Everything you need to know about embarking on a roadtrip in Oregon
I am plummeting down the side of a mountain, my mountain bike’s tyres tracking true along a beautiful piece of man-made trail that winds through towering spruce trees that throw an emerald-green tint across everything, just outside the township of Oakridge, in the US state of Oregon. This Pacific Northwest state is known as the ‘home’ of Bigfoot – or Sasquatch – that legendary bipedal creature that is part of First Nations and early explorer folklore – and subject to, even today, unexplained sightings.
For me, going at the speed I am, there’s very little chance of seeing the famous furball; everything is a blur and myself and my fellow riders are hooting and hollering so loudly that even if it was nearby, Bigfoot would have either scarpered, or hunkered down with its fingers in its ears until these noisy two-wheeled trespassers had gone by. Oregon will do that to you; make you lose inhibitions as you immerse yourself in the colossal amount of adventure the state has to offer. For me, that immersion meant trying to jam in as much of said adventure as I could over one week. Pressure? Well, maybe there was some, but this ride sure wasn’t a bad way of coping with that. And it was just, really, the beginning…
Best laid plans of bikes and men
My first memories of Oregon are from my early childhood, and revolve around the legend of Bigfoot (also known as ‘Sasquatch’ in the Halkomelem First Nations language) and this elusive creature’s presence in this spectacular part of the Pacific Northwest region of North America. Even as a kid, growing up in small-town country Australia, I never lost that fascination with Oregon; not only with Bigfoot itself, but the land in which it resided. Big mountains, big rivers, a bloody big ocean and big adventure seemed to define Oregon. I just had to wait a few decades to confirm that image in my young mind.
My master plan hadn’t started well that previous day; a flight delay from Vancouver to Portland meant my plan of a day-early start to my Oregon road trip had already been stymied. Instead of a day poodling around Portland, checking out this magic city’s craft breweries – as well as its hand-made bicycle scene – I arrived eight hours later, in the full throes of jet-lag, only staying alert enough to remember to keep on the opposite side of the road that I was used to as I drove to the hotel. My grand plan seemed in tatters until my subdued spirits copped a small uplift just after I grabbed my room key. Off to the side of the hotel foyer was a room – only a small room – but one that hinted at very big promises: a mini bike-building workshop, where visitors could re-assemble their bikes after arrival, ready for a day of riding. I didn’t have a bike (yet), but just the fact a city hotel had this facility was enough for me to think I was in the right place. I just needed a little more confirmation…
The knobby tyre centre of excellence
“It’s called Dead Mountain Trail,” Marcello Ojerio, of TransCascadia Excursions, says to me, with a big grin. I am up near the top of said mountain with Marcello and his partner, Heidi, just outside the small town of Oakridge, nestled in the middle of the Cascade Mountains. It’d been a two-hour drive from Portland to my Oakridge Lodge & Guest House digs and only an hour after that before Marcello had dragged me away from the siren call of the bed in my room to this lofty viewpoint.
Oakridge may be ‘small’ in terms of population, but it casts an absolutely massive shadow, thanks to its title of International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) Gold Ride Centre, of which there are currently only six in the world. You see, even though the town has a population of ‘just’ 3500-ish people, in the mountainous country surrounding it there is more than 450 kilometres of MTB trails. And yeah, I thought it was the perfect population to trails ratio as well.
As we drove to the trailhead earlier Marcello had explained the evolution of Oakridge as a MTB destination in more detail.
“Mountain biking for Oakridge is still growing and has become an established part of its identity,” he said. “The area’s legacy trails have been explored by mountain bikers for decades – some are old trade routes established by Native Americans, others were constructed for access to fire lookouts.
“As the sport has grown in popularity and Oakridge has become a known riding destination; people from all over the USA have started to purchase properties as residences or holiday rentals. When I first bought my house here in the early 2000s, the mountain bikers were regarded by locals as a curious bunch of adrenalin junkies, slightly mad for spending all day riding bikes in the woods. I think the perception has changed over time; locals now have a real sense of pride that their town of Oakridge has become known internationally for its MTB excellence. Visitors used to spend a day or two riding in the area just a few years ago. Now we are seeing first-time visitors and return riders spending three days to a week.”
Before we descended Marcello led us on a short five-minute ride to a spectacular lookout point that offered views over the Cascade Mountains and the valleys below. This also gave me some idea of just how much trail there must be out in those mountains and valleys – and just how much time I would need to ride them all. The Dead Mountain Trail is, at just under 10km in length, a tiny portion of that immense trail network. Marcello explained that this first section of Dead Mountain Trail’s 1000-metre descent was a machine-built flow trail that would then lead into the second section, which was more ‘natural’ (read: narrower singletrack, rocks, roots, etc.).
The trail itself was simply awesome. That Bigfoot-blurring speed mentioned earlier was interspersed with plenty of tyres-off-the-ground moments as we jumped off/over numerous kickers and rollers, hooking into the perfectly constructed berms at what seemed like death-wish speed, only to be flung out the other side moving even faster. The upper flow trail was a total hoot, while the lower, more ‘natural’ Flat Creek section was the perfect complement, with its narrow bumpy surface keeping you focused as small obstacles came up at speed to be negotiated. Sadly, it was over all too soon, although not before Marcello and Heidi revealed one more– and perfect – surprise.
To say the water running down from the surrounding mountains is a tad chilly (for us warm-water loving Aussies, anyway) is a slight understatement. However, it is amazing how little that chilly touch affects you when there’s a colder beer in hand, and you’re floating in a small pool just below a set of rapids in the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River (Marcello laughed “we just call it The North Fork”). For Marcello and Heidi it gets better, with the TransCascadia Excursions office just across the road from this spot. Getting to ride some of the best trails in the world for work, then finish the day with a swim and cold beer must be a real struggle…
Bend it, like…
I was in love. I had just arrived in Bend, Oregon’s famous adventure town and, even just driving through the streets I was already smitten with the vibe of the place. Everywhere I looked there were wagons and utes loaded up with bikes (mountain and road), kayaks, canoes, climbing and camping gear – all of which looked well loved and, more impressively, well used. It was a brilliant visual reinforcement of Bend’s reputation as a hub for adventurous types who aren’t interested in image, but the gritty, fun reality of an outdoor life.
In fact, that affirmation that I had landed in adventure heaven had already been imprinted on my mind a few hours earlier when I had bypassed Bend on the way to nearby Terrebonne and Smith Rock State Park, the location of Smith Rock itself, one of the world’s premier rock-climbing destinations. To say it was a dream turned reality is to lean too heavily on that cliché, but it was pretty much what it felt like to see, up close, the vertical red rock walls that sprouted from the Crooked River Canyon that had defined so many US climbing legends. Besides the climbing there is plenty of walking and hiking here, from a leisurely, level stroll around the front ‘face’ of Smith Rock, where you can watch climbers, through to a zig-zagging track, amusingly dubbed the Misery Ridge Loop Trail, that climbs up high for some great views over the park. That had been the first highlight of me reaching the Bend region, and along with seeing all those adventure vehicles trundling around town, and the sheer variety of restaurants and breweries, plus the numerous bike shops and outdoor stores and outfitters (guides), made for a fantastic welcome to Central Oregon. The party, though, had only just started.
Ride to the clouds
I couldn’t see. Well, only just, and not due to any accident; just my serious lack of fitness that, coinciding with a more serious request for physical exertion, had led to my cycling glasses fogging up. I was grinding up a narrow dirt track on a mountain bike, fully laden with bikepacking gear (tent, sleeping gear, food, camera, a can of beer). I was following in the tyre tracks of Cog Wild Guide, Skyler Kenner, and had been since we left the trailhead at Tumalo Falls, winding our way up Northfork Trail on the first day of our overnight bikepacking trip.
I had spent the previous afternoon with Kristine McConnell (VP – Industry Relations for Visit Central Oregon) and Cog Wild owner Lev Stryker, chatting to them about the huge MTB scene in Bend – and its correspondingly huge trail network – before sourcing a bike from the team at Crow’s Feet Commons, a Bend bike store, that had been organised by Kristine. Lev had suggested the ride up along Northfork as it was one of the most picturesque rides near Bend. He wasn’t wrong; even though it was hard yards up Northfork Trail (we estimated our bikes to weigh around 22kg), the trail itself ran beside the North Fork of Tumalo Creek, and there were plenty of ride-stopping waterfalls along the way. In short, it was bloody beautiful.
The 1000-metre ascent was never too steep in any one place, either, rather a gradual climb (with plenty of waterfall stops) up to a junction at Happy Valley where the thick forest separated before a wide clearing, complete with babbling brook running through it. It made the slightly thinner air (around 1800 meters – a long way up for this sea-level dweller) I had to breathe worth it to be able to sit beside the running water and scoff lunch.
We continued ascending, joining a couple of fire-roads (the 382 and then the 370) that entailed a few creek crossings – and a traverse of some snow – before finding the near-perfect campsite beside Broken Top Crater Creek. Surrounding us were a number of mountains, including Broken Top itself, along with Mt Batchelor and the Three Sisters (North, Middle and South). It was awesome country and, after that hard graft, was worthy of a small celebration that we’d allowed for when we packed our one beer can each. The beer was only topped by the evening sitting beside a warm campfire, before retiring to our tents – or, in Skyler’s case, his sleeping bag beside the fire. Sipping the beer with flames dancing in my eyes, I thought, how can it get any better? I should have thought harder.
Down to the river
Mountain biking is all about the downs and the return journey from our lofty camp was just that: an awesome 28km descent. I had to leave Bend by midday, so it was an early start. After re-tracing our route along part of the 370 fire-road, we tackled a short section of Metolius-Windigo Trail, before joining the 18km-long Mrazek. To say this would be the best trail I have ever ridden is no lie; with its combo of flowy, winding singletrack, interspersed with occasional small technical sections, and the continual descent, I wanted it go on forever. It was a sad moment when we eventually arrived back at Shevlin Park, for our pick-up and return to the Cog Wild office. Even sadder was the fact that, once I was showered and downed some lunch back in town, I had to scoot again. This time, south.
From the high mountains of Bend it’s only a couple of hours’ drive toward southern Oregon and another state wonder: Crater Lake National Park. The crater itself is the result of a massive volcanic eruption around 7500 years ago that resulted in a crater – and subsequent lake – that is 660 metres in depth. It’s an amazing sight.
From the lake, my destination was the pretty Steamboat Inn, on the even more picturesque North Umpqua River. This was a great example of getting there being half the fun; the final hour of driving through the densely forested valleys of the Umpqua National Forest, was beautiful – and enticing, knowing that the famous North Umpqua Trail – an IMBA certified Gold Trail – shadows the highway. I added it to my already overflowing return trip itinerary. Matching the beauty of the surrounding landscape was the location of the inn itself, right on a bend of the North Umpqua River, and smack-bang in the middle of the 50km fly-fishing only section of the river. Here, anglers quest for the feisty ‘steelhead’ – a sea-going trout that can weigh between eight to 15 pounds – and practice catch and release. The inner angler in me itched to give it a crack but time was ticking and I had different waters to explore so, after a magic dinner and sleep in a cabin above the roaring river, it was back in the car the next morning .The coast was calling.
I grew up on the far south coast of NSW – a region filled with small fishing, farming and timber towns that offered a growing child the best natural playground you could ask for. Arriving in Bandon, on the Oregon south coast, after travelling along the oh-so-perfectly named Highway of Waterfalls, it felt just like home – in every good way possible. The town itself is nestled right on coast, abutting the mighty Pacific Ocean. Surrounding it is a mix of hikes – including the excellent Oregon Coast Trail – and a number of mountain biking trails, such as the Whiskey Run Mountain Bike Trail. This ‘trail’ actually comprises a network of nine trails, suited to riders from beginner through to advanced. How good are they? You’d have to ask the family I met at the trailhead who were from Colorado (itself a mountain biking icon). For them, it was the best trail network they’d ridden. ’Nuff said…
Besides the on-ground adventure, the south coast is, as you’d expect, packed with water-based activities, whether you prefer flatwater canoeing or ocean kayaking. Myself and Katera Woodbrige, Sales and Marketing for the Oregon Coast Visitors Association, had met up the day before, with Katera showing me some of the coastal walking on offer here. The beaches south of Bandon are vast and wide, with rugged rock formations, akin to castle turrets, dotting the water offshore. We also scored – randomly – a magical sunset boat cruise with Brian Kraynik of Coos Boat Tours, followed the next morning by a half-day kayak tour with Dave Lacey of South Coast Tours.
Exploring by kayak is one of the best ways to get close to both the coastline and also wild marine life, and this morning’s paddle out of Port Orford became proof of that. This part of the coast is dotted with small coves and broken off cliffs that now stand remote from the mainland, being slowly worn down by the power of the Pacific.
We’d not long got past the small breakers when Dave called out that he had spotted what he thought looked like a grey whale feeding – and it was, only about 100 metres from us. The luck with wildlife continued once we rounded Orford Heads with groups of harbour seals lounging around on rocks, and a number of sea birds flying over us. The picture-perfect morning had transformed into a day of the same ilk and it was with much regret that we turned around for home. And speaking of home, this was my last full day in Oregon, although there was still time – just – for a final sign-off.
The end. For now…
The streets were barricaded off, the band was getting louder and, in tandem, the crowd’s mood was becoming more buoyant, with smiles growing bigger by the minute. Oh, and my stomach was getting fuller which, yeah, I can explain.
I was in a restaurant in Florence, another beautiful coastal town a couple of hours north of Bandon. I was enjoying the sweetest crab-meat patties I had ever eaten, tired but exhilarated after a full last day, and trying to recount every detail of my fast-blast Oregon road trip to a patient Meg Trendler, Tourism Sales Manager for Eugene, Cascades & Coast. And it wasn’t easy; I had so much to tell Meg about, from my unfortunate delayed-flight start, through the epic that was Oakridge, then onto Bend and the sublime south coast. Even the final road leg from Port Orford to Florence was filled with a veritable conga-line of adventure opportunities, with everything from dune buggy driving and horse riding tours, to more mountain biking and hiking. And every time I recounted something memorable, Meg would add “there’s also this…” and my mental Oregon bucket list would expand, as would the shaking of my head as I tried to figure out how I thought a week in this state would be anywhere near enough. Still, between the two of us, our stories and ideas, I did come to realise the other reason the people outside were smiling so much: they live here – in
Oregon – and can, if they wish, tackle a new adventure every single day. Not a bad place to live the life…