Somewhere between the Marty Robbins cover band in Sprague River and beers with the lawnmower patrol in Antelope, we realized the Oregon Outback bikepacking trip was something special.
In early June, three buddies and I took off from Klamath Falls in an attempt to tackle the Oregon Outback, a multiday bikepacking trail that traverses the state. Despite not one of us having any bikepacking (camping by bike) experience whatsoever, the plan was for us to ride north almost entirely on gravel and old forest roads for 364 miles, ending where the Deschutes River flows into the Columbia River, about 15 miles east of The Dalles. We figured it’d be a cross between Lewis and Clark and Easy Rider, but on bicycles, and with fewer drugs.
Six days, four river crossings and 14,000 feet of climbing later, we rolled into the Deschutes River State Recreation Area exhausted, hungry and completely blown away by the overwhelming kindness we experienced from Oregonians. The scenery between the Klamath Basin and the Columbia River Gorge was pretty nice, too.
There’s a lot to love about the Outback trail, including that it starts in Klamath Falls, home to the state’s southernmost Amtrak train station. From Portland or Eugene you can load your bike on the train without boxing it.
We caught the train in Eugene and after a five-hour ride, rolled into Klamath around 10 p.m., where the good folks at the Cerulean Hotel picked us up, bikes and all. After a hearty continental breakfast, some final packing rearrangements and multiple chamois cream jokes, we were off at the brisk time of … 8:30 a.m.
The first 70-ish miles of the Outback are on the OC&E Woods Line State Trail, a car-free former railroad line. It’s a fantastic start and offers up more trail diversity than you’d think, though be prepared to open and shut forty-plus gates during this stretch. There’s also a couple of open pasture moments that let you channel your inner Augustus McCrae. It’s good fun, assuming you don’t herd the cows into the rest of your party. (It was an accident!)
Our day one goal was to ride 40 miles and lunch at a gas station in Sprague River. We weren’t being cheap—that’s the only service usually offered in this tiny ranching community of about 300 people.
Luckily, the trail had better plans for us. Purely by accident we stumbled upon a barbecue brisket fundraiser at the local community center.
“You all look like brothers,” the cowboy at the front door said with a grin. “We’ll give you the family discount.”
For $5 apiece, we feasted on brisket, baked potatoes, salad, watermelon, lemon cake and brownie a la mode while a band played Marty Robbins’ greatest hits.
Even better than the food and music was the general hospitality of everyone at the fundraiser. They asked about our bikes, pointed us in the right direction and gave us heartfelt encouragement. It was a huge emotional boost.
Our bellies full of food and “El Paso” stuck in our heads, we headed east, stopping in the town of Beatty for an exotic dinner of gas station breakfast burritos, Cheetos, Funyuns and cheap beer before camping in the Fremont-Winema National Forest.
The next day was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. It got off to an inauspicious start when the lifeblood of our trip, our instant coffee, tasted like a lemon-lime slush. (Pro tip: Don’t boil your coffee water with energy drink water.)
After passing through the last of the gates on the OC&E Trail, we began to make our way due north, with a reservation at the Cowboy Dinner Tree just south of Silver Lake. Knowing we had hunks of meat as big as a 10-gallon hat awaiting us was key as we battled rainstorms for most of the next 50 miles. Drained by the time we reached the CDT, we dried out over the wood-burning stove in the restaurant’s gift shop before refueling with coffee, corn chowder, baked potatoes and four 30-ounce steaks.
Completely drenched, we opted to check into the Silver Lake Mercantile & Hotel for the night. It was one of the best decisions we made, as we were able to dry out our clothes and gear. Plus, we microwaved scrambled eggs with leftover steak for breakfast the next morning.
What I rode: Diamondback Haanjo Carbon Trail
Tire size: 700×40
Water storage: A pair
of 32-ounce Hydro Flasks
on my front fork and 24-
and 20-ounce Hydro Flasks
on my frame. We also brought a Platypus 2-liter GravityWorks filter system for the entire group.
Bikepacking bags: Ortlieb seat pack bag, Ortlieb frame bag, Ortlieb handlebar bag, Ortlieb accessory bag, Novara top tube feed bag.
Tent: MSR Mutha Hubba NX three-person tent.
Sleeping bag: Big Agnes Skeeter SL 20.
Powered by eggs and non-tainted coffee, we headed to desolate, beautiful, remote Fort Rock—this is the middle of nowhere, and it’s spectacular.
Working with sunshine for the first time on our trip, we were able to enjoy the gradual changes in scenery, making our way into the Deschutes National Forest and its treasure trove of lava rocks. We’d been warned that a 20-mile stretch of red gravel was a soul sucker, but it seemed to pedal fine for us. Opting for a bit of a short day so we could camp in the Deschutes National Forest, we found a hunting campsite surrounded by mounds of lava. We celebrated the day of spectacular weather and scenery with our first campfire of the trip, grilling leftover steak from the night before. Cowboy Dinner Tree—the meal that keeps on giving.
Almost halfway through our trip, we started day four motivated by how far we’d come and the fact that we had dinner dates with our better halves, who were driving from Bend to meet us in Prineville.
We exited the Deschutes National Forest about 2 miles past our camp and headed toward Highway 20 and the Crooked River Highway. One of the few state highways that’s still gravel, the Crooked River Highway is a treat as it meanders along Bear Creek.
After our steepest climb of the trip—we went up nearly 800 feet in just 3 miles—we were rewarded with a bomb down to the Prineville Reservoir and lunch on the Crooked River. We even tried our hand at a little fly-fishing, but came up with zilch. It was OK, though, as the road into Prineville on the Crooked River may be one of the most beautiful of the 364-mile journey. It is 22 miles of pavement that flows and rolls like the river it mirrors.
Bike repair and beers at the Good Bike Co. in Prineville were next, followed by triple cheeseburgers, tater tots and banana-chocolate-peanut butter malts at the Tastee Treet.
As if the day could get better, we camped in a horse barn at the beautiful Wine Down Ranch on the McKay Creek, just outside the Ochoco National Forest.
Fresh legs and fresh coffee pushed us through the start of day five in the Ochocos, which included an 1,800-foot climb, a 2,000-foot descent and four river crossings, all before lunch. (Pro tip No. 2: Don’t get cocky and bomb through river crossings. River wrecks, while outwardly fantastic, can be problematic.)
Following Trout Creek, we made our way into Ashwood, a near ghost town 45 miles north of Prineville. We snacked outside the local grange—we had a day-old cobbler from the Tastee Treet someone had brought along as a lunch surprise—and ran into a fellow bikepacker headed the opposite direction.
Ashwood to Antelope, where we ended up camping, was just 23 miles, but it began to feel like 230 as the day wore on. Unrefrigerated cobbler, perhaps? Tired, thirsty and burned out on energy bars and drinks, a local rancher stopped us on the way to Antelope to make sure we were OK. Assuring him we were fine, he cackled and pointed to the passenger in his work truck—a fine-looking Australian shepherd—and said, “She thinks you’re crazy, and I think you’re idiots!”
A few minutes after our encounter with the rancher, we realized we were running out of water. We stopped at a house on the hill and asked if we could fill our Hydro Flasks. Melinda graciously allowed us to use her hose and refill every water bottle we owned. Before we were done, though, the same dusty truck pulled up the driveway.
“By God, I asked if you needed anything!” said the aging rancher with a booming voice.
Did we upset him? Was he mad we were at his house getting water?
“Well, you get ‘er all filled up?” he said with that shit-eating grin again, knowing he’d scared the holy hell out of us. “You boys want a beer?”
Dave gave us the best-tasting Bud Lights we’d ever had. A fourth-generation Oregonian, he and Melinda regaled us for more than an hour with stories about the ranch, their battles with the Rajneesh in the 1980s and youth wrestling
After gorging on light beer and rural hospitality, we rode 9 more miles into Antelope. We were on our last legs hoping to find a city park to pitch our tents. Unfortunately, Antelope was smaller than we realized and it had no stores, let alone a city park. The first person we asked pointed this out and proceeded to offer us a place to camp in his yard.
Relieved to have a place to lay our heads and again amazed at the kindness of strangers, we hadn’t even unpacked our gear for the day before we had a visitor show up on a riding lawnmower, welcoming us to Antelope with a cooler full of ice-cold Natural Lights.
We talked life, love and the Aurora Borealis with Dale, the self-proclaimed lawnmower patrol of Antelope, before hitting the hay for one last night on the Oregon Outback.
Fewer than 75 miles from the Columbia River, our final day on the Outback flew by, even with our first flat tire of the trip and a breakfast stop in Shaniko for pepperoni sticks.
Making great time through Wasco and Sherman counties, we eventually climbed atop Gordon Ridge, just east of the Deschutes River Canyon, from which we caught occasional glimpses of our hometown river. The last 15 miles of the trip into the Gorge were downhill, and when we finished we were a bit surprised—it felt like we hadn’t had a proper chance to brace for the end of the trip.
A shuttle van picked us up and drove us to Portland, where we pampered ourselves with a night at the Heathman Hotel—which offers bike storage and free townie bikes to ride, both of which we took advantage of—before catching a train back to Eugene the next day. Waiting out the return train ride, reflecting on the highs and lows of the trip, everyone had his own favorite moments. But instead of certain climbs or mountain views or even river crossings, the memories everyone seemed to cherish the most was the surprise feast in Sprague River, the unexpected beers in and around Antelope and the barn shelter outside Prineville.
By God, Oregon’s beautiful.
Get your bike fitted: If you’re in the saddle for extended periods of time, especially with lots of equipment, make sure you’re not putting undue pressure on your back, knees or neck. “You can get away with (an ill-fitted) bike, say, when you’re mountain biking because you’re out of the saddle so much,” said Dan McGarigle of Pine Mountain Sports in Bend, who fitted all four of our bikes. “That’s not the case when you’re going on these longer rides and you’re not standing as much.”
Practice packing: Seriously, the art of the superb pack is just as important as training. Make sure your bikepacking bags don’t rattle, you don’t have too much stuff and that everything you want to bring actually fits.
Call ahead about services: Don’t count on a gas station or restaurant being open without calling and confirming hours beforehand. Especially in more rural and isolated parts of the country, it’s good to double-check operating hours.
Know where you’ll get water: We were pretty good about this but forgot to fill up once and it cost us. Now, it led to free beers with the friendliest ranchers in Wasco County, but we easily could have been up McKay Creek without a paddle if Oregon wasn’t filled with amazing human beings. Check which businesses offer drinkable water and know where you’ll be able to find creek or river water to filtrate.
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