the trio that does remain provides vital links for local agricultural communities and also happens to do the same for road cyclists looking for something a little different.

The best part about Oregon's ferries is that the adventure is largely up to you. Options include famous wine country hills in the west and speedy straightaways in the south, among others, and there's ample opportunity to take in a dose of history no matter where you are. Each one links to quiet, rural roads with grander destinations in mind, offering the perfect opportunity to build a memorable two-wheeled itinerary.

Wheatland Ferry Shuttles Cyclists Through Wine Country

Tucked on the northern edge of Willamette Mission State Park about 15 miles north of downtown Salem, the Wheatland Ferry is a great starting point for cyclists eager to tackle the southeastern flank of wine country. A great day of road cycling begins by parking at the Filbert Grove Day Use Area and warming up the legs with a casual ride around the park's five miles of paved trails.

Once ready, the northwestern edge of the trail loop offers easy access to the ferry waiting area. Ferries run every day (other than Thanksgiving and Christmas) between 5:30 a.m. and 9:45 p.m.; bicycles are only $1 each way (cash-only), and pedestrians are free. Weekday crossings are much quieter than weekends, and be prepared for mosquitos in the summer.

The Wheatland ride is quick (less than three minutes) and there are no services (such as restrooms or food for sale) with any of the ferries as these are largely local commuter links. The thud of the ferry doors opening on the other side is the first welcome to the unincorporated, mostly agricultural community of Wheatland. A small ascent winds through farms and pasture right to the commanding trees of the Maud Williamson Recreation Site. With picnic shelters and plenty of shade, the site is a great place to get your bearings at the start of your journey, or to review the day's climbs and descents before heading home.

From there, no less than a half-dozen wineries and vineyards are within a 45-minute bike ride. The roads are generally flat and offer expansive scenery; just be prepared for notable ascents to reach a couple of the vineyards in the Eola Hills area.

Canby Ferry Leads Cyclists to Heart-Pumping Hills

More ardent cyclists can opt for the heart-pumping hills heading straight off The Canby Ferry ($3 each way for bicycles, cash-only, operating hours: 6:30am-7:00pm, closed most federal holidays) on the northern outskirts of the quiet community. The ride is also fast at under five minutes, but feels like a bit of a hidden respite as the entry and exit points fade quickly from view. A spritely, few hundred feet climb leads to vista views of the Dundee and Dayton foothills, along with the opportunity to explore less crowded rolling hills and descents. In the other direction, the ferry-and adjoining Molalla River State Park-could be a great starting point to head south, following the Molalla River on quiet roads through small rural communities with more expansive scenery.

The Canby Ferry

Buena Vista Ferry Showcases Willamette Valley Wildlife

Oregon's southernmost ferry, the Buena Vista Ferry ($1 each way for bicycles, free for pedestrians, operating hours: 7:00am-5:30pm, cash or check accepted, open year-round), connects to another rural expanse: Buena Vista, one of Oregon's earliest settlements that, in its late-1800s heyday, was a bustling pottery-producing and hops-growing center. While heading westward from the ferry offers more open roads, the eastern ride is only 20 minutes to the Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge, where all sorts of animals and creatures can be observed throughout the year. (Most trails at Ankeny are closed October 1 through March 31 to provide sanctuary for wintering dusky Canada geese and other birds).

Heading south, the fairly mellow road follows the Willamette River for almost 12 miles en route to Albany; if you're looking to break up the ride, stop at the E.E Wilson Wildlife Area, which offers birdwatching opportunities between April and August. 

Marion County operates the Wheatland and Buena Vista Ferries and maintains a recorded Ferry Information Line at (503) 588-7979.

Clackamas County operates the Canby Ferry and maintains an information line for status updates at 503-650-3030.

Your adventure begins with the official Willamette Valley Travel Guide. Request your complimentary printed guide or download a digital guide today.

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