From togas to trails in Cottage Grove


The 18 mile Row (rhymes with Cow) River rail-to-trail near Cottage Grove, Oregon.

When we headed to Cottage Grove last weekend to cycle the Row River Rail-to-Trail, I didn’t expect to learn about a plan to break the world’s largest toga party record! Cottage Grove owned this title from 2005 until 2012 when Brisbane, Queensland, Australia beat them out. Cottage Grove will seek revenge in August to win it back by hoping for at least 3,700 toga-clad celebrators – that’s a lot for a town with just under 10,000 people!

If you aren’t a fan of National Lampoon or John Belushi, you may not have been tracking the years to realize this summer is the 40th anniversary of the movie Animal House, which contains a finale parade scene filmed in the streets of Cottage Grove. I don’t so much remember the finale as I do trying to identify a friend of my brother’s, a University of Oregon student, who was pleased to have shared his exposed buttocks in the film.

Now I didn’t intend to write about togas or bare bottoms, but I would say you could both don a toga and cycle the Row River Rail-to-River Trail that originates in Cottage Grove, should you happen to visit August 18. If it were me, I’d save the cycling for a time when fewer excited partiers are adorning the streets.

Prior to this past weekend I knew Cottage Grove as a Willamette Valley spot just off I-5 to gas up, or to exit to head to Lane Community College. But now? I’ve experienced it as a place with a cool (albeit small) downtown including awesome independent bookstores, including Kalaypua Books. And of course, it is known for covered bridges, including the only existing covered railroad bridge east of the Mississippi. Cottage Grove sits on the West Bank of the Coast Fork of the Willamette River and was incorporated in 1877 after working through  disagreement about changing from its original Chinook Jargon name of Lemati (meaning mountain).


Meandering out of Cottage Grove is the 18 mile Rail-to-Trail that winds up past Dorena Reservoir and on to Culp Creek. While cycling up it’s hard not to notice the engineering competence of those who first erected our early railroads – their prowess in crafting elevation changes that make the climb by pedal pretty easy. A plaque mid-way reminds us (in case we didn’t yet figure it out) that Dorena Reservoir is another example of a Corps of Engineers project ousting hundreds of people in its effort to prevent flooding to those low lying residents living below. And while we can talk for hours about our western dam building  – trying to control areas Native Americans could have warned us were better not to be settled year round –  we can somehow still rejoice in the evolution of unused rails into opportunities for us humans to use our own power to pedal into natural areas.


A diverse group of people – including walking and biking enthusiasts, railroad history buffs, and conservation and active-transportation activists – began meeting thirty years ago to imagine preserving our rail corridors: today known as the Rails-to-trails Conservancy. Today I appreciate knowing about a Chicago Tribune Letter to the Editor, shared on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy website, written by May Theilgaard Watts in 1963. Her letter includes this first paragraph:

“We are human beings. We are able to walk upright on two feet. We need a footpath. Right now there is a chance for Chicago and its suburbs to have a footpath, a long one. The right-of-way of the Aurora electric road lies waiting. If we have courage and foresight, such as made possible the Long Trail in Vermont and the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, and the network of public footpaths in Britain, then we can create from this strip a proud resource.” (From Rails-to-Trails Conservancy website.)

I thank May and other forward thinkers for beginning and continuing what so many of us – without often thinking about their early roots – enjoy today. We enjoy them solo, when we need to get out; and with people we love, when we need community. All of them allow us to fill our lungs and push our bodies as we enjoy the world around us.

So, how many rail-trail miles do we have here in our Oregon? Assuming the website is up-to-date, we have 21 total rail-trails of about 311 miles. Oregon has 9 current projects which will add another 200 potential rail-trail miles. The most popular are Deschutes River Trail, Lake Wallula Scenic River Trail, Banks-Vernonia and of course, our Portland Spring Creek Corridor, one that my parents enjoyed through their 70’s. Not all of them are as lengthy as the Row River or the Spring Water, but they all give us the opportunity to feel safe and rejoice in cycling.

It’s extra nice when my writing world intersects with my work world – as it does with this blog. For after all, we know that if we make healthy options safe and accessible to people, more people will give them a try. And that means more people will move their bodies, connect with people they love and/or commune with the environment around them. We will stop, catch our breath, remark in the beauty – maybe even with a stranger. Or, in the case of some of our trails – find a safe route to get somewhere we just might otherwise have driven a car.

Okay. I’ve got new project. To ride more of the rail-trails. So I ask of you – what are your favorite rail-to-trails? I’m ready to create my bucket list!


Stop in at Kalapuya Books – a great bookstore in a beautiful historic building. In fact, you can buy the copy of My Music Man🙂

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