Oregon Bikepacking – Hart Sheldon Hot Springs Route
Dates: May 6 – 10, 2018
Location: Southeast Oregon
Distance: ~400 km, ~2700 meters
Time: Five days
GPS Tracks: see bottom of post
We drove down to Frenchglen, OR from Vancouver over two days, doing about 8 hours on Saturday travelling through Yakima and Umatilla on our way to the Driftwood campground on the John Day river. In the morning we didn’t doddle, heading straight to Frenchglen after another 3 hours. We had asked the proprietor of the Frenchglen Hotel if we could park in front of the hotel for the week and he seemed to have no problem with that. When we parked, the truck beside us from Idaho had a Salsa bumper sticker and a silhouette of a big bike all packed up for a trip. We never met the owners but they may have laid down the tracks we would occasionally see over the next few days.
Frenchglen itself is population 11 or 12 depending on what you read and is a tiny oasis just before a large hill. It’s a small copse of trees and a few buildings including the aforementioned hotel (built in 1916) and a small store. A bit of an anomaly in what is almost all desert.
This was our first proper bikepacking trip and we were riding our new bikes. A Marin Pine Mountain 1 for me and a Salsa Timberjack for Brittany. The bikes are stock except we replaced the forks with Niner RDO carbon forks, saving three pounds each. My bike has 3.0″ 27.5 tires and Brittany has 2.8″ and I think they were perfectly suited to the terrain.
Day 1 – 67.8 km to Slickey Lake
After packing up in front of the hotel, we took the requisite “before” photos and then started on the route. We had done such little research we didn’t even realize that the first day was mostly on a paved road. Instead of leaving Frenchglen on a dirt road towards Steens Mountain, we instead climbed the 14% grade on the “highway” for two miles or so before reaching a higher plateau.
Characteristic of the landscape here is huge, flat expanses with small mesas, buttes, and mountains but also dead straight roads, paved or otherwise. There are very few trees, instead the ground is dusty and dry with pale green shrubs that are sometimes shin-high and sometimes waist high. The first day passed many ranches and cattle grazing range with a few cattle gates.
After a couple of hours, the road curves east towards Fields (and apparently the “best” milkshakes, but we’ll never know) and we finally left the asphalt behind for the dust. In these first ~50 km we’d already had a good dose of wildlife that would whet our appetite for the days to come. We saw a pronghorn antelope, scared a coyote out of the shrubs next to the road, and a disturbed a handful of rattlesnakes. I stopped after passing the first rattlesnake to tell Brittany to switch to the other lane but I was still too close. The snake raised it’s head, shook its maraca, and then darted off the road. We didn’t see another rattlesnake on the trip and I wonder if it’s because we didn’t spend much time on the asphalt after the first day. Maybe they really like the heat of a paved road and are indifferent to the dusty roads.
Soon after the dirt road started, there was a cave marked on our GPS route. It’s pretty obvious from the road so we hiked up the hill to check it out but it’s very shallow and full of bird or bat droppings. The most interesting thing about the cave was that it contained a dead coyote. It’s body was still mostly intact with thick fur, but the skin was peeled back to show off the ribs and some connective tissue.
From the cave it’s a short drop to the playa of Stickey/Slickey Lake (name depends on your map). From afar, the lakebed still looks wet but upon arrival you realize that it is just the dried mud and alkalis giving it a sheen. This was a great novelty for us, camping on the perfectly flat dried lake. We rode on the surface a little bit but it was already late so we set up camp and ate dinner. With the absence of trees we were thankful also for the absence of wind. Interestingly, the tent stakes went in solidly but when I pulled them out in the morning, the bottom inch were wet and caked with a thick, pasty mud.
Day 2 – 111.2 km to Virgin Valley
We woke up with about 5 or 6 liters of water to last us the 70 km or so until our next water source. We packed up and were moving without much fuss and quickly put 20 km behind us on our first real stretch of continuous dirt riding. The surface was mostly quick but occasionally there were sections of a few hundred meters of inches of just absolute powdery dust. Soon our bikes (especially the drive trains) and our bodies were coated in a thin film. It was very akin to riding on fresh snow so it was actually easier to just weave through the shrubbery next to the road on the harder dirt.
We took our first break at a trailer containing a generator and pump to fill a big corrugated cattle well for a small herd to drink. There was text written with marker on the trailer with instructions on how to operate it and guidance to change the oil every 250 hours or two weeks. Someone must make trips out here on a somewhat regular basis.
Into the heat of the day we started to feel the exposure to the sun. We rode for several hours without any shade and had our first of two short hike-a-bikes. We did see some evidence of other cyclists and enjoyed a long, gentle descent looking across the valley to Nevada but Brittany was suffering quite a bit from chafing on her new bike.
We eventually made it to the Nevada border and the Bog Hot Springs shortly thereafter, which the route creators had listed as one of the possible things to skip to save time. With the hot springs a couple hundred meters from the road, I don’t really see how you save time by skipping them. This was the first of three hot springs on the route and the first water since the prior afternoon.
I immediately jumped into the knee-deep water intending to use our filter to fill our bottles (we had 1 liter to spare) but I had to climb right back out because I foolishly underestimated the heat. I’ve taken to calling the three hot springs en route the “Goldilocks” hotsprings. Unable to stand the “Papa Bear” temperature, we had a very cursory wash and filled our bottles. It’s not that satisfying to drink hot water in the desert but it’s better than the alternative.
The end of the day finished with 15 km or so on another highway before departing to do a hike-a-bike beside the Gorge of 1000 Creeks and taking the back road into Virgin Valley campground. The short side hike to view the gorge was well worth it despite being tired after more than 100 km. Deep in the gorge is a microclimate with a creek and greenery that just couldn’t survive if it was exposed in the harsh sun.
We descended from the lip of the gorge down into camp, barely having to pedal, and set up camp. We were in the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge and surprisingly the established campground is free. The campground also has the second hot springs, or “Mama Bear” hot springs. There is a bit of a scuzzy pool but also a shower room that runs continuously as the water courses out of the earth. After a long, hot day in the dust, a shower was glorious but, even then, a bit too cold for my taste.
Day 3 – 90.9 km to Guano Creek (1 km past Shirk Ranch)
This day faced us with a decision – we could ride 45 km and camp at Catnip reservoir before doing a 90 km day the next day, or we could ride 90 km to Shirk Ranch and then have only 45 km on day 4. With Brittany’s bum situation we didn’t make any decisions when we set off but we made quick work of the first ~16 km back on the highway and by lunch we had reached Catnip.
En route to Catnip we saw two more pronghorn antelope when they bounded across the road only a few meters from me. We also noticed that beyond the 2000 meter elevation mark, small trees started to grow. They disappeared just as quickly on the descent to the reservoir.
At the reservoir, we huddled for lunch under the awning of the outhouse just to escape the relentless sun. There was no way we were going to stick around in this exposure until evening so we reloaded on water and took off. A few kilometer after Catnip, the route turns north for the first time. This entire ~40 km section flew by with a strong south wind at our backs. After two hours and a few more antelope we had crossed back into Orgeon before reaching our goal of Shirk Ranch, an abandoned group of buildings.
We had met a group of people working for a non-profit doing wildflower surveys who said they had been stopped from reaching all of their survey site by water in Guano creek. Our route guide had said this would be dry but at Shirk Ranch we were eyeing our pitiful supply of water and wishing for more. We made the wise decision to pass Shirk Ranch and go 1 km further north, a bit off-route, to where the creek was marked on our map. We didn’t find the running stream we expected, rather some stagnant pools, but our filter renders it safe to drink and we were happy to draw our supply from one pool and bathe in a different one.
The south wind had not abated this entire time and actually was growing. We fought to set up the tent and I worried for the night. As evening fell, a storm could be seen gathering to the northeast. As we ate dinner we watched the rain somewhat paradoxically run down the far side of the plateau from north to south but it never seemed to move west to drench us. Fortunately with the storm over, the wind died down and we had another restful sleep before a 5:45 am wakeup call to see the sunrise.
Day 4 – 46.6 km to Hot Springs Campground
The fourth day was our short day. Only 45 km to reportedly the best hot springs on the route in the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge. Still, the first 15 km to Jacob’s reservoir seemed like a struggle. My energy was low, the clouds were dark, and I had visions of more rainstorms stranding us in the middle of a mucky plain. Fortunately, most of my struggle seemed to be low energy related because after a hearty snack at the reservoir, everything seemed a little easier.
We passed a few hills and the reservoir before turning north again where we could see Hart Mountain and Warner Peak. The road was flooded in a few spots (it’s not officially open until June 15) but we only had to take our shoes off once to cross a particularly wide section. We saw many more antelope and wound our way to the base of the climb up to the route’s high point. The high point is on the flanks of Warner Peak and is the headwaters of Guano Creek. Down here in the shade beside the mountain and with a ready water source from the snow above, a small grove of huge pine trees grow. We ate lunch in their shade, thankful to be protected from the sun and breeze after so much exposure in the past few days.
Once we were rested, we started up the ~400 meter climb to the saddle at 2096 meters – nearly the same height as Whistler mountain. From the saddle you are treated to two steep descents into the campground.
At last it was time for the “Baby Bear” hot springs – just right. We set up camp and sought out the “rustic” pool first assuming it would be more private. While it was private, and just the perfect temperature for weary muscles, the bottom was very silty and I hadn’t been sitting in it long before I started to get bitten by some small bugs (about the size of a pea) that were swimming around. We beat a hasty retreat to the “built-up” pool which has a nice wall to block the wind and sun and a small concrete deck.
The water was crystal clear and you could see from the drain pipe that the water refreshes pretty quickly. We spent at least an hour in the pool to ourselves and another hour laying on the deck while only three other people passed by.
Day 5 – 84.5 km to Frenchglen, OR
I woke up at 6:30 and went back to the hot springs for another 45 minute soak before returning to the tent for breakfast. We had our usual oatmeal but also ate a package of instant pudding since it was our last day.
A few kilometers into the day we reached the refuge headquarters that seemed mostly deserted but there is a tap with potable water. From here until the highway 7 km out of Frenchglen we would be on a gravel road that is maintained year round. It is the scenic way to drive across southeast Oregon so there were a few more cars than we had seen in several days.
We again had a good tailwind and assumed this would be an easy couple of hours but the road was very washboarded and was uncomfortable to ride on. We spent our time weaving from one side to the other trying to find the smallest bumps or hugging the very edge when the gravel wasn’t too soft. It seems that responsibility for maintenance of the road falls to different parties inside and outside of the refuge because as soon as we passed the park exit, conditions improved immensely.
Still, with the excitement of the trip behind us, it was a slog to reach the asphalt of the highway with just a nearly imperceptible sensation of progress as the distant mountains slowly grew larger. Once we reached the highway, we took one last break before pointing north to tackle the last few kilometers. Soon enough we were at the top of the 14% hill and we were acutely aware of our decision to forego helmets. We raced down the hill, cutting across the lanes as necessary to tackle the curves and rolled to a stop in front of the hotel. We took our “after” pictures and the last room in the hotel.
Dinner is a family-style affair and tonight was roast beef, cheesy potato casserole, salad, and peach cobbler for dessert. After a five days of freeze-dried suppers, the shower and meal were bliss before bed.