The Oregon Outback

For those interested in putting this trip together, here are some of the important details.  If you’re coming here from an external link, you can click here for the photo slideshow and a summary of the route.

Route:

Here is a link to the route.  Final tally was 360 miles, 75% dirt and 17k elevation gain.  Please do not rely on the cue sheet you can generate through this link.   Google directions suck for off-road routes.

I want to stress that this is NOT a beginner route.  The route is much more difficult than the mileage and elevation gain suggest.  The riding is hard, the logistics extremely challenging, and water is scarce.  Expect to bush camp, filter water from streams, rivers and springs, and ride through remote areas where you won’t see a soul.  Cell service is limited-to-nonexistent, the few stores on the route are open sporadically, and when they are the options are limited.  Please do your research, have the proper gear, get some real experience touring gravel beforehand, and know your limits.  Be prepared to self rescue, because there will not be any other options.

After much consideration, we opted to ride the route South to North for two reasons:  1) get the train and boxing up the bikes out the way first; and 2) 4k net elevation loss from K-Falls to the Deschutes.  I’d definitely do it this way again.  The elevation loss wasn’t a big deal, but I loved relaxing on the train, pouring over maps, drinking beers and getting psyched to ride.  Riding the train at the end would mean being dirty, smelly, tired and just-wanting-to-get-home.

The OC&E Woods Line State Trail is really unique.  It’s a rails-to-trails line but only the first 8 miles is a paved bike path.  The remaining 80 miles is a dirt track of constantly varying quality traversing several remote areas and ranch land.  The steady stream of gates can be a pain, but it keeps the cars and motos at bay, meaning you’ll get passed by exactly zero cars for the first 80+ miles of your ride.  We skipped a short section of the OC&E State Trail near the end, as we’d grown tired of the soft loose gravel.  PLEASE NOTE:  The OC&E Wood Line State Trail ends at the Sycan Marsh.  Bikes are NOT permitted in the Sycan Marsh, it is a federal nature conservancy.  The official Oregon Outback route linked above does NOT pass through the Sycan Marsh and follows legal, publicly accessible roads and trails at all times.  The route bypasses the Sycan Marsh altogether.

There are several route options from Silver Lake to the Crooked River.  Just note that the OHV area in the Deschutes NF sucks.  20 miles of loose gravel with no water was a drag – but a small inconvenience overall.

The only tricky intersection of the whole route is at Mile 252 on our route.  It’s a non-obvious left turn at a clearing just after crossing Trout Creek (where we camped, see below).  Instead of heading uphill on the main road, go left and follow the creek downhill.  There should be a trailhead just down the way on the left and a memorial just past that on the right…

Bike & Tire Selection:

This is always the most asked about section, but the hardest to write.  I personally wouldn’t ride this on anything smaller than MTB tires.  The route is not particularly rough, but there are significant sections of loose gravel.  If you go skinnier than ~1.9″, you’ll suffer.  I rode a Surly Ogre with 2.1″ tires with some tread (photo).  I thought it was the perfect setup and I’ll ride this exact setup next time.  I didn’t feel like the fat tires slowed me down enough on the pavement to justify going skinner.

Gabe rode a Salsa LaCruz with 35c tires with little tread and had trouble on several long sections (photo).  Walking is no fun.

While most bikepacking routes are not well suited to the rack-and-pannier setup, you’d be fine on this route.  It’s not that rough.  However, I much prefer bikepacking setups like those made by Revelate and Porcelain Rocket.

Services & Water:

Services are limited en route, so be prepared.  Below is a quick summary of what we found.  For more detailed and up-to-date information, check this page with rolling updates as we learn more about current conditions.

  • Klamath Falls:  The Maverick Motel is a few blocks from the train station, cheap and clean.  Recommended.  There is a decent brewpub next door, with a Safeway and coffee shop within a few blocks.  The route starts just a few blocks on the other side of the train station.  Because the train arrives in K-Falls at ~10pm, we opted to stay the night.
  • Sprague River:  Convenience store, cafe
  • Beatty:  Convenience store (note: requires a slight out-and-back detour)
  • Cowboy Dinner Tree:  30oz steaks or a whole chicken.  Seriously, don’t skip this.
  • Silver Lake:  Tiny grocery store
  • Fort Rock:  Two taverns.  The newer one on Fort Rock Rd is supposedly better.  We enjoyed the dark, cool bar, good food and cold beer.  Be generous, and maybe they’ll return the favor on water fill ups.
  • Brothers:  possible stop depending on your route
  • Prineville:  Full service town with groceries, restaurants, bike shop, etc.
  • Shaniko:  Convenience store

 

Much of the route is remote and water access through several areas is limited.  Expect no water, filterable or otherwise, from Fort Rock to the Crooked River (80-ish miles).  Bring a water filter, steri-pen or iodine tablets.  At the longest no-water section we each carried 2+ gallons of water.  Expect to do roughly the same, depending on your needs (ours included high temps and a dry overnight).

Camping:

There are a lot of good options along the way.  I think we picked the best of the bunch, but obviously your pace will dictate your camping options.   Here’s where we stayed along the route:

Mile 65-ish:  Options abound along the creek within the first 1-4 miles of officially entering the Fremont National Forest.  The further you go, the better the spots get.

Mile 112:  We bush-camped south of the small bridge along the creek draining out of the Thompson Reservoir.  There are also official campgrounds at the reservoir and another one near our bush-camp spot, but we opted to stay closer to dinner (Cowboy Dinner Tree) and avoid paying/crowds.

Silver Lake:  There is a small city park a few blocks off the main road.  We were told it’s open for bikers to camp.  It’s a nice grassy little park with water, a covered area and a port-a-potty.  We didn’t actually camp here, but its a good option as you can skip backtracking if you hit up the Cowboy Dinner Tree.

Mile 167:  Sand Springs OHV Campground.  There are numerous other camping options as you pass through the Deschutes NF.  None have water access.  All will be full of OHV campers.  It wasn’t as bad as it sounds.  These are the only decent options between Silver Lake and the Crooked River.

Miles 207-210:  There are numerous campgrounds along the Crooked River after passing the Prineville Reservoir.   All of them are on the river and highly recommended.  No water (except filtering from the river).

Mile 252-4:  Several nice spots along the creek.   This is at the confusing intersection noted above.

Mile 301:  Shaniko is practically a ghost town.  We asked one resident and were told we could camp in the picnic area on the heart of town and no one would care.  Because of the high winds that day, we backtracked and bush-camped on a side road.  Most of this general area is private land, so be careful if you bush-camp.

Deschutes State Park:  This is technically the end of the route, but it’s also a great camp spot if you get stuck here.  Showers & water (excluding winter months when the water is shut off).  Biggs is 6 miles East with convenience store food, or head 20 miles West to The Dalles for full services.

Maps:

I’d recommend the Benchmark Oregon Atlas and their Oregon phone app.  Even the OC&E State Trail is on the map if you know where/how to find it.  We combined this with several additional maps, including the Deschutes NF map, Ochoco NF map, and a few other less useful ones.  There are several maps of the Upper Klamath Basin and Fremont NF that might be helpful.  We combined our maps with the Gaia app on an iPhone.  This was particularly handy to have as a backup, but it eats your phone battery fast.

Highlights:

OC&E State Trail, Cowboy Dinner Tree, Fort Rock, Crooked River, Ochoco Mountains, Ashwood area, Deschutes.