Bikepacking on the Oregon Desert Trail

A yearly tradition for me is to hike a section of the Oregon Desert Trail.  Last year when I was wrapping up my  2nd section hike, I met a couple of bike packers coming up from Klamath Falls and going all the way up to The Dalles.  I was kind of jealous about how easily they could cruise over the terrain that had just ruined my feet with blisters and cuts. Given the plethora of NFS and BLM dirt roads and two-tracks, you can easily parallel the ODT.

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Packed up and ready to go

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Within 30 minutes of starting, it began to sleet:

Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) has excellent resources to help in your planning.  My plan was to roughly follow the ODT from Sand Springs to Squaw Flat (Section 2).  At this point the ODT goes through Squaw Ridge Lava Bed Wilderness Study Area.  ONDA recommends (and I agree) to treat WSA’s as wilderness areas.  Being on a bike, this meant I had to go around it.  Only hikers and pack animals can go through wilderness areas.  Luckily the border of the WSA is a BLM road.   Once the ODT exits this WSA, it cuts due East.  I continued south all the way to the town of Christmas Valley.  I only wrecked once.

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One difference between bike packing and backpacking that got annoying, was that it’s more difficult to keep checking your maps or GPS when navigating the maze of BLM and NFS roads.  I also took very few photos, you can’t just whip out a camera like you can when you’re hiking and I missed that.

The last miles toward Christmas Lake were horrible.  It was freezing ass cold with 20 mph headwinds.  I was so cold I settled on just getting a motel in town instead of camping.  I ate at a local restaurant and afterwards learned that both motels in town were full!  At this point the temp had dropped 20 degrees in the past hour so I quickly set up my tent at a local RV park.

On Day 2 my goal was Derrick Cave by way of Crack-in-the-Ground and Green Mountain.  Crack-in-the-Ground is a 2 mile long crack in the middle of the desert.  The road up to Green Mountain was brutal for some reason, I had to walk my bike in several parts and I had to take a good long break at the top to fuel up.

I continued on towards Derrick Cave, thinking I had a straight shot north through two big lava beds.  When I was about 75% done with the mileage of the entire route I came above a hill and caught sight of two cows fucking beside a cabin, beside a big, locked gate.  There was no getting through and I realized I had really fucked up my route planning.  I had to leave the next day and get back home, meaning I didn’t have the time nor the energy to completely backtrack what I had just done.  I had to completely re-route myself to Ft Rock, and then go north on NFS road 18, then cut NE through the National Forest back to Sand Springs, adding another 40 miles or so on that I hadn’t planned for.

Roads like this you can really haul ass on

I was exhausted and upset I had fucked off my planning so badly.  I had accomplished my goals for riding along the ODT.  So I resolved to hitchhike back (if anyone would pick me up) for as long as I could back to Sand Springs.   I felt a little desperate to be honest.  I wasn’t in the best of shape to begin with, and extending the trip felt pretty daunting physically.  I had no choice but to start riding towards my new goals as the headwinds started to pick up.

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Two track ranch road

The funny thing was, I had planned several different routes depending on what I encountered that allowed me to adapt depending on what I encountered on the ground and how I was shaping up to the challenge.  However I didn’t plan for this particular fuck up to happen.  In this part of Oregon you’ve got little room for error sometimes.  You’ve got to be able to take care of yourself out there, because you may not come across anyone that can help.

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Seeing a real sign on a real road can be a relief

This area is pretty damn remote and I was skeptical I could get a ride, especially with a bike fully loaded.  I had plenty of food and water, but not much energy.   On the long, desolate stretch of road between Christmas Valley and Ft Rock very few vehicles pass.  After all day of seeing zero vehicles I got passed by a work truck, then a passenger car.  I had a hard time hearing the cars in time to stop pedaling, face backwards and stick my thumb out.  So I started just waving at cars to stop after they passed.

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After an hour of battling headwinds again and going 6 mph, an old beat up ranch truck piloted by a 22 year old cowboy picked me up.  He agreed to take me to Ft Rock, another 6 miles up the road.  He tore off like a bat out of hell towards Ft Rock.  It had no seat belts and it was a flatbed so I was constantly worried about my bike falling off.  As we took my bike off the truck in Ft Rock, I showed him my planned route and where I planned to camp another 10 miles up the road.  He agreed to just take me to that camp.  At this point, any reduction in mileage was totally welcome given that my body was pretty exhausted.  We had a great time talking about all kinds of stuff.  I learned a hell of a lot about cowboy work and life on ranches.

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Flat bed, no seat belts, one rear brake, and a broken steering column

When we arrived at the camp in the National Forest, he offered to just take me the rest of the way up to where my car was.  We had a great time on the way and I was relieved to be honest not having to bike 40-50% more than I had planned on!  It was a real opportunity to connect with someone I’d otherwise never meet.

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That holster contains a 109 year old rifle
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Back at the Starting Point

I wasn’t able to measure my total mileage for the two days but I it was between 80-90 miles, not too shabby for having no training under my belt to speak of.

I enjoy hitchhiking and wish it would return as a normal thing in our culture.  Somehow we all got too scared of each other.  I’ve hitchhiked in the US and Mexico and count those rides as some of the most valuable travel experiences of my life.

The ride itself was super fun and challenging enough in some parts.  None of it was too much for my gravel bike, fully loaded up.  The red lava rock covered NFS roads were the best, so nice and smooth with sane grades.  Most BLM roads were two track jeep trails that otherwise only high clearance vehicles with 4WD could attempt.  County gravel roads were of similar quality to the NFS roads and there were even a few miles of paved roads near Christmas Valley and Fort Rock.

I think from now on, in the more water-less stretches of the ODT, I’ll go by bike if there are parallel roads to take and the grade isn’t too nuts.  It makes water carries so much easier and you can really cover some ground.  This is stunning country and cycling it is a wonderful way to see it.