Bikepacking Remote Eastern Oregon

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South Fork John Day River, Izee Hwy

Words by Cameron Sanders

Rugged | Remote | Adventure

Eastern Oregon is home to endless opportunity for the self-sufficient backcountry traveler. Visitors who seek challenge and solitude will find these in abundance…

“A demanding, epic, amazing, scenic, tough, well-planned ride on the edge of nowhere." ~ Seth Patla, professional cyclist & multi-year Sea Otter Champion, commenting on the Skull 120 Gravel Grind Race

Two years back I relocated to John Day, Oregon for work with the US Forest Service.

What I found in the Malheur National Forest and Steens Mountain / Owyhee Canyon Bureau of Land Management Lands was simply the best adventure gravel cycling I've come across to date.

If you're not afraid of getting out there and doing things on your own, then do yourself a favor and plan a ride or two in a part of the country which still feels like the authentic Wild West.

 On tour to Greenhorn, Oregon's highest incorporated town

Three Flavors of Gravel 

If you spend much time in Eastern Oregon you'll quickly learn not all gravel is created equal.

In general you'll come across three kinds of ‘gravel’ surfaces:

Improved Gravel: These are usually county and/or Forest Roads which see annual maintenance and may even have two lanes. These are the gravel roads I grew up with in the Midwest. Usually indicated by four digits on Forest Service Lands (example, NF-3768).

Late June snow; dry conditions await come August

Gravel: Anything from semi-decent roads bladed and graveled  every once in awhile, to natural surface and dirt Jeep trails which haven't seen general maintenance in a generation. Many BLM roads fall into this category and Forest Roads with three digits (example, NF-436).

Tiny backroad overlooking Prairie City, Oregon

Decommissioned Roads: Abandoned or official use only federal roads closed to motor vehicle use. These are real wildcard routes which can range from singletrack-like, to entirely unrideable, to absolutely awesome. Building routes out of decommissioned roads has become a bit of an obsession of mine while living here. While old closed Forest Roads often get reclaimed by nature within a few years or so in many other parts of the country, these roads age spectacularly for bicycle travel in Eastern Oregon (especially for the mid or fat bike traveler). Resources for piecing together these roads are limited and often are not through-roads.

 Incredible decommissioned road to Lemon Mine

Suggested Routes

South Fork John Day | McClellan Mountain Backcountry Mountain Gravel Grind       

79 miles with 7,459’ gain

An incredibly diverse backcountry #bikepacking experience located off the southwestern leg of the Old West Scenic Bikeway which takes full advantage of what the South Fork John Day River & Aldrich Mountain Range has to offer.

Never a dull moment, riders will experience Oregon's variety of flora, fauna, geology & topography along this route. Additionally, this route hosts an assortment of riding surfaces making a rigid bikepacker - such as a plus sized midfat rig - ideal for the trip.

Two Forest Service cabins are rentable along the way.

Vinegar Hill Indian Rock Scenic Area Backcountry Gravel Hut-to-Hut              

68 miles with 6,532' gain

The Vinegar Hill Indian Rock Scenic Area Backcountry Gravel Hut-to-Hut is chock-full of all the goodies we come to look forward to & love most about bikepacking adventures:

  • Breathtaking Vistas
  • Deep History... Ghost Towns, Old Mines, Fire Towers, Antiquated Reservoirs
  • Abundant Solitude
  • Access to Wild Backcountry
  • Reservable Forest Service Cabins
  • A Diversity of Terrain, Flora & Fauna

This route is 80% gravel. The bit of pavement you do end up riding is a scenic wooded river valley portion of the Old West Scenic Bikeway. 

Skull 120 Gravel Grind Race Route         

124 miles with 9,377' gain

The Skull 120 is home to one of the country's most grueling single-day-endurance #GravelGrind races... but you don't have to be a racer or a masochist to enjoy the ride.

Purists will rejoice at the abundance of stereotypical grey rock roadbed along this ride, however, there are plenty of long stretches of rutted ranch path, cinder strewn dirt, rock slabs, & sections of trail that qualify as XC mountain bike courses.

Dainty converted road bike builds with 28c tires & rim brakes need not apply.

The route traverses virtually every type of terrain an adventurous cyclist could hope for: down washboard roads snaking through forest; over desert jeep trails gently curving toward the horizon; through small rock gardens & dry stream beds; past spring fed wetlands & over vacant coyote dens; through nearly three dozen cattle guards & two stream crossings (one with an optional bridge); & all with nearly 10,000 feet of climbing

Three Forks, Owyhee Canyon

Here's your homework: build a backcountry gravel grind based out of Three Forks. Keep in mind this area is absurdly remote and all gravel roads become clay death-pits for motor-vehicles and bikes alike during rain.

The area is rich with geothermal activity and spectacular rock features.

Easily one of the most spectacular places I've ever cycled.

Follow my adventures on Instagram @Renaissance.Cyclist

bikepacking cameron sanders Oregon owyhee renaissance cyclist

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