The Oregon Timber Trail (OTT) is a newly developed network of over 650 miles of singletrack, gravel and paved roads that spans the entirety of the state of Oregon from south to north. While this rugged, no-joke path to the backwoods of Oregon will test your endurance, strength and patience, it gives back in the form of breathtaking views, amazing fitness, tears, swims in alpine lakes, baths in crystal clear creeks, dirty booger noses, that feeling of being epic, and most importantly the gift of really becoming familiar with the beautiful countryside that Oregon has to offer.
I make a couple of disclaimers to begin. The first is that this report is my experience and that any views and opinions are not necessarily those of others who have experienced the Oregon Timber Trail. Secondly, though I had originally planned to ride the entire trail, my trip was cut short due to injury, so Oakridge became my final destination. This means I cannot speak to the entirety of the trail, but I have ridden and explored much of the Mount Hood tier because it is in my backyard, and I hope to get to the other sections in the future. Lastly, nature is nature and will do what nature does, hence it is an ever-changing experience. Groups of trail advocates and volunteers are constantly working to improve this trail. If you want very descriptive detailed information as well as specific GPS routes, visit www.oregontimbertrail.com. And of course, if you in the area and able-bodied, I recommend getting out there to be a trail steward to help improve these trails for those who are riding it in the future.
I would say that the OTT picked me. I live in Oregon, and I am always on the lookout for my next adventure and trying to do as much as I can in my own backyard. I have been on quite a few bikepacking adventures at this point, mostly pretty short one- to three-day trips, but my heart truly lies in being able to make my home in the great outdoors for an extended period of time. I have been in grad school for the last two years, and my last extended trip was in 2016 when I rode the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Banff, Alberta, to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I have been craving an epic Type-2-Fun adventure ever since, so this seemed like the best option.
When I originally decided to do this trip, it was the summer of 2016. The plans to develop this trail had been recently launched, and I hoped that I would be able to be one of the first to complete it in its entirety. I tried to put a trip together for 2017, but from what I heard, the trail wasn’t entirely “rideable,” and because of the late snow melt, the timing for me just wasn’t working. So, when a couple of my friends agreed to do it with me in 2018, I was more than thrilled, and the rest is history!
I pretty much pack the same thing for all bikepacking adventures. For example, rain pants always get packed, even if it’s warm. They pack small, don’t weigh much, and double as rain, cold, and mosquito guards! The biggest difference for me, depending on the route, is how much food I bring and how much water capacity I have. I won’t go into too much detail about the gear (you can check that out on my website), but I will say that for the OTT, you will need a lot of water capacity. We were out in the middle of July, many of the creek beds are dry, and it was HOT! So, be prepared. We had planned to go about 27 miles on the first day out on the trail. That might not seem like so much, but when you are on a fully loaded bike with a full supply of food and water, going uphill right from the start, things take a while. We ended up being in the baking sun in the heat of the day with no water in sight. On this particular day, I had struggled as a whole because I was struggling with my level of fitness as well as the elevation. I had to find a spot in the shade to hang my head and gather myself because I was starting to experience signs of heat exhaustion - not an ideal way to start the trip. Eventually we were able to gather up enough water and energy to finally get us to a small stream at the top of the climb. I don’t know if I have ever been so glad to see water! So, lesson learned, it never hurts to carry too much water...well, it might hurt a little because it’s rough to carry it up the hill, but believe me, it’s worth it!
As far as preparation goes, I did not do a good job preparing physically for this trip. As I mentioned, I recently graduated from grad school, and my riding and fitness levels were not at an all-time high. While it is incredibly difficult and almost impossible to prepare for a 300-mile multi-day excursion, it is generally a good idea to ride your bike beforehand. At least a couple of times! Also, in my experience, it’s always good to do a couple of “shake-down” rides to make sure your gear works, that you like the food, and that your clothing is appropriate for the trip. These shakedowns are an excellent way to also figure out what you really don’t need; you might be able to lighten your load a bit! Lastly, elevation! If you can find a space in your community that has an elevation tank to do some workouts in, do it! Going from sea level here in Portland, Oregon, to 8,300 feet of the rocky ridge line of the Warner Mountains is not the most amazing feeling for the lungs or the muscles.
Really, I could write a novel about all of the amazing things that the OTT has to offer. But I’ll keep it pretty simple.
The views. I live for mountain views where it feels like you can see for forever. When I have to really work for that view, that makes it all the better. The views along Winter Rim, Fremont Point, Moss Pass, Morgan Butte, and any of the other lookouts for that matter were unbeatable. Expect to work hard for it though, and you won’t be disappointed.
The single track climb out of Crescent Lake. I am not one to rave about climbs, but this one was spectacular. The grade was perfect, the trail was well-groomed, just the right amount of up and down and technical features to keep you on your toes. The trail twists and turns through the thick forested terrain, winding up the hillside, spitting you out at the beautiful glowing Summit Lake. You better have your bug spray and mosquito net handy as you pass by the alpine lakes along the way, but as long as you keep those cranks turning (pretty good incentive if you ask me) you should barely notice those pesky buggers.
The people. I have found that whenever I am bikepacking, people are especially considerate and kind, sometimes when you might least expect it. The OTT route winds through the backwoods of Oregon and into some especially remote places. You never know who or what you are going to find out there (which also adds to the awesomeness of adventures like these)! We had the pleasure of meeting Cam and Christine at the Squirrelville Cabins outside of Lakeview. Not only were they very welcoming, but they also offered us a hose, a beer, and some clean towels when we arrived. We met some guys that worked in the Forest Service who were out for a hike outside of Mill Flat who drove up the scorching climb and offered us ice water. We were greeted with smiles by the folks at the saloon in Paisley when we went in to dodge a huge thunderstorm. They served up delicious food, accommodated our hungry tummies, and tolerated boisterous personalities and lame trail jokes. We were also offered a ride from Dwayne at the Summer Lake Hot Springs, who saved us from having to ride an extra 6 miles in the thunderstorm. And then there were the folks at the Oakridge bike shop who were able to fix my bike on the fly so I could go back out the next day were I able to make it. Marcello even offered me a cold drink while I waited. Oh, and I can’t forget the two guys we met on the trail, Ken from Michigan and Evan from Portland, who are the coolest clams of the bunch. There is definitely some sort of trail magic that happens when you are out there on the trail, and I never cease to be amazed and grateful for the people I encountered along the way.
I’m going to be honest: This trail is an intermediate to advanced bikepacking trail. For sure, there are parts of it that would be great small sections for a beginner bikepacker, but you need to be very prepared and physically able for this trail. Everything takes longer than you would think, and the trails are not all in impeccable condition (at least not at this point). Things that I struggled with:
Elevation (no joke): The trail starts at around 6,000 feet in elevation and goes immediately up from there. Coming from sea level here in Portland, Oregon, I suffered big time. I knew that I would struggle, but it was pretty brutal, topping out the first day at 8,300 feet. Give yourself time to adjust and respect and understand what is going on with your body and muscles when they lack sufficient oxygen. Everything goes slower, your muscles probably ache, you could have a headache, and you could even feel a little sick. Give yourself some extra time or plan shorter mileage on the first couple of days if you are coming from sea level. Also, if you can, avoid over-exerting yourself as far as your effort goes. Every time your heart rate skyrockets or you push into the “red zone,” your body will have a difficult time recovering because it just doesn't have enough oxygen to do so. So the more you stay in your green to yellow zones, the better! This is a good rule in general for long days on trail.
Winter Rim: This part of the trail (and a lot of the Fremont Tier in general) is of epic proportions and includes uphill, off-camber descents, exposure, and miles of technical rock gardens that are especially difficult to navigate on a loaded bike. Add this to the fact that there is almost no water along this portion of the trail, and it is a long day of suffering. If you can picture a rock garden that you might normally struggle with on a mountain bike, miles and miles long with really no reprieve, you’ve got the Winter Rim. This said, the one thing that makes it sort of worthwhile is the view. Make sure you have plenty of energy and time for this section of the trail.
Trail conditions: We ran into some very unrideable trail conditions. And sometimes not even any trail at all. Now, some of you might say, “Well, that’s just bikepacking and backcountry adventuring.” Yes, I agree with this sentiment; in fact, it wouldn't be as much fun without the occasional tree hopping or bushwhacking. But there were definitely sections of the OTT that were absolutely unrideable for miles, which is disheartening to say the least. After your pedal has struck you in the calf for the millionth time and the branches and bushes are drawing blood on your arms and legs, well, let’s just say that it gets old pretty quickly. The majority of this type of “riding” happened while heading toward Silver Creek continuing up toward Yamsay Mountain. I have heard that they are continuing to do work on this trail, but when we went through, we may have been the first crew of people to traverse through those bushes in a very long time.
My equipment: I won’t go into much detail about this, but somewhere along the 30-mile-long rock garden called Winter Rim I managed to mess up my rear derailleur. This is an issue when your main form of transportation is a machine versus your own two feet. You really have to learn to deal with the unexpected. I highly recommend either taking a Field Guide to Bike Repair or learning how to fix the basics on your bike, including adjusting your derailleur or replacing a spoke or replacing a cable if you are on your own. Either that or make sure to take along your favorite mechanic for the ride. Even though I was able to adjust my derailleur to a “rideable” condition, I was without the outer gears (both big and small) for the majority of this ride until I got to Oakridge. Yes, I carry an emergency derailleur hanger and could have fixed it on the fly, but I made it work. It is rugged terrain out there. Make sure you know your bike and carry the appropriate tools. I carry a tool kit in a water bottle strapped under the down tube of my bike. This includes spare cleats, derailleur hanger, extra set of cables, etc. It might seem like extra weight, but it is definitely worth it!
This was, by far, one of the most challenging and most rewarding adventures I have ever done. While I know I could have prepared better for this one, I think even for the most physically and mentally ready person is still in for a challenge. Don’t let this deter you from attempting all or parts of this route, though. The alpine lakes, beautiful meadows, amazing people, mountain views, hot springs, creek baths and delicious diner food provide a well-deserved reward for your work. The trail, as it stands, is rugged. It is new. It is raw. And this is one of the privileges that I had as one of the first to attempt this trail. I expect that some of it will become more tame with time, but I also know that this gem of Oregon will remain challenging and will entice those who want to rise to the occasion. While I am disappointed that I did not get to do the entire route due to injury, I know that it will still be there when I get healed up so I can try again.
If you are interested in riding this trail, DO IT! The biggest thing that I learned is that it was much more rugged than most other things I have ever ridden on a loaded bike on a multi-day trip, so be prepared for that. I would try to do it as early in the year as you can (barring snow melt) to avoid the mosquitos and to have a more ample supply of water in the streams. I would definitely bring all the bike maintenance supplies that you would need out there in the wild.
Unless you are looking for 12- to 14-hour days in the saddle, I would plan shorter mileage per day than you think you want to do (18 to 20 miles, for example versus 28 to 40). You can always go a little further if you need, but chances are you’ll be glad you opted for the shorter time. Take the time to enjoy your rewards. Stop and take in the views of the valleys below you and of the towering old-growth trees and caterpillar-filled manzanita bushes, even if you are so tired you want to fall over. It will make the trip more worth it than you ever imagined.
One of the perks about this trail system is that it is divided up into tiers that are visible on the map, which allows riders to ride portions of the trail or make shorter looped routes without having to do the entire thing. Each tier tends to offer a different landscape, so I would definitely try to get out an experience them all. And my biggest tip, as it is with all adventures, is to try your best to respect the beautiful countryside that you are adventuring in and make friends with the people in the towns that you are rolling through. The OTT is a new trail, and many people have yet to hear about it. The more you can be an ambassador for the sport, the more you will promote a more enjoyable experience for those who come after you, making this a better trail and community for years to come! Happy adventuring!