The Painted Hills Oregon Scenic Bikeway is an Uphill Battle

cycling, painted hills scenic bikeway

written by Kevin Max | photos by Rob Kerr

Approaching mile 3 still climbing out of Service Creek, I’m kicking myself. Just once, I’d like to have a trip with my wife and have no major surprises. Sarah and I have a knack for turning easy into epic.

Take the time, in proper wine-tasting attire, we scrambled up a steep headwall through animal feces in the rain to reach the rim of the Gorges du Verdon in the French Alps. Or take the time we turned a four-hour ride into a two-day fiasco when we took off from the campground on the Umpqua River and ended up on the wrong side of the mountain at dusk.

On this particular adventure in Eastern Oregon, we grind through resistance on the Painted Hills Bikeway, the fifteenth of Oregon Scenic Bikeways. It’s a 160.9-mile scenic bikeway if you ride the out-and-back doglegs of it. Seeing the same scenery twice is so un-Oregonian. At the core of this ride is an impressive diamond with Mitchell at the bottom and Fossil at the top, with about 8,000 feet of climbing packed into 92 miles.

I carry overnight gear in two panniers. They add another fifteen pounds to my bike. I’m climbing a steep wedge of pavement, standing on my pedals, jerking through the granny gear in a palsied mess of sweat, and I think no cyclist set this route. Driving this road would be challenging enough.

The fact is, I’m really not much on a bike. It’s too much of a head game for me. I loathe climbing. Flats bore me to tears. I live for the descents, but anguish over losing elevation that I’ve just gained. We are all about adventure, so I climb, cuss myself out and spend quality time with Sarah.

If you saw my garage, you’d swear Team Sky overnighted within. Sarah takes ownership of ninety percent of the gear. She has a bike suitable for all tasks—cycling on a firm road, cycling on gravelly roads, cycling on dirt roads and cycling on roads that lead to farmers’ markets. Extreme rides with extreme beauty are her thing.

The John Day River and other rivulets nourish the surrounding landscape. The colors change with the season, even in the desert.

The southern point of this route is the paint-starved town of Mitchell, just north of the Painted Hills. The climbing begins almost right away on 207 North to a junction with Girds Creek Road, a paved conduit through canyons of towering Columbia River basalt. This may be more than 200 miles from the Oregon Coast, but this area used to be bona fides beachhead. Geologists can find fossils here dating back 120 million years. The new Oregon Paleo Lands Institute in Fossil is a good resource for learning about the geological history in the John Day Basin.

A private paradise for cyclists runs between Mitchell and Fossil on Twickenham Road and Girds Creek. It feels like Sedona, Arizona, dropped into Eastern Oregon. Cyclists who want an awe-inspiring day ride should hit this section. It’s challenging but not extreme.

Fossil (population 473) sits at the top of this diamond. There lies a historic downtown with RJ’s Steakhouse, known for its prime rib and fried chicken. Locals in cowboy hats, jeans and boots take to this place, while Sarah and I rest and recover with drinks before five o’clock. Sarah seems to like my margarita after liking hers, then drinks half of my beer.

Beyond Fossil we stay at the traveler’s sanctuary of the Wilson Ranches Retreat Bed & Breakfast. Stories come around breakfast alongside eggs, biscuits, slab bacon and oatmeal. Owners Nancy and Phil Wilson’s families go back to the early days of ranching and farming in the area. They dish about ranching life and cougar control. “I don’t give ‘em three-strikes,” one local guest, who works for the county, said. “Unless I miss on my first two shots.”

We depart from the comfort and conversation of our new friends after coffee. The miles, at times, come with relative ease. And then we enter where the earth bent and formed steep flanks.

At mile 2 on day two, yesterday’s mileage creeps into my legs. I focus on my breathing. The fatigue and speed induced by such climbing feels akin to my grandma’s walking twenty-minute mile pace around the mall or neighborhood.

At milepost 5 of the climb, with a mirage of flattening pavement ahead, Sarah reaches the point first and straddles her bike. She sips water with nonchalance and looks over a valley of greens and browns. I make it to the top and stop. “I want to do a ride like this next weekend, too, honey,” she said.

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  1. says: Kathy Patten

    Bravo! A heart-stopping adventure, in more ways than one. Cheers to Mitchell, Fossil, and all the friendly folks and unparalleled scenery of the John Day River Basin—a special place in my heart.