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It struck me recently that I’ve bikepacked or bike toured for over a year of my life. Starting in 2014, I’ve pedaled across states, countries, and mountain ranges, over a thousand hours of exertion and 10,000 miles.
Along the way, I’ve burnt a few calories.
I fueled all 10,000 of those miles following a plant-based diet. And since I couldn’t find a comprehensive blog post talking about this, I decided to write this post!
My goal is to provide concrete, actionable information about trying a plant-based (or plant-leaning) diet for your next bike trip. I cover the following (click to skip ahead):
First off, I want to say this: food is personal. I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist and I’m DEFINITELY not here to tell you how to eat. But if you’re interested in leaning more plant-based on bike trips, you’re in the right place.
Let’s jump into it.
My Experience with Plant-Based Bike Travel:
After almost a decade of pedaling on plant power, here is what I’ve discovered:
Bikepacking on a plant-based diet is totally doable: I’ve found that plenty of calories, balanced nutrients, and a high energy level were the norm.
There’s never been a better time to live and travel as a plant-based person. From rural restaurants to big city dining, I’ve found and enjoyed plant-based food options.
In foreign countries, the grocery store and restaurant treasure hunt is an enjoyable part of the travel experience.
If I’m kind and clear with my requests, people return the kindness and help get me what I need.
Staying true to my values during a trip is empowering. I enjoy the opportunity to be an ambassador for plant-based eating.
What’s the Difference Between Bike Touring and Bikepacking?
For me, bike touring means paved roads and hence more amenities like grocery stores most days, along with restaurant and hotel options. Our trips biking across the U.S.. or Europe on small highways, back roads or car-free paths are a perfect example of touring.
Bikepacking is off-road on gravel roads or dirt trails. It’s typically more remote traveling with fewer resupply options and less carrying capacity on the bike, e.g. Bikepacking the Colorado Trail or Oregon Big Country. It might be multiple days without any resupply options.
I think both are fantastic ways to travel and I will continue to do both. That said, I’m skerrred of cars and Tiktokking Teens behind the wheel, so I avoid paved roads whenever possible.
Quick Credibility Builder
Here’s a rundown of some of the bigger bike touring and bikepacking trips I’ve done on a plant-based diet. I bring these up to illustrate that big, physically-demanding trips are entirely possible powered entirely on plants.
You’ll note that my trips are limited to North America and Europe (for now!). However, plant-based friends have pedaled E. Europe and S. America, Nepal, and other regions around the world and done juuuust fine.
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My shift to plant-based in 2013 simply required commitment and just owning it. Most people understood and supported me. Even if people didn’t understand why I was making the choice, if I was clear and kind with my requests, they helped me get what I wanted.
I’ve discovered that eating plant-based is like any other boundary that we set to build our ideal life. If we have a preference and we’re crystal clear about it, then if somebody responds poorly, that’s great feedback to moooove along.
EVERYone these days knows somebody with a standard American diet. (I recall a server in a small-town diner in Nebraska who had a cousin who ate plant-based.) A keto brother, a gluten-free roommate, a vegetarian aunt…people will understand.
On the health side, I’ve always prioritized my personal health, but my blood work at 40 years old is better than it was in my 20s! I’m able to do all the cycling I did before (actually, now I do a lot more…). In fact, many badass professional athletes are plant-based, as documented in the movie The Game Changers.
Also, plant-based diets help people optimize body composition, oftentimes dramatically dropping fat. Bike travel is hard enough, so shaving a few pounds never hurts. It’s certainly cheaper to eat plants than it is to buy carbon wheels.
Given the positive results and empowering feeling that my choices are better for the planet, animals, and me, I can’t endorse a plant-based lifestyle enough.
Enough background. Let’s talk about what I eat on bike tours.
Food for Bikepacking vs. Bike Touring
In my experience, bikepacking tends to involve steeper, more challenging terrain. Keeping bike (and human) weight to a minimum matters more when I’m lifting my bike over 200 downed trees.
Loaded up with food and gear while road touring, I just downshift and go slower. On a trail, I curse downed trees and wish I’d done more pullups for trip prep.
Space is also more at a premium on a bikepacking setup. Without spacious panniers, options for storing food are limited. On a road bike tour, I’ve carried crazy amounts of grub: half a watermelon, cans of beans and jars of olives… Whatever! An extra 10 pounds of food barely slows me down. Spin up those hills!
But can I lift that bike over a tree or power through a steep move on a trail? Hellll no.
As such, I make different decisions.
General Tips for Bike Travel
Whether I’m bikepacking remote mountains or bike touring through places like Europe, some things I do hold true:
I usually carry a small stove (a Jetboil), but I also like to cold-soak my overnight oats so it’s ready first thing. I do the same with some freeze-dried meals so they’re ready when I’m hungry vs. woefully staring at the cold package and considering attacking my companions to commandeer their food.
For really remote trips (e.g. the Oregon Big Country), I mail food ahead! It’s easy: I simply find a post office in the area I’m passing through and send a package to myself marked general delivery. For $10-15 bucks in shipping, I can have exactly what I want. One caveat: check the hours for the post offices, because sometimes they are limited in small towns.
Gas stations/convenience stores exist in every.single.town and contain tons of plant-based options. (Maybe not the most healthy, but whatever. Fritos, mmm.) Here’s a list of plant-based foods available in convenience stores—so many! Yup, Oreos make that list. And Nutter Butters, for which I’ll trade a spare arm during a hungry moment.
Bike travel makes me HUNGRY and sometimes it’s tough to carry enough calories to make up for full days of biking. To combat that, I backfill the calorie deficit by eating all the heavy, calorie-dense, yummy stuff while I’m at a restaurant or outside a grocery store, bakery, convenience store…anywhere. I also load up on nutrients via seaweed salads, salad bar items, oranges. And watermelons, obv.
I almost always order two portions at a restaurant, eat one there and one to go. For road tours, I’ll bring a watertight container that can take leftovers to get a few hours later.
When I’m grocery shopping, I divide my haul into two portions: The stuff to load onto my bike and the stuff I wolf down to refuel on the spot.
Bikepacking on a Plant-Based Diet: Food for the Trail
Below is a list of my go-to bikepacking food. I aim for as little processed food as possible, though that falls apart if I’m starving and find Sour Patch Kids in a gas station.
Regarding freeze-dried meals, some people make their own, but I’ve never wanted to spend the time. If you watch for year-end sales, you can get meals quite cheap. Plus, hey, you’re sleeping on the ground, so if finances allow, treat yourself!
In general, focus on calorie-dense foods. You’re not trying to lose weight on tour, you’re trying to fuel your engine. Stuff as many calories in your face as possible. (e.g. burritos.)
Oatmeal. For shorter trips, I premix a bag with nuts, dried fruit, ground chia, and other additions. For longer trips, I simply buy oatmeal packets along the way and mix with calorie-dense additions like trail mix or peanut butter.
Tortillas – PBJ trail burritos or make a freeze-dried meal into a wrap.
Fig newtons. Mmmm, figgies. Just typing that makes me want to go buy some.
Some kind of salt/electrolyte tablet and powder. LMNT is like an IV drip to your piehole. It can overcome any electrolyte deficit.
Coconut water is a delicious treat.
Freeze-dried meals. There are a ton of options. Backpacker’s Pantry pad thai is an affordable, excellent option, along with Kathmandu curry and other plant-based options. One for dinner and another that I’d make in the morning and eat by noon each day…or 10 am, heh. If you’re traveling through cities, most outdoor stores will have these.
Pro tip: Use the tortillas as a wrap for freeze-dried meals. Extra calories!
Restaurants! Nothing like a 1,500 calorie mega-burrito from a Mexican restaurant or a Subway sandwich to offset hours of biking. A fav move is to grab a burrito to go and keep pedaling, then eat it down the road.
A few tips for bikepacking:
I usually carry a small stove (a Jetboil), I also like to cold-soak my overnight oats so it’s ready first thing. I do the same with some freeze-dried meals so they’re ready when I’m hungry vs. woefully staring at the cold package and considering attacking my companions to commandeer their food.
For really remote trips (e.g. the Oregon Big Country), mail food ahead! Simply find a post office in an area you’re passing through and send a package to yourself marked general delivery with your name on it. For $10-15 bucks in shipping, you can have exactly what you want. One caveat: check the hours for the post offices, because sometimes they are limited in small towns.
Gas stations/convenience stores exist in every.single.town and contain tons of plant-based options. (Maybe not the most healthy, but whatever. Fritos, mmm.) Traipsing About reader, badass cyclist and fitness coach Lauren Costantini put together a list of foods for clients who were racing the Great Divide from Canada to Mexico. Yup, Oreos make that list! And Nutter Butters, for which I’ll trade a spare arm during a hungry moment on the trail.
What to eat in Rural Towns
Nobody likes staring at a menu in a small-town diner and thinking, “Ruh roh, I’m going to starve.” Fear not! There are plenty of calories to be had. You just need to ask for what you want!
For example, during my Oregon Timber Trail journey, my friends and I pedaled like hell into Chemult to beat the 9 pm closing of Lori’s Diner. We were famished after a huge, challenging day of carrying bikes over downed trees. (See above section on traveling light…)
Magically, Lori’s had veggie burgers available! Did I eat two of them and wish I’d ordered three? Yep!
The next morning, we were back for breakfast. Everything on the menu contained animal products, but I deployed my secret weapon: asking for what I wanted.
“Hey, can the cook throw together something for me? Just take hashbrowns and load any vegetables you’ve got into it. Maybe some veggie burger too?”
The result? A mouth-watering, satisfying breakfast! Even better, when the cook came out and asked how it was, I got to tell him so. He responded that he’d enjoyed cooking something different.
This illustrates an important point: you aren’t necessarily inconveniencing someone by asking for what you want. With potatoes, rice, pasta, beans, vegetables and a random veggie burger (or not), a delicious meal is possible. These staples exist everywhere.
Ask and you shall receive. Be friendly, but not apologetic. You’re a paying customer. Plus, you showed up on a bike, so you’re obviously crazy already.
(Side note: You’ll notice I didn’t worry about the grill being used for cooking meat. For me, this lifestyle isn’t about perfection, but about best efforts. Perfectionism—in ANYTHING—is simply a recipe for giving up and doing nothing.)
Food for Bike Touring
Bike touring meals can of course include the exact same stuff as bikepacking. However, it’s easier to live a fancier—and healthier—life when you’re touring on the roads. More frequent, higher-end restaurants are a great example.
In Europe, it’s even easier. Restaurants and grocery stores feature tons of plant-based options and we’ve found even the smallest little B&Bs and restaurants offer something plant-based. The Bios (the name for organic shops) offer fantastic options as well. Organic produce is also less expensive in Europe.
Outside of big cities or when I’m camping, I opt to make my own meals with food from grocery stores. Big salads (I’m talking LOADED with calories), simple burritos or wraps, pasta. It’s not home-cooked deliciousness, but after biking all day, it doesn’t matter— food just tastes better.
Here are a few staples I grab in grocery stores or restaurants while road touring. Refrigeration isn’t necessary since it’s down the hatch quickly!
Tofu or tempeh: get the marinated stuff for max flavor
Nuts (with beans, tofu/tempeh, and seeds, we easily get enough protein on tour)
Plant-based meats, cheeses, yogurts and milks.
Granola or oatmeal
Any and all vegetables
Avocados and guacamole
All the fruit: apples, cherries, GRAPES (the best). While we typically don’t carry watermelon, we’ve eaten dozens of them while sitting outside grocery stores. In Europe and the U.S., we load up on fruit at farmer’s markets.
Pizzas sans cheese. (“We’ve never had anyone order that,” said one lady with a smile at Casey’s convenience store in Illinois. Pizzas for $10 that we ate like Velociraptors.)
Carbs! Bread, tortillas, plant-based pastries if we could find them…fuel those miles.
Canned chili, baked beans or lentil soup (Amy’s is a go-to brand of mine)
So. Many. Options. Enjoy that bike touring luxury!
Putting Rubber to the Road
Time to hit the road! All that’s left to do is buy a bunch of grub and load your bike up. Before you do, here are a few additional tips to dial in a positive mindset:
Add, don’t subtract. Rather than thinking about things you can’t eat, simply substitute plant options. e.g. get that veggie burger at a restaurant, buy plant-based lunch meat or chili.
It’s not all or nothing. A substantial and meaningful diet shift is best accomplished slowly, piece by piece. You might be surprised how easy it is to eat 75% plant-based with little dislocation to your eating habits. Experiment with plant-based options.
Treat it as a treasure hunt. Enjoying the challenge of seeking out plant-based options is like not buying shitty tomatoes out of season at the grocery store: it’s a bigger reward when you find that special, tasty item. (Coconut Bliss ice cream in a small grocery store in the Midwest comes immediately to mind!)
Feel good knowing you’re helping your health, the environment, and animals. It’s an easy way to have less impact, one bite at a time.
You’re ready to roll! Pick a route, pack your bags, order that grub, and get out there.
For further reading, check out a few of my related bike touring or bikepacking posts:
Lastly, here are a bunch more photos of delicious plant-based food that has fueled me along the way. Just flipping through my trips and seeing this stuff got me excited (and hungry) for the next adventure!
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https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/vegan-bikepacking-bike-touring-food-38-scaled.jpg7681024Dakotahttps://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Traipsing-About-logo-white-background-450x156.pngDakota2023-03-29 18:03:062023-05-06 14:36:12How to Bikepack on a Plant-Based Diet
The VOG it was! My friends Brady, Tyler and I changed plans and met in Salem, Oregon to pedal out to the coast and back via some steep forest roads. With no research except downloading the GPS route, we were off.
Overall, it was an excellent voyage starting in the hot summer of the Willamette Valley, crossing over the coast range to cool, misty coast weather up the Oregon Coast, and then reversing it. Nicely planned, Ben! (Also, thanks for hosting us the night before.)
Overview of the trip
Below is my trip report for bikepacking the Odyssey of the VOG. I wrote this as a resource for folks looking to bikepack this route, so free to skip to the specific sections below.
We spent six days wheeling in a clockwise loop from Salem to Pacific City on the coast and back. The route covers a mix of pavement and dirt logging roads.
Fair warning that the logging roads are STEEP. We frequently ground up 15%+ grades. Pack light (I didn’t) and gear down (I did). My quads were pissed that I didn’t warn them in advance, although Brady and Tyler are unstoppable on a bike and were unfazed.
Also, those logging roads are used to, well, log. Oregon has a long history of clearcutting and we rode through our fair share of them. They aren’t serene forests, but I’m fine with seeing the reality of where wood comes from, and it further reminded me that clearcutting is so.incredibly.destructive.
Caveat: We diverged from the route at mile 236 to head straight to Salem because a) Tyler’s derailleur blew up under the force from his blunderbuss legs, forcing him to cut the trip short and hitchhike to Portland, and b) while we were still having fun, we were ready to have other fun. We’ve all toured so much that perfectionism ain’t the name of the game!
Instead, Brady and I headed straight south from Yamhill 50 miles to Salem on cruisy back roads. This cut out Hagg Lake and the final section through the foothills of the coast range.
Highlights of the Odyssey of the VOG
The shift in landscapes: farmland, coast range, ocean. From Willamette Valley farmland to the forested coast range with plenty of icy streams to the Pacific Ocean and back.
Eating at The Breadboard in Fall City! Amazing food, friendly, cheery owners and patrons. “Welcome to the gay Alps!” said the proprietor, something you nevereverever hear in a small rural logging town.
Remoteness! Other than the coast and restocking in town, we saw basically no one.
Hiking through the Valley of the Giants. (Tip: leave your bike at the top and hike down. Ask Brady how he knows.)
Restocking at American Market near Grande Ronde. Mmm, junk food.
The smooth, silky road north of Grande Ronde (offset by the grinder climb in the heat up to Lifesaver Lake, as I just renamed it).
The OMG-biking-is-wonderful descent from Mt. Hebo over the top of the coast range. From 95 degrees to 60 in 20 minutes of swooping descending, grins plastered on our faces.
Finding a still-burning beach fire in Pacific City and enjoying a misty fireside chat.
Pedaling up the coast with ocean views the entire way…and not too much traffic!
The small things: Watermelon. Fried potato wedges at a gas station. Coconut water. Conversation about science, photography, and how to live well. Uproarious laughter.
Surviving a hike-a-bike in 97 degrees up the world’s steepest fire road with water running low. One of those “is this worth it?” moments for me.
Kind strangers, always. The guy who came over just to show us his intricately carved walking sticks. The party-goers at The Breadboard in Fall City recommending places to camp. A goateed dude with two knee replacements who loves his ebike. The hunter who saved us with a gallon of water.
Easygoing comradeship with Brady and Tyler, two excellent travel companions!
Another injury-free, successful trip.
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Here are some of my favorite photos from the trip. Brady’s eye and skills are fabulous. Click on a thumbnail and scroll through to see them uncropped and larger.
As usual, I rolled on a plant-based diet for this trip…and brought wayyy too much food. I’d planned for a 100% self-supported trip in Idaho and figured what the heck, I’ll bring a ton of grub for this trip.
Which was fine, except those roads are STEEP. And we were in towns every other day, so I did not need all the food. My self-imposed nickname was Chuuuuck Wagoooon (always yelled loudly).
You’ll have a signal up high, but the back roads of Oregon shut down any signal.
I rode my 2019 Why Cycles Wayward V.1 set up with Terrene McFly 2.6” front and a 2.6” rear Maxxis. I run a 140mm front fork, which seems to handle most anything I’d want to ride a loaded bike down. It was overkill on this trip, but sections of logging roads were chunky enough that I don’t regret it!
Still loving my 26T chainring on my Wayward to complement the 11-46 Shimano XT setup I’ve got. It’s AWESOME. Spinning is the name of the game while bikepacking! You’ll never mix your taller gears as much as you’ll wish for more climbing range, trust me.
Rounding out my gear was a Revelate front roll bag for sleeping gear and a custom frame bag. I ran a lightweight T-rack from Tumbleweed Bicycles instead of a dropper bag, ski-strapping a dry bag to the rack. The weight is basically the same as a big dropper bag and functions much better. Sure, dropper bags LOOK cool, but are they truly uber-functional? I say racks still have a place.
Two Salsa Anything Cages rounded out the kit, one with my cook kit, another with water…and my REI lightweight chair, which I love having on fire road trips!
And that…is a wrap. Thanks again for setting up the route, Ben.
https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/Lawrence-VOG-115-scaled.jpg6831024Dakotahttps://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Traipsing-About-logo-white-background-450x156.pngDakota2023-01-30 19:08:102023-05-06 14:44:57Bikepacking the Odyssey of the VOG
Way out yonder in SE Oregon lies the Oregon Big Country bikepacking route. If you’re looking for a remote desert getaway, you’ve found it.
Overall, I expected cruisy gravel roads, mild vertical gain, and hot springs to soothe bikepacking soreness.
I nailed 1 out of 3: the hot springs were amazing.
In reality, the Big Country route served up a variety plate of different terrain ranging from desert playa up to snowy mountains. I’ve bikepacked and road toured a lot and this trip surprised me with the physical difficulty, remoteness, commitment level, and sheer beauty.
Shortcuts for Oregon Big Country:
Below I share snippets of my experience bikepacking the Oregon Big Country. I wrote this as a resource for folks looking to bikepack this route, so free to skip to any specific sections below.
The Big Country is a ~360 mile loop starting in French Glen, a tiny town on the west side of the Steens Mountain range in SE Oregon. Terrain varies from gravel to pavement to “where in TARNATION is that 1852 wagon trail?”
You’ll wander down into Nevada, roll across a full-on desert. You’ll find places to fill up on water about as often as you see people: rarely. The fickle weather might shut your trip down entirely if the Dread Mud is activated. The only shade comes from circling vultures (I’ve always wanted to say that).
In other words, it’s the best kind of adventure, chock full of places rarely visited, pronghorn antelope bouncing along, starry skies for days, and a fine tale for the folks back home.
Wellll, the Oregon Big Country features exactly zero singletrack, and I still dug it. The Big C served up a tasty cocktail of desert landscapes, remoteness, hot springs, and a chance to immerse myself in a part of Oregon I seldom visit, bermed trails be damned.
Most of our days on the bike unspooled lazily. We weren’t pushing too hard—and didn’t want to. Ample space for joking around during snack breaks and chatting with overlanders at Bogg Hot Springs or Gatorade-offering bird watchers in Malheur Refuge!
Our first night featured a full moon backed by a symphony of howling coyotes. That yielded to a silent morning campsite where I sipped tea and stared across the mesas thinking “this is what it’s all about.” Following sage and rough ranch doubletrack, we climbed over the Steens to the rowdy and rad Stonehouse Road descent. (May I never ride up it!)
Water is always at a premium during the Big Country. We filtered from trickling streams in cow pastures or boggy reservoirs. A few kind hot springs car-campers saw us doing so and offered up a water donation. “You can’t filter out of that nasty beaver pond! Here, take this jug, we’re leaving tomorrow anyway.” Generally, we tried to camp at water sources, but pickings were slim between those, so we each carried 5-6 liters at a time.
During a late night soak at Alvord Hot Springs, a string of 30 UFOs transfixed us as they streamed across the sky. I was willing to be abducted for a couple gallons of cold spring water, but they were just Elon’s Skylink satellites and offered nothing but fast internet.
Tailwinds the Phoenicians would have prayed for pushed us across the Alvord Desert, a dry lake bed. Our luck ran out in Big Sand Gap as we hiked in the hot sun, but good humor, lupini beans, and knowing it would end someday got us through it.
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I found a plastic workshop clamp at Alvord, which turned into a game of secretly depositing the clamp on each other for the next four days, trading it back and forth. “NOOO, not the clamp!” Subtle maneuvering and sleight of hand tactics escalated until some near-wrecks convinced us it was time to end the game.
The usual gear-testing (and MacGyver solutions) presented themselves. Chains broke. Bottom brackets loosened. Tires and sleeping pads punctured. My stove fuel failed in the cold. My new Platypus filter bag blew a hole in the side after 10 uses.
We swapped or shared gear, rallied. Mostly, things worked and mishaps were few. Good to have companions on a trip!
The Trout Creek Mountains delivered the promised hard work, plus temps dived toward freezing at 8k’. Cooold winds, but minimal snowy hike-a-bike. High on a ridge, wild horses cantered up to Mason.
Things grew more cruisy from the Trout Creek Mountains on day 5 as we hit smoother gravel and some pavement. We refueled our food supplies at Denio Junction Motel via a box I mailed ahead (do it!) and chatted with the gracious owner.
After a brilliant afternoon lazing away at Bogg Hot Springs, we spent our last three days traversing endless rolling ranch country in Sheldon and Hart Refuges. Occasionally pronghorn antelope streaked across the open landscape, but mostly we encountered friendly cows. The heat dial stayed turned down (HURRAH), making the hot springs delightful.
A return to aspen marked the final approach to Hart Hot Springs and our last night of the trip. We finished our final climb well past dusk and descended in the dark to camp beside a burbling stream.
A late night and morning hot springs dunk clinched the deal: this is a sweet bikepacking loop. If you like sage, solitude, and soaking after long bike rides, you can’t go wrong on the Oregon Big Country.
Oregon Big Country Photo Gallery
Photos! Click to see full-size images and scroll through. Arranged in sequential order (roughly) by day to get a sense of how the terrain changes.
Logistics for bikepacking the Oregon Big Country
Tips and suggestions for the route
-If you want to check snow levels in the Trout Creek Mountains, call the closest ranger station. Call 541-473-3144. They were happy to help. (The Gaia app with snow layers works well too.) We bumped our trip from May 2 to 16th after a late-season week of snow in April.
-Bring as much sun protection as possible. We all wore helmets with a buff pulled up most of the time. Others wear wide brimmed hats or a Da Brim helmet attachment.
-Wind protection is quite nice. A buff kept my face from getting whipped raw.
-Mailing a package to the Denio Junction Motel was easy. Tiara and Alex (the new owners as of 2022) are fabulous, friendly people. Call ahead to double check, but they asked that we mail stuff to “Denio Junction Motel care of (your name)”. Restock options at the Motel are very limited, but they are ramping up.
-Big tires are your friend. Suspension is nice, especially the first 150 miles. Anything smaller than 2.4” could either slow you down, punish your body, or straight-up destroy your bike. My friend almost borrowed my old Salsa Fargo for the trip and we thought a half dozen times, “my god, this would be horrible on a Fargo!”
-Supposedly the water near Willow Creek is gross because of the beavers. Filter beforehand or head up really high to where less critters are? Or find some really nice people to give you some of theirs.
-Hart Mountain Trail is closed to vehicles until July 15th. There was no water from Sheldon Reservoir to past all the abandoned ranches. From there, we had plenty of water available to filter.
-The small pool at Hart Hot Springs is warmer vs. the Stone House.
-We took our shoes off for a half dozen water crossings. None of them felt unsafe though.
Daily summary of trip
We pedaled the loop in 8 days, including a late afternoon departure on day 1 and a half day from Hart to Frenchglen. I’d say 7-8 days is spot on for pacing if you want to experience a hot spring every other night vs. a dehydrating midday soak and continuing to pedal.
Day 1: 33 miles, cruisy gravel roads and pavement from Frenchglen to a brilliant campsite just past Diamond Hotel. We hit the road at 4:30 pm and arrived at dark without pushing too hard.
Day 2: 55 miles up and over the Steens to Alvord Hot Springs. Terrain is lightly used ranch ATV trails with plenty o’ rocks, so going was slooow. Enjoy that descent down Stonehouse Road to the east side, it’s da bomb. (Filter water from the stream on the way down!)
Day 3: About 30 flat miles from Alvord Hot Springs to Willow Creek Hot Springs. A surprise of a day…be prepared for it to take wayyy longer than the mileage and elevation suggest. Roll onto the Alvord and pedal across a straight-up desert. Survive Big Sand Gap. Wander around route finding in the swampy zones. Ford some creeks. Soak away your worries at Willow.
Day 4: Willow Creek to the other side of Trout Creek Mountains. A bruiser of a day. Windy as hell, COLD up high at 8k (below freezing), patches of snowy hike-a-bike…and beautiful. So beautiful. Be prepared for a physically challenging, exposed day of riding. (We did ~40 miles and climbed 6500′.)
Day 5: Trout Creek Mountains to Bogg Hot Springs, 35 miles. Ahhh, almost a day off! Cruisy gravel and paved roads, a stop at the Denio Junction Motel to pick up a box we mailed, and an early arrival at the fantastic hot springs to nap and kick back for the afternoon.
Day 6: Bogg Hot Springs to Sheldon Reserve, 52 miles. Gravel cruising into ATV trails to pavement to gravel for days. Since Virgin Valley Hot Springs was closed, we skipped it and rode the highway over the nearby climb.
Day 7: Sheldon to Hart Hot Springs, 55 miles. A long day out on rarely-used rancher double track. We didn’t see another person the entire day until arriving at the (marvelous) Hart Hot springs.
Day 8: Hart Hot Springs back to Frenchglen, 55 miles. We lazed around all morning at the hot springs, then gunned it for the car on wide, fast, boring gravel roads. (My least favorite kind…)
Getting to/from start/finish
Frenchglen rhymes with nowhere and is close to nothing, so getting there is up to you and your vehicle. At least the route is a loop! Get in the car and drive, then pedal your way clockwise back to your rig.
The friendly owner of the Frenchglen Hotel is totally cool with people leaving rigs. We donated some cash for parking afterward.
Time of year
There’s no perfect time to ride the Big Country, merely options. We initially planned on May 2nd, but late-season snow forced us to bump our trip to May 16th.
I’m glad we did because we still needed to do some hike-a-bike through snow in the Trout Creek Mountains. To check snow levels beforehand, call the local ranger station at 541-473-3144 or use the Gaia snow layers.
In mid-May, nights dipped into sub-freezing temperatures. Overall, I’d still vote for that time of year because:
a) days are cooler and there is SO little shade. Pedaling in 90 degrees in low-water terrain = yikes.
b) hot springs feel way better when it’s cold vs. hot.
c) seasonal springs dry up later in the season and water is not plentiful on this route.
Navigation was straight-forward thanks to the route GPX from bikepacking.com. As usual, I used Ride with GPS to navigate. There were a few swampy or sandy sections that were tougher to navigate, but generally the track was apparent. Even if it had last been traversed in the 1850s… Thanks to Gabe at Limberlost for putting this together!
As usual, I rolled on a plant-based diet for this trip, eating freeze-dried meals the entire way.
I ate a variety of freeze-dried meals, including delicious Food for the Sole, Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai, and the (too spicy!) Good To-Go Bibimbap. Lunches were a mix of freeze-dried options and various snacks.
Overall, I aim for 400 calories an hour without counting calories. I prefer to have an extra meal and bonus snacks in case of a mechanical…or just raging hunger! It’s never perfect and sometimes I screw up and under fuel, but it usually works for me.
Finding reliable, clean water is definitely a thing on the Oregon Big Country. I brought 6 liters of capacity and was glad I did since we dry-camped a few times.
Compared to my previous trips, this outing felt like I was marooned on the planet Dune sans stillsuit. Again, riding this in hot temps would create less-fun situations.
Good plan: If the water looks good, filter it! You aren’t carrying your bike over downed trees or pushing over giant passes, so a couple extra pounds isn’t a big deal. You usually won’t find anything better anyyytime soon in my experience, and we rode right after late-season snow. In June? Yikes.
Two of us used Katadyn BeFree filters and I brought a Platypus flter. Even with a pre-filter using a bandana, the water sources weren’t sparkling snow melt and the filters clogged up.
The frustration of doing the boa constrictor squeeze on a filter every time you want water is real! Bring a new filter or clean yours thoroughly before the trip. I’m planning to roll with a gravity filter from now on plus backup water treatment drops.
There is no water faucet at Alvord Hot Springs, so filter water before you arrive. You’ll need to buy water if you don’t filter before arriving, but the store closes fairly early. Ask me how I know…
Other than swamp water, we didn’t see any water from Alvord to Willow Creek. From Willow Creek, we didn’t have water until the other side of the Trout Creek Mountains at the big stream crossing. Fill up there, pickings are slim past it!
We slept under the stars every night on this trip. Camping was easy to find and free except for a few bucks to say at the Alvord Hot Springs.
With Verizon, I had a signal until Willow Creek and around Denio. Otherwise, plan on zero signal.
I rode my 2019 Why Cycles Wayward V.1 set up with a Terrene McFly 2.8” front and Maxxis Rekon 2.6” rear. I run a 140mm front fork, which seems to handle most anything I’d want to ride a loaded bike down. You could do this trip on smaller tires and/or with no suspension, but I loved this setup.
Still digging my 26T chainring on my Wayward paired with my 11-46 Shimano XT rear cassette. Spinning is the name of the game while bikepacking! You’ll never miss your taller gears as much as you’ll wish for more climbing range, trust me.
Rounding out my gear was a Revelate front roll bag for sleeping gear, and a Rockgeist frame bag. To increase water and food carrying capacity, I also ran a Tumbleweed lightweight rear rack with two Salsa Anything Bags and a 20L Sea-to-Summit dry bag, which worked great.
https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Trout-Creek-Mountains-descent-bikepacking-Oregon-Big-Country.jpg10801920Dakotahttps://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Traipsing-About-logo-white-background-450x156.pngDakota2022-07-13 18:50:292023-05-06 15:08:11Bikepacking the Oregon Big Country route
The Colorado Trail is the big leagues of bikepacking. Get ready for leg-thumping elevation gain, lung-emptying altitude, afternoon thunderstorms tossing lightning and rain at the passes, and remote, rocky terrain with significant consequences.
Oh, AND prepare yourself for a fabulous adventure you’ll never forget.
We experienced no days I can label easy, but for determined bikepackers, it’s not unreasonably difficult. (Well, maybe a couple hours of it…) At our pace of 12 days for the trip, the town resupplies slotted nicely into the program, downed trees weren’t a thing, and perfect trail conditions from rain kept the dust down.
Sure, obstacles appeared. Forest fires from the west tainted the air for the first week. The elevation gain and hike-a-bike are no joke. We fled thunderstoms. My bicycle showed up 2.5 days late with a bonus of a broken dropper post…
But hey— no mosquitoes swarmed us, beautiful vistas assailed our eyeballs, fantastic descents delighted us, dozens of CT backpackers chatted it up, and we had the opportunity to ride through the Colorado mountains on a famous trail. What more can a bikepacker ask for?
Shortcuts for Colorado Trail details
Here’s my experience bikepacking the Colorado Trail. I wrote this as a resource for folks looking to bikepack this route, so free to skip to any specific sections below.
Traveling between Denver and Durango, the Colorado Trail’s originated as a hiking route. Perhaps that’s why so many backpackers stared at us like we’d escaped the loony bin…
Featuring 70,000+ feet of steep climbing in ~550 miles, the bikepacking route bypasses a few wilderness sections on fire roads and pavement. Mostly, it follows singletrack up and down over 10-13k passes. Check out the main Colorado Trail page on Bikepacking.com for a complete write up.
The Best-Laid Plans
My plan was simple: fly into Denver and out of Durango with 15 days to complete the trail. About 40 miles each day with space for half-days if thunderstorms whupped our butts or we needed a rest day. No problem.
I live in Oregon, so flying lopped dozens of hours of driving time off the trip. Since airlines love to charge $200 to bring a bike only to dropkick them down ramps, I mailed mine with Bikeflights instead.
Sadly, UPS blew it and my bike arrived 2 days late. Instead of bikepacking, my trip companion Mason and I explored Denver. We broke tested traffic laws on Lyft scooters, toured the Denver Art Museum, bought final trip items, and generally made the best of it. Lesson learned: ship bikes with a bigger time buffer.
My bike finally arrived at 5 p.m on Monday. We reassembled it in a chandeliered banquet hall, caught mass transit to Littleton, and pedaled 10 miles to the CT start at Waterton Canyon. We arrived riiiight at sunset—spirits high, visibility low. Trips ideally start at 8 p.m., right?
No matter. Mason and I enjoyed an easy cruise up the canyon and camped near the start of the singletrack, poised to leap into the adventure the next morning.
Here’s the tl;dr for our Colorado Trail trip: up at 6-7 am, on trail after a cold-soak breakfast of oatmeal with nuts and berries. Go uphill (pedaling or hike-a-bike). Go downhill (mountain bike amnesia! Hard climb forgotten!).
Stop pedaling around sunset. Aim for days to end at the bottom of a descent to reset spirits and cleanse the mind. Better for morale.
In between, eat as much as possible, listen to audiobooks when the hike-a-bike gets soul-crushing, stop and talk with as many thru-hikers as possible, and keep eating (always).
Want the real details? Read on.
By the way, dig these kinds of posts? Sign up for the free 2x/month Traipsing About newsletter for more tales from the mountains and creative challenges like drawing and piano when I’m off the bike.
(Real) Day 1: Waterton
Unless you’re already a mountain goat or already live at elevation, your lungs will hurt out of the gate on the Colorado Trail.
Our first two days climb from Denver at 5k’ to 12.5k’ above Frisco. We enjoy occasional downhill moments and plateaus, but generally, we work. I’m immediately glad I swapped my front chain ring out to 26T—unless you have thunder cannons for quads, do it! Loaded bikes are heavy, treat your knees nicely.
My first Colorado Trail surprise is the sheer number of thru-hikers. We pass SO many. The Colorado Trail Foundation estimates 600 hikers will complete it in 2021, 4x the usual.
Chatting with people, we learn the backpackers span all ages and distance traveled per day. Everyone on their own journey, with different experiences and fitness and goals. The majority of hikers are college-age or retired, taking 30-45 days. Compared to bikepacking, it’s another world, a solid chunk of summer spent on trail with rest days and trail families. If it weren’t for so much walking, I might be into it.
My second surprise is my recently-serviced seat dropper post. It worked fine before I put it in the box in Oregon, but refuses to pop back up on trail. *sigh* I finagle a solution to keep it fixed in place.
Our inaugural thunderstorm booms overhead when we meet Jay, a Colorado Trail racer. He’s looking rough thanks to a wreck, blood seeping through bandages. Sounds like the CTR racers got their butts kicked with three days straight of pounding rain out of Durango. We trade beta and commiserate, three guys in the woods looking for adventure. We’ve got it, in some form at least.
At our first bypass around wilderness, we chat with another CTR racer who sounds ready to sell his bike and embrace playing Fortnite instead. “Seven major thunderstorms, I counted.”
The Lost Creek detour proves to be an undulating, soft fire road. Rain spits from the gray sky, but the Bikepacking Gods keep the intensity dial below pouring.
To celebrate our first day on the Colorado Trail, Mason loses his phone at the end of a lonnnng descent. Dark:30 is incoming, plus we’re tired and low on water. I convince him to pedal back up and he miraculously finds the phone.
It’s almost dark and I’m shivering, body heat gone. We descend a mile and YES there’s a random stream with a perfect camping spot. I don all my clothing, pitch the tent, chug water, gobble down a freeze-dried meal, and get in my sleeping bag RIGHT before the skies open up. We drift off to raindrops smacking the tent.
Day 2, Tarryall detour to Kenosha Pass
We rise to soaked gear, but at least the rain has stopped. It’s a fresh day and more bicycling awaits!
Turns out the Tarryall traverse is steep climbs and descents, repeated forever. A couple miles in, we pass a father-son duo about to kick off day 3. They’ve under-estimated the trail and are bailing. “We’re playing golf in Breckenridge tomorrow. This trail is HARD.”
At Goose Creek campground, we chat with the friendly camp hosts as their giant tom cat plays in the brush. Our lunch wrap is vegan Violife cheese, Primal jerky, hot sauce and spinach. We’re living the good life out here!
And yet (small) wheels are threatening to come off: while drying my wet socks, I lose one on a descent. NOOOO. Rookie mistake. Second issue: my water filter is already slowing down to a trickle. WTF, it worked at home.
We hit pavement and push on into a headwind. Hours later, Mason’s enthusiasm jumps back to 10/10 when we reach the Stagecoach Saloon, which features a solid selection of snacks. We restock on super healthy options junk food. Stagecoach is our only food stop for the 150 miles between Denver and Frisco.
Another hour of fire road climbing and we’re back on the Colorado Trail. Always-Strong Mason pushes up the final climb as sunset sparks to the west. Over the top, mountain bike amnesia strikes as I descend through waving aspen.
We crash out at Kenosha Pass campground. Two Ibuprofen and ear plugs = blissful sleep.
Day 3, Kenosha Pass to Frisco
We kick things off with a smoky morning climb through sun-dappled aspens. We’d considered bailing on the trip, but an AQI of 175 is only a couple hundred cigarettes per day.
All’s going well, minus the giant hand squeezing my lungs on the long approach to Georgia Pass. Altitude is real and I can’t take deep breaths! We’ve climbed from 5k to 11.8k in 30 hours, so it makes sense.
The descent off the pass is initially fantastic, then devolves into rocky madness near the bottom. I’m a fan of rocky terrain, but this tests me and my loaded bike, especially with a broken dropper post..
Halfway down, we catch a hiker who plods along with headphones in. They must be noise-cancelling because we yell like psychos for two minutes until he hits a switchback and yelps in surprise. Hikers and bikers: one earbud while recreating, please.
Mason and I soak our shirts in a cold creek and chat with a backpacker from Florida. He torched his knees out of the gate with big days and may need to bail on his trip. The CT’s elevation gain is hard on a bike, but I can’t fathom hiking all that downhill. Brutal.
Up and over another steep pass with about 12 seconds of pedaling. Podcast and hike a bike, go! Especially at elevation as our lungs adjust, hiking feels far better than gasping.
MOUNTAIN BIKE AMNESIA. The descent is fast, smooth, all the funzies.
However, we hit Breckenridge and realize it’s NINE miles out of the way to Frisco. All paved bike path, but I quickly decide retracing our route the next day will damage my psyche.
In Frisco, we swing by the post office for a restock that Mason mailed ahead. I pull my favorite trick: not eating enough on days finishing in towns. My energy flat-lines and I barely can drag myself around Whole Foods.
We pass the evening in repose in a hotel, cooking ravioli in the room, eating grapes and cherries, and laughing until we cry at the Coffin Floppers comedy sketch.
The only bad (?) news: Mason’s phone is torched from when he dropped it. He’ll spend the rest of the trip without one, probably the longest period of his life sans-phone.
Day 4, Frisco to past Leadville
We kick things off by fulfilling my goal to not be a purist. Gold Hill segment? Nah. We skip it and pedal the sweet bike path from Frisco to Copper Mountain. Between losing two days to my bike delay and the ominous weather forecast, it makes sense. I’d probably do it anyway.
I’m loaded down with a large bag of cherries, which I donate to the first backpackers I see. It totally makes the day of a fruitarian named Jay.
The usual pass protocol: pedal interspersed with hike-a-bike. I’m huffing my way uphill when another fun moment occurs: “Hey, are you Dakota? I follow your newsletter!” It’s a woman and her husband out for a hike. Small world!
The weather forecast remains true and threatening clouds amass to the west. They aren’t THAT bad though… We push on while keeping an eye on bail-out options in the trees down the slope. Then we’re over the false summit and above the treeline. Keep moving! We move fast and don’t eat enough, but manage to avoid getting zapped.
Halfway down the screamer descent, rain hits. We take advantage and pause to eat trail burritos and animal crackers.
It’s a solid push to Leadville, but we arrive in time to mow down giant burrito combo platters. Then we push on, another 10 miles of fire road before crashing for the night by a lovely stream.
Day 5, Twin Lakes to Buena Vista
We rise and immediately ride past a sign proclaiming “no camping within 100’ of water.” Whoops. We were good tenants, don’t worry.
The smoke hangs heavy, toeing 200 AQI. Playing piano is less taxing on the system, methinks. Mason’s bike rebels against the terrible air by jettisoning its chainring. No big deal, it’s only required to pedal. Somehow, he MacGyvers a genius combination of tools to get it tight enough to get to Buena Vista.
Hours later, we trade beta with three stoked bikepackers from California northbound on the CT. The exuberant sharing of trail details and what’s to come is a fabulous aspect of any travel, but especially outdoor adventures. They also give us Oreos, so maybe I’m biased.
It’s one of our easiest days, helped by utterly fabulous tailwinds on the pavement into Buena Vista. On a slight downhill slope, we rip along for 20 glorious miles with barely a pedal stroke except to change leg position.
Buena (be-oona) Vista is a little town with a chill vibe. The post office is closed, but we planned ahead and scoop up a box we mailed ahead to someone on Warmshowers.
Once again, I make the cardinal error of not eating immediately when getting to a town. Instead, I buy a new, unclogged water filter and get my dropper post fixed at Boneshaker Cycles, a top-notch bike shop. Eventually, I Zombie-stagger my way across the street to get food.
We follow a pro tip on a camp spot and head out of town 10 miles. The smoke hangs heavy in the air and the headwind sucks. Thank god for sleep or bikepacking might feel impossible sometimes. How the ultra-endurance racers push on and on and on is beyond me.
We rinse off in an ice cold creek and crash. Halfway done with the Colorado Trail!
Day 6 – Buena Vista to Monarch
A hard day. My memories are mostly steep, unrideable uphills—like, why-is-my-bike-over-my-head steep. Our one big downhill is on pavement into Princeton Hot Springs. Sigh. Can’t win them all.
Mason hates it enough to cut off his shirt sleeves at a lunch stop. He’s officially a punk bikepacker. We channel the anguish and push on.
A couple of bikepackers in their late 60’s tell us how they figured out their lackadaisical trip pace. “I don’t have anywhere to be until ski season,” one quips. The retired life!
Sunset approaches and we’re pedaling up the Highway 50 bypass to Monarch Crest. Sunday night traffic suuucks. I’m d-o-n-e. We have no idea where we’re camping and 1.5 more hours of climbing with trucks whipping by sounds suboptimal. Anyone want to buy a cheap bike?
Suddenly, a beacon of hope appears. What is The Butterfly House?! Why, a donation-based respite for weary travelers! The proprietor is out of town—how cool is this place—so we make ourselves at home per the sign on the door. We score showers and do laundry, chat with the handful of backpackers staying there, and feel like humans again.
The quote of the day is from a backpacker named Alex, who asks us, “So, how many times a day do you wreck, 1-2?” HAAAA. If I wreck 1-2 times a year, I’m doing something very wrong. Thru hikers officially think we’re insane.
Day 7, Butterfly to Sargants Mesa
We barely peel ourselves away from Butterfly Hostel. A rest day doesn’t sound bad… My legs immediately agree once we resume pedaling up toward Monarch Crest. All good—it’s a beautiful morning, traffic is light, and we’re heading into a fabulous section of the CT.
The Monarch Crest general store revives my spirits with mind-blowing junk food options and cheery employees. Still, when Fritos improve one’s mood, the loony bin isn’t far away.
Monarch Crest trail delivers. Even the uphill pedaling is fun, with views unfolding until the smoky air diffuses them. Pro tip: skip the Ten Mile hike-a-bike and pedal the road. Thank me later.
We descend, climb, the usual. It’s subtly difficult rocky terrain and the elevation is real.
However, we’ve arrived at the most-maligned section of the Colorado Trail, the dreaded Sargent’s Mesa. Descriptions of this zone are either very short or laced with expletives.
Yup, it’s rocky. Unrideable uphills and annoying bumpy flat sections aren’t fun, thought not as bad as expected. The downhills are rowdy as hell, but rideable and fun for us. (Glad I got my dropper post fixed.)
Still, somehow I screw up fueling and my energy feels like dog poo. Too much sugar after the bonanza at Monarch Crest, methinks. I flop on my back on the tent footprint and try to revive my appetite. Each day on the trail is so similar and yet so different, elation easily switching places with, shall we say, less positive emotions.
We push on into sunset, striving for Razor Creek. My energy levels and enthusiasm scrape the depths. Tomorrow, I shall eat less sugar. A descent in the dark, headlamps blazing, brings us to the trickle of water. We pitch the tent in an (almost) flat field and slip downhill into the foot of the tent 25 times an hour that night. It’s not restful.
Day 8, Sargents to Cathedral Cabins
A cold morning wrapped in all our gear, rain pants included. The air is clear and crisp, the nagging smoke moving north for a bit.
Traill magic! Two cheery ladies are cooking pancakes out of their Airstream. “We had 17 people camp in that field last night,” they proudly announce. We roll on with a heads-up that a guy named Eric needs grub—with a restock coming up for us, we give him two freeze-dried meals and pistachios. The backpackers have 10 days between restocks in this section, ouch.
A professional trail angel, Apple, is up next. He leaves broiling Cincinnati every summer to come stay in Gunnison, where he drives out to the CT and sets up a trail angel station from 8-5 every day, chatting away the hours with travelers.
The fire road bypass around wilderness at mile 361 is long and hot. Maybe I’m just mad because a freeze-dried meal with turmeric spilled in my frame bag and some of my possessions now feature yellow splotches?
We grind out the fire road, up a beautiful valley toward the pass. Sun. More sun. Audiobook territory.
But whatever! A looong descent on the other side erases the hard work from our memory banks and drops us right at our destination for the evening: CATHEDRAL CABINS.
I capitalize CATHEDRAL CABINS because it’s a trip highlight. Cute cabins nestled back in a side valley, moose stomping by in the meadow, a box of food we mailed ahead, and tons of tasty snacks available for purchase. Bikepackers: if you don’t stop here, you’ve made a grave mistake!
We spend a fabulous evening joking around with three other bikepackers and the cheery, friendly owners.
Day 9, Cathedral past CT high point
Since all nice things must end, we uproot from Cathedral and push on. Low-grade climbing allll morning on a gravel road, friendly ranchers cruising past in their trucks.
Pavement riding isn’t my thing, but Slumgullion Pass is a fantastic name. We aim for the sound barrier on the descent and almost crack 50 mph.
The kindness of strangers on the CT amazes me. We’re eating lunch by the side of the highway when a lady driving a truck slows down to ask if we need anything. She’s got four grungy backpackers in the back. Later we learn that she runs a volunteer shuttle from Lake City all the way up to the trail and back every day to help backpackers with resupplies.
Sadly, there’s no shuttle for the next section, a steep, rocky climb off Spring Creek Pass. We play hopscotch with backpackers, pushing our bikes and even occasionally pedaling. At least the views are stunning—the Colorado Trail’s beauty amplifies as it unfolds from Denver.
At a water stop, we meet a family of four backpacking the CT for three months. The kids are just 8 and 10! What a summer.
Rather than stopping at 5 p.m., we decide to push on (literally) over the CT’s high point. It’s another three hours of hike-a-bike as we ascend to 13,200’. At one point, I’m wrestling my bike up a ridiculous switchback as the sky drips warning rain…and then it clears.
Instead, we’re served a delicious evening dessert of sunset views. The smoke merely deepens the reddish hues. The descent ain’t bad either.
We dry camp at 12k’ overlooking a pretty valley. Another splendid day on the CT, even if we’re face-plant exhausted.
Day 10, to Silverton
Did I say exhausted? NOW we’re exhausted. We both feel slammed this morning; are we dragging chunks of steel behind our bikes?
Chalk it up to elevation. I haven’t spent much time at 10k+ and spending the night at 12k hurt us.
Thanks to that, we grind. All. Day. Long. Survival mode, a group of hikers with a tour company passing us again and again. Hooray for splendid views because otherwise…dark thoughts.
Luckily, there are marmots squeaking and skittering about. Their enthusiasm is contagious. Life is good.
We go over three 13k passes, up/down/up/up/up. Yegads the views are good, but clearly I am not cut out to be a high-altitude Sherpa.
The huge descent off Stony Pass is less than smooth, but gravity still works. Somehow, a half dozen masochists are driving up the insane road in beaten vehicles—were they new at the bottom?
SILVERTON. A hotel awaits us, but first we mow vegan pizza, tacos and tofu wraps. Food, life’s panacea. I grab a wrap for the road, Mason fixes a nagging flat tire at the excellent little bike shop.
The final push to Durango is all that remains!
Day 11, Silverton to Hotel Draw Road
Two major wins to start the morning: our energy levels are revamped from sleeping at (only) 9k AND our bikes didn’t get stolen from the hotel’s backyard.
We notice immediately that today is different than yesterday…we’re actually pedaling our bikes instead of pushing them. There’s a lovely road climb to Molas Pass, then MORE pedaling on trail. Enthusiasm is high, even if we do spend a few hours pushing our bikes later in the day. (You don’t gain 6800’ in 34 miles just pedaling…)
Also, my tofu wrap from yesterday is the best. Always buy extra to-go food in cities!
It’s a fabulous day. Maybe the best one of the trip? We can’t remember more than a day prior at this point—bike, eat, hike, sleep blends together a bit—so who the hell knows.
Two people highlights from the day: at Blackhawk, we joke around with a Boston couple and Mason donates an extra Food for the Sole freeze-dried meal to their cause. Hey, they’re vegan too! There’s almost a spontaneous group hug before COVID awareness stomps the fun.
Another group of backpackers arrives while we’re at the top and compliments us on our passing etiquette. Apparently most bikepackers scare the hell out of hikers? (I’ve done it too.) A reminder to dial it back and be an ambassador out here.
We descend off the pass and stop riding at 6:30 (early for this trip) and lounge about. It’s cool to push to dark, and also rewarding to hang out in a nice campsite and enjoy a little free time.
Day 12, Hotel Draw Road to Durango
No rush today, so we sleep in and roll at 8. Just up the trail, some volunteers for a mtb race that day tell us “coming up you’ve got the best 11-12 miles of trail.”
LIARS. It’s mostly uphill and traversing. WTF. Expectation setting sucks! I prefer to be surprised—good or bad—with what’s ahead.
At a water source, we catch a young rider—he looks like a DH racer— from the Midwest who is 32 days in on the CT. He clearly hates bikepacking, but is sticking with it. If I felt as depressed as he looks, I’d sell my bike for scrap and bail immediately.
Wildflowers show off as we climb to Indian Ridge. No passes can faze us at this point, I think…and then hustle like mad to get off the ridge as weather threatens. We learn later that a bunch of the bike racers got stuck in a massive hail storm and bailed.
Our 6,000 descent into Durango is only briefly punctuated by an overgrown hike-a-bike. Otherwise, it’s downhill for days. My arms and wrists are exhausted from the huge quantities climbing and descending in the past 12 days, but hot food and a hotel await us in Durango.
The Colorado Trail is magnificent. Many times during the trip, I’d take in the scenery and think, “Wow, I get to be here.” It’s truly a bikepacking trip of a lifetime.
That said, this is not a trip I’d recommend for a brand-new bikepacker or new mountain biker. The CT is a tough mofo! We met a number of groups who were bailing because they under-estimated the difficulty. A seasoned local we met guessed that only 30% of bikepackers who set out actually complete the entire trail. The altitude is real, the elevation gain is serious, and inclement weather means taking one’s time sometimes isn’t an option given the risks of Bikepacker Flambe on a pass.
I well-know bikepacking contains obstacles and suffering pushing through things are part of it. There were STILL times I questioned what the helllll I was doing with a bicycle on the CT, usually when my bike was above my head on an insane hike-a-bike.
Bikepacking.com says 90% of the trail—time wise—is rideable. I’d peg that closer to 70-80%…and I like technical riding and my bike has a 26T front chainring. TO SUM UP: YOU WILL HIKE YOUR BIKE A LOT. Thank the Bicycle Gods for mtb amnesia, aka forgetting heinous climbs during a fun descent.
As any bikepacker knows, it’s not all fun and games. Day rides from my house or camper van aren’t even 100% fun; bikepacking is far from it. It’s all about the spirit of adventure, traversing beautiful landscapes, independence and ingenuity, camaraderie, eating Oreos on a mountain ridge, starry skies and sunrise vistas, and delirious laughter at the end of a hard day. And, sure, going downhill…
My deep thought from bikepacking the CT is this: weather creates half the adventure in outdoor pursuits. Heat, rain, smoke, snow, and wind can conspire to smote a trip upside the head and create insane conditions. Or they might step aside and make for a peaceful outing.
Such is the case with the Colorado Trail. An afternoon of lightning and rain on day one set my mind racing on the dread treadmill. “Will this happen every day?!” My soaked feet and gloves said oh hellll no.
Be prepared to get owned by thunderstorms. Everyone talks about them. We (mostly) got lucky and avoided the Devil’s Dance on alpine ridges, but many trip summaries and friends of mine mentioned fearing for their life at some point. One couple we met dealt with long thunderstorms every.single.day and started riding only at night. (He also got poison ivy so badly that his trip required THREE hospital visits. #cancelmytrip)
That said, the Colorado Trail deserves a slot on every bikepacker’s bucket list. It’s a spectacular chunk of Colorado and will inscribe itself in your memory. Start planning your trip now! Just bring rain gear and an adaptable mindset. Oh, and did I mention hike-a-bike? Pack light.
Click on any photo to enlarge and flip through them slideshow style.To get a sense of the trail’s progression, they’re in chronological order.
Logistics for bikepacking the Colorado Trail
Tips and suggestions for the route
Getting to/from start/finish
If you aren’t driving to the start, logistics to get to the trailhead are a little extra. From downtown Denver, catch mass transit to Littleton and then pedal the 10 miles to Waterton Canyon. It’s a nice warm up. Pro tip: your fare out of town is TWO zones, or $6 at the time of this writing.
Time of year
There’s no perfect time to ride the Colorado Trail, merely options. Go in June and risk snow on the passes. Go in July and risk daily monsoon-driven thunderstorms. Go in August and risk heat and/or thunderstorms. Go in September or later and you might get snowed on.
We opted for early August to ideally a) avoid snow b) get ahead of forest fires (sigh) and c) dodge the monsoon season.
We avoided snow and (mostly) dodged monsoon deluges. Forest fires served up shitty air quality for the first week (150+ aqi), but we pushed through it. What’s the equivalent of 200 packs of cigarettes going to do to my lungs anyway?
It was 99F in Denver at the start, but thanks to the high elevation, temps ranged from 45-75F from day 2 onward. Perfection.
May your trip avoid snow, smoke/fires and rain. Or at least two out of three.
Navigation was straight-forward—the Colorado Trail is well-marked. I downloaded the route GPX from bikepacking.com and used Ride with GPS a bit, but wound up mostly using the Guthook app because it has more marked water sources. Highly recommend getting it.
My preferred method to save battery is to keep my phone on airplane mode with the volume turned up loud enough to hear the DING when a turn is approaching. There’s also another tone when you miss a turn, which quickly corrects any missteps.
As usual, I rolled on a plant-based diet for this trip. My companion Mason is also vegan, which made things easy.
With the exception of restaurant meals in Frisco, Leadville, Buena, and Silverton, I ate mega-delicious Food for the Sole freeze-dried meals. Lunches were a mix of freeze-dried options and various snacks from restocks along the way. Mason got sick of freeze-dried meals toward the end, but I enjoyed them the entire trip.
Overall, I aim for 400 calories an hour without counting calories. I prefer to have an extra meal and bonus snacks in case of a mechanical…or just raging hunger! It’s never perfect and sometimes I screw up and underfuel, but it usually works for me.
The section from Buena Vista to Silverton is LONG without a restock. Check out the Monarch Crest store and do not miss Cathedral Cabins before Lake City. You can mail a box to them, but they have tons of freeze-dried meal options and piles of delicious snacks for reasonable prices.
Tons of water on this route except for the Tarryall bypass and Sargent’s Mesa. You’ll (likely) never need to carry more than 2-3 liters at a time unless you for some reason are dry camping.
We both used Katadyn BeFree filters until mine got so clogged that I bought a Platypus flter in Buena Vista. The frustration of doing the boa constrictor squeeze on a filter every time you want water is not to be underestimated! Bring a new filter or clean yours thoroughly before the trip.
We brought my Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 bikepacking tent and split carrying duties between poles and fabric. Given temps, overnight moisture (dew and rain), I was glad to sleep in a tent every night. You’ll have no problem finding places to sleep along the route.
With Verizon, I had at least a weak signal up high most of the time. To save battery, I mostly kept my phone on airplane mode.
I rode my 2019 Why Cycles Wayward V.1 set up with a Terrene McFly 2.6” rear and 2.8” front tires. I run a 140mm front fork, which seems to handle most anything I’d want to ride a loaded bike down.
This year I added a 26T chainring on my Wayward to complement the 11-46 Shimano XT setup I’ve got. It was AWESOME. Spinning is the name of the game while bikepacking! You’ll never miss your taller gears as much as you’ll dream of more climbing range, trust me.
Rounding out my gear was a Revelate front roll bag for sleeping gear, a custom Rockgeist frame bag, and a Bedrock Black Dragon dropper bag.
https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Colorado-Trail-bikepacking-August-2021-66-scaled.jpg19202560Dakotahttps://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Traipsing-About-logo-white-background-450x156.pngDakota2021-09-16 06:00:002023-05-06 15:04:26Bikepacking Magic on the Colorado Trail
If your idea of a fine bicycle trip features tons of swimming, singletrack on two sides of a mountain range, and views aplenty, bikepacking the Three Sisters, Three Rivers might be for you. Sure, you’ll encounter mosquitoes and plenty of hard work, but call them the price of entry for the magic of outdoor experiences.
And magic there was. Rocky ridge riding with magnificent views of the Three Sisters; the primal deliciousness of pastries from Angeline’s Bakery after a hard day of riding; ferny, mossy beauty on the McKenzie River trail; spine-tingling dunks in cold rivers.
Throw in trail angel generosity and hilarious chats with random people, paddling out on log rafts into the middle of Hidden Lake to sleep, and brake-smoking madness down Alpine trail and the recipe for a spectacular trip is complete. The calm quiet of mountains in the evening tops it off.
Here’s my experience doing an unsupported bikepack on the Three Sisters, Three Rivers route. I created this as a resource for folks looking to bikepack it, so feel free to skip to the specific sections listed below as needed.
Three Sisters, Three Rivers Bikepacking Route Description:
The Three Sisters, Three Rivers route travels 325 miles from dry Central Oregon over the hills to the west side of the Cascade Mountains. From Bend, it’s singletrack most of the way to Sisters, followed by a pedal around the shoulder of Black Butte to Suttle Lake and over the Old Santiam Wagon Road, a historic route for plucky early Oregonians.
The famous McKenzie River trail leads you to the Aufderheide, a snaking road through the hills outside of Oakridge. You’ll peel off the Auferheide and head up steep fire roads to the crest of the mountains, then grin your way downhill on Alpine trail into Oakridge. Regain the vert out of town on the Middle Fork of the Willamette River and back to the crest of the Cascades (and mosquito breeding ground, fair warning).
Then it’s west and down down down (except when you’re pushing your bike up) on the North Umpqua Trail toward Roseburg. This section will test any bikepacker and help you brush up on swearing, but at least there’s respite in the cold river and the Umpqua River hot springs helps revive spirits before the push to the finish.
I’ll also suggest an alternate route to make this route a loop, which simplifies logistics by skipping the N. Umpqua Trail and picking up the Oregon Timber Trail out of Oakridge or from Crescent Lake.
Our Trip Plan
My trip companion this time around is Mason, a stoked guy on his first serious bikepacking trip. For once, there’s some real planning via a shared Google Doc.
Our rough goal for the ride is 8-9 days of pedaling, though we end up doing it in 6.5 days due to closed trail at the end of N. Umpqua Trail and by increasing mileage to avoid a looming heat wave.
Prior to the trip, my angst grows as Mason stacks up huge riding days – “43 miles and 7,000’ of climbing again today!” – while I play piano and pretend to ride. (Good thing I recently rode the Oregon Outback or I’d be researching ebikes.) Many years of endurance riding gives me confidence in my ability to rally survive without extensive training, but training still matters. If I can get 5-8 hours of pedaling per week for the month leading up to a trip, I’m good.
Since I live in Bend, we leave from my front door. I’ve ridden sections of this route before, but linking it all up is satisfying. When I bikepacked the Oregon Timber Trail, connecting the entirety of Oregon purely under my own power unveiled new facets of the state.
By the way, dig these kinds of posts? Sign up for the free 2x/month Traipsing About newsletter for more tales from the mountains and creative challenges like drawing and piano when I’m off the bike.
Day-to-Day Experiences on the Three Sisters, Three Rivers
Day 1: Bend to Sisters
We pack up the night before and hit the road by 7:30 am. My legs feel like mush to kick things off. Ah, a good omen. Sadly, there’s smoke in the air from a fire. It’s June 20th – is this the new reality, summer’s mired in a haze?
On the way up the first climb, Mrazek, I chat with a woman with plans to ride part of the Three Sisters with her employees. Bikepacking is increasingly popular and it’s awesome to see people trying it out. There’s plenty of room outside and biking spreads people out. Plus, it’s not my private playground.
Mrazek is a smooth, leisurely pedal out of Bend and a great start to the trip. We refill water at the creek up top, where I realize I accidentally carried an extra half gallon uphill for two hours. Didn’t even notice. Another reminder for me to not to be a weight weenie.
On the fire road connection to Trail 99, we stop and eat lunch. Thanks to Mason, we’ve got different freeze-dried food, a local plant-based Bend company called Food for the Sole. The first cold-soak lunch meal, curried cauliflower, BLOWS MY MIND. It’s exponentially better than PBJ on a tortilla.
My latest realization: I’m over sweet meals on bikepacking trips. Bring on the savory snacks mid-ride.
On the infrequently-ridden Trail 99, we pass through a large burn from 2017. Skeletal trees with panoramic views of the Three Sisters, fun descending and the trail all to ourselves, yeehaw.
It’s a 95 degree day, but we pedal into Sisters feeling fresh(ish). Last trip to Sisters, we stayed in the campground by the highway and I learned accelerating semi trucks aren’t my favorite white noise. I opt for a hotel room for the night. Credit card points are the bomb.
We eat massive burritos at a Mexican place and are in bed by 9:00. Temps are heading to 99 degrees the next day and we don’t want to bake our brains out on Old Santiam Pass.
Day 2: Sisters to Clear Lake
We gobble down cold-soaked instant oatmeal for breakfast. Still learning things: why did I ever bother cooking oatmeal in the morning? I always add a healthy portion of freeze-dried fruit, nuts, and peanut butter to up the ante.
We slip outside into the sunrise, cool air nipping at our grins. Those smiles subside on the steep, sandy traverse around Black Butte, but my audiobook, A Game of Thrones, distracts me from the horse-impacted trail and dusty quagmire.
We cross the frosty Metolius River and head up to Suttle Lake. Finally, the trip is underway: our first skinny dip, . A woman hikes by and we turn away, but she merely yells, “that was me an hour ago!”
Then we’re climbing up Old Santiam Pass. I pause to catch a work call while Mason pushes on toward Big Lake. Like any good relationship, it’s beneficial to have time apart while bikepacking.
People lament the sand on Santiam, but with a 2.6” rear tire and 2.8” front (Mason has 2.4/2.5”), we do zero hike-a-bike. How early Oregonians got over this pass in Model T’s is beyond me. I suspect they swore a LOT and planned for unexpected overnights. They did other things too: dug in the sand, pushed cars, and straight up walked away when their vehicles failed them.
I catch Mason at Big Lake and we enjoy the cool water. He also receives his comeuppance for teasing me about installing my bike rack backwards: his chain install is routed incorrectly and his derailleur guide now has custom grooves. I handle it diplomatically by laughing uproariously and teasing him for an hour.
Thermometers are popping their bulbs when we arrive at Clear Lake. Our energy levels are high, but who the heck wants to pedal further in an oven? The lake is gasp-inducing cold, the best. We jump in repeatedly, hang by a kayak put-in and chat with people, help folks haul their gear out of the water, and generally enjoy ourselves.
A lady whose son is hiking the PCT is excited to be a trail angel and shares some cold bubbly waters with us. Always say yes to offers of hospitality to encourage it in humans! (We do, however, turn down non-vegan mac and cheese with sausages later on. Gotta stick to core values as well.)
We end up camping with a cool crew of folks from Corvallis. One is an ice scientist moving to Tasmania to help them develop their nascent research program. The other guy wears a chess nonprofit shirt, but sadly doesn’t have a board with him. I didn’t need to lose anyway.
The guys ran a juggling club together in college and entertain us with stories of their exploits, plus tales from a multi-month bike tour cut short thanks to a testicular torsion. Google it: you don’t want one.
Day 3: Clear Lake to Hidden Lake via McKenzie River Trail
I wake up at 5:30 a.m. as morning lights seeps through the trees. My eyes are heavy thanks to staying up late around the (safe!) campfire.
The McKenzie River is as beautiful as always, a crisp blue rushing flow. With a 6 am weekday departure, we have it alllll to ourselves the entire 26 miles except for two guys who we fly past on a descent. Loaded bikes still haul ass downhill, folks.
The 26 miles is a tuck and weave ride through mossy trees and fern-covered undergrowth. The contrast with the east side of the mountains is a cool aspect about this route. And being able to jump in the river, of course.
To streamline things, Mason mails food ahead to the post office in Blue River and Oakridge. Thru-hikers often do this, but I never have. The simplicity of knowing what to expect food-wise, especially following a plant-based diet, proves quite nice. We do the same thing on the Colorado Trail.
I restock snacks at the gas station in McKenzie, eating two cold cans of Amy’s soup right out of the can like a (happy) wild animal. Meanwhile, Mason hammers along the highway to get a resupply package he shipped to Blue River. He’s disheartened it’s 3 miles out of the way, but he’s strong and determined. No biggie, it’s all part of the adventure. I rendezvous with him on the climb out of the valley. Oakridge or bust, tally ho!
This is my first time on the winding Aufderheide, a paved road through the mountains. At the dam, the road is blocked to car traffic and there’s a “No pedestrians” sign. We scarcely glance at each other and keep pedaling. We’re on bikes, after all. (Yes, we’re hardened criminals, but we also encounter zero landslides or reasons to not pedal the road.)
The day’s hard work is the long fire road climb up to Hidden Lake, our evening destination. I pop in an earbud and disappear into Game of Thrones again. At 2.25x speed, I can actually finish a 35 hour audiobook on a trip like this.
Hidden Lake is divine, a gem perched in the mountains. The kicker: some creative genius nailed a bunch of plywood to logs and created rafts for paddling around the lake. It’s still early in the afternoon and we both have energy to continue, but why the hell travel by bike if you can’t stop and enjoy a spot like this?
We each paddle a raft over into the shade and spend the afternoon swimming, napping, chatting, and reading. These moments, free of a cell signal or anything pressing to accomplish, often kick off the best conversations. I learn more about Mason in two hours than I’ve learned in the last two years. (And yet still make plans to ride the Colorado Trail with him.)
Nightfall brings out cricket with megaphones. I pop an earplug in and pass out on my gently rocking raft. Later, I wake to the full moon and watch the trees wave in the wind. It’s splendid. The cricket’s serenade drops me back into sleepville.
Day 4: Hidden Lake to Oakridge
We spend the cool morning hours pedaling straight uphill while waving at gravel trucks working on the road. Why are fire roads in the middle of nowhere maintained to this degree? Deep philosophical questions abound on bike trips.
It’s a long day of pedaling, some 50 miles and 6,000’ of climbing. However, the fire roads feel blissfully easy. After the McKenzie River trail the day before, I appreciate the laid-back enjoyment of a nice road in the middle of nowhere. The views still sparkle and the effort is far less. Variety!
As usual, the view from the top of Alpine trail stretches out for miles. And then I descend into tunnel vision and only see trail for the next seven miles as we roast our brakes downhill. Don’t let anyone tell you loaded bikes aren’t fun: singletrack, especially smooth and fast stuff, is still copious fun on a bikepacking rig.
A snide guy at the bottom of the trail levies advice at us and talks up the rides he’s done. It’s strange how some people have a compulsion to one-up when they see people doing something difficult. (I’ve only done it a dozen times to other people!) We hastily bid him adieu so we can get to baking our brains out on the hot pavement for the final five rolling miles to Oakridge.
Sadly, the 3 Legged Crane Pub is closed, so we settle for sitting outside a Thai place in the scorching heat. I chat with a Timber Trail rider from Durango who is WAY stoked on all the swimming in Oregon versus the Colorado Trail and he fires me up for my upcoming trip.
We finish out the day with the A/C cranked at the Best Western. Between delicious cold air and the massive haul of fruit I bought at the store -including a watermelon I carried under my arm – it’s a perfect end to a stellar day of bikepacking.
Day 5: Oakridge to Oldenburg Lake via Middle Fork of the Willamette River
Loaded with grapes and cherries, we head out into the cool morning for a day of uphill. A mile out of town, my cranks wobble and try to fall off my bike. Hmm, odd… My multitool doesn’t have an 8mm, but Mason comes to my rescue. Many benefits to traveling with a companion.
We huff our way up to the dam. At the top, there’s a guy sitting in his car smoking a cigarette. “You guys pedaled up that hill?!” Yup… (And a few hundred others.)
Early in my bike travel days, I’d scoff at how people didn’t understand what we were doing, how “cool” it was, the commitment, etc. Then I realized something: it doesn’t matter. Nobody except psyched cyclists care what I’m doing beyond a “cool you’re out here.”
Post-trip, I’ll sit down for a belated birthday dinner with some friends. Since our last hang, I’d done the Oregon Outback and Three Sisters bikepacking trips. How long do we spend talking about them? About 3.6 minutes. It’s merely another bike trip for Dakota. Let’s move on.
And you know what? It’s freeing, a fine reminder I better be doing these trips because I WANT to, not because it’ll impress people. I’m not sharing the rides on Strava or Instagram, so no one can see the daily distance and elevation. If I’m going to sweat my way up a climb or hike my bike through downed trees, there better be some deep intrinsic motivation or I might as well stay the fuck home!
But that dinner is a week away. Here and now, we both head into audiobook land and grind out the Middle Fork climb, 5,000 of climbing and climbing and climbing. The trail is off to my right, but I see no reason to pedal punchy uphills with a paved, low-traffic road available.
At Summit Lake, I’m reminded of 2018 and the Oregon Timber Trail when we came through here. Why? Because the mosquitoes in this cursed place are like the screaming hordes of Genghis Khan, except he took a few prisoners and these rapacious killer bugs do not.
We’ve already ridden 50 miles and kicking back to swim and camp sounds nice. Except it’s only 3 p.m. and sitting here while the bugs attack in rolling waves of fighter jet formations is simply not an option. We push on, straight into the teeth of the assault. Mason abandons all reason and splashes through a deep creek; I pick my way across as the bugs frolic in my eyes, ears, and soul. It’s not too bad, really, assuming you are already a crazy person.
We crest the top of the Cascades (again) and drop down to Oldenburg Lake as the sun dips low. The bugs have disappeared, at least for now. It’s a beautiful summer evening and our post-ride swim feels divine. Pedaling up to remote spots like this for an evening of solitude is why the hard work of bikepacking is worth it.
The mosquitoes return and I try to tough it out. (Mason immediately hops in the tent and watches me deal, gloating smile pasted wide on his face.) Surely they’ll go away when the sun sets… They don’t. *sigh* Into the tent, where we crash out for a solid night’s sleep.
Day 6: Oldenburg to reservoir along North Umpqua Trail
We wake to beady stares from hungry mosquitoes. Breakfast and camp teardown is a brief affair, shall we say.
The climb out of Oldenburg gets our blood moving with water bars and downed trees. Any stops are met with swarms of mosquitoes manning their turret guns. We make good time.
A screamer descent on a fire road brings us to the NUT: the North Umpqua Trail. Relative to the McKenzie River, the NUT is rougher, punchier, and far less traveled. As we discover, it’s not ideal for bikepacking.
We restock with a few salty snacks at the KOA campground before the Dread and Terror section of the NUT. The owner, Jim from Kansas, retired to the Oregon woods and now works his butt off running the establishment. He warns us about the terrifying trail ahead, the narrow cuts between downed trees, and so on.
None of Dread and Terror is too bad. If you can ride a solid blue trail, you’ll be fine. A reminder people who aren’t participating in the same activity rarely have useful insight. “Oh, climbing over the pass isn’t too bad,” they say, comfortably kicked back in their car. Take any advice on the road with a major grain of salt.
Perhaps Dread and Terror isn’t scary, but it kinda sucks for bikepacking after about the first few miles of fun descending. Sure, the Umpque River is a crisp blue and the terrain is beautiful. However, steep, punchy climbs, lots of downed trees, not much flow… It’s a truckload of work for not much reward.
And then the trail gets overgrown and competes with ferns and scratchy brush. Note: if you’re planning to do the Three Sisters route, consider the rerouteI suggest in the logistics/tips section below.
Mason soldiers on without complaint, but his eyes laser cut through the underbrush. I follow, my bike’s crank still getting loose. Mason is out of earshot, so I tighten it with a stick enough to keep riding, repeat. One of those days.
The Umpqua Hot Springs are right along the trail, a naturally occurring series of pools. Air temp is about 98 degrees, not quiiiite ideal soaking temps. Still, we cool off in the freezing Umpqua, which makes the hot springs feel good.
We’ve made great time and plan to finish a couple days earlier than planned thanks to mosquitoes, but also thanks to a historic heat wave: it’ll be brain scorching hot in two days. I’m no climatologist, but 115 seems hot enough to warrant not biking.
A thought strikes me. What if the fire from 2020 messed up the trail? (Yeah yeahhh, I should have checked earlier. At least we have food!.) It doesn’t show as closed on Trailforks, but a call to a local business gets me a quick answer. The last 25 miles of the NUT are closed.
Whoa. We only have 25 miles to go?! We immediately call it a night and wild camp by Tokatee Lake. A dinner of Food for the Sole wrapped in tortillas warms my belly. Life is good, even when the mosquitoes drive us into the tent for our final night.
Day 7: Reservoir to the end
Not much to say about the final day except: wow, it’s hot. Temps head toward 107 degrees as we pedal, push, cajole and threaten our bikes through the final sections. There are picturesque views of the N. Umpqua, but the heat and the overgrown trail tempers my enthusiasm. I’m glad to explore this part of my backyard, and also only plan on returning to the North Umpqua Trail sans bicycle.
We hit Panther Creek by 10:30, but are overheated enough to sit in the icy Umpqua for a solid 15 minutes. Chelsea, continuing her streak as the best wife ever, rolls up with a huge salad fresh-picked from our home garden, plus piles of fruit and good cheer. Another trip in the books!
All in all, I think this is a solid bikepacking route to experience what Oregon has to offer. Plenty of resupply points, lots of singletrack, and reasonable elevation gain make it quite approachable.
My biggest suggestion: unless you reeeeally want to ride the North Umpqua Trail, I’d consider rerouting from either Oakridge or Summit Lake.
Pick up the Oregon Timber Trail (OTT) from Oakridge and climb up to Waldo Lake and ride back to Bend. A perfect way to streamline logistics and turn this route into a loop.
Follow the Three Sisters route all the way to Summit Lake, then singletrack to Crescent Lake (reverse OTT), and then back west for a short stint on highway 58 to get to Waldo Lake. There are probably ways to do it on fire roads or even over the top of Maiden Peak for an amazing descent to Gold Lake. A bit of a detour, but you get to see more eastside Oregon riding.
Throwing out ideas! The entire Three Sisters route is beautiful and well-worth doing. Know what to expect on the North Umpqua Trail though.
Click on the first image and scroll to see full size shots or scope them out in smaller format!
Logistics for bikepacking the Three Sisters, Three Rivers Route
Day 1: Bend to Sisters via Mrazek and Trail 99 (48 mi, 4,400′ climbing)
Easy climbing out of town up Mrazek. Until early July most years, there’s a creek at the top before turning north toward Sisters.
If it’s a hot day, taking a short detour up to Three Creeks Lake for lunch and a dip is well worth it. Good chance it’s the last water until Sisters as well.
Angeline’s Bakery in Sisters closes at 3 p.m. You’ve been warned.
Day 2: Sisters to Clear Lake via Old Santiam Wagon Road (46 mi, 3,800′ climbing)
Easy pedaling to the base of Black Butte. The trail climb around the NE side suuucks. Do yourself a favor and take the fire road. I wish we had.
No need to filter water from Suttle Lake. At the SW corner is a campground with water spigots. Soak your shirt, climbing is coming…
Bigger tires (2.4″+) will make Old Santiam Wagon Road actually fun. The views are great and Big Lake is a must-stop for an afternoon dip.
Not much camping on the north side of Clear Lake, though there’s a spot right by the highway where we stayed when I did the Oregon Timber Trail. Fair warning: the truck noise is BAD there. This time around, I camped in the Clear Lake campground and slept much better.
Day 3: Clear Lake to Hidden Lake via McKenzie River Trail and Aufderheide Road (45 mi, 3,300′ climbing)
Plenty of water down McKenzie River Trail (obviously) and a solid restock option at the general store on the highway in McKenzie Bridge.
Easy road pedaling (with some climbing, sure) all the way to Hidden Lake. The detour is worth it – how often do you get to sleep on a raft?!
Day 4: Hidden Lake to Oakridge via fire roads and Alpine trail (50 mi, 6,200′ climbing)
Plenty of vert on fire roads and not much water past June, so stock up at Hidden Lake. The climbs aren’t too bad past the initial push to the top.
Grab water at the bottom of Alpine to get you to Oakridge. The last five miles was HOT with plenty of climbing.
Make sure to swing by the Oakridge Mercantile bike shop. Great folks!
Day 5: Oakridge to Oldenburg Lake via Middle Fork Willamette and Windy Lakes (59 mi, 6,000′ climbing)
Lots of water all day, so no worries there.
The road next to Middle Fork is quiiiite nice for uphill pedaling. You hard asses out there can ride the trail uphill.
Expect mosquitoes from Timpanogas Lake until you get to the North Umpqua Trail. They will get you. Be ready.
Day 6: Oldenburg Lake to Tokatee Lake via North Umpqua River Trail (36 mi, 2,400′ of punchy, overgrown climbs)
Restock at the KOA before the NUT. Say howdy to Jim.
Don’t stress about Dread and Terror. It’s a straight-forward blue trail.
Past a few miles, be ready for hike a bike and downed trees and overgrown trail. It’s errrr less fun.
Don’t miss the natural hot springs.
Day 7: Tokatee Lake to Panther Creek trailhead (21.5 mi, 2,900′ climbing)
The upper NUT wasn’t terrible. The section below Tokatee mostly was. Tons of downed trees, zero flow, and close to zero fun. Leave your bikes behind and hike or trail run this section!
Past Panther Creek trailhead, the final 25 miles of trail is closed due to fire damage. I wasn’t sad to call it!
Getting to/from start/finish
Since I live in Bend, I pedaled straight out the door to start the trip. However, there are buses from Portland if you’re flying in.
Getting back from the end of the trail is a bit tougher. My wife picked us up, but if you pedal up the highway to Rogue River, there are bus options to Eugene/Portland and then back to Bend if needed. Cog Wild Shuttles is another resource.
Time of year
This route is clear of snow fairly early since you don’t get much higher than 6k elevation. By mid-June, chances are you’re good to go. One downside to earlier departures is a higher chance trails won’t be cleared of trees, but these are (mostly) popular riding areas and you’ll likely be fine.
This route is mostly on long trails like Mrazek, Trail 99, McKenzie River, etc, so navigation was straight-forward. I simply downloaded the route GPX from bikepacking.com and used Ride with GPS to navigate. The app is easy to use and only costs $6 per month.
My preferred method to save battery is to keep my phone on airplane mode with the volume turned up loud enough to hear the DING when a turn is approaching. There’s also another tone when you miss a turn, which quickly corrects any missteps.
As usual, I rolled on a plant-based diet for this trip. My companion Mason is also vegan, which made things easy.
With the exception of a dinner in Sisters and two dinners in Oakridge, I ate mega-delicious Food for the Sole freeze-dried meals. Lunches were a mix of freeze-dried options and various snacks from restocks along the way.
Tons of water on this route! You’ll (likely) never need to carry more than 2-3 liters at a time unless you for some reason are dry camping. Even the creeks south of Sisters were running in late June. The driest sections are Sisters to Suttle Lake and Hidden Lake to the bottom of Alpine, though we found a running stream at the top of Alpine. Past June, it’s likely gone.
We both used the fantastic Katadyn BeFree filters. Skratch Labs electrolyte powder helped power us when energy levels were low.
We brought my Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 bikepacking tent and split carrying duties between poles and fabric. Mosquitoes drove us inside the tent on two nights, but otherwise we cowboy camped for free. You’ll have no problem finding places to sleep along the route. Pro tip: DON’T SKIP HIDDEN LAKE!
You’ll have a signal up high most of the time, but the river trails and section south of Oakridge proved sparse with Verizon.
I rode my 2019 Why Cycles Wayward (version 1) set up with a Terrene McFly 2.6” rear and 2.8” front tires. I run a 140mm front fork, which seems to handle most anything I’d want to ride a loaded bike down.
With the Colorado Trail coming up, I took some sage advice and threw a 26T chainring on my Wayward to complement the 11-46 Shimano XT setup I’ve got. It was AWESOME. Spinning is the name of the game while bikepacking! You’ll never mix your taller gears as much as you’ll wish for more climbing range, trust me.
Rounding out my gear was a Revelate front roll bag for sleeping gear and a custom frame bag. New this trip was a lightweight T-rack from Tumbleweed Bicycles. Rather than a huge dropper bag swinging around behind me and dragging on my tire on descents, I ski-strapped a dry bag to the rack. Two Salsa Anything Cages rounded out the kit, one with my sleeping pad and cook kit, another with a 64oz water bottle.
The weight is basically the same as a big dropper bag and functions much better. Sure, dropper bags LOOK cool, but are they truly uber-functional? I say racks still have a place.
The setup worked great and I plan on using it for future bikepacking trips one exception: hike a bike is a bit ungainly with the Anything Cages. For Colorado, I’m running a light kit with a Bedrock Dragon dropper bag to keep my hips close to the bike. I’ll simply carry a bit more weight on my back.
And that…is the end.
https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Bikepacking-Three-Sisters-Three-Rivers-Traill-99-view-of-Three-Sisters-scaled.jpg19202560Dakotahttps://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Traipsing-About-logo-white-background-450x156.pngDakota2021-07-28 21:14:062023-05-06 15:09:36Swimming and Singletrack - Bikepacking the Three Sisters, Three Rivers Route
The buzzing on Jono’s bike started shortly after we rolled onto a tooth-rattling section of the OC&E rail trail. The culprit: his Crocs were dragging on the rear tire. “PHEW, glad I didn’t lose those,” he said.
“Hey, wait. Where’s my sleeping pad?”
Losing a sleeping pad a mere 13 miles into one’s first bikepacking trip might sound terrible. However, rarely do the Adventure Gods present such a prime opportunity for an entertaining story.
Me? I sat down to eat a taqueria burrito and watched my friend pedal toward the start in search of his wayward sleeping pad.
Day one of our bikepacking trip on the Oregon Outback was underway!
Blog Post Sections
Depending what you’re looking for, you may want to jump around this article. Here are a few links to aid that:
Don’t feel like reading? Watch the five-minute video that Jono put together! If I say so myself, he did a fine job.
The Oregon Outback
The Oregon Outback is a bikepacking route that travels south to north across the state of Oregon. Starting in downtown Klamath Falls near the California border, it follows gravel, dirt and pavement for 360 miles to the Columbia River. Overall, the route is 75% unpaved and 25% asphalt.
The Outback visits lesser-known parts of Oregon and is famous for big desert views, lack of water, and occasionally punishing riding surface conditions. Speaking of the latter, the route features The Red Sauce, a nickname for the loose red soil covering a solid chunk of the first 150 miles.
The Sauce absorbs pedal strokes like a fat suit in a punching match and makes you sweat like you’re wearing one. At least the colors are fantastic – evergreens line the red road and views through the thin forest are beautiful.
The Outback takes a rider through a few tiny communities (e.g. Ashwood, population 55), plus a pit-stop in Prineville at mile 230. Mostly, you’re on your own for food, water, and bike repair.
Oh, and sleeping pads.
Onward on the Outback
My trip companion for the Outback, Jono, is the most enthusiastic, positive person I know. He speaks five languages, alpine climbs like a mountain goat, and is game for all manner of exploits.
For example, he bought a beater car in Spain and drove it for six weeks across eastern Europe and Russia to Mongolia. When it broke down in the Mongolian steppes, he traded the car for bus tickets to the Chinese border.
The Oregon Outback was his first multi-day bike trip and our first trip together, but I felt confident he’d overwhelm any newbie hijinks with his upbeat attitude. He’s slept in a climbing harness high up the wall on El Capitan, so he knows doing hard things is sometimes often the price of admission for outdoor hijinks.
Still, a man needs to sleep, so I grinned in relief when he pedaled back into sight carrying his wayward sleeping pad. Turns out Jono’s pad squirted off his bike a mere ¼ mile from where we noticed it’s departure. Unfortunately, a cyclist headed the other way picked it up and only Jono’s Herculean efforts to catch him reeled in the wayward pad.
Back on the road. Nice to get all the bad luck out of the way early, right? Riiiight.
Want the real details? Read on.
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My Experience Riding the Oregon Outback
Day 1: heat, cows and bike paths, Klamath Falls to middle of nowhere
Sleeping pad reunion complete, but parched from the heat after four hours of riding the gravel OC&E rail trail, we pedal into the gas station in tiny Sprague. The employee asks zero questions and clearly couldn’t care less what we are up to. A reminder that most things we personally find intriguing are boring – or insane – to other people.
I soak my head and shirt with the gas station’s garden hose, a sublime moment. Bike trips (and maybe life?) are all about the small moments of joy, the stark contrasts of hunger and food, heat and cold water.
A punishing traverse of cow pasture hell pushes us out off the rail trail and onto smooth pavement. There’s no glory in arbitrary suffering, people: if it’s not a race or an FKT attempt and you have a better option, take it!
A tooth-rattling final section on The Red Sauce – mitigated by The Queen’s Gambit audiobook – gets us to the campsite, 68 miles in. Sure, there’s an argument for staying present, but I don’t need to pedal every second of an 8-hour day with angry thoughts pinging around in my head.
A quick rinse in the creek, dinner, cowboy camping under the stars. Day 1, check.
Day 2: middle of nowhere to Silver Creek
We warm up by batting large rocks around with our tires on the initial climb. Bike Tennis! We talk about bear attacks as we pedal, a relaxing topic for a camping trip.
The OC&E rail trail ends and I tearfully bid The Red Sauce goodbye (for now). Pavement is delightful sometimes, especially when there’s only a car every hour. We cruise through the Fremont National Forest as the midday heat builds.
When energy levels lag, we take a quick mid-afternoon break…which turns into an hour sitting in the shade and chatting about business ideas. As I tell Jono, we can sit here or we can sit in camp later – what’s the difference? We aren’t racing, let’s enjoy it
Like every day on the Oregon Outback, we are tired by the end of the ride. Algae-filled shallow Silver Creek isn’t particularly enticing, but beats sleeping coated in dust and sweat from a day of pedaling.
Freeze-dried pad thai + soy curls all stuffed in a burrito = dinner. Bikepacker hunger is already setting in! Eight hours of biking will do that to a person.
My biggest takeaway of the day is Jono’s wise advice for outdoor trips: always eat your best food, because then you’re always eating your best food. Simple and brilliant. To hell with delayed gratification! Don’t save the cookie or your best freeze-dried meal for the end of the trip. Eat your best food, now.
Day 3: Silver Creek to OHV Sand Springs
If I squint extra hard, bike trips are a compressed version of life. Uphill battles, too-short moments coasting downhill, shattered expectations (e.g crushing headwinds on a flat day of pedaling)…and unexpected surprises.
SURPRISE: Jono breaks his rear shifter 20 miles in on day 3, leaving him unable to change gears. Somehow, he remains imperturbably positive and rolls with it. My positive contribution is a nickname, Single-Speed Jono. I’m such a helpful trip companion.
On the bright side, a road grader tamed the washboard gravel out of Silver Lake. You better believe we waved at the driver!
A good moment to point something out: when you’re traveling on a bike, be an ambassador. Stop and talk with people. Wave at ranchers and farmers when they slow down to pass. Be courteous and curious. Ask questions about towns, how many other cyclists they see. Pave a smooth path for the next exhausted, dehydrated cyclist.
Case in point: the Silver Lake convenience store has PopTarts (yesss), but no tap water. After some amiable chatting with the proprietor, he lets us refill at his house next door. The same thing happens at the Ft. Rock greasy spoon. However, the waitress tells me cyclists keep using the outside water without asking or buying anything, so they’re closing off those hoses. Be an ambassador, people!
We pedal on. It’s hot. Windy. Deep red gravel sucks energy from our tired legs. DAMN YOU, RED SAUCE. Spirits crash. These things happen while pedaling 6-8 hours a day and spending all day outside in the elements.
Oh, right, I’m hungry. When my attitude shifts into negative gear, it’s (almost) always food. A few olives and a PopTart revives my spirits.
Our campsite that night is the aptly-named Sand Springs. No water, but we carried enough from Ft. Rock to handle the 100+ water-free miles. Plus, it’s COLD, so who needs water anyway?
Jono warms up by gathering pine needles to pile under his leaky air mattress, which is clearly punishing him for losing it earlier in the trip. He’s a survivor! We both zonk out by 9 p.m.
Day 4: A snowy, windy day from Sand Springs to Prineville
It’s late May, yet we wake up to snow flurries at Sand Springs. It’s cooold. We don all our layers and roll out early with Prineville’s bike shop as the destination. (Single-Speed Jono needs more gears!) How he’s pedaled these rolling hills in sucking gravel without popping a knee or an emotional gasket is beyond me.
Snow may sound miserable, but I’d rather ride in the cold any day vs. scorching heat. Plus, Jono spots some sunscreen on road, which means we are ready for temps over freezing.
A cool highlight: running into Lael Wilcox, a badass Alaskan woman who has won the Trans-American bike race and is well-known in the ultra-endurance cycling community. She’s scoping out the Outback in preparation for a time trial on it.
Her advice for the road ahead is that there’s water in a cow trough 20 miles up. When we pass it, in NO way do I feel like filtering water from it. Besides iron backsides and the ability to pedal forever on zero sleep, ultra-endurance riders like Lael also possess the ability to rough it to an extreme degree. I enjoy some adversity, but draw the line at cow trough water.
This day reminds me why I prefer bikepacking on trails to open roads: headwind hell. We push north toward Prineville reservoir through snow flakes and/or furious wind, earning a reprieve with the long, fantastic descent to the reservoir. A nice lunch by the river is followed by brain-scorching wind in the face all the way to Prineville. I put my head down and descend into audiobook land.
Good Bike Co. can’t fix Jono’s shifter. Instead, the mechanic clamps the shifter cable to the chainstay. The shifter is useless, but by twisting the barrel adjuster, Jono can access three gears. We are good to go!
Bike trip hunger sets in. We eat burritos, but they don’t even register as calories. “You still hungry?” Yup. We order two more and head to the Best Western. It’s our lone night sleeping inside on the trip and we take advantage of it, washing out soiled clothing and hitting the hay early.
Day 5: Big climbs and sweet views from Prineville to Antelope
Into the Ochocos! Jono is dragging (for the first time ever?) as we crest the first climb out of town as temps dip toward 30. A snowstorm blows through behind us, but our bike karma is good and we dodge it.
The splendid long descent north of Prineville is steep enough for grinning and freezing enough to warrant using the handwarmers and all the layers we have. We blast through creek crossings and enjoy the area’s remoteness.
In tiny Ashwood, an oasis appears: Frankie’s Pit Stop. Frankie’s is an honor-based fridge with snacks provided by a generous guy. Ahh, the magic of small kindnesses during bike traveling. Far more impactful than typical travel because you’re so exposed on a bike and a $1.00 bag of Fritos can transform a day. Or power the steep climb out of town.
We burn all the calories from Frankie’s in the next few hours, traversing a rolling ridge with great views. No cars, just wind, distant mountains, and a great afternoon of riding. Weather threatens, retreats. Life is good.
Our day’s destination is tiny Antelope, a town documented in Wild Wild Countryabout the Rajneeshees. We don’t wear red, but I’ve arranged a free lawn to sleep on. When it starts to pour that night, our cowboy camp shifts to underneath the RV stored on the lawn. Dreamy.
Day 6: a rainy, windy push to the finish
Rain, ugh. I curl up in my sleeping bag under the RV, avoiding the inevitable. Jono woke up hours ago, as usual, journaling away in the dim morning light.
Luckily, the rain lets up as we climb out of Antelope. A big truck pulling a boat stops in the middle of the road and a grinning guy in a WSU Cougars hat sticks his head out into the drizzle: “You all are awesome!”
The tiny town of Shaniko is quiet and abandoned. Wherrrre is the water we expected? We bail – 2 bottles on a cold day is enough for 70 miles, right? (Spoiler alert: no, it’s not.) We stuff food in our faces and pull onto highway 97, heading north.
Ah, highway touring. We lurch along with semis buffeting us toward the ditch. Just 13 miles… A reminder: avoid road touring, Dakota! We turn onto gravel with a sigh of relief. The end is in sight.
We plop down by a farmer’s field for an excellent lunch of Tasty Bite chana masala. A guy in a farm truck stops and says we can stay, but don’t leave trash anywhere. Do people do that?! Be an ambassador, folks.
The Final Push
Onward. We grunt up steep gravel rolling hills reminiscent of my hometown in the Palouse. A big rattlesnake in the road sends my heart skittering, but he merely watches me huff by.
We’ve pedaled 345 miles and the end is in our sights. From ebullient energy out of Klamath Falls to lost sleeping pads to sunset burritos by the side of the road to cow pastures, through Red Sauce and broken shifters and snow, it feels like a hell of a trip. And yet we’ve only spent six days out here. Time compression, an indicator of a fine excursion!
But we aren’t there yet. A final cliff-steep hill, straining at the limit into a headwind on bumpy gravel to a crest overlooking the Gorge, Mt Hood and Mt. Adams. We’ve got 15 miles of descending as our reward…straight into a furious headwind that owns us, wind turbines merrily celebrating our imminent demise.
We grind. Grind grind grind. I stop pedaling – on a steep downhill – and the wind blows me practically to a stop. Not much talking. Survival mode. A fitting conclusion to a bike trip, in many ways. I tell Jono the good news: he’s now seen headwinds as bad as any I’ve seen in 10,000 miles of touring.
And then we’re done, Jono’s mom waving as we pedal up. She hands us cold water and I chug a liter, then another. Yup – two bottles for a 70 mile day is not enough. Chelsea meets us in The Dalles with piles of fruit and kombucha and I down blueberries by the handful.
Parting Thoughts on The Outback
Another one in the books. Headwinds aside, the Oregon Outback is a fabulous route!
Compared to road touring, the Outback is more remote and presents more logistics with water and food. However, those added items and ocassionally bumpy roads are more than offset by essentially traffic-free riding the entire time. I think it’s a great bikepacking trip for someone looking to dive into multi-day gravel riding.
I found the Outback to be more physically draining than expected. We rode 6-8 hours every day and no day felt easy. The vertical gain is fairly low, but the headwinds, bumpy terrain, and Red Sauce proved challenging. Don’t take it lightly: there’s hard work in them hills! (FWIW, I’ve toured 10,000 miles on road and trails.)
Beyond that, Jono proved himself a marvelous trip companion, positive and cheery no matter what the Bikepacking Gods threw at him. We’re better friends thanks to conversations about bear attacks and business, love and travel, language learning and the future. By that measure alone, the trip is a success.
It felt good to tick the Outback off my bucket list. I wasn’t left wishing I could pedal more; I was excited to return home to playing piano and other creative projects. The Oregon Outback filled my adventure cup – with an extra pour for Jono – and served up a solid helping of laughs, beautiful views, hard work, self-sufficiency, and teamwork.
I also suspect Jono will enjoy returning to a bed that doesn’t fall off his bike, leak, or crackle like pine needles.
Tips and Suggestions for Riding the Oregon Outback
Day 1: Klamath Falls to creek camping on the OC&E Woods Line Trail. (68 miles.)
Mostly cruisy except for occasionally bumpy terrain. Overall, running lower tire pressure will save your wrists, butt and soul a lot of pain. We didn’t go low enough day 1! 30-40 psi on my 29er/2″ tire setup felt good.
If you continue another ½ mile past the gate where the creek appears (roughly mile 68.5 from downtown Klamath Falls), there’s a fantastic camping spot on the west side of the trail with a swimming hole.
NOTE (please heed): unless you enjoy beating your body and bike to death, skip the OC&E trail from Sprague to Beatty. We disregarded a previous rider’s instructions and the result was brutally rocky cow pasture hell. After a few miles, we cut through a field and hopped on siiilky smooth pavement to Beatty. One of the better decisions of our trip!
Day 2: OC&E to Silver Creek (52 miles)
It’s an easy roll on pavement down into the town of Silver Lake, but we wanted to camp in solitude versus a city park, so we opted to stop earlier and enjoy the evening at Silver Creek. There is good camping near the creek.
NOTE: We read there wasn’t any water all day, but plenty of swamps and creeks presented themselves in the first half of the day. We didn’t need any of it, but maybe not necessary to carry a full day’s water out of the gate.
Day 3: Silver Creek to Sand Springs OHV (56 rather hard miles)
A surprisingly tough day, mostly due to road surfaces and a burly headwind. Since camping is limited past Sand Springs, we opted to dry camp there. Leaving Ft. Rock with six liters gave us plenty of water for the day, dinner, and pedaling to Prineville Reservoir the next day to refill.
Save some energy for the soul-sucking Red Sauce and punchy hills north of Ft. Rock!
Day 4: Sand Springs to Prineville (62 miles)
A cruisy, trending-downhill day. Other than waking up in snow and a cold morning of pedaling, all good!
Day 5: Prineville to Antelope (70 miles…and I should mention the 5,500’ climbing)
My favorite day of the trip for the views, remoteness, and variety of terrain. The four creek crossings were no big deal – we rode three and forded one. The descent after the climb out of Prineville is long and the perfect grade. If you’re continuing past Ashwood (and the fantastic honor-system Frankie’s Pit Stop), prepare yourself for a steep climb out of town and about 2.5k more total vert to Antelope.
For camping in Antelope, there’s a 5th wheel trailer on the east side of the road as you pedal into town. Nailed to the tree is a laminated note with Rodney Shank’s phone number. Give him a ring/text and let him know you’re staying and you’ve got a spot for the night!
Day 6: Antelope to the finish(70 miles and another 4,000′ of climbing)
A nice warm up out of Antelope, then highway traffic on 97 (blergh) before hitting the gravel again for rolling hills. May the wind be at your back and not blasting you to death the way we experienced. Stunning views of Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams abound as you descend into the Columbia Gorge.
Note: this day would be RAD if it rolled through Maupin and down the Deschutes River Rail trail to the finish. However, there’s currently a couple miles of chunky rock scrambling that would suck on a loaded gravel bike. Hopefully the trail is eventually clear from the Columbia to Maupin!
Logistics for the Oregon Outback
Getting to/from start/finish
We caught a ride with a southbound friend from Bend to Klamath Falls. There’s a train from Portland to Klamath Falls, which seems like a great option.
From The Dalles, there’s a bus (the Columbia Area Transit, CAT) back to Portland. My lovely wife, ever supportive, picked me up at the end.
Time of year
We rode this from May 16-21, 2021. Temps ranged from 85 one day to freezing and snowy another, but I’ll take cold ANY day versus baking heat in the desert. My vote is for riding in the late spring.
Navigation felt easy on the Oregon Outback. I simply downloaded the suggested route from bikepacking.com and used Ride with GPS to navigate. The app is easy to use and only costs $6 per month.
My preferred method to save battery is to keep my phone on airplane mode with the volume turned up loud enough to hear the DING when a turn is approaching. There’s also another tone when you miss a turn, which quickly corrects any missteps.
As usual, I rolled on a plant-based diet for this trip. Jono joined in and went veg as well.
We brought enough freeze-dried meals to get us through the entire trip, but left Klamath Falls with a few big burritos for dinner the first night. Two big dinners in Prineville got us fueled up quite nicely as well and convenience store stops in Sprague and Silver Lake kept us in PopTarts and other unhealthy-yet-delicious snacks.
Nooot much water on the Oregon Outback, but there was plenty for us. Except when there wasn’t. All of the water sources we filtered from seemed strong and not at risk of running dry in the summer or fall, but I have no idea if that’s the case.
Follow the advice of the writeup on bikepacking.com and you’ll (likely) be fine. Worst case, just haul 6L of water – the terrain is mostly flat and there is zero hike a bike or downed trees to navigate, so who cares about an extra few pounds?
We both used the Katadyn BeFree filters and they worked great. Skratch Labs electrolyte powder in one bottle and pure water in the other is the ticket.
We brought a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 bikepacking tent and split carrying duties between poles and fabric. However, we never used it and just cowboy camped for free every night except the one we spent in a hotel in Prineville. There’s lots of public land for doing so, plus spots in places like Ashwood and Antelope. (See previous note about Antelope camping.) Zero mosquitoes, woot! A silver lining to no lakes for swimming
With the exception of north of Prineville, there was a Verizon signal almost the entire ride.
I rode my 2013 Salsa Fargo set up very similarly to how I rode it in Spain/Portugal with Jones bars and panniers plus a Salsa frame bag. This time around, I added a Revelate front roll bag for sleeping gear. It worked great and felt super stable even on bumpy and fast gravel descents. My tires are Schwalbe Marathon 50mm’s and worked great. I don’t run tubeless and have literally never had a flat with those bad boys.
I don’t use panniers for trail bikepacking, but they were totally fine for the terrain on the Outback. There’s zero hike a bike and the route is fairly flat (relative to routes like the Oregon Timber Trail, at least!), so going super light doesn’t matter as much. Hence the camp chairs, my new favorite road/gravel touring kit addition since there often is nowhere to sit when you’re riding wide-open terrain.
Feel free to comment below if you’ve got questions about an upcoming trips. You’ve got this! Have fun, be an ambassador, and enjoy those big skies.
https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Oregon-Outback-bikepacking-open-roads.jpg10801920Dakotahttps://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Traipsing-About-logo-white-background-450x156.pngDakota2021-07-08 20:35:252023-05-06 15:20:05Bikepacking Hijinks on the Oregon Outback
Call it mountain bike amnesia, but I’m already forgetting the hard work necessary to bikepack in the Chilcotin Mountains. Sweaty hike-a-bikes up mountain passes drift away, replaced by stunning vistas and brake-melting descents, a goofy grin plastered across my face.
Our simple trip goals: pedal bikes laden with six days of food into the backcountry of British Columbia. Keep the plan flexible. Make decisions knowing that help won’t arrive for a looong time if we mess up.
And, lastly, the most difficult and important goal: Don’t eat all the good snacks on day one.
The verdict: WHOA. The Chilcotins are as beautiful and physically challenging as we’d heard. The terrain looks like a love child of Iceland and the Pacific NW, ranging from tree-lined lakes to icy creek crossings to alpine passes to scree traverses
This remote zone contains all the ingredients for a delightful backcountry adventure. All you need is food, maps, pedal power, and ear plugs to ignore the large bears chipmunks stomping around all night.
Wait, I’ve Never Heard of the Chilcotins!
To reach the South Chilcotin Mountains, drive north of Whistler, B.C. WAY north. There are two options: the tire-eating beast of a fire road called The Hurley, or via Lillooet, town motto Guaranteed Rugged.
Either way, it’s over two hours heading north off the grid while wondering if you’ll end up in Alaska.
Most people who visit the Chilcotins use a float plane from Tyax Adventures that ferries people and/or gear in and out. While enticing, parting with hundreds of dollars to avoid a little sweat seemed unnecessary at best…and irresponsible at worst. We hauled all our stuff, including bear spray for encounters with the REAL locals, grizzly bears, then set up two different base camps for unloaded riding.
I wasn’t expecting an all-fun trip. (Excellent adventures never are, right?) Hard work sharpens enjoyment’s edge, which is why chocolate tastes so damn good on top of a mountain pass.
Honestly, the trip wasn’t too bad. Even with my bags stuffed with 11 freeze-dried meals and a jar of peanut butter, sweeping views were my appetizers and staring at mountains while eating pad thai was a double-whammy dinner.
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Friends warned us about the push required to get into the Chilcotins. Horse hooves created the backbone for these mountain trails, so they are A) steep as hell, and B) rugged. Many times pedaling simply didn’t make sense and we’d hike-a-bike, leaning into the bars. Some sections are so steep that pushing a loaded bike isn’t possible. The routine was step, push up with the bike, lock brakes, move feet, push up, repeat. Isn’t bikepacking FUN?
The upside to pushing: unlike with a headwind, there’s always fun to be had on the other side of a hard effort uphill. The reward is solitude on mountain passes and the adrenaline fairy dishing out large helpings of excitement on the downhills.
Another thing we quickly learned was the “Chilcotins Pace”. By that, I mean SLOW: In an eight-hour day, we could cover about 20 miles. Creek crossings abounded, as did swampy/muddy sections, mountain passes, and rooty/rocky riding.
Every time we’d get cocky, we’d get smacked upside the head by reality. This was an experience, not simply a mountain bike ride.
It’s All Worth It
Yeah, it’s hard work in dem mountains. Whatever. That’s the price to entry for bikepacking the Chilcotins.
But that’s not the reason to go there. It’s possible to melt brakes riding downhill ALL day with zero work at Whistler Bike Park, after all.
Beyond all the amazing riding, our time included camping by a quiet, beautiful lake. Sunsets over mountains. A burbling creek by our second camp. Solitude in the alpine listening to marmots whistle. Starry skies to make our eyes sing. A sense of adventure tough to find on manicured, purpose-built trails.
Perhaps best of all, we didn’t have to use any bear spray.