Oregon….green and lush, rivers, lakes, rain forests, volcanic snow capped mountains, and of course high desert. High desert! welcome to the epic Oregon Big Country Route!
Oregon's Big Country route is an approximate 360 mile loop that winds through some of the most impressive high desert terrain I have ever seen. Mostly advertised as a bike-packing route this circuit can be taken on quite happily with dual sport/adventure motorcycles.
Shuttling our motorcycles to a small one store town 30 miles east of Lakeview, The town of Adel is where we kicked off our adventure. A short ride east on HWY140 picks up the trail and the off road fun begins. The riding north is mostly rutted double track with small rocky patches that takes the rider along Guano creek and through Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. For increased smiles it’s not hard with a GPS to find smaller more technical double track along the same route. Our destination for our first half day of riding is Page Springs, an easy campsite to access, with pit toilets and potable water.
October in the high desert is a mix of bright warm days and subzero nights and mornings. Once the sun disappears below the horizon and before it appears in the AM the temperature can be in the 20’s, some overnight temperatures during our ride were in the low teens. During this time of year an effective layering system is essential, allowing the rider to adjust to the temperature fluctuations. Technical riding requires to rider to be comfortable, thus allowing focus on the riding.
From Page Springs we enjoyed breakfast at the famous Frenchglen Hotel located just south of the Malheur National Wildlife refuge. After gassing up in Frenchglen we headed north on the road to the overpopulated town of Diamond where we would pick up the trails again.
The road becomes double track again, spotted with volcanic rock and shards of obsidian. The the Kiger Mustang Viewing area lead to a basalt rock garden of fun and 2 broken ribs, not so fun.
After navigating the rock garden we head south along a wide gravel road towards the Alvord desert, which is for me the highlight of the trip. The option to cross into the desert from the road at Alvord Hot Springs was passed up and we opted to venture a short distance down the road to enter the Alvord without paying an arbitrary fee determined by the Alvord Hot Springs owner. Just a stones throw down the road is a forest service road with a zero price tag.
The Alvord is unlike anything I have ever experienced, never having gone to the bonneville salt flats or death valley this was my first introduction to this incredible landscape. The Alvord Desert is a 12-by-7-mile dry lake bed and averages 7 inches of rain a year. Images of Donald Campbell and the famous bluebird filled my mind and a large grin crossed my face. The idea of unleashing the DR650’s raw power on the Alvord was irresistible. Speeding across a dry lake bed on a claimed 46 horsepower (such a lie…) geared down bush pig is not the worst possible scenario, however, I do wish at this moment I was on my old ZX10R, now, that would have been interesting! Racing across the desert throttle pinned was awesome, and seeing my fellow riders do the same was special. Christine on her significantly more powerful, lighter, more agile, better looking, better handling, shall I go on...KTM690 Enduro R had the biggest grin. After the KTM destroyed the Suzuki’s in the desert drag race, Christine was found giggling, when I approached her she said “you gotta try this” motioning to the KTM..
If crossing the Alvord was a sublime experience, that feeling was completely lost when crossing Big Sand Gap. Big Sand Gap, looking back it was a challenging experience, would I try and circumnavigate this section next time…..I just might. A long ride through the deep sand with our fair share of spills was then replaced by some challenging navigation, having the map on a GPS is essential through this area. With the sun starting to set we eventually made to Willow Creek Hot Springs. As dusk took full hold, we set up camp, then with whisky flasks in hand slid into the perfection of this geothermal paradise. All the trials and tribulations of the day melted into smiles as we sipped on the nectar of the Gods and re-lived today's epic ride.
Out of camp we ventured south east then north on the Fields-Denio Road, eating breakfast and gassing up at Fields. Leaving Fields we headed south to a rocky dirt track that winds up to the summit of Domingo Pass (6500ft). After an epic ride up we descended down the other side picking up a dirt road south towards the Nevada border, our destination was Bog Hot Springs.
Bog Hot Springs is more like a long creek of very hot water. However, in the heat of the day we found the water in several areas we tested to be way too hot for soaking, so we decided to move on towards Virgin Valley Hot Springs. Our route to Virgin Valley was majestic, we stopped to hike into a hidden canyon located at the east end of Thousand feet Gorge. The terrain in this area and the red rocks could fool you into thinking you are in Zion national park. The next section consisted of a challenging hill climb taking us up and over a ridgeline and back down into an area dotted with opal mines. The scenery albeit bleak, oozed character and uniqueness, volcanic rock everywhere and shards of obsidian peppering every trail.
Virgin Valley Hot springs is a little oasis, free camping, potable water, and hot springs what more could one ask for! The Hot springs are a little cool at 90F and could have borrowed a little hot water from Bogs Hot Springs. However, this pleasant 90F, kept us comfortable for hours, along with our plastic bottle of whisky (no glass allowed of course). That night the coyotes could be heard in every direction and waking in the night to movement outside led me to believe these wild canines were very close to the tents.
The next morning led us out past some opal mines then along Hell creek. A boggy water crossing made way to a difficult hill climb, steep and strewn with loose rocks. Eventually the entire group made it up and over the summit pass. We pieced together trails that we could see on the GPS to take us back to the HWY 140 the fun way. After dead ending into a rock Mesa, on what our GPS seemingly showed as a navigable trail, we were forced to turn around and re route. Shortly after the about turn, a pinch of my clutch lever snapped my cable. The first thing that came from my mouth was thank f#*$k for that. If my clutch cable had snapped any earlier and during the numerous hill climbs and sand crossings I would have been screwed. The cable must have been making its last stretch over the last few days. I had had some tell tale signs of the imminent clutch cable failure that I dismissed as the bike needing some adjustments. The warning signs included the inability to get into neutral while the bike was running as the clutch was not fully engaging, making shifting gears quite difficult, also the bike would stall when the clutch was engaged while in gear (because it wasn’t engaging correctly!). Luck was definitely on my side and my next BDR trip spare kit will have a clutch cable added.
The trip back to Adel included no stopping for me, Christine rode ahead to check the junction onto HWY 140 was clear and my clutch-less DR rallied right on.
KTM690 Enduro R x1