As promised, here is the epic conclusion of Gabriel and Donnie’s trip through the Oregon Outback. What an adventure! If you missed Part 1, click here. – AGW
I didn’t even realize the Oregon Outback was a thing. Up until last winter I hadn’t heard of places like the Sycan Marsh, Christmas Valley, or Fort Rock. I knew there were vast swaths of unexplored land between the Cascade Range and the Alvord Desert, but what I didn’t realize was just how gorgeous and varied this rugged country was. So when Donnie Kolb from Velodirt began some late night murmuring around a campfire about how he had found an almost entirely dirt and gravel route across the state, I didn’t really comprehend what he was talking about.
It turns out from Portland you can take Amtrak south to Klamath Falls, just a few miles from the California border. The only train of the day arrives at 10pm, just in time to re-assemble our bikes and hit last call at the local brew pub. From there it would be a lot of pouring over maps, sunburn, re-routing, sweating, and pure luck. With this recipe we hoped to follow the OC&E Rail Trail for the first 100mi north into the Fremont National Forest, cross the arid Fort Rock Basin, head up and over the Ochoco Mountains, through Rajneeshpuram, and across familiar Wasco County to the mouth of the Deschutes River. Piece of cake.
Gravel riding has exploded in popularity over the past few years. Usually free, non-competitive, somewhere between randonneuring and mountain biking. Sort of like cyclocross, but much longer. Gravel riding is definitely a masochistic endeavor. While folks have been pointing their bikes off the beaten path for decades, I think we can trace the gravel movement 10-ish years back to the midwest. Rides like the Almanzo 100 attract over 1,000 riders while others like the infamous Trans Iowa and the Heck of the North have had to limit the number of riders who show up. I grew up in the midwest, and while they may not have mountain passes, they have their fair share of dirt roads and adventurous souls to find them. Here in the west the attraction is a bit different. It’s about avoiding the bike jocks and traffic, getting lost, finding something new, and not even thinking twice about packing a cold tallboy to share at the top. At least that’s why I do it.
Velodirt is the premier source for those seeking an Oregon gravel fix. The organization’s longest running ride, the Oregon Stampede, just celebrated its 4th anniversary. When Rapha needed a course to film their elite continental team on a few weeks ago, they rode Velodirt’s classic Dalles Mountain 60. Velodirt rides are always welcoming, challenging, eye-opening, and decidedly at-your-own-risk.
The first 8 miles out of Klamath Falls began according to plan on a smooth paved path. The next 58 miles were grueling. The OC&E trail hasn’t seen much upkeep or use since its construction in the 1990’s—at times the gravel would be too loose or the sage brush too thick to pedal through. At other times we’d have a hard-packed double track through marshes congested with waterfowl or have a hard time discerning the rail grade through a lush green cow pasture. We finally rolled into the National Forest and found a grassy stream bank. After a quick gravel scrub, some chorizo tacos, and bagged wine we settled down under the stars thinking 300 more miles of this?
Our second day we tackled the 12 mile wide expanse of the Sycan Marsh which the rail grade goes straight through. After a hot day of marsh wading and dusty gravel we were happy to find a creek to make ourselves somewhat presentable for our goal of the day: Cowboy Dinner Tree. Cowboy Dinner tree is a thing of fables. Generator run and nestled at the base of Hager Mountain, they’ve been serving up legendary meals for 21 years. We walked into a sea of cowboy hats and pink lemonade as clouds of smoke billowed from the outdoor kitchen. A constant stream of first courses had us almost full by the time two of the largest steaks I’d ever seen got plopped down in front of us. We were asleep before it was even fully dark that night.
The Fort Rock Basin was our biggest worry of the trip. We had a full 80+ miles and an overnight to go with zero water. And I mean not one tepid, mosquito-filled puddle to pump from. We loaded up, and crossed our fingers. North past the intimidating Fort Rock itself and into a large OHV area where the deep gravel slowed our pace so that we barely noticed the heavy washboarding. The next day we finally descended into the Crooked River valley and sunk our feet in the hard-earned ice cold water.
From there we re-stocked in Prineville and climbed into the Ochoco Mountains where we found a serene campsite at the base of Skookum Rock. In the morning we started a slow continuous descent along Trout Creek that had a constant supply of water crossings and fantastic views. After asking the postman and the school teacher in Ashwood, we realized we needed to re-route, so we climbed our steepest climbs yet and crested onto a rolling plateau of pastel grassland. The gravel road narrowed and began to grow grass between the tracks. The valleys opened up, the two-track meandered even lazier, and miles of painted hills receded into the distance on all sides. This was the best road in all of Oregon.
It couldn’t last forever though, as it turns out the most of the businesses have shuttered in Antelope and Shaniko. We were happy to find some gas station food and a place to hunker down out of the wind for our last night. The final day was a lot of familiar riding as it linked up with the Oregon Stampede route. We were tired, smelly, and in a hurry to get out of the sun and wind so we got up early and pushed through the expansive rolling grass hills of Wasco County down to the free showers at the Deschutes River State Park.
Donnie and I have done a lot of riding in remote Oregon and we were both surprised at how fantastic this trip was. The route, the logistical challenges, and especially the endless variations of gorgeous countryside really made it something extraordinary. We live in a special place folks, and it’s big. Get out there and find it!
In fact, this route is so good there are rumors Velodirt will be throwing a bikepacking race along a version of it in May 2014. Keep your ears open.
If you’re interested in the route we took check it out on RideWithGPS.