The perfect amount of adventure. That’s what I’m looking for.
Over the years I have developed a reputation for “liking to be the first”; not to the finish line in a bikepacking race, an outcome such as that is unlikely with this body of mine, but to be the first to ride a new route. It’s not so much that I actually desire to be the first person to lay a continuous set of tire tracks on a newly released bikepacking route, but that I am looking for the “right” amount of adventure. Developing a novel long-distance bikepacking route is a labor of love and a time-intensive commitment, not one I have undertaken (yet). But I *do* love the sense of adventure that comes with riding a route where not every aspect of the route is fully known, documented, and readily available on the internet.
It is this mystery that draws me to ride routes that are *almost* ready for prime time. Will it go? How hard will it really be? Are the marked water sources reliable? What about that small-town restaurant? Will I run into miles of deadfall and have to reroute myself on the fly? Will I end up at a ranch gate clearly marked private property? It is these unknowns that epitomize the adventure of bikepacking, that draw me in and keep me pedaling as I wonder what’s around the next corner? I also love keeping track of what I find and providing feedback to the route creators. Oops! Private property here, you need to consider a reroute. Oh, you sent us the wrong way down a one way street in town, that needs to be fixed up! Or that campground doesn’t actually exist…It’s my own way of giving back to the bikepacking community.
One of the routes I have had the privilege of riding in its earliest iteration is the Oregon Timber Trail (OTT). By spring of 2017, the hype about this route traversing the entire state of Oregon from south to north was high, and the primary visionary of the route, Gabe Tiller, had announced the GPX track would be released that summer. As an educator on summer vacation, I was fortunate to spend that entire summer exploring trails in Oregon and Washington while I waited for the route release; however, the clock was ticking and I only had about a month left before I had to return to the classroom in California.
I reached out to Gabe directly and he said “I’ve got the files, come and get them!” so I drove to his place in Portland and we loaded the files onto my Garmin and phone. I then drove to Klamath Falls where I left my car and all of my belongings in a questionable parking lot and Zach of Zach’s Bikes, in an act of extreme generosity, drove me down to the California border and dropped me at the start of the route. As I pedaled into the most remote and high-elevation portion of The Oregon Timber Trail, I was acutely aware of all the loose sticks and large pinecones waiting to jump up into my spokes, my inexplicably sudden shifting issues, and, in general, my vulnerability and self-doubt around my mechanical ability (read this article in The Town Bicycle to learn about my mechanical journey). I knew that the southern portion of the route was the least maintained and that there could be some route finding challenges.
It wasn’t long before I was deep in some of those unmaintained sections of trail. Due to blowdown and underutilized trails, I sometimes had to give up on the route shown on my Garmin and zoom in on my tiny Garmin screen to try to follow the web of forest service roads to a logical conclusion. I would eventually plan an escape route, which inevitably involved several miles of descending, only to run into the backside of private property. After repeating this a couple of times, I was definitely frustrated. I would remind myself, I signed up for the adventure! The not tried-and-true. Eventually I avoided a few tree-choked ravines and made my way to pavement and to Paisley, OR. Paisley is a lovely OTT gateway community a few miles off the official route. I had a great meal and as I headed north to regain the route the winds began to pick up. A storm was definitely brewing!
I bikepack on a very tight budget but almost always make an exception for soaking in hot springs. North of Paisley and just before the climb up to Winter Rim to regain the route, you will find Summer Lake Hot Springs. They have cabins, Airstreams, and camping, but I knew I couldn’t camp in the middle of an open field with my tarp in an impending storm like this. I stopped by Summer Lake anyway to inquire about my options. I was pretty sure I was just going to start up the climb and find a pine tree to huddle under for the next few hours, but the lovely lady at the desk was insistent that I was NOT going to head up the mountain in this storm bearing down on us. Just as she made me a very generous offer to stay in one of their Airstreams, the hail started to fall. I said yes and she said GO! I sprinted for the Airstream and wrestled my bike inside with me. I spent the next few hours riding out an epic summer storm. The rain pounded on the roof and the wind rocked the trailer. I was dry and incredibly grateful.
The next morning calm had returned and I pedaled up to Winter Rim where the Oregon Timber Trail follows the long unmaintained Fremont National Recreation Trail. Upon reaching the rim I filled up water at Currier Spring for one of the longest water carries of the route and headed along the rim. Following the underused trail required a Zen-like meditative state – the tread and the route markers were nearly nonexistent – but if I relaxed my eyes and allowed them to find the weaknesses between ancient tree cuts and brush, I could bop along on the bumpy “trail” at two to three miles per hour and generally stay on the path of least resistance. Eventually I made my way to the Fremont Point Forest cabin, which is available by reservation only, but more importantly, the large clean outhouse that serves it, because another storm was bearing down. Traveling with only a tarp for shelter, this permanent structure provided welcome protection from the elements.
North from this point the trail again became impassable and once again I had to reroute to forest roads, but after Silver Lake things were looking up! The route became more apparent and miles came more easily. That’s not to say that there weren’t more moments of feeling lost in the forest, with downed trees all around me and no trail to be found. There were definitely tears. But those moments were ever decreasing in frequency as I made my way north. Seventeen days and hundreds of miles of smiles later, I found myself dipping my toes in the Columbia River. I made it! I had completed the first unsupported through ride of the OTT (detours aside)!
During that summer I fell in love with The Oregon Timber Trail gateway town of Oakridge. During my through-ride, Oakridge was my mental halfway point and I received amazing kindness from so many individuals there. As a result, four years later I started working summers at The WIllamette Mountain Mercantile and Oakridge Bike Shop. By returning to work in Oakridge, I continued to build my relationship with the town and the OTT.
Don’t be scared off by my descriptions above, thanks to countless volunteer hours the trail has come a long way! To bring things full circle, in October of 2022 I joined the board of the Oregon Timber Trail Alliance (OTTA). I wanted to play a part in helping keep this beautiful trail open, clear of trees, and grow the community of users.
In a couple of months I somehow went from being on my first-ever not-for-profit board to serving as President of the board and I am intimately involved in the day-to-day governance of the board, planning and execution of events, and our goals of making the Oregon Timber Trail a more accessible and welcoming place for a diverse group of individuals to recreate. One way that the OTTA has been trying to make the trail a more accessible destination is by creating shorter weekend loops off the backbone of the main route. We recognize that not everyone can take off several weeks to ride the entire trail in one go! We are also in the process of planning social events at locations around the state this summer. Personally, I’m excited to attend one of our Fremont Tier stewardship events in late May. We have three of these events this summer and even more trail work planned in 2024 to help clear the backlog of downed trees on the southern portion of the route. Meanwhile, while the route is open in the south, we have some helpful bypass suggestions on the OTTA website.
One more exciting activity this summer is that the first Oregon Timber Trail 300 is scheduled for July 8th! The 300-mile race will run from the southern terminus at the California border to Oakridge. While the race is not being organized by the OTTA, we are always super excited to see folks out on the trail. It would be wonderful to see more women out on the route. My understanding is that 25% of the currently registered riders are women and I would love to see that number increase, as well as seeing more nonbinary, transgender, and genderqueer riders register, as well! You can learn more about the race and register here. There may even be a party in Oakridge after the race;). Join the Oregon Timber Trail Alliance to receive our newsletter and up-to-date information about all of our events!
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4 responses to “The Oregon Timber Trail: Past and Present”
really interesting article
Thanks for all your hard work, Heather! The OTT is incredible. I hope there aren’t many fires along the route this year. I am hopeful that the route to Idanha and points north will open again someday. I kept the trail angel box stuffed at the Idanha Country store. They had to discard everything after the fire. Does Oakridge area have a cache box for riders? Thx again.
Badassery. 6 Liters of aqua is a lot of weight!
Badassery! 6 liters of aqua is a lot of weight!