The combination of my term in the federal government ending and my impending 50th birthday prompted me to search for an extravagant way to spend a few weeks of unemployment and to do something physically challenging. I found it in the Oregon Timber Trail.
The Oregon Timber Trail is a newly-mapped route through the backwoods of Oregon. Combining existing (and recovered) trails with some dirt roads and a little bit of pavement, the route is approximately 670 miles from the California border (at Lakeview) to the Columbia River Gorge at Hood River.
The route is divided into four Tiers totaling ten Segments. The divisions between the segments are somewhat arbitrary in spots, but overall, the tiers do have distinct characters, so I’ll divide this story that way(plus a discussion of prep). If you want a day-by-day account, I’ve got one of those too.
Tier 0: Prep
I’d never done a bikepacking trip longer than three days, so planning and packing for a three week journey caused me a little anxiety.
First question was what bike. I’ve done my bikepacking in the past on a steel 26" XC bike my friend Josh Thayer built for me more than a decade ago. The bike is pretty great, but MTB technology has come a long way since, and I was looking for something more technically capable. Nothing commercially available particularly hit the spot, and eventually I was lucky enough to have Scott Kildall offer to lend me his Scott Scale 29er. Still more of an XC-oriented bike than would be ideal, but a substantially better choice on a trail that promised to be pretty technical in spots.
Next, luggage. My main disadvantage for bikepacking is that I’m short. This means smaller frames with less room in the triangle to put a frame bag, less room below the saddle for a big seatbag, and lower bars, which means less room for a handlebar bag. I was able to barely fit my existing Revelate seatbag, as well as my cheapo Jandd half-frame bag, but my previous approach of just strapping a dry bag to the handlebars wasn’t gonna work with the bigger tires. After a bunch of experimentation I ended up with a Salsa Cradle, as well as a Salsa Anything Cage for the fork to carry my sleeping pad.
I did an overnight test ride in Marin and a couple experimental bashes around Golden Gate Park, and felt reasonably secure about my setup. Next step was to actually get to the trail.
Tier 1: Fremont
The actual start of the route, in Lakeview, is actually pretty hard to get to. I think there’s a shop that’ll do shuttles, and I could have driven there, but then I would have had to figure a way to get back to my car, so I decided to take one of the recommended alternatives and ride onto the route from Klamath Falls, the closest Amtrak stop.
The first part of the route from Klamath Falls is the same as the Oregon Outback route that I rode four years ago. I didn’t remember much of it, but it’s converted rail trail, so pretty flat (and in parts really sandy). The main difficulty of this section is the innumerable cattle gates, each of which latches in a different way, and many of which involve getting off your bike.
My goal for the first day was to get to a restaurant in Bly by the time it closed, as it’d be the last chance for a restaurant meal for a few days. I was successful and had what would (sadly) be the last tuna melt of my trip.
Midway through the second day I merged onto the actual Timber Trail route and was treated to some nice singletrack. It was something of a rude awakening, though, when I realized that I’d be walking quite a bit of trail I’d normally ride, given the extra load on the bike. I ended that day (after a quick stop at a spring) with one of my nicest-located camp spots.
The next day involved a detour to Paisley to pick up my mail drop (probably premature, as I’d barely dented my existing supplies, so I sent much of the box on a couple stops up the road), and then a climb up to the Winter Rim.
The Winter Rim is a thousand-ish foot escarpment overlooking Summer Lake, and the Fremont National Recreation Trail (which the Timber Trail uses) skirts the edge of the rim for something like 50 miles.
Although there’s clearly been a tremendous amount of work that went into this section of the trail over the last year or so, it is in places pretty much notional, and almost everywhere really hard. Lots of slow-speed technical riding over and around rocks and skirting downed trees. It’s also notoriously dry, with around 40 miles between dependable water sources. The views, though!
Sadly, as I write this the Watson Creek Fire is burning over this part of the trail. Hopefully once it’s put out the crews can get out and assess the condition and future of the trail here. This section was the foremost gem of the ride, and it’d be a shame to lose it!
The descent off the backside of the Winter Rim is rowdy and fun. Never too steep but miles of rocky descending. It set a precedent for the trail: sections of susprisingly slow pushing or technical riding followed by fast and technical descending. Like much of the following two weeks, the descending here definitely pushed my ability on a heavily-loaded cross country bike.
The following segment between Silver Creek and Chemult was reimagined for 2018 and I can’t help but feel it was done mostly from a map and not from on-the-ground experience. The climb out of Silver Creek drainage is only nominally a trail. It’s mostly pushing through gorse, looking for the least dense path, GPS track be damned. It should not be surprising, therefore, that once the trail opened up again I realized I’d dropped my phone somewhere back, most likely just before descending down to the creek.
The push back through the gorse was not any easier going downhill.
Once I finally recovered my phone I had to make a choice. I was extremely low on power for my various devices and wasn’t super thrilled to push through the Shrubbery of Doom a third time. So I called an audible and decided to ride the road to Silver Lake, where I could charge some stuff and download the 2017 track, which was a less experimental dirt road blast from Silver Lake to Chemult, the end of the Fremont Tier.
At the time this felt like something of a defeat, but all the reports of that section of trail indicate that I made absolutely the correct decision. Tales of pushing up several thousand feet of overgrown trail only to be faced with dozens of downed trees blocking the descent made me glad I’d taken the easy way out. As it turned out, I took an even easier way out, since through user error I couldn’t figure out how to download the previous year’s route from RideWithGPS, so I picked a road route to hook into the trail with around 20 miles to go to Chemult. I camped a dozen or so miles before town and rolled in the next day in time for breakfast.
Chemult’s main reason for existence, as far as I can tell, is that it’s the gateway to Crater Lake, and as such it has a number of somewhat rundown motels and a couple mediocre restaurants. I was able to grab a room in one of the former, and spent the day doing laundry, eating at the latter, and sitting on the porch with a beer and a book.
Tier 2: Willamette
The Willamette Tier consists of a hop over the Cascades to Oakridge and a hop back over to Waldo Lake. This deceptively simple sounding section, though, includes two fairly burly trails: The Middle Fork Trail along the eponymous fork of the Willamette River and the Bunchgrass Ridge Trail along — you guessed it — the Bunchgrass Ridge.
First, though, I needed to get across the mountain range. The run out of Chemult was pretty reasonable. A couple dozen miles of moderate climbing along a series of dirt roads eventually led to a turnoff to the Windy Lakes area. This is a series of small lakes (some of them no more than ponds), that are quite scenic, but at least in July are seriously mosquito infested.
At the top of the climb, there’s a “highly recommended” optional section, adding a dozen or so miles and 1500 feet of climbing. Still smarting from my bypass from a couple days before I added this section. It was tough, although it ended with a seriously fun descent from Indigo Lake back to the main route. After terrifying a couple just closing up their car for an overnight trip (“we thought you were a bear coming down the trail!”), I started down the Middle Fork Trail.
The Middle Fork is 30 miles of downhill-trending trail. Doesn’t mean it’s easy, though. It varies from steep and technical near the top to choppy and somewhat rolling in the middle. I ended up stopping to camp about halfway down, after I took a muddy spill in the gathering dusk. This was the first absolutely miserable mosquito-plagued campsite I had. Someone on the internet had suggested bringing a head net and the sense of that was proven this night. After gulping my dinner I retreated to my tent and cowered there until I fell asleep.
I finished the Middle Fork and the ride to Oakridge the next day, despite running out of water a few miles before town. My girlfriend Kelleigh had arranged to meet me for the weekend, and I rolled up to our rental to see her just getting out of the car.
We spent a couple days in Oakridge, hiking and shuttling and splashing in the river and going to the brewery. Finally it was time to head out. Kelleigh rode with me to the end of Salmon Creek Trail where I headed up a big fire road climb and she headed back to start the long drive to San Francisco.
The climb up to the infamous Bunchgrass Ridge was long but reasonable. It was early enough it wasn’t crazy hot, and the grades weren’t absurd. Hitting the trail, it at first seemed that all the warnings about the difficulty of the trail were just hype. It wasn’t easy, exactly, but all pretty much ridable.
Soon, however, things turned toward the dark side. The trail got narrower and I started to need to carry, drag or throw my bike over some fairly sizable downed trees. Eventually the trail opened up a little, only to turn pretty loose and really steep. By this time it was brutally hot, and halfway up one nasty steep pitch was a lone tree. I grabbed the tiny bit of shade it provided and sat down to eat something and cool off a touch. Imagine my surprise when a rider came skidding down the other way! (Although I was not surprised the first rider I’d seen the entire time came across me as I was sitting on my ass.) He was doing the Bachelor to Oakridge section in reverse, and after a quick conversation and some words of warning about the upcoming trail he headed off.
The next hour, or two hours or week or lifetime or whatever of the trail was immensely brutal. Narrow and overgrown, the trail was extremely hard to navigate, and even harder to ride. I checked my map several times, wondering if there were a bailout point. If there had been, I very well may have quit the ride right there. At one point I tripped, and as I put my hand out to catch myself, drove a stick through my glove and into my palm. Fortunately, my first aid kit contains tweezers, so I was able to pull all the bits out.
Before the next bailout point, the trail finally became ridable. By the time I hit the trailhead, my mood had improved drastically. When I finally hit a lake where I could filter water, I was feeling downright positive about the world. After a short but tough climb the descent down to Gold Lake improved my outlook even more. Steep and fun, that section didn’t make up for Bunchgrass, but was a little bit of an apology.
My campsite that night was the second (and fortunately the last) of the super buggy ones.
By noon the next day I was refilling water at Waldo Lake Campground, the end of Tier 2.
Tier 3: Deschutes
The trip from Waldo Lake to Lava Lake was enlivened primarily by running into a pair of cyclists at Charlton Lake who were mildly lost. They were trying to honor a deceased friend by riding from Cultus to Waldo Lake, and weren’t sure how to proceed. I set them right and took the opportunity to have them snap a shot of me.
After the previous might’s mosquitofest, my campsite at Lava Lake was a revelation. It’s remarkable how pleasant a nice level bug-free campsite with sufficient water can be!
From Lava Lake to Sisters the Timber Trail follows the Metolius-Windigo horse trail. Presumably to avoid use conflict with equestrians the route often diverges from the trail to take parallel fire roads, but one can easily take the trail the entire distance. That trail is fun. Most of it has decent flow, but is pretty challenging. Even the uphill parts are pretty fun.
Although the route bypasses Bend, I figured I’d stop in and hang out with my friends Katy and Tim for a night. They’ve moved to town fairly recently from the East Bay, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen them. I’ve spent a week in Bend, but there’re plenty of trails I’ve never ridden, so I plotted an unfamiliar route into town.
A quick overnight with friends and beer was just what the doctor ordered, and a shuttle back up to Mt Bachelor was just a bonus. The Metolius-Windigo from Bend to Sisters is very entertaining, especially the segments skirting the Three Creeks Wilderness. Some great rustic backcountry trail gives way to a very developed trail system that leads into town.
Sisters is aggressively cute, but has decent services and a really accommodating bike shop, Blazin’ Saddles. They were completely willing to slot my bike in more or less immediately for service, and I was able to drink a giant coffee and charge many of my devices while I waited.
The route leaving Sisters is a mix of flat, fast single track and equally fast fire road. I was surprised and pleased to make Suttle Lake by midafternoon, where I was able to get a tasty beer and an enormous trout sandwich at the boathouse.
The section following Suttle Lake winds through an OHV area, and this was one of the few parts of the route that felt busy at all. There were ATVs and Jeeps and mutant agglomerations of the two cruising around, and the road, as the route guide warned, was really sandy and nearly impossible to ride at points. The route eventually diverts to a “no mechanized travel” trail, and I made the mistake of camping soon after that diversion, which was close enough to the main road that I heard people hooning around until well after midnight.
The following day started with another brutally sandy section before popping out at Clear Lake, the end of the third tier.
Tier 4: Hood
On paper, the Hood tier appears really intimidating. It’s the second-longest, at 200 miles, and has by far the most climbing. The first segment of it definitely lived up to that appearance. A brutal, only intermittently rideable climb followed by an equally difficult descent, followed by another tough climb up to Scar Mountain. Strangely, I ran into two other riders on this section, despite it being near nothing, as far as I could tell. From Scar Mountain the route descends to Idanha on mostly fire roads, which was definitely a mental break after the consistent brutality of the earlier climbs.
From Idanha, where I picked up my last mail drop, the trail climbs yet again over the next ridge before dropping down to the Breitenbush Hot Springs. In retrospect, since I arrived there in the midafternoon, I should have seen if they had a spot for the night. Their vegetarian buffet is very well recommended, and a hot soak would have really hit the spot. As it was, though, I had the bit between my teeth, pretty much, and powered on.
Shortly thereafter I ran into Pete and Dave, a pair of guys also doing the trail whose notes I’d been seeing in the trail log. It was fun to chat with people also doing the route, and we spent a quality quarter hour or so shooting the shit on the roadside.
After that, though, the trail splits, with the canonical route going up a steep, loose half-dozen miles described in the route guide as “almost unrideable”, and an alternate winding around on a much longer, but more gradual dirt road. I’d had pretty much as much hike a bike as I was willing to tolerate, so took the long way while the other guys plowed on up the steep stuff.
The route I took was quite nice, actually, with decent views and a number of campsites. I ended up camping at Horseshoe Lake, and had an entire 20-site campsite to myself!
The Olallie Lake store is on the PCT and therefore has a pretty wide selection of hiker meals. I of course exercised my perogative and just grabbed a bag of Fritos. I did, however, take the same picture everybody takes from here.
The following segment is the longest of the route at nearly 100 miles, but because it’s mostly roads (paved and dirt), the first two thirds of it actually goes pretty quickly. The final 30ish miles are singletrack, and as I climbed up to the start of the trail in the early evening I realized that what I was seeing over my shoulder was not a cloud, but a plume of smoke from a fire in one of the valleys I’d just ridden through. As I started to hear aircraft and helicopters above me, I was faced with a decision: stay camped up on the ridge where I could conceivably be swept up in a fast-moving fire or bail off the trail and circle around to Parkdale (the next town on the route). In order to avoid becoming a precautionary tale, I decided to play it safe, and so dropped down around the shoulder of the mountain.
I struggled to find a decent place to camp, but eventually found a mostly-suitable spot off the road behind an embankment. As I was standing by the side of the road trying to link my messenger thing to its satellites a couple ranger SUVs rolled by, sirens blazing. Half an hour later, as I was setting up to cook dinner, I saw them pull back up and start nosing around. I hailed them, and they were clearly trying to figure out if I was some sort of fire-starting menace. They did let me know that the fire was mostly under control, and wouldn’t likely be much of a problem in the morning.
I was pretty bummed at this point, since I’d planned to skip the last section of trail and ride into town in the morning. By the time I woke up, though, I’d realized I could suck up the 1500 feet of climbing to get back to where I’d bailed and continue the trail now that the fire was out. Which I did.
The last backcountry singletrack section was pretty great, and the more developed trail network heading into Parkdale seems like it’d be pretty fun to explore as well.
Speaking of Parkdale, knowing there was a B&B there built up the size of the town in my head. Turns out the B&B’s three rooms are the only ones in town, and they were full. What’s worse is that the brewery is closed on Wednesdays, on which day, of course, I rolled into town. Fortunately, the BBQ place had both vegetarian food and a decent beer selection, and there’s a National Forest just outside of town. It’s being logged pretty actively, apparently, but I was still able to find an ok place to bed down for the night.
The following day was it: a dirt road climb up to the ridge overlooking Hood River and then a flowy (but confusing) descent through an extensive trail system to town. I wound over the highway to the Columbia and waded into it, then hightailed to a brewery for a pizza and a salad. I was extremely proud to order a small pizza and large salad, and not the other way around!
The opportunity to spend three weeks doing something like this is sadly rare, and I’m really grateful I got the chance to do it. Although the whole thing is pretty huge to bite off, I think there’re quite a few sections that would make good day trips or supported weekend tours. If the Fremont Tier recovers from the current fires, I think it’d be a great opportunity for a weekend complete with staying in a fire lookout. All you’d need would be a 4x4 to support and it’d be amazing, I think.
Huge thanks are due the Oregon Timber Trail Alliance for their hard work to conceive, develop, and improve the trail. The spots where they’ve done work weekends are obvious, and the extensive documentation is crucial.
More personally, I’d like to thank Scott Kildall for the bike loan, Jess Hickok for the Kindle loan, Tim, Katy, Micah and Kate for putting me up, and of course Kelleigh for the support and mailing stuff and just generally being a great life partner. There are also undoubtedly people who helped that I’m forgetting, sorry!