Four Rides Around the Wallowas
Few things feel as freeing as exploring wide open spaces and quiet roads by bicycle. Eastern Oregon is one of the places where the rides, the roads and the vistas are so good you’ll feel like you stumbled into a cycling heaven. These rides are some of the best-kept secrets in a magical corner of Oregon.
The routes take some planning and likely a support vehicle, as there are some long sections where you’re covering miles of lightly trafficked roads with few services — but the payoff is well worth it. Don’t be surprised if your face gets stuck in a permanent grin each and every day you ride these roads and you come back with the tan lines to prove it.
I rode these routes as part of a special event put on by Cycle Oregon, an organization that celebrates rural Oregon’s great rides and towns. Cycle Oregon’s Week Ride, which happens each September, is an event that should be on every cyclist’s bucket list.
Editor’s note: On February 4, Cycle Oregon announced its Week Ride route featuring the Wallowas. The Week Ride will take place September 12-19, 2015. Registration opens February 5 and spots will fill up fast! Visit the event page for more details.
Here are four rides in and around Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains:
Ride 1: Clarkston, WA to Enterprise, OR
Critical numbers: 86 miles and over 7,500 feet of climbing
Moment you’ll remember forever: Dropping down the curves of Rattlesnake Grade to the Grande Ronde
Your reward for the effort: Cold beer at Terminal Gravity and some of the best scenery in the Western United States.
The day starts with a climb up through high-altitude wheat farms to the tiny town of Anatone (mile 28, population 45), where we ate lunch with our support vehicle. In the community center in Anatone, which was nice enough to open for us, there are high school class photos from the 1930s on the wall. Anatone feels small and removed from the bustle of urban life in 2014, and it’s amazing to imagine how remote it must have felt in 1936!
From there, the climb continues a few more miles into cool evergreen trees before starting down the thrilling descent of the switchbacks on Rattlesnake Grade. The terrain along the grade transitions to arid scrub and wide-open vistas before you reach the bottom of the descent. As you cross the Grande Ronde it’s hard not to give into temptation to stop for milkshakes at Boggan’s Oasis (mile 38.6). These divine confections provide enough fuel for the remaining 3,500 feet of climbing and 40 miles to Enterprise. At mile 43, as you climb back out from the Grande Ronde to pine meadows with elk and deer, the ride crosses into Oregon.
At mile 66 the ride reaches its highest point of the day, topping out at a little over 4,800 feet. In the distance you can see the snow-capped peaks of the Wallowas rising above Enterprise. With the destination in sight, there is ample motivation to finish strong and enjoy a cold, celebratory beer from Terminal Gravity Brewing and a hot shower at the Arrowhead Ranch Cabins.
Ride 2: Enterprise to Halfway
Critical numbers: 85 miles and 6,185 feet of elevation gain
Moment you’ll remember forever: Spinning through farmland at the foot of the majestic Wallowas
Your reward for the effort: Ending the day in Halfway, a hidden gem of a town
This ride starts in the shadows of the Wallowa Mountains, where you’d be wise to join the locals in fueling up at the Red Rooster Café. You’ll likely end up grabbing a seat next to a friendly farmer or rancher who’s headed out to work some of the most beautiful ranchland that Eastern Oregon has to offer. As you spin out from town the deep blue sky and quiet rural roads at the base of the Wallowas will make you consider dropping everything you have at home and moving to Enterprise.
At mile 15.7, the ride turns up Wallowa Mountain Road (FS Road 39) and begins to climb up to Salt Creek Summit (mile 25.5, elevation 6,070). This stretch of road is only open mid-June to mid-October and has been getting some improvements to the pavement recently (which means we had to shuttle around a couple of rough patches toward the end of the ride).
On a busy day you’ll likely see fewer than a dozen cars on Wallowa Mountain Road while riding, and as it winds its way between Hells Canyon and the Wallowas you’ll encounter some of the best descending and climbing imaginable. With every mile, expect to feel the strain in your face muscles as your smiles grow wider and wider. Our support vehicle refueled us with lunch and water at the Hells Canyon Overlook (mile 52). Having support or a plan for food and water is essential, as this route is remote with no services available.
At mile 85 the ride arrives at the Pine Valley Lodge, a charming hotel in Halfway, Oregon. Halfway is a small slice of heaven – it’s far removed from the pace of urban life and situated at the end of a gorgeous valley nestled up to the foot of the Wallowas. I already look forward to planning a multi-day backpacking trip with the Wallowa Llamas!
Ride 3: Halfway to Baker City
Critical numbers: 54 miles and 3,100 feet of climbing
Moment you’ll remember forever: Viewing wagon ruts from the Oregon Trail
Your reward for the effort: Luxuriating in the history of the west in the Geiser Grand Hotel and treating yourself to a cold beer at Barley Brown’s.
On the road from Halfway to Baker City you can feel the history of the Oregon Trail and the settlers and native people who came this way centuries before us. This ride unwinds itself from the Wallowas into high desert sage brush and sunshine before ending in the historic section of Baker City.
This ride doesn’t have the climbing of some of the others in the region, but the views are just as magnificent as you pass working farms, follow Rich Creek, and have the option to climb a short and steep hill up to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center (mile 46.4). We ate lunch from our support vehicle and spent some time exploring the center, where you can’t help but imagine the challenge of loading all of your belongings into a wagon and heading out to Oregon for the promise of a better life.
After the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center it’s a quick run into Baker City, where there are many lodging options — but the historic Geiser Grand Hotel comes highly recommended. The hotel is a Bike Friendly Business and a true historic gem. Needless to say, you’ll probably want to reward yourself with libations from Barley Brown’s tasting room. Filling up some growlers with their beer will remind you of the great vistas and roads of Eastern Oregon when you get home.
Ride 4: Baker City to North Powder
Critical numbers: 90 miles and 6,600 feet of climbing
Moment you’ll remember forever: Spotting wildlife like elk and bear from your bicycle
Your reward for the effort: Alpine wildflowers, bright blue skies and smiles for days
This ride takes in yet another incredible Eastern Oregon road full of climbing, mountains and alpine streams. The spectacular ride traces its way around the Elkhorn Mountains and the historic mining town of Sumpter.
At mile 29 you pass through Sumpter, a town where over $10 million in gold ore was once pulled out of the ground and which once had 15 saloons, three newspapers, and an opera house. Now it’s a little quieter, but you can still visit the historic Sumpter Valley Dredge, which dug up the earth at a rate of 280,000 cubic yards per month.
From there the road begins a series of climbs and descents to the North Fork of the John Day Campground (mile 54), where our support vehicle was waiting in the shade next to the junction of Onion Creek and the North Fork of the John Day River. From the campground, you climb up Forest Road 73 to the top of Elkhorn pass, down past Anthony Lakes Ski Area and into North Powder. As the ride climbs higher, be on the lookout for wildlife — a few in our group saw small herds of elk grazing in lush fields, and others saw a small black bear trudging down the road, unperturbed by our presence.
Finally, at mile 67 we topped out at 7,200 feet. Snow covered the road (it was mid-June), so we were forced to turn back to the North Fork John Day Campground and our support car.
Eastern Oregon is a bicycle rider’s paradise. Long and challenging days on lightly traveled roads make for a pure cycling adventure. Don’t miss these four rides!