Heading out on untested bikepacking routes is always a potentially bad idea. Regardless of the level of research done, there’s always an element of unknown when piecing together sections of trail. Sometimes you end up hiking your bike for days on end, and other times it turns out beautifully and a route is created that you want to share with the world.
This is one of the latter. We’re calling it the “Oregon Hot Sisters” route, a.k.a. the Oregon singletrack-based hot springs route around the Three Sisters Wilderness.
Scott threw this route together in fewer than 48 hours after I unceremoniously declared that I didn’t actually want to spend the month of July riding the Pacific Northwest Trail, which was our original summer plan. The PNT would have promised copious amounts of hike-a-bike, vague-ly-track and, due to countless fires in Canada and Washington, a month of breathing smoke. It’s one thing to encounter forest fire smoke while on a route, but to willingly go into it is another.
Earlier in the summer we’d bought a backcountry hot springs book that had eight springs in the central Oregon area. We looked at the map: Could we link them all up using classic Oregon trails? A plan was hatched, inspired largely by the Adventure Cycling Association Idaho Hot Springs route: singletrack, dirt roads and hot springs.
Leaving from Bend, Ore., after the appropriate amount of futzing, we hit singletrack fairly immediately. The Swamp Wells trail was smooth, somewhat sandy, flat and perfect for a bikepacking warm-up. Luckily we ran out of daylight before the trail actually started climbing to the Newberry Caldera, and we got to go to sleep without any serious bike riding at all.
But morning brought the inevitable, a 4,000-foot climb to the rim of a giant volcano. It also brought an unexpected rainstorm. Luckily, Hot Springs No. 1 on East Lake was our first stop, so after a frigid descent, we were able to strip down to bathing suits and soak in 105-degree water with a lakeside view.
The next morning, another hot spring (No. 2) on the nearby Paulina (Pa-LINE-a) Lake was visiting, nestled into red volcanic rocks with a huge view of north Paulina peak across the lake.
Hot spring No. 2 at Paulina—photo by Scott Morris ...
An afternoon descent on a powerline road, then trail brought us to the small town of La Pine, Ore., where the most notable thing is a café that serves breakfast all day. We did a massive resupply and headed out of town on flat, deserted forest roads to a cute forest service campground by a river, where it rained on us all night.
Then onto the Metolious-Windigo trail to Waldo Lake, the second purist lake in the United States. The west side of the Waldo Lake Trail, was, while trending flat, actually a fairly demanding trail that required skills and attention. A world-class descent down to Gold Camp left us grinning. Well, grinning until we realized we were facing a 1,000-foot climb up towards Fuji Mountain before the day was done.
photo courtesy of Scott Morris ...
Even with tired legs, we were able to ride the entire climb—hat never happens bikepacking! Oregon singletrack was thus far impressively built and maintained.
Well, it was well maintained until we hit the Bunchgrass Trail the next day. All was well and good until the thimbleberry bushes took over, covering the trail beyond recognition. We were quick to bail down to Hot Spring No. 3, McCreedie.
No wonder they call it Bunchgrass: Navigating the thimbleberry ...
An afternoon soak and lunch fortified the energy stores for the climb up through the next set of mountains and the Warner Mountain Lookout. This also marked the top of the Moonpoint Trail, a well-known shuttle trail dropping nearly 3,000 feet to the middle fork of the Willamette River. It was a hoot–steep, fast and entirely cleared of trees.
Approaching Warner Mountain Lookout—photo courtesy of Scott Morris ...
We started up the Middle Fork Trail, paralleling the emerald-blue middle fork of the Willamette River, but we were running low on food after three nights out without resupply, and there was a lovely road paralleling us, so we retreated to smoother pedaling.
Middle Fork Trail—photo courtesy of Scott Morris ...
One more big climb and a drop down to Lemolo Lake Lodge brought us to the best-tasting bacon burgers we’ve ever eaten. (That might have had something to do with the fact that we rolled in with exactly zero calories in our bags.)
The burgers at Lemolo Lake Lodge were incredible—photo courtesy of Scott Morris ...
We took a little detour to go see Crater Lake, ridden nearly entirely on dirt until the National Park entrance, and did some quality touristing.
We were soon back on route, heading down the famed North Umpqua River Trail. Sixty miles of trail and one soak at the North Umpqua Hot Springs (No. 4) later, we were back on forest roads for a not-so-quick up-and-over back to the Middle Fork Trail. Five miles of trail and 12 miles of pavement around a beautiful lake took us to the mountain bike mecca of Oakridge, Ore., where the trails are empty, the motel rooms cheap and the people friendly.
The famed North Umpqua River Trail—photo courtesy of Scott Morris ...
Heading north now, the Salmon River Trail took us to a small warm spring pool for a late evening soak, hot spring No. 5.
The hot springs count reaches five ...
The Aufderheide, a paved scenic by-way, made for some easy miles until we decided to try to ride the Constitution Grove Trail. No one rides the Constitution Grove Trail, as far as we can tell, and we’re not going to recommend any one else do it either. The road is pretty much devoid of traffic—a 60-foot-wide bike path for the most part.
The next stop was the Cougar/Terwilliger Hot Springs, stop No. 6. A $6 fee is collected by the Forest Service to hike to and soak in a series of beautiful pools nestled in the trees. It’s officially “clothing optional,” and the majority of the soakers exercise their option to leave bathing suits at home.
A grunt up to Ollalie Mountain brought us to some “adventure trail.” While overgrown with beargrass and thimbleberry, the tread underneath was smooth and wide, making for cautious, but possible, riding. And then we got to the point that people shuttle from, and a rip-roaring descent ensued to the strange little town of McKenzie River.
A grunt up Ollalie Mountain ...
Resupply, and start up the McKenzie River Trail. We stopped and paid to soak in the Belknapp Hot Springs Resort, because it was on route and we like hot springs, then continued on to camp next to the McKenzie River. The next morning, after more easy and flat McKenzie River Trail riding, we soaked in our final hot spring of the trip, nestled in right below the trail (No. 8).
The McKenzie River Trail was ranked BIKE Magazine’s No. 1 trail and is a joy to ride both going up and down. Even the lava rock section, which can be easily bypassed on the highway if needed, was fun.
McKenzie: BIKE Magazine's No. 1 trail—photo courtesy of Scott Morris ...
Then, past Clear Lake, was really the only unfortunate section of the route, a sandy mess posing under the name of the Santiam Wagon Road. BUT it was only 1.8 miles.
For a nearly 500-mile route, a 1.8-mile hike-a-bike is a pretty good price of admission—photo courtesy of Scott Morris ...
Big Lake was ideal for swimming before getting on a series of trails from Dark Lake to Scout Lake to Suttle Lake, and then onto Camp Sherman on the Creek Trail.
Then from one trail to the next: Back on the Metolious-Windigo to the head of the Metolious River, a massive river springing from the underside of Black Butte with a surprising amount of water.
The Metolious-Windigo is shared by horses, hikers and mountain bikers, and this section towards the town of Sisters was horse-dominated, leading to sandy and dusty conditions. Still, rideable is rideable, and dirt washes off with water.
An amazing piece of singletrack took us straight into the heart of Sisters and to milkshakes. There’s nothing better after a dusty day of riding than milkshakes.
Stunning singletrack right outside of town—photo courtesy of Scott Morris ...
The town of Sisters has been making a big push to build and maintain singletrack right outside of town, and we got to benefit from it. The Peterson Ridge Loop (west side) provided some amazing views of the Three Sisters, while contouring through amazing terrain: bikepacking at its easiest.
Well, at least until we rejoined the Metolious-Windigo again.
One might lament a burn area combined with soft trail combined with a massive climb up to Three Creeks Lake, but the views!—photo courtesy of Scott Morris ...
Photo courtesy of Scott Morris ...
Plus, the lake was ideal for swimming, and the little shack on its shore sells soda, beer and ice cream!
Nothing tastes better after a hot, dusty ride than beer and ice cream ...
We’d been told that the next 6 miles of the Metolious-Windigo weren’t worth riding due to dust and downed trees, so we coasted happily along a parallel road. (All good singletrack bikepacks should have some road to rest and recover on.) Before long, we were at the top of the Mrazek Trail, one of the most popular descents down into Bend, losing 3,000 feet in 14 miles.
While we went on to ride a bit farther south to climb the South Sister, this was essentially the end of our loop.
We returned two days later to coast down one of those perfectly smooth trails where, for most of the time, you neither have to pedal or brake. Just coast and grin, straight into the heart of Bend.
Coasting the perfectly smooth line into Bend, Ore.—photo by Scott Morris ...
We eventually went back to scout a better route from Gold Lake Campground to Lemolo Lake that adds a copious amount of singletrack, removes the questionable Bunchgrass Trail (and also, unfortunately, the Moon Point descent and McCreedie hot spring), but adds three different places to get burgers and snacks on the shores of Crescent and O’Dell lakes.
I was blown away by the quality of all of the trail that makes up 50 percent of this route. The roads were devoid of traffic, the resupplies plentiful. Rounding out at about 500 miles with seven hot springs on route, I can’t emphasize how much anyone who bikepacks and loves good trails needs to go and check this out.
Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. This was the biggest win for a bikepacking loop that I’ve ever had.
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When Eszter Horani was in second grade, living in Tucson, Ariz., her dad bought the entire family Schwinn mountain bikes; she’s been riding ever since, dabbling in racing disciplines from road, to cross, to track and mountain biking. Most recently she’s loving adventurous long rides, bikepacking and exploring the world from two wheels. zenondirt.wordpress.com