A fall bikepacking trip was on the schedule, but where to go? At first, the Pyramid Mountain in the Entiat north of Leavenworth seemed appropriate, but Chip advised that last year’s fire damage made a loop impossible. Then, the Sunshine Coast was carefully explored on a map and bus transportation found. However, as time got closer to the Labor Day weekend, the weather did not look that great anywhere north of Oregon. Well, then how about Scott’s Hot Sisters Hot Springs loop in Oregon?
- Weather: check
- Singletrack: check
- Rideable singletrack: check again!
- Low-traffic connector roads: check
The loop carries with it 42k ft. elevation gain according to Scott, but the GPX track shows up as 52k ft. in Garmin Basecamp. In either case, a shortcut is needed. The shortest drive was to Oakridge, so then it was either the northern or southern portion with the Bunchgrass (“Eugene to Crest”) trail in the middle. The southern half looked a bit more appealing and shorter, so I stayed Friday night at the Oakridge Motel and started after a hearty breakfast at 9 am. Here’s a quick slideshow of the three days:
Click the map for the GPX track on RideWithGPS.
Scroll down if you want the narrative:
I decided to ride counter-clockwise by going past Hills Creek Lake. The road is indeed fairly low traffic as promised, only about 1 car/minute passed me. Beautiful cool weather made this an easy section.
Soon, the far reaches of the Middle Fork Williamette singletrack adds some twisty turns, while paralleling the road.
Instead of following the Middle Fork Williamette to the end, the route goes up and over a gravel road towards the Steamboat Inn. It’s so good to be out on a bike ride without people yelling “on your left”, or ringing their bells at me. Noone here, except one crazed 4-wheeling idiot who almost runs me over, and the driver of a car who wouldn’t pull over. Wheew.
Coming down onto the pavement, the riding along Steamboat Creek is easy. Consistently downhill and very light traffic. I steal a few glances into the low-running water.
Suddenly, a fancy Airstream trailer catches my eye. Odd. Then I realize, that Scott had left a waypoint here about a Fishwatcher. Must check it out. Note the Oregon State Police is part of the sponsorship.
A super cute dog greets me as I round the corner behind the trailer.
And fishes! 2 feet long salmon everywhere!
The reason for the Fishwatcher is that about ten years ago, someone dynamited the pool to catch all the fish. Which is crazy in and of itself, but also for the fact that salmon are waiting here before the rains come and make it possible for them to swim farther upstream for spawning.
I arrive at the Steamboat Inn a bit after lunch time, and treated myself to a milk shake and veggie burger. It feels like an odd mix of anniversary-celebrating, wine drinking couples, and me. But, they have food, so that’s a plus.
It’s good to get out and back on the trail: the North Fork Umpqua. It starts out with a techy bit around some rocks, before undulating heavily up and down. Not an easy river trail, but I knew that from the elevation profile which only goes up 3000 ft over 40 miles, while gaining over 8000 ft. elevation in total.
The ~5 mile sections had different character and were explained with trail signs. After the hardpacked section above, came loose granite. Wheew, tough climbing on a hardtail!
I was definitely pushing at this point:
I met a couple backpackers with huge backpacks who had only gone 4 miles and seemed lost. Not sure what was going on there. Otherwise, the trail was mine. I rode very cautiously the first day, as it seemed like there should be more people out on this beautiful trail- but there weren’t and wouldn’t be the rest of the trip, except for very near the Umpqua Hot Springs and Lemolo Falls.
Lots of climbing, descending and techy riding brought me to a short interlude of dirt road near the small Soda Spring hydropower plant and the amazing basalt columns.
The section of trail afterwards was very scenic as it wound its way up along the Soda Springs reservoir. It was getting dark and late, and I was starting to look for water and a flat spot to camp. Nothing obvious came for a quite a while as the trail was climbing away from the water. A creek was eventually found, and afterwards in the dim light of my red taillight, I pushed my bike up for another hour looking for a good spot to camp. Around 9:30pm, or 2 hours after sunset I had enough, and just plopped down right in the middle of trail.
I only brought the tent-body as a sort-of-bivy sack. It worked quite well, though I had hoped to tie off the top on a branch for some more breathing room. After a some bagels for dinner, I was asleep within minutes.
After a great night’s sleep, the trail didn’t look nearly as intimidating as it had the night before. Not many birds were tweeting at 6.30 am, so I got up without a concert. Some coffee and oats were had and a slow warm-up hike-a-bike brought me to a bit of fast & twisty downhill. Nothing like sweet singletrack riding at 7 am!
The riding really improved past Toketee Dam, as the grade become more consistently rideable.
There was a bridge out and I had to wade through a cold creek. This would be one of two wet creek crossings the entire trip. Not bad!
The route became a lot wetter past Umpqua Hot Springs. There was a water fall coming out of the ground, and another waterfall disappearing into the ground.
And quite a few wet spots.
Forward progress was made only slowly, and I kept recalculating how long this loop might take me. After stepping in a mud puddle and getting my shoe soaked, it felt like I needed to slow down and enjoy myself more. Time for a snack by the river.
There were some punchy climbs, some boggy sections, and some sweet singletrack. All mixed together, until it finally went consistently up and away from the river. Some amazing amount of trailwork had just been completed near Warm Spring Creek by a large group of the Youth Conservation Corps volunteers whom I passed during their lunch break. Thanks guys and gals! Near Lemolo Falls, I met the first biker: all clad in downhill gear he announced that this was an amazingly scenic trail. I replied that it’s a pretty tough trail. Maybe riding uphill with camping gear is a bit different, though.
Quite a few hikers passed me on the short section to the falls. I must be near the trailhead! And so it was. Exiting there, one runs across a really cool concrete canal with fast running water. Seems like one should jump in with a big inner tube (but there are signs saying that that is illegal😦 .
At the Lemolo Lake Resort, the little grocery store/hut, had cans of pasta with meatballs and ice cream. A bikepacker’s dreamfeast. A Mountain Dew Diet chased all this a few miles down the road. At this point, I did not get back on the North Umpqua trail, as it just looked like a lot of useless elevation and rocky stuff, and I wanted to make up some time. The paved road north of the Lemolo lake was quiet and fast, then a bit of red-dirt road brought me to the Windigo Pass trail. Singletrack?! Yes. But, it was thick moondust, beaten to power by hundred of hoofs and slowed me to a crawl. Yikes, so much for easy, fast progress on this trip.
In all, the Windigo Pass trail was a slogfest. Not that steep, but annoyingly bumpy and soft all at the same time. I was quite happy when I reached the top, running right into the Pacific Crest trail. Oops. Check the map… right, ride a bit of road and then take the Oldenburg trail. Which was amazing. Here, I met what looked to be a couple PCT through-hikers. There were quite a few trees down, but the trail was in primo A+ condition with no horse-destruction in sight. What joy! I was elated. Rideable singletrack as promised by Scott!
The sun was getting low, it was getting cooler, and the Oldenburg trail was mostly downhill and completely rideable. Unbelievable for a bikepacking trip.
Near Crescent Lake, the Metolius-Windigo trail was completely destroyed by horses and I couldn’t wait to get off and ride some asphalt. There was hardly any traffic in my direction along the lake, and I quickly made it to the SnoPark parking lot. The winter trail system appears to be quite extensive here!
For some reason I missed the Lake Crescent Lodge waypoint from Scott, and instead focused on reaching the Lake Odell Lodge. Though their kitchen was already closed at 8 pm, they sold me some snacks and sodas, and I hung out in the dining room while the super friendly staff cleaned up. It was so warm inside, and my feet were finally warming up. I asked about the cost of a room, but I was not ready to give up $80 when I had brought all my camping gear. In any case, the riding ahead along the railroad tracks looked like it might be boring, so I figured it best to get it out of the way. It was actually quite pleasant in the still of the night, but soon I was getting tired and threw my tent on the ground in the middle of a dirt road.
It got quite cold in the night, the forecast was for 33 F. As an extra layer to my summer-weight down quilt, I had brought a SOL emergency bivy. While that increased the warmth, it also kept a lot of condensation near me. But, for the last night out, it didn’t matter if my bag got a bit damp.
The next morning, I awoke to find blueberries all around me. Breakfast!
I cracked open chemical toewarmers, only to find that they didn’t work. I didn’t have feeling in my toes and had to stop a couple times to try to warm up. It was a chilly morning.
The Fuji Mountain trail was a grandios climb as the sun was warming my back. Couldn’t have asked for a better route on a cold morning.
A lot of climbing brought me to a few small lakes where I should have filled up with water. But, I didn’t, as I had been near creeks the last 2 days and thought there would be more and better water sources coming soon.
Near the top, I realized that the other side was down on a gravel road. Oh no! All that work for nothing. Should have ridden the loop in the clockwise direction. But, it was a very pleasant and fast way to go, and I felt better about being able to finish the planned route today.
The beginning of the “Eugene to Crest” or Bunchgrass trail was amazing. Everything logged out: sweet riding. Looking off to the side, there were some views to the Sisters.
Then, it became more obvious that I was going to ride up on this ridge for the rest of the route, and that there wouldn’t be any water anymore. Not wanting to face the obvious of riding down to the road and calling it quits, I kept on going. I mean, I could always quit later, right?
As luck would have it, I met a group of hikers who were coming back from searching for a mountain biker who got lost up here the night before – but apparently had been rescued by a different team in the early morning hours. I bummed some water off of them (Thanks!!), and was on my merry way. The trail had a few steepys, but overall was quite rideable through the undergrowth. Slow, technical riding, but riding nevertheless. I was taking a few chances on technical section and won by not having to get off and push my bike through thick vegetation.
Various bushes and grasses covered the trail, but usually something could be ridden for the first 3 miles of this section. And then the views opened up – finally!
Though this trail was getting harder by the minute, it was also getting more and more scenic. I actually quite enjoyed the push up Bunchgrass Ridge.
Yes, there’s a trail through the grasses in the picture above! Near the top, the Pepsi came out, still chilled from the night before.
After this, the Bunchgrass trail was really living up to its name. The grasses were hard and thick and I pushed most of the way to the top. Pretty, though.
Right at the top of the ridge, I smelled a campfire and found the remains of a couple Mountain House dinners. This must have been from the lost mountain biker just this morning. Oh boy, it must have been a chilly outing. I wonder what persuaded the biker not to turn around? I was about to find out.
This picture shows the ridge line that I would be traversing next.
The initial downhill was too steep to ride, and after a bit of rideable track, it soon became terribly overgrown.
A little bit was rideable, but mostly it was pushing for next 2 hours? It seemed like a long time. I also came across a backpack that must have been left behind by the rescue team, as it contained only a knife, a GPS, and some batteries. I didn’t know if I should take it or leave it. In retrospect, since it was more ‘equipment’ rather than personal belongings, I think I should have brought it with me to Oakridge. But, by the time I thought about that, I was long past the backpack.
Finally, the trail opened up and tended downhill. And we still have views. This is getting better all the time.
Here, I met the second mountain biker, out for a bikepacking trip to Bend, Sisters, and back. Seemed like he was riding the Northern portion of Scott’s route? No, he said he cooked it up himself and didn’t know Scott. Have a good trip!
The way down from the ridge was on some übersteep and sketchy trail. I walked – which also seemed sketchy. Nothing ever looks steep in pictures.
I thought about following the Bunchgrass trail afterwards, but the trail was tough. More like a really fun hiking trail. I went down to the gravel road and took a short cut, instead.
Luckily, there was a turn-on from the road back onto the trail right where I needed it. And oddly, the other direction of the Bunchgrass trail was ‘closed off’ with a wooden sign across the trail. Maybe I did the right thing by riding the road to this point.
After a bit of pushing, the trail descends steeply off Heckletooth Mountain. Oh boy, time for a bit more walking!
Soon, the trail mellowed and it was sublime downhill riding for this cross-country bikepacker!
A bit of downfall had to be navigated
And then it was down, down, down. My brakes overheated a few times, but it was still manageable.
In the picture above, a heard of elk were crossing the trail but it was hard to capture them with the camera. There is one standing in the distance in the middle of the trail if you look closely. After those 5 miles of downhill, a few more miles down on the road back into Oakridge right after 6:10 pm. Just enough time left to get some food and drive back home.