EUGENE, Ore. —A bicycle built for three powered by a mother and her two young children might turn heads in Seattle or Portland, but in the bike-friendly university town of Eugene, it's just an everyday way of getting around.
"We call it our Eugene minivan," said Alpha Wilson, returning from a trip to the fabric store with her children, Ruthanne and Charlie, pumping behind her.
Her "road" of choice (except on weekends when there are too many tourists and rollerbladers) is the 12-mile Ruth Bascom Riverbank Path skirting the shady banks of the Willamette River.
With 41 miles of off-street paths and 80 miles of streets with bike lanes, Eugene is a bicyclist's dream, but no route is as accessible to the casual rider as the river path, named for former Eugene mayor Ruth Bascom.
Parks, gardens, wildlife-viewing areas and swimming holes skirt a wide, paved trail, linking cultural, culinary and shopping destinations via five pedestrian/bike bridges crossing the river at scenic intervals.
Stay on the trail for a quiet ride or waterside picnic, or detour onto flat side streets, and discover the craft breweries, vegan cafes and green businesses for which this college town is famous.
No need for a car. My husband, Tom, and I used Amtrak's efficient train/bus connection to get here from Seattle, then walked a mile to our B&B, the River Walk Inn in the artsy Whiteaker neighborhood.
Owner Donna Cribbs' description of her "You won't need lunch" breakfasts seemed like a good way to begin a day of biking, but the real draws were the inn's proximity to the South Bank portion of the river path, a half-block away, and the bikes, locks and helmets it provides free to guests.
Using a color-coded parks-department map, we hopped on and off our Raleigh seven-speeds, discovering a mix of rural and urban delights that have earned Eugene a reputation as one of the Northwest's most eco-friendly cities.
The shady, four-mile South Bank portion of the trail offers the most to explore on and off the path.
On the path:
—A half-block from the River Walk Inn, at the Adams Street entrance to the river path, is the Owen Rose Garden, part of an 8- 1/2 -acre waterfront park with more than 400 varieties of roses. This is also the location of one of several city-sponsored Community Education Gardens, this one dedicated to teaching passers-by the ins and outs of composting.
—A large waterfront picnic area leads into the 100-acre Skinner Butte Park, part of city founder Eugene Skinner's original land claim and a well-known birding destination.
Climbers can be found here almost any afternoon scaling the "Columns," a steep face of black columnar basalt, the remnant of a quarry that operated here between the 1890s and 1930s. Kids can "pretend climb" on a replica in the RiverPlay Discovery Village playground.
Off the path:
Three suggested detours:
—The Wandering Goat Coffee Company, 268 Madison, a mile south of the Owen Rose Garden in the Whiteaker neighborhood. We stopped here for the organic coffee ground on-site, and discovered granola made with hemp seeds and the house cocktail, the "Bud-a-ccino," a glass of oatmeal stout crafted by Eugene's Ninkasi Brewing Co. topped with a shot of espresso.
—Downtown Eugene's Market District, near the Amtrak station. The centerpiece is the Fifth Street Public Market, an open-air mall in a former poultry plant operated by the Swift Company in 1929.
Pick up picnic supplies at Marche Provisions food emporium, then ride along Willamette Street for window-shopping for cotton dish towels and ceramic butter crocks at the Down to Earth Store in the former Crown Feeds grain mill complex.
—The University of Oregon campus, much of it accessible only to bikes and pedestrians.
Seattleites will appreciate the Jordon Schnitzer Museum of Art's collection of work by painter Morris Graves, who spent much of his life in Seattle and La Conner. Prince Puckler's Gourmet Ice Cream, 1605 E. 19th, is technically off-campus but worth the ride to sample some of its 49 flavors, such as Mexican mocha and fresh blackberry. Photos commemorate President Obama's family visit during a campaign stop.
The five-mile North Bank path, reachable via the Autzen pedestrian/bike bridge near campus or the Knickerbocker footbridge about a mile away, is the longest section of the trail. It winds through a nature preserve, past swimming holes, forested running paths and through Eugene's largest park.
On the path:
—The Whilamut Natural Area (formerly East Alton Baker Park) covers 237 acres of green space set aside for walking, riding, swimming and blackberry picking.
Riding through here, we heard only the sounds of birds, the soft ring of bike bells and the squeals of children splashing around in the water.
Whilamut means "Where the river ripples and runs fast," in the language of the native Kalapuya people. Look for "Talking Stones" inscribed with a Kalapuya word and its English equivalent.
—Alton Baker Park is named for Eugene Register-Guard newspaper founder Alton Baker Sr. A slough, called the Canoe Canal, empties into the river via a large duck pond. This is also the beginning of a scale model of the solar system with planets, starting with the sun, spread out along the trail. It shows their size in relation to the sun and the distances between them.
Off the path:
—Runners love Pre's Trail for quiet jogs along the slough on a soft, European-style trail named for long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine. Killed in a car crash at 24, he and Nike co-founder Phil Knight trained under University of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman.
—Dine riverside under an umbrella on the deck at McMenamins North Bank pub, near the Ferry Street bridge. Pints are $3.25 at the daily happy hour from 3-6 p.m.
These are the shortest sections of the river path — 2.8 miles on the East and 2.1 miles on the West — also the most peaceful and scenic, save for a shopping mall off a portion of the East Bank trail.
On the path: Quiet wildlife-viewing areas where you might spot herons or turtles perched on logs in the water. The East Bank trail meanders past fine homes with shady river views. The West Bank is more open and urban.
Off the path:
—Detour off the West Bank path at Hilliard Lane for the vegan and gluten-free vegetarian buffet ($8.50) at Govinda's, 1030 River Road, then browse a few of the thrift shops.
Most unusual is S.A.R.A.'s Treasures, 871 River Road. Cats dart around the shop, hiding among the used shoes and racks of clothing. Part shelter, part retail store, it uses sales proceeds to rescue pets from animal-control shelters.
IF YOU GO
GETTING AROUND: Eugene is in Oregon's south Willamette Valley, 280 miles south of Seattle.
Bikes can be rented at Paul's Bicycle Way of Life (541-344-4105) near the Amtrak station. Non-bikers can get around on the Lane Transit District's bus system. See http://www.ltd.org.
LODGING: Hotels and B&Bs cater to visiting University of Oregon parents and Oregon Ducks fans. Rates are lowest when school's out or there are no big games or special events.
I stayed at A River Walk Inn B&B, a half-block from the river path in the Whiteaker neighborhood, a mile west of downtown. Rates are $100-$120 with breakfast and free bikes for guests. Call 800-621-2904, or see http://ariverwalkinn.com.
Closer to the Amtrak station is the Campbell House B&B. Rates start at $129. Call 800-264-2519, or see www.campbellhouse.com. Check for last-minute discounts.
Good budget options are the well-kept Eugene Whiteaker International Hostels with dorm beds, private rooms and camping spots. Room rates are $23-$41 per person including breakfast. Call 541-343-3335, or see http://eugenehostels.com.
The Hilton Eugene Hotel and Conference Center rents bikes to guests for $15 per day. Doubles start at $119 in September and October. Call 541-342-2000, or see www.hilton.com.
TRAVELER'S TIP: Bike thefts are common. Use a lock. Helmets are required for riders under 16.
Contact Travel Lane County at 800-547-5445, or see www.TravelLaneCounty.org.
Download a map of the Ruth Bascom Riverbank Path System and a Eugene/Springfield Bicycle map at www.eugene-or.gov/bicycles.
Information on parks, nature preserves and gardens around the riverpath is at www.eugene-or.gov/parks.