VERNONIA, Ore. — There’s a state of mind known to long-distance hikers best described, I suppose, as “autopilot.”
It’s the moment when walking becomes so fluid you only consider the surrounding forest — trees and breeze and birds — and are barely conscious of moving legs.
You just go.
This zenlike state is easiest to achieve while hiking because there isn’t much to worry about, as opposed to kayaking (look out for that rapid!), skiing (look out for that turn!) and especially biking (look out for that car!).
But every rule has its exception. And for cyclists, the best example might be the car-free bliss of the Banks-Vernonia State Trail.
Oregon’s first rails-to-trail system follows an old railroad bed through prairie and Coast Range on a pathway so smooth it’s easy to slip into an autopilot state where peddling becomes afterthought.
This isn’t to say riding the entire trail’s 42 miles out-and-back is easy — especially for a duffing rider like me — but with an early start and midway meal, the trail’s forest, creeks and birds create two-wheeled tranquility.
The Banks-Vernonia State Trail didn’t come about by accident.
Beginning in the 1920s, trains hauled logs and lumber over this route from the Oregon-American mill in Vernonia to Portland.
By 1957, the mill shut down. The line was abandoned in 1973. In 1990 21 miles of railroad bed was transferred to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
The route was paved, following the national rails-to-trails movement, and opened to bikers, hikers and horseback riders in 2010.
The route has six trailheads offering the chance to hike or bike shorter or longer segments.
A one-way ride on the trail is a moderate 21 miles — but requires a shuttle — while an out-and-back trek is a more challenging 42.
I started at Banks Trailhead (elevation 214 feet) close to Salem. That made the second leg downhill with the Vernonia Trailhead at a higher elevation (628 feet).
A nice element of the trail is it’s open year-round except during the worst storms.
The first 4 miles from Banks are flat through prairie and farmland with noise from Highway 26 still within earshot.
After passing Manning Trailhead, the trail goes uphill into the wooded Coast Range hills.
I climbed gradually for the 7.5 miles, gaining about 800 feet, a grade that’s not difficult and allows plenty of time to enjoy a Coast Range environment.
What most people remember about Banks-Vernonia is the Buxton trestle — a bridge straight out of the silent movie era.
Rising 80 feet high on wooden planks, the refurbished trestle curves around a long corner, carrying riders above the treetops for more than 700 feet.
The ride cuts through Stub Stewart State Park for much of its journey.
After a gradual and unrelenting climb, the trail reaches its high point at mile 11.2. The final 10 miles drop away quickly on the downhill section that ends at Anderson Park in Vernonia.
The trip back went quite a bit faster. I found that “autopilot” setting and cruised through the trees back to my car.