Day 1 – 74 miles today, 74 miles total
At first glance from the east, along the edge of the Alvord Desert, Steens Mountain appears to burst over a mile into the sky. While technically just one mountain, the Steens escarpment stretches over 50 miles north to south.
The nearest town for last minute supplies is Burns, OR, just over a five hour drive from home. I decided to drive out Wednesday afternoon and spend the night in Burns, hoping for an early start.
About 30 miles south of Burns is the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, consisting partly of Malheur and Mud Lakes. OR 205 crosses through these lakes at an area known as The Narrows. At the crossroad heading out to the refuge headquarters is the only business in the area, The Narrows RV Park and store where, for a small daily fee, they kept an eye on my car. Thanks to Linda and Ron, the owners, for providing this service. The only other choices for this loop tour would have been to start in Burns or 40 miles south in Frenchglen.
As usual, I rolled out of the RV parking lot about 10:30 after picking up a few items and a big breakfast in Burns. Although still quite a breezy headwind, at least the temperature was up to 37 ºF from 28 ºF when I woke. I set out not expecting much, if any, traffic along the rough chipseal of Sodhouse Lane. The chipseal ended about six miles later at the headquarters of the refuge. Along the way there was evidence of our lame politicians unable to do the job they were elected to do…
The next 14 miles along Princeton Narrows road were rough gravel and washboard. The wind continued to howl with not a single windbreak to be found. Finally the chipseal returned for the last three miles to OR 78 and time for a snack break…2h 23min to cover 23 miles.
The first 16 miles on OR 78 were a relatively flat, empty, tailwind enabled cruise. Unlike the west side of the Cascade range, eastern Oregon is all desert. With no stores until the end of the second day and no potable water sources, you must carry whatever water you may need. My solution, a 6L MSR Dromedary bag, may have been more than I needed, but it beats the alternative!
This was followed by the first climb of the trip, 7 miles and 1000 feet up followed by a 4.5 mile, 800 foot drop, 40+ mph descent!
Any ID on this guy? I saw lots of them crossing the roadway at different places.
Dropping below the pass and heading south, the Steens escarpment first comes into view. Ten more miles, past Ten Cent Lake,just before Juniper Lake, while heading for Mann Lake, the gravel returns. This stretch will last another 40 miles along the Alvord Desert.
I am impressed and happy to see that, when I’m taking a break, the commercial truck drivers passing me all slow to check and make sure everything is ok. On the other hand, hunting season just opened to there are a lot of yahoos in their F-150’s racing down the gravel roads, not even slowing below 60 mph when passing…
Now back on gravel, Mann Lake is another 13 miles or so away. My late start is now coming back to haunt me. The sun is down beyond Steens, the breeze is picking back up and it’s cooling down quickly.
Most of the land around here is private range land and fenced off. I’m still not sure how much farther Mann Lake is but I see an unfenced area away from the road and I’m getting cold and hungry. As it begins to get dark, I get my tent set up and my dinner cooked.
A beautiful sunset makes all the effort worth it. The night was a continuous serenade of coyote music!
Day 2 – 43 miles today, 117 miles total
A cold night and frosty morning, the coyotes are still singing. As the sun hits Steens, the light is magic.
Mann Lake, as it figures, was just over a mile further down the road. My campsite was just fine and Mann Lake would have only added a vault toilet and a bit more distance from the roadway. Oregon stocks the lake, a shallow alkaline body, with Lahontan trout.
While there aren’t a huge number of vehicles on this road, they can easily be heard from over a mile away and the dust cloud is quite visible as well. Just like yesterday, most of the passing vehicles slow down and many stop to check that all is well. Thanks to all of you!
Passing a few, large ranches, the Alvord Desert begins to be noticed. There is a group on the dried lake bed preparing for an attempt, in a few days, at the women’s land speed record. They are aiming for the 620-630 mph range!!!
Along the way, on opposite sides of the road were two roads. Whichever path you choose, you’ll need to pedal a ways to get there…
I knew, at some point, that the pavement would return in some form. I just didn’t expect it so soon. Approximately 13 miles before arriving in Fields, as the gravel ended, someone just happened to be parked right there. I wonder what they thought of me, on my bike, stopping to take a picture of the roadway?
As I passed the turnoff to tomorrow morning’s climb, I pedaled easily down into Fields. Fields is the first water source since I left the RV park, the commerce hub of this corner of SE Oregon and NW Nevada and it has the reputation of the BEST milkshakes, anywhere! After two days of riding through the SE Oregon desert, how could I pass this by?
Fields Station is the local market, gas station, gravel parking lot RV site, cafe…you get the idea. If you need something, this may be your only choice between Burns, OR and Winnemucca, NV.
One word of caution, if you order a shake and ask for a straw…they may actually laugh out loud. These aren’t the nasty, runny things most places serve. These shakes are thick and delicious and REQUIRE a metal spoon to enjoy. And enjoy it you will. I actually ordered a chocolate and a strawberry shake and barely even ate any dinner! Thanks Jaide!
As for accommodations, I’d also like to thank Jake for offering up the grassy yard behind the station to pitch my tent. Even the sodium vapor lamp wasn’t enough to keep me from sleeping from shortly after sundown until sunup.
Day 3 – 57 miles today, 174 miles total
Morning brought early smells of bacon sizzling on the griddle. I ordered a sausage and cheese omelet, toast and tea. I knew I’d be starting the morning with a seven mile, 1500 foot climb from the Alvord Desert into the Catlow Valley followed by 50 miles of cruising along the valley floor. A hearty breakfast was just the ticket to power my day.
The omelet and hash browns covered the entire platter-sized plate! I was only able to eat about half of it and I was completely full. What a great breakfast, Thanks again, Jake.
Climbing up out of Fields was mostly a moderate (5-6%) and steady affair with a few steeper sections mixed in to keep the ego in check. The drop into Catlow Valley was nearly identical, 7.5 miles, nearly 1000 feet.
The ride north through the Catlow Valley was quiet, peaceful, wind free but lonely. The Steens foothills are on the right as the valley extends off, seemingly forever, to the left. A single vehicle would pass every half hour or so. Other than a roadside stop for lunch and a snack or two, the remainder of the day passed with easy miles and big views.
There is an established 59 mile gravel road loop beginning in Frenchglen and returning to OR 205 ten miles south of the start. I had planned on heading up from Frenchglen to spend a day or two up high and then make my way north, along the crest until it dropped back down toward Diamond. However, the week of storms that dumped lots of rain on western Oregon left a few feet of snow on the upper reaches of Steens as well.
Pushing a loaded bike through unknown amounts of snow for 10+ miles, in early October, didn’t exactly appeal to me so I decided to shorten the trip a bit and spend the night camping riverside at Page Springs CG. This is a BLM campground sitting on the Donner und Blitzen River with lots of potable water, shade and it wasn’t closed down! After three days of riding, a quick rinse in the ice cold river was a bonus!
I didn’t visit the Frenchglen Hotel but it comes highly recommended and, for you history buffs, it is also is an Oregon State Heritage Site. I did stop in the Frenchglen Mercantile to pickup a few items to add to my dinner.
For the RVer or car camper, their selection would have been alright but, for the touring cyclist with little extra storage room, the size of the majority of selections were quite large. I knew I’d be back to my car by lunch the next day so I only needed a few snacks and a bit for dinner.
Day 4 – 38 miles today, 212 miles total
Happy Anniversary JP!!! I hope you are enjoying Nepal. 12 years in the books, many more to come!
With the Steens upper elevations off the menu, today will be a short ride on OR 205 back to the RV park. Another early start and easy riding to finish the loop.
Back at the car…
The stark beauty and impossible contrasts that make this part of Oregon so different than the rest will bring me back sometime…this time I’ll make sure Janet is also there to share the experience. I’m not really a desert person but this is truly a magical place.
Enjoy the ride,