Hot Springs, Mountain Bikes, Dehydration, and Sagebrush
Bikepacking the remote Hart Mountain and Sheldon Antelope Refuge
We fell asleep quite early in a completely deserted corner of Nevada at the Virgin Valley Hot Springs, serenaded by peacefully deafening bullfrogs. But then at some ungodly hour I awake to the crunching of a large beast in the gravel lot. Groggy panic quickly dissipates when one of the most foreign and obscene, yet disarming noises I’ve ever heard brays out from the darkness. It’s one of those goddamned adorable wild burros, probably itching for a quick dip in the large steaming pool we’re bivvied next to. Sorry buddy, not tonight.
What time is it anyway? Ah yes, 4:05am. Ten minutes before my alarm goes off. The earliest I’ve ever gotten up to ride my bike? Yes. My coffee sock is already prepped from the night before, quickly coming to life over my alcohol stove as I brush my teeth contemplating the day ahead. I wolf down a homemade slurry of oatmeal, powdered milk, hot chocolate, and butter powder. Stubbornly I am planning on splitting off from the group, eschewing pavement and setting off on an unknown gravel loop through the wild Sheldon Antelope Refuge. One glorious sunrise, 11 antelope, 2 abandoned ranches, 43 miles, and 6 hours later I meet back up with my compadres as they were leaving me a note in the dust with stones and spent shotgun shells. We still have 40 miles to go deep into even more remote territory and I haven’t seen a single other soul all day.
We were way the fuck out there. Last fall Donnie from VeloDirt had driven the six hours to Frenchglen in order to do this trip solo but found the roads completely impassable mud wallows. South and west of Frenchglen (population: 12) the Sheldon and Hart Mountain antelope refuges hug the Oregon Nevada border. There’s one paved road near the border, a few meandering gravel connections, loads of jeep trails with no intention of taking you anywhere fast, and more sage brush then you’ve ever seen in your life.
We had meticulously packed enough calories in our frame and seat bags for four days of hard riding without any services. Pouring over USGS topo maps we identified a handful of watering holes, springs, and mud puddles that would be necessary to complete the trip hydrated. So far at least two thirds of those had been bone dry and it was supposedly the ‘wet’ season. We had been carefully monitoring the weather and knew most of this landscape had just been blanketed in a few inches of snow the week prior, but there was nothing to show for it now. This thirsty land sucks up every bit of moisture awful quick.
I think Donnie was glad he had companions this time around. Donnie Kolb is no stranger to adventure, but if something went to hell it’s a long walk to cell service. I’d been excited to get out into Eastern Oregon all winter long and in the preceding weeks kept trying to add more miles to our already ambitious route. Jason Britton had been wavering for a few weeks, and then jumped fully on board with his Daisy BB gun a mere three days before we left. All of us had been raring to get out of dreary Portland and go on our first big bikepacking trip of the season.
From Frenchglen we travelled south along the gradual western slopes of the Steens Mountains. There was marginally more runoff here from the high elevations—enough to support a few ranches—but before long we turned off the main road (17 cars and 1 stubborn herd of cattle in 5 hours of riding) and up into unknown territory: Funnel Canyon. We poked around on foot for a spell looking for rattlesnakes, pictographs, and a cave, and then saw Slickey Lake full, wet, and shimmering off in the distance. Naturally we tried to ride straight into it, but to our surprise rolled out onto several square miles of perfectly flat hardened playa. The mirage of water so convincing the surface was indiscernible a stone’s throw away. Gleefully swooping around as fast as possible, no handed, laughing, running over tumbleweeds, we looked around at each other. Seems we had found our campsite.
After high fives, a nice hot sage brush fire, cashew curry with oysters, a little too much whiskey, and one last brilliant full moon pedal across the expanse we crawled into our dusty bags for the night.
We awoke abruptly as the sun snapped over Square Mountain attempting to scorch us into the hardened 2-dimensional landscape. I need a better sleeping pad for this shit. Or I’m getting old. Or maybe I just need less whiskey. Or more coffee.
After a lazy start we ground away the miles towards Nevada through Funnel Canyon and hopefully some water, somewhere. We asked some shit-caked cattle huddled around a muddy trough powered by a gasoline generator. They said no. We checked our umpteenth dry spring. Checked some dry irrigation pipes. I decided to motor onward to the one sure waterhole. It was dry. Sucking on a pebble I sat down in the sun and waited for the others to catch up. And waited. Sure enough, when they finally arrived they were soaking wet, water bottles full, shit eating grins on their faces.
“We took showers!” “Ate some salami and cheese!”
Bastards. But they shared. Turns out they had finally struck pay-dirt and one of the irrigation valves gushed a delicious fountain of clean, cold water. Which was great, because it was 80º and another 25 miles to Bog Hot Springs, which I didn’t really want to drink out of anyway.
The approach to Bog Hot Springs was a wide open, perfectly flat plain, interspersed with a buttload of sagebrush just like every other square inch of this countryside. What set it apart was the ground. In some places the thick, fluffy salt and mineral deposits were 3″ deep. The setting was spectacular, the water scalding, and the flows so ambitious that the spring bubbled out of the unforgiving soil into a deep, hot stream. We would have loved to set up camp right there, but there was only time for a quick dip and then another 20 miles to Virgin Valley Hot Springs.
And sure enough, after a glimpse into Thousand Creek Gorge, a brutally steep hike-a-bike up a jeep trail, and some painted hills, we arrived at Virgin Valley. There was a number of campsites and a few buildings but nobody in sight. The hot springs were piped directly into a nice stone hut next to the steaming pool, providing us and the bullfrogs with two perpetually running hot showers. After a soak and some cheesy andouille polenta we set our alarms and passed out before the long uncertain ride back into Oregon and over Hart Mountain the following day.
So here we are, recently re-convened, sitting in the shade at the creepy Shirk Ranch on Shirk Lake (dry) looking up at the steep switchbacks heading over the Guano plateau, 30 unknown miles, the shoulder of Hart Mountain, and eventually to a soak in the fabled hot springs before dark. After a quick coffee and salami lunch we ponderously mount back up, then soon dismount and push our bikes up the grade. Sweating ourselves over the lip, we’re met with bucolic views of the wildlife preserve’s un-grazed prairie and a stiff, ornery headwind.
The mud decides to show up too. The rutted doubletrack alternates between large cobbles and a thick viscous clay. The headwind doesn’t alternate. We slowly follow Guano Creek’s meandering path past Jacob’s Reservoir, Cat Butte, and Spanish Flat, finally reaching the base of the mountain we’ve been eying in the distance all day. And the first real trees of the whole trip. The pleasant pine and aspen grove accompanies us up the mountainside, ushering us into dusk, some leg cramps, and a nasty stomach ache. Finally cresting the shoulder we quickly don all our layers and grumble some incoherent admiration of the fading scenery. After a blistering twilight white knuckle descent we smell campfire, get directions from a cute hippy girl, and happily plunk our sore asses in the steaming pool while guzzling our meager whiskey reserves.
We sleep like babies that night. Babies that have been abandoned 6,700′ up a freezing windswept mountainside. I lay awake through the witching hour, shivering, contemplating doing some jumping jacks until it dawns on me that I can stroll on over to the hot springs if my situation gets any colder. Just the comfort of that realization was enough to put me back to sleep till dawn. That and maybe the dirty riding clothes I had desperately piled on top of me inside my sleeping bag.
We wake up to our last day of the trip and what has been carefully rationed meals up until this point quickly turns into a free-for-all. From my sleeping bag I make pot after pot, alternating between oatmeal and coffee, waiting for the warm line of morning sun to reach me and melt the frost off my bivvy. After a nice leisurely soak in the sun and the springs, we slowly grind out the remaining 50 miles back to our car and six pack on ice in the trunk. And then, eventually, we’re back in our Portland beds by 2:00am.
I knew everything was ambitious about this trip. The lack of services, lack of water, the length, the variability of road conditions. We were fully prepared to re-route, give up, throw in our chips. Luckily everything fell in our favor. What surprised me was the variety of terrain we rode through. The high-elevation sage plateaus can all look the same, but once you ride, walk, stumble, and try to find water in this country you’ll be amazed with the subtleties of wildflower habitats and burro mannerisms. You’ll also be amazed at how green Portland looks on your return.
I highly recommend this route, but be advised there are many factors that make it very difficult. And when shit does hit the fan the closest wet wipes are far, far away. If I were to do this again I’d take 6 days instead of 4, giving me more time to hike Hart Mountain, scramble Thousand Creek Gorge, and sit my butt in the hot springs.
8,900′ of climbing
Tires over 2″
Start/Finish: Frenchglen, OR
Recommend length: 5 nights (mp42, mp86, mp107, mp171, mp190)
GPS Route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/4008502