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Yonder Journal: Oregon

In this installment of Yonder Journal, the gang braves the frigid winds and mountain goats of Eastern Oregon to bring you the highs and lows of this thing called bikepacking.

DEAD RECKONING

ELKHORN CREST TRAIL

If Idaho was an experiment in how wide the idea of a bike adventure could be stretched, then the Elkhorn Crest Trail was an experience of the essential: two big days of riding and one night camping at close to 10,000 feet in mid-October. Our path would take us along gravel roads, single track, and what we’d later identify as a boulder waterfall. We expected to see mountain goats. We’d be able to make a fire and that fire would be essential for warmth. We’d ride, hike, push, and pull our bikes. We’d fall asleep under dazzling star-filled skies and wake to a night of breathing crystallized on our tents. If you were to make a board game about bikepacking, this route would be the game board.

Located west of Baker City, the Elkhorn Mountains jut out of the hale plains of Eastern Oregon like broken tombstones. They are considered a part of Oregon’s Blue Mountains, but seen from our start/end point in Haines the Elkhorns appear alone and disconnected from the rest of the valley. Our original plan was to ride for three days, but in the lead up to our departure a phalanx of storm clouds gathered to invade the Pacific Northwest. After spending sometime perusing various weather forecasts we made the decision to cut out the third day of riding and push for two long days.

As with any new route the distance and elevation can be hard to gauge. One route’s thirty miles is another route’s five; temperature, elevation, incline, road and trail conditions, physical fitness, group dynamics, and water availability are just a few of the factors that affect the outcome of a ride. Considering all of this, cutting a day off the trip added another level of anxiety to the group dynamic. It would turn out that this increased anxiety was worth it, as rain and sleet scoured the region on what would have been our third day of riding. And this ride was EPIC enough without tempting hypothermia.

The route is a big loop starting and ending in Haines. While we had planned an early departure we didn’t leave our vehicles until noon—such are the consequences of traveling with a big group. But once we got riding the group gelled and the miles peeled off. Fortunately the lion’s share of the climbing is on a gravel road in an overall condition I would characterize as “fair.” The temperature was perfect: cool but sunny, ideal for exertion.

At the top of this climb, where the road crests the pass, the Elkhorn Trail officially begins. Gusts of frigid wind teased out long shadows behind us as we pedaled the grey, snaking trail towards the setting sun. The trail was crowded with fire red shrubs and stunted pines. From here, looking down upon the forests our gaze was greeted by golden spears of the Western Larch Pine blending into countless hills rolling west, as if echoing the Elkhorns.

We weren’t long on the trail before spying our first collection of mountain goats. They appeared in the distance as little puffs of cotton, too far to be in focus, and as we watched them they appeared motionless. Were these decoys, lost clouds, the erased space of creation? Reason dictated that they had to be mountain goats but rational thinking doesn’t seem to be en vogue these days. But we had to continue moving and left whatever they were behind, hoping we’d have another opportunity to act as witness.

The cold wind foretold of the night to come and our campsite at Twin Lakes was already deep in the shadow of the surrounding peaks by the time we arrived. There had been much discussion regarding the arid and sparse flora, leaving us with little expectation of building a worthwhile fire. To our very welcome surprise the campsite was well-maintained and idyllic, stocked with plenty of dry, downed wood to be collected. We built a roaring fire by which we spent a few hours of cooking and conversing. If you turned away from the fire, disappearing to pee, the cold was not coy; it wrapped you in a frigid embrace. sleep was in the cold and away from the fire. But we had to sleep. You have to sleep, right?

We survived the night, but how was it? And did we see more mountain goats, was the next day replete with singletrack, stunning views, and a long descent that included navigating a boulder river? Did we end the ride at a world-famous steakhouse? Maybe. Sure, you can go ahead and speculate, but if you want all the details head to Yonder Journal. If you don’t, just know that if you’re looking for the Platonic Ideal of Bikepacking, you should do this ride.