I have wanted to ride the Deschutes Rail-Trail for a number of years. But it’s always been just far enough away: 100 miles east of Portland, on the Deschutes where it meets the Columbia River. To do it as a bike ride would mean a four or five day tour. I thought about incorporating it into my Portland-Gorge-Spokane Tour last year, but the tight timing and distance needed to be covered didn’t allow for a side-trip.
I’m not necessarily a fan of drive-to-bike trips, but figured in this instance it would be the best way to do the trail. Through the power of teh internets, Brad and I organized a rag-tag crew of seven to head out on Friday night, April 18 via two vehicles: a rented van and Kim’s car. We booked two “primitive” campsites at the Deschutes River State Recreation Area, a park at the mouth of the river and start of the rail-trail. We drove out Friday afternoon and arrived two hours later at the park with no incident. We set up camp, built a fire, socialized. The weather was fine for the evening: clear with a low around 40F/4C. My new down bag kept me mostly toasty.
Saturday morning was good, cool not cold, passing clouds. We made our breakfasts, took down camp, stored our gear in the vehicles, and hit the trail around 10 am. There were some other folks on the trail during the first mile, but for the next ten we hardly saw a soul. The only noise came from the river, wind, a very occasional passing BNSF freight on the still-active rail line on the opposite side of the canyon, and our wheels on gravel. Peaceful.
Being a rail trail, the elevation change is very gradual, with the exception of a couple sections where the original trestles were gone so a new path had to dip into a little valley. The trail surface was pretty packed but still rough in spots. Nothing that was too horrible for the 26″ x 2.0″ slick tires on my Crested Butte, but there was lots of washboarding and sections with some pretty big rocks. The folks on skinnier tires than myself seemed to do fine. Our big worry was the goat head thorns. We heard that it was best to stop at the abandoned ranch 11 miles in because the worst was beyond that. Only one of us got a thorn, which was remarkable as we heard horror stories about other folks’ experiences with the dreaded goat heads.*
That’s all well and good, you say, but what about the experience? Well, it was great! I love coming out to the “dry” side of Oregon, as it is so different than the Portland area. Even being out here for 13 years, it’s still a bit weird that “the true West” is just a two hour drive east of Portland, a landscape of sagebrush and grasslands, more cattle than people. It feels like being in a Western movie. The Deschutes canyon is beautiful in its soft spring colors and rocky arid desolation. It makes me excited for the Eastern Oregon tour I want to do later this summer, where I’ll have many days of riding through this type of country.
We rode to the abandoned ranch, 11 miles in and took a lunchbreak. The weather turned from sunny to cloudy to windy and then we had a brief rainshower. The downside to touring in Eastern Oregon: the weather can change suddenly and dramatically. I was reminded of my experience on the Trans-Oregon Tour in 2010, where I narrowly avoided a cloudburst in the tiny town of Elgin. I watched the street in front of the store I took shelter in literally flood in front of my eyes! This wasn’t as bad, thankfully, but the headwind and rain made it a bit more of a slog for the return trip. We ended up stopping a lot less, but after the rain passed the weather wasn’t so bad.
Soon enough, we were back to the cars. Besides stopping in The Dalles for beer and food at Clock Tower Ales** the ride home was scenic but uneventful. Everyone had fun, and we’re thinking about doing it again at some point. The thing we’d do differently next time is bike up the trail and camp at one of the dispersed campsites along the river. We’d have to bring our own water*** (there are pit toilets at the sites) but all we’d have to do is pay the $5 per vehicle parking fee.
*Apparently things were much worse just a few weeks ago. I guess it’s a benefit to wait until mid-April and let the other
suckers riders before us take the brunt!
**No Spookys this time. Hopefully next.
***Theoretically one could filter water from the year-round Deschutes River, but there is so much agriculture around the river, whether fertilized farm or ranchland, I’d be hesitant to do so.