This coverage of the Oregon Outback is sponsored by 21st Avenue Bicycles and Mountain Shop. If you are bikepacking-curious or need to get equipped for an upcoming adventure, stop into these great Portland stores for expert advice and reliable gear.
In the past 38 years or so (since I learned to ride a bike when I was two), I have done a lot of memorable things on bicycles.
But none compare to what I just returned home from: a 365-mile unsupported odyssey through some of the most remote parts of Oregon on a ride known in bikepacking circles simply as “the Outback,” followed by a 140 ride back home to Portland.
You might recall the guest article and photos we shared two years ago by one of the pioneers of this route, Gabriel Amadeus. He and Donnie Kolb of VeloDirt fame stitched out a ride through the dirt backroads of central Oregon and it’s quickly become almost a rite of passage for bikepackers. People ride it year-round and each Memorial Day weekend word spreads through social media and a larger group tackles it together on an unofficial “event” that has turned into a cycling version of Cannonball Run.
On Friday morning at 7:00 am about 200 people rolled into the start at Klamath Falls. At least that’s what I’ve been told. Unfortunately I missed the start by about 15 minutes so I scrambled out of town by myself under grey and drizzly skies. It was a very uneventful beginning.
Coming into this ride I had no idea what to expect. I had never done anything quite like it. I’ve done plenty of long, hard rides, and several self-supported tours. But the Outback is different. It’s nearly all dirt roads (just 25% is paved) and towns with services are few and far between. Yet, while there’s no official support, knowing there are so many other riders on the route with you is very reassuring. Think of it as a community-supported ride.
Speaking of those other riders, what an interesting bunch they were. Coming from the back of the pack I was able to ride by quite a few of them in those first few hours. I saw all types of riders and bikes. Many people were on mountain bikes and there are a lot of the traditional pannier/rack set-ups. People aiming to go faster opted for cyclocross or other drop-bar style bikes with frame bags. Portlander Mike Cobb was riding a fixed gear road bike with just a few small bags. I marveled at his spartan approach and his ability to turn his cranks up the dirt and rocky roads. There where also a few guys from Los Angeles who rode it on tall bikes (I never did actually see them, only heard about their exploits).
And everyone was on their own pace. Some planned on 50-60 miles per day with parties in camp each night, a handful of riders attempted to “race” it by riding all the way through with only short breaks.
That’s one thing I love about the Outback: everyone approaches it on their own terms. The common thread is that it’s all about enjoying the ride and having fun.
The route begins with 70 miles on the OC & E Woods Line State Trail, a 100 year-old former rail line that once supported the area’s logging industry. While it’s paved for some of the way, the trail is much more demanding than its page on the Oregon State Parks website makes it out to be — especially in the unexpectedly wet conditions we faced as we rode through the marshy Sprague River Valley.
The rain was a big story at this year’s Outback. I, like most people I talked with, expected a few scattered showers (as per the forecast) but was not prepared (mentally) for hours of rain and at times a straight-up torrent. That made the OC & E section more challenging than expected as our tires sank into soft, moist dirt.
I was soaked to the bone on the first day of riding. But not once did I feel bad about it.
It’s one thing to get wet commuting home from work; but being out there in such a beautiful place on such a grand adventure, the rain just became another part of the experience. In some ways I feel like rain brings me closer to the environment I’m riding through. And on a ride like this, wet weather has advantages. For one, it made tire tracks easier to follow. The rain also tamped down dusty sections and firmed up loose stuff that (I heard) last year was much more difficult to ride.
As Friday wore on I decided to ride at least to Silver Lake, about 120 miles into the route and a popular place for those on a three-day schedule. Silver Lake also has the first store directly on the route and at this point in our ride — with lots of rain and some real miles in our legs — it was a must stop. My impromptu riding partner David Boerner and I rolled up to the store around 5:30 pm and filled a bag with drinks and food. Doritos, coffee, trail mix, fruit, cheese — whatever we could find. As we sat on a curb trying to warm up other riders rolled in and did the same thing. One guy was shivering so much his foot-long hot dog nearly slipped out of the bun.
North of Silver Lake the road opened up. Way up. David and I rode due north, headed for Fort Rock hopefully by sunset.
David opted for dinner at The Waterin’ Hole Tavern in Fort Rock (about mile 140) but I wanted to keep riding so I headed north into the Deschutes National Forest. At about 9:30 pm I pulled over and set up camp on a bed of pine needles so soft my tent stakes barely stayed in the ground. It had been a 14-hour day. I fired up my stove, heated up some lentils, threw in some cheese and Doritos, then tucked into my sleeping bag. As I dozed off I heard the familiar sound of bike tires on gravel. It was David. “Hey J Maus!” he yelled as he rolled by, “Looks like you found a nice spot. See you up the road!”
The next day would be the hardest, but also the most memorable day on a bike I have ever experienced.
My plans for this ride were completely open. I figured I would be somewhere behind the racers and ahead of the folks who would take six days. I wanted to focus on the ride and was ready to push my limits. I also needed to get home and get back to family and work.
With no plan I figured I would just ride and see how things went. I’m not sure when on Saturday I decided to do it, but for some reason I told myself I would finish the entire route. Part of me couldn’t imagine riding 210 miles in one day (that’s 30 miles longer than I’d ever ridden at one time); but another part of me was saying, “Why not?”
So, with my music at full volume (my Buckshot Pro bluetooth speaker/lamp/power-source is one the best things I brought) I pedaled through the red roads and lava fields of the Deschutes National Forest (east of Paulina Lake and La Pine) and set out for Prineville.
Prineville is the largest town on the route and I made the most of it. I checked out Good Bike Co., a fantastic bike shop that has everything you need to refuel (including good beer), refueled at a market, then had some tacos at a great little Mexican joint (Taqueria Mi Tiendita on Main Street if you’re taking notes). I also took some time to dry out my feet and socks because the shoes I wore (Shimano winter boots) are sealed for warmth and take forever to dry out.
Prineville was at mile 225. I had ridden 75 miles since I left camp and if I wanted to finish I still had about 140 miles to go and it was already 2:30 pm or so. With so much riding left, it would have been easy to get discouraged at this point, but the riding north of Prineville was so inspiring all I wanted to do was keep pedaling to see what was around the next corner.
The farms and ranches were stunning. Some of the greenest pastures and happiest cows I’ve ever seen. And then came the Ochoco National Forest, which gave us a climb and descent that I will never forget.
At the crest of the Ochoco climb (just over 5,000 feet elevation) I stopped to make a few adjustments when up rattled an old pickup. A man stepped out and asked if I was “One of those guys who left from Klamath Falls yesterday.” We exchanged pleasantries and he filled up one of my bottles. I was in the process of changing socks and told him about my feet. “Want a pair of dry socks?” he asked. This guy was a true trail angel (I declined the socks by the way).
Then came The Descent. 22 miles or so from the top of the Ochocos to the tiny wild west town of Ashwood. This would have been a memorable descent even if there hadn’t been torrential rains the night before. The conditions we faced were downright epic. Thick and sticky mud bogs, two-feet deep stream crossings, and rockslides. Oh what fun!
Once the road dried out a bit, I was treated to perfect postcard views as I followed Trout Creek to Ashwood.
As I rolled past Ashwood and tackled a few grueling climbs, the sun was starting to set. I shared the company of my shadow and everything began to turn golden orange.
And then I ran into Mike Cobb and his fixed gear who I last saw at about mile 20. He was standing in the middle of the road taking photos. We were both feeling very grateful as we pedaled out the miles and had a perfect view of the sun setting over the Cascades.
As night fell, things got tougher for me. At 9:30 pm, 13 hours after I started riding and a few miles south of Antelope (mile 290 or so), I got a flat. It was a big gash in the sidewall of my tubeless tire. I hoped it would seal up; but of course it didn’t. Luckily I was prepared. I had light, a C02 cartridge, and a spare tube.
In Antelope I caught up to Mike. He showed me a water spigot he’d found so I topped off my bottles and readied for the climb that would take me up to Shaniko. I got to Shaniko around midnight and noticed a handful of tents set up. At this point I had 150 miles in my legs but I was only 60 miles from the finish line. I switched to my dry socks and decided to press on.
This was by far the hardest leg of the journey for me. I left Shaniko feeling great, pedaling fast on smooth pavement and thinking I was almost done. I was wrong. I spent the next five hours talking to myself, singing random things to the stars, thinking rocks and signposts were humans, and riding incessant rolling hills of dusty dirty loose gravel. My view never changed. I felt locked in a gravel prison. Like I was in solitary confinement and the walls were made of gravel.
I was definitely at my limit in this darkness (mentally and physically), but I knew that pedaling was the only way out. Then, at around 4:00 am or so, I noticed the stars were gone. It’s sort of funny, but I was surprised that the sky began to lighten up. “Oh, it’s the sunrise!” I remember thinking. This was new to me: On one bike ride I had watched the sun come up then set, the moon rise then set, and then the sun rise again.
The sun rose just as I started the steep climb up to Gordon Ridge, which stands 2,200 feet above the Columbia River Gorge. I was nearly done! You can almost see the anticipation in my face (mixed with delirium and exhaustion)…
Then it happened. I made it to the river. I was just a few miles from the end.
I didn’t want the ride to end. I pulled over one last time and snapped a photo of my companions, the road and the sun.
I rolled into the Deschutes River Recreation Area around 6:00 am on Sunday morning — 210 miles and nearly 24 hours after I started riding.
I found the first open tent site I could find, stuffed some food in my mouth, then grabbed my sleeping bag and took a nap. I hadn’t made any plans for how I would get home, so I thought I’d rest a bit and see how I felt. Could I ride home?
I spent about five hours bringing myself back to life and freshening up a bit. Then I hit the road again. I found a route on RideWithGPS (via Donnie Kolb) that would take me back to Portland via The Dalles, Hood River, then up and over Lolo Pass into Sandy. I left at about 11:00 am on Sunday morning.
Despite insanely strong winds that dogged me well into the route (even after I turned south from the Gorge), the ride home was fantastic. It was my first time ever on Lolo Pass Road and I got to do it at sunset, then descend into Sandy in the dark.
I loved the descent of Lolo Pass Road so much (the climb was neat too) I pulled over and shared a haiku on Instagram (cheesy, I know).
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I rolled into my backyard at around 3:00 am on Monday morning. I felt exhausted, inspired, and thankful.
In total it had been about 67 hours since I left Klamath Falls and I had ridden 505 miles, climbed over 28,000 feet and spent 42 hours in the saddle.
As someone who likes pushing myself and going far, the ride stats are fun; but they don’t begin to capture what the Oregon Outback — and all rides like this — are truly about. What then, are they about? Everyone has their own answer to that question, but for me it’s about seeing new places, getting away from civilization, seeing what your body is capable of, and getting to know this great state of ours.
Thanks for coming along.
I would not have been able to do this trip without help from sponsors who supplied my gear — especially my Salsa Vaya with a full set of Revelate bags from 21st Avenue Bicycles. I will share more thoughts about what I used and how it worked in separate product review post.
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