One thing that makes the Oregon Desert Trails stand out to me is the ability to use multiple modes of transit i.e. feet, bike, horse, skis, or rafts. You also have the freedom and flexibility to change up the route to your own liking. Starting in 2016, I normally hike or bike a section of the Oregon Desert Trail annually. In 2019 we had other plans as we prepared for a big career shift and a trip to Peru, and in 2020 covid ruined pretty much everything. Here we are in 2021, fully vaxxed up, and I was eager to get back out to the ODT.
The Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) has an alternate route mapped out from Christmas Valley to Paisley meant for bikes. There wasn’t a lot of beta on the route, but it was clear the route would be pretty chunky and dry. I ended up mapping my own route that was a closer approximation to the hiking portion of the ODT, without going into any Wilderness Study Areas (WSA’s). It had the benefit of being a little bit shorter, and had many potential water sources (wells, water holes, etc.)
I planned on a big loop, roughly half paved, 10% gravel, and 40% a shit BLM road of unknown difficulty. I’d ride south from Christmas Valley on the BLM road to reach Paisley. Then I’d head north along Summer Lake on the paved road towards Christmas Valley for a total of 108 miles.
The BLM road which ran north to south was easily the worst road I’ve ever seen on three continents. I’d ride for a few hundred yards, hit sand, walk the bike. I’d ride a few hundred more yards, hit a two mile rock field that was difficult to walk on, much less ride on. I’d hit a dependable cycle of rock fields, sand, and a small portion of rideable road. I average 3.5 mph that day, sometimes even dragging my bike through sand pits. It was an utterly exhausting experience, dragging my fully loaded bike more than I was riding it. Somehow I still made it 35 miles, and I luckily still had enough water for dinner and for starting the next day. It was the hardest physical challenge of my life and not at all what I’d planned or expected. Every last water source was bone dry.
The next morning I felt weak and had no appetite. I didn’t have any muscle soreness or evidence of dehydration though. I pressed on the remaining 7 miles of the BLM road, struggling to eat bits of larabar to get something in my system. I was relieved to hit the gravel road, which leads to the paved road, which leads to Paisley. At this point I was so exhausted I called it a day and decided to try and hitch back to Christmas Valley. Within 20 minutes of being in Paisley, I was able to find a ride back, which is a story in and of itself like every desert hitch ends up being
I love the ODT for the solitude, the stark desert beauty, and the challenge of the trail itself. I’ve never encountered another hiker/biker on trail. An added bonus is that I normally hitchhike back to complete my loops. I always plan a loop that I can use to return to my car under my own power, but hitchhiking has turned into one of my favorite parts of the ODT and I always build it into the trip as an option. Hitching has made for some of most rewarding travel experiences in my life and it’s great to be able to do it in the US as well.
Knocking out a section of the ODT every year is an opportunity to reset and reconnect with what matters, and I feel thankful so much is left ahead of me.