Circling Back to the Oregon Coast and California Redwoods

Between the pandemic and smoke, we spent a biiit more time at home this year. (Anyone else?) Luckily, early December presented a (rare) clear weather window in the Pacific Northwest, so we packed the van and headed west to the ocean.

This wasn’t an adventure trip with Type 2 fun. Nope, this was a vacation, a chance to revisit areas we fondly remembered from kicking off our van trip in 2013.

We had simple goals as we drove over the Cascades: 1) turn our faces to the salty ocean spray during beach walks and 2) wander with necks craned back in the towering redwoods of Northern California. 

Since covid disclaimers are all the rage, here’s ours: other than gas fillups, we were completely self-contained and alone for the entire week. Well, we rescued an injured seagull, but I don’t think they can catch the virus…

For those Googling for specific hikes and campgrounds, skip ahead to the section.

Waldport beach
Beach walking near Tillicum Campground.

The Beach

Travel in mountains stokes me with possibilities, but the beach acts as the ultimate grounding agent. Standing next to a massive body of water strips away day-to-day worries for both of us.

The southern Oregon coast is special because it’s a mix of treed areas and dunes, with steep cliffs interspersed with perfect sand beaches. We’d hike through an emerald green tunnel and then burst into the sun onto rolling dunes as far as we could see. The contrast is fantastic.

We leisurely skipped our way south in the van, stopping to camp, hike, or eat meals at vistas. Our only headache was toasted batteries – they’re five years past replacement age. New ones incoming soon.

Enough about the beach. Off to the redwoods!

The magical Alder Dunes area north of Florence.

The Redwoods

Time scales for redwood trees are too long for my brain to really grasp. Take the 1,500-year-old Big Tree in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park as an example: when colonialist settler loggers first arrived in the 1850s, the tree had lived 90% of its current life. Somehow it survived the axes and is part of the 5% of remaining old-growth redwoods.

At 286 feet tall and 25 feet in diameter, the footprint is a fair portion of most houses and is as tall as a 30-story building. According to The Hidden Life of Trees, if humans were able to digest wood, one that large could feed us 3,000 calories a day for our entire lives.

big tree prairie creek
The Big Tree. 1,500 years old, 75 feet around and 286 feet tall. Each gnarled branch looked like it was 500 years old!

Next to such majestic, old beings, humans seem small and short-lived, skittering about our frenetic little lives in the time a redwood grows a few more inches in diameter. Hiking beneath them feels like traversing nature’s cathedral, a quiet, reverent place where anything over a whisper feels rude.

One fascinating aspect of redwoods is the ability of their seeds to sprout on the stumps of their fallen forefathers. The little seed taps into the root system of the elder tree, gaining access to the vast subterranean network of nutrients. Tree lottery winner! The symbiosis of the trees is clearly apparent, with the gigantic snags often circled by their offspring.

Since there is no possible way to fully capture the coast and redwoods in words, I’ll end this here. Instead, below are some of my favorite photos from the trip, which of course don’t capture it either.

fern canyon hike
In the heart of the marvelous Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods SP

Resource List: Campgrounds and Hikes

First, a quick list of our favorite campgrounds and hikes on the Oregon Coast and California redwoods during our trip.

A note to van lifers: While we usually boondock camp, most coastal property (other than the entirely-public beach) is private. I was happy to pay for the pleasure of empty campgrounds with beach access. 

I noticed that iOverlander moderators have closed many camping spots due to overuse and complaints from locals. For an impacted area like the coast, I think paying for a site is the way to go. We can boondock camp in the desert and wide-open national forests!

For summer, book six months ahead of time for the coast and the redwoods. I prefer the off-season. Sure, the weather is iffy and it gets dark early, but there are ZERO crowds. 

Fog rolling in at Prairie Creek. In the summer, this road is lined with cars.

Oregon Coast (from Waldport to CA border):

  • Tillicum Campground: campsites overlooking the massive beach south of Waldport. For $25 a night, you get a million-dollar view. The beach offers endless walking opportunities.
  • Alder Dunes Campground & hike: a secluded spot north of Florence with a 6ish-mile hike from camp through tree tunnels and over dunes to an empty beach.
  • Tahkenitch Dunes hike: this hike spends a mile deep in the coastal rainforest before bursting out onto the dunes. Mushrooms were everywhere! For reference, there’s a campground at the trailhead, though it was closed.
  • Cape Blanco hike: Oregon’s westernmost point! The lighthouse is cool, but my favorite part was getting down on the beach and wandering through all the giant driftwood logs. We didn’t camp here, but there’s a state park as well.
Driftwood (and Chelsea) on Cape Blanco beach.

Northern California Redwoods:

  • Florence Keller County Park: most county parks resemble parking lots, but we pulled into this gem north of Crescent City to avoid dark, foggy conditions and WHAMMO were in tall trees with secluded spots. Many reviews say it’s the place to go during peak tourist months when everything books up.
  • Prairie Creek Campground: a stunning setting in the redwoods that must be absolute mayhem when it’s busy. In the off-season, it was quiet and provides access to many loops in the park.
  • John Irvine to Fern Canyon to Miner’s Ridge hike: try this ridiculously awesome 12-mile hike for variety. Miles and miles beneath 250-foot redwoods, then down into a canyon with walls covered in ferns, and then along a beach, where we saw Roosevelt Elk (they sport 4’ antlers, whaat). From there, you loop back through redwoods. A top-10 hike for me.
oregon mushrooms
Mushrooms!
  • Prairie Creek/Foothill/Circle/Cathedral Trail hike: all manner of options available here, but this 5-mile option goes by the Big Tree mentioned above plus other giant redwoods, overlooks spawning salmon habitat, and gives you a chance to see elk in the prairie.

Note: stop and wander down any of the short signed trails off the Newton B. Drury Parkway. Anywhere in the redwoods is worth seeing! 

Enough chit chat. Photos, go.

Yachats beach
What a trip to the beach does to us! (No, we didn’t get soaked by that wave.)
It wasn’t all easy though: Chelsea forgot the French press. This cowboy coffee kiiinda worked.
Thick seaweed (or something!) coating the rocks at Pebble Beach by Crescent City.
Our rescued seagull (Lefty), who Humboldt Wildlife Care took in. Not before he spent a night in the van though… Newsflash: seagull poop is stinky!
driftwood sunset
Sunset on the beach near Brookings.
Ocean-spray dew on a spider web near Yachats.
Out of the tree tunnels and onto the sand during the Tahkenitch Dunes hike.
A stop in the redwoods for a quick hike at one of the many pullouts.
Clearly this chunk of log on Cape Blanco was put here to stand on!
Two sculptures made of plastic at the Washed Ashore project in Bandon. They’re 8′ tall!
henry the fish washed ashore project
Henry the Fish’s eyeball from the Washed Ashore project. Check the detailing out.
Detail of Henry the Fish at the Washed Ashore project.
Henry’s scales.
washed up stump Cape Blanco
An old hollow stump on the beach at Cape Blanco. I could climb inside it!
Hopping logs over the creek in Fern Canyon.
Don’t eat these!
I forgot my headphone adapter, but Chelsea was nice enough to tolerate me playing my keyboard. (Stop pretending you don’t travel with a piano. Everybody is doing it.)
Let’s end with a puzzle: Dunes from 10,000′ or the beach from 3′?

Solitude in the Elkhorn and Wallowa Mountains

Coming off two weeks working on my parents property right before the 2020 election drama, I craved time alone in nature. En route to home, I swung through the Wallowa and Elkhorn Mountain ranges for some true solitude. Below is a photo essay from my time there.

The summary:

  • No phone signal for days.
  • Two total other people encountered on the trail. My favorite was the ebullient Pastor Dave, who “moved to the area 17 years and 75 pounds ago, found hiking, and have been to all 76 lakes in the Wallowas!”
  • Lots of time on foot and pedaling in the mountains.

A big shout out to Chelsea for graciously supporting my extra time away. It made me appreciate her even more and brought to mind this Rainer Maria Rilke quote:

I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other. For, if it lies in the nature of indifference and of the crowd to recognize no solitude, then love and friendship are there for the purpose of continually providing the opportunity for solitude. And only those are the true sharings which rhythmically interrupt periods of deep isolation.

Photos from the Elkhorn and Wallowa Mountains!

A clearing storm on the Palouse en route to the Wallowas. It made me think of the potential in the election…
Taking in the Matterhorn view on Hurricane Creek Trail in the Wallowas. No wonder they call them The Little Alps! (Also, props to apps with 30 second camera timers…see how relaxed I look? Didn’t even have to sprint.)
The sign read “Bridge Out,” but clearly it was fine.
Firing larches and a perfect fall day on the S. Fork of the Imnaha.
Rather than destroying the van on a rough fire road, I opted to bike in. The snow/ice had other ideas. I’ll be back, Bonny Lake!
Strange bedfellows on this trip: my keyboard, a bronze sculpture by my dad that I picked up at a foundry, and a maple 4×4 that we’re going to grow mushrooms on! All less cuddly than Chelsea, but they don’t toss and turn at night…
‘Tis the season for magic larch colors! The air was adrift with floating golden needles.
Sunset on the stunning Elkhorn Crest Trail on Oregon’s highest singletrack trail! Looking west, you see this…
And looking east, you see the desert near Baker City.
van camping wallowas
The U.S. ain’t perfect by any stretch, but I sure love the huge swaths of public land for recreating and van camping with a view!
larch needles mtb
Fallen larch needles.
Dutch Flat mtb trail
Tired but alive at the top of Dutch Flat trail in the Elkhorns. This trail is incredible, a combo of views, gold larches, and grin-inducing rocks, speed and… anyway. #mountainbikedorkalert
piano keyboard van
Sing us a sooooong, in the piano van! (Thanks to my friend Eric for getting THAT ditty stuck in my head for a week.)
elkhorn crest mtb
Sunset on the sublime Elkhorn Crest trail. Deep in the zone in my happy place.

And that’s a wrap! Sing us a song la da deee da da… Ciao for now, folks.

Mountain view!

Launching a Bikepacking Trip on the Oregon Timber Trail

Mountain view!

Border to border, the Oregon Timber Trail traverses the state from California to Washington. On Saturday, three friends and I start pedaling all 670 miles of it. (Update: here’s the full trip story!)

Starting down south, Brady, JT, Zach and I will crank north over 16 15 days through terrain ranging from high desert plateaus to dense old growth forest to volcanic lava. For maximum fun/quad punishment, the route wanders back and forth across the Cascade Mountain range.

The terrain ranges wildly: smooth trail, chunky rocks, sandy fire road, trails so steep pushing is the order of the day. At some point, we’ll probably hoist our bikes over downed trees for a few hours.

I fully expect this trip to secure Hardest Physical Accomplishment status for me. Our plan aims at 45 miles and 8 hours per day for two weeks straight on trails. On loaded bikes and riding so much singletrack, that’s far more difficult than my past road tours. With 67,000’ of climbing in total, we’ll be riding uphill over 4,000’ each day on average. (That’s 2.3 sea-to-summit ascents of Everest, for comparison.)

Intense. And so, so rad.

View from the cockpit

What is the Oregon Timber Trail?

The OTT is a scenic combination of singletrack and fire road. Apparently it sports the highest percentage of singletrack (60%+) for a long-distance bikepacking route in the United States. The full linkup blossomed into fruition in 2017 with trail work, initial riders testing the route, and plenty of publicity.

60 miles of fun on the Oregon Timber Trail

670 miles of fun on the Oregon Timber Trail

The full trail splits into four distinct sections: Fremont, Willamette, Deschutes, and Hood. It traverses the rock-strewn Fremont National Forest, slips through old-growth to Oakridge on the Middle Fork Trail, sneaks around Mount Bachelor near Bend, and finishes on the east side of Mount Hood on scenic Surveyor’s Ridge before rolling downhill into Hood River.

In short, some of my favorite Oregon riding, linked together with a variety of dirt roads, historic thoroughfares like the Old Santiam Wagon road, and remote forest and lake regions I’ve never visited.

Lakes, lakes and more lakes

Lakes, lakes and more lakes

The OTT’s excellent website says this: “The Oregon Timber Trail is an iconic backcountry mountain bike route spanning Oregon’s diverse landscapes from California to the Columbia River Gorge. It is a world-class bikepacking destination and North America’s premiere long-distance mountain bike route. It runs south to north and travels through a variety of landscapes, communities, ecosystems, terrain, and, most importantly—mountain bike trails.”

The trail linkup is laid out for people who want to ride it on two wheels. This isn’t a hiking trail like the Pacific Crest Trail or one used by hikers and bikers like the Colorado Trail. Only a handful pedaled the full trail last year. It’s a raw, adventurous linkup with route finding, few restock points, and lots of potential hard work. And fun! Did I mention fun?

Still snow above 6k'!

Still snow in the mountains!

Why Bother? That Sounds Haaaard

There’s magic in a traverse of an entire state. Immersed in nature, this is a chance to disconnect, disappear, and live in the moment.

Wading a frosty-cold stream on the shakeout ride.

Wading a frosty-cold stream on the shakeout ride.

I recognize the privilege inherent in the freedom to hop on bikes and go explore for two weeks. I’m grateful for that opportunity.

This adventure trades easy living to strip life to the basics and go adventure. Some Type 2 fun may rear its fanged head, but that  makes life at home all the sweeter in contrast when the trip lives on in memory lane.

The simplicity of the experience appeals to me, combining two of my favorite activities (mountain biking and traveling) with a preferred method of exploring the world (bike touring). In the two big road tours Chelsea and I enjoyed across the U.S. and Europe, we sunk into a rhythm: wake, eat, bike, eat, bike, sleep, repeat.

This time I’m checking out of work for the entire two weeks for the first time in 10 years. YES. No calendar appointments, no conference calls…

No cell signal, just mountain views.

The Logistics: Gear, Sleeping, Eating, WILL YOU EVEN SHOWER?!

I’ve mountain biked a ton. Bike toured plenty. Traveled often. Camped enough to know how a sleeping pad works. Linking it all together with a light kit (who needs multiple pairs of riding shorts anyway?) is another story.

I’m planning an entire gear post to share what I’m carrying for my trip. I’ll also talk about doing the trip as a vegan. I’m excited that Brady is game to join me for 100% plant-powered fueling the entire way. Props, man!

Cozy camp on Lava Lake

Cozy camp on Lava Lake.

Quick logistics summary: we booked zero lodging and our plan is to sleep in the dirt the entire trip. (Unless we can convince Mountain Man JT otherwise.) Lakes shall be our showers; restocking in random small towns along the way our sustenance, though hopefully we can cross paths with Chelsea and a van full of treats at a highway crossing or two.

Bikepacking dinner prep

10:30 pm dinner prep. Pad thai!

Quick gear summary: I’m taking a full-suspension mountain bike (a Santa Cruz Tallboy) with shiny new Bedrock bikepacking bags as the base kit. Here’s a shot of the general setup.

The sexy bikepacking setup.

The sexy bikepacking setup. It amazes me that this carries everything I need for the trip!

I dig launching into adventures, and this bikepacking trip is no exception. Our itinerary is loose, though that’s easy when each night’s sleeping arrangements revolve around, “Hey, this lake/creek/mountain looks sweet.”

I haven’t done specific training other than my usual pedaling. For my lone gear test, I pedaled out 30-odd miles, descended a gnarly lava trail (in the dark), and solo camped (in the rain, yeahhh). The return trip of 40 miles around Mt. Bachelor left me grinning with excitement for this upcoming trip. As I love to say to Chelsea (as she shakes her head), it’ll be fiiiiine.

Maybe I didn’t specifically train, but my bike is ready. I basically rebuilt the entire thing preparing for this trip. Great practice for my bike maintenance!

New rear cassette (11-46, if you're curious) and bigger brake rotors (180mm).

New rear cassette (11-46, if you’re curious) and bigger brake rotors (180mm).

Want to Follow Along?

When we have a signal, I’ll be posting to Instagram here and Brady is @bradylawrencephoto. This marks my return to IG after three blissful months off. Gotta spread the word about Oregon’s awesome new trail!

Post-trip, I’ll blog about the experience and do a breakdown of how gear and plans (the few we have) work out. We’re aiming to make a short film of our time on the trail with Brady’s skills and JT/Zach’s dashing good looks. I’ll provide comic relief.

Without further adieu, onward we go! Catch you on the other side.

Mountains, here I come!

A 100 Mile Challenge in the High Cascades

 

At 5:30 tomorrow morning, I’ll pedal off on my mountain bike (along with 350 other lunatics) to race 100 miles. The event, High Cascades 100, traverses some of the best trails around Bend and climbs about 10,000 feet in the process.

It’s the culmination of months of hard training. I’ve put in the time and am confident, but feel excited, a bit nervous, and ready to ride!

I’ve never raced mountain bikes before, so starting small with a mere 10 hours of pedaling is just the ticket. HA. At least I’m consistent, since that’s the same way I jumped into bike touring – “hey, let’s ride across the US!” or started a business – “I’ll leave engineering for finance and fake it ‘til I make it!”

Registering for High Cascades was partially a reaction to landing last fall after three years on the road. Both Chelsea and I were tired of constantly saying goodbye to friends and wanted to park it in a cool outdoorsy town, but that glitzy sparkle of long-term travel was hard to shelve. A goal months down the road was just the ticket, so I woke up Thanksgiving Day and signed up for the race, ran a 10k event, then ate myself silly.

Nearing the end of a long, hard ride with my MTB crusher friend Paul.

If I’m honest with myself, I’ve coasted a bit the last three years. With my business running nearly on auto-pilot and the open road in front of us, it was easy to live in the moment and enjoy myself. Sure, we did some big bike tours, volunteered at Farm Sanctuary, saw stunning places, and I blogged frequently – but that’s for fun. I wasn’t elbow-deep in any projects with a long view.

For five years prior to 2013, I’d focused on chasing greenbacks. I worked like a tornado, spinning in one place until I realized I needed to think about something – anything – other than work/business/making money. Thanks to my supportive and adventurous wife, that led to travel and a focus on creative projects. Blogging, photography, video: all were intentional projects with no revenue model in mind. I’m no expert in any of them, but can now produce work that I’m proud of.

Still, I’m not the type to sit around and relax. After the dust from High Cascades settles (and my legs stop hurting), I’ll need a project to set my sights on. This time around, it won’t be a purely physical one. I’m feeling the desire to make something, be it a business, a creative work, or a service for others. (Don’t get me wrong – my bucket list continues to grow. The 670 mile Oregon Timber Trail, yessss!)

Camped out after a great day in the mountains.

I’m currently intrigued by the intersection of the athletic/plant-based movement, which is gaining more steam every day. The desire to create a documentary still lights up my ambition circuits. All it takes is commitment and daily effort. Waiiiit a second…just like getting up with tired legs and heading out for a training ride when I’d rather sit at home and read a book.

If I can train for a race by riding a bike like it’s a part-time job, why can’t I apply the same long-term, sustained effort to a project? The possibility of failure is no excuse, since racing and creative/business efforts are fraught with peril. Time to buckle down.

These ambitions will swim in my thoughts tonight, though I’ll dream mostly of singletrack and logistics for the race. Speaking of that, where is that spare water bottle? I should probably snap this laptop shut and go tune up my bike. Tomorrow’s 4 a.m. alarm is chiming soon, so au revoir and wish me luck!

A beautiful day in the Ochoco Mountains NE of Bend.

Spring Shenanigans in Bend

Whoa, how did two months pass since I last posted? Whoops… For all you new subscribers, howdy! Don’t worry, there’s not usually this much radio silence.

Not that I’ve laid around in traction or anything! Far from it.

Climbing in the Marsupials above Smith Rock.

It’s merely that Bend is the ultimate distraction. Turns out that 1) the city and surrounding area are an outdoor playground with too many potential sports and 2) everyone visits if you move here. Since January, athletic fun and constant guests conspired to leave minimal time for blogging.

Hosting vegan cookbook club in Bend.

My friend Eric skins up Tumalo Mountain on a backcountry ski outing in the Cascades.

Rather than writing, my creative outlet shifted to shooting and editing videos for Instagram on my phone with the Cameo app. My rule: a limit of 15 minutes for editing, which helped me avoid perfectionist tendencies that find me editing for untold hours. During March, I cranked out 10 of them.

It was easy to find material for quick, fun cuts thanks to 30 days of skiing this year (for my first season, I almost don’t suck!), plus rock climbing and mountain biking. Throw in a Portland road trip and a few days in Palm Springs for a wedding and where DOES the time go?

South Sister through the looking glass on a bluebird day.

Check out our recent shenanigans! Here are my favorite Instagram videos (all less than 60 seconds) from the last couple months, all edited on my iPhone using Cameo. Pick a few that sound interesting and crank the sound up!

Gotta go up to go down…

Da Videos:

Powder skiing excellence (on March 30th!) at Mt Bachelor

-A great day volunteering at Harmony Farm Sanctuary near Bend. (Clearly I chose to shoot video instead of actually working…)

Antics in the Palm Springs sun for a friend’s wedding – pool and diving board exploits, trail running, biking around town on a clunker Airbnb loaner bike, and other festivities!

-Pretending I can backcountry ski (Tumalo Mountain west of Bend)

-Double-whammy #BendFit adventure day full of climbing and mountain biking

-A glimpse of Chelsea shredding some turns at Bachelor

-A pivot to other sports after weather shut down a backcountry ski up/down Mt. St. Helens

On top of Tumalo Mtn – hard work done, time for the fun!