Central Oregon Backcountry Explorer

  • Distance

    152 Mi.

    (245 KM)
  • Days

    3-5

  • % Unpaved

    60%

  • % Singletrack

    0%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    6

  • % Rideable (time)

    100%

  • Total Ascent

    11,590'

    (3,533 M)
  • High Point

    6,513'

    (1,985 M)
The Central Oregon Backcountry Explorer serves as an introductory route to the Ochoco Mountains and the geologic wonderland of the John Day Basin. Ride twisty dirt, gravel and paved roads through old-growth ponderosa pine forests, past stunning volcanic landscapes, old pioneer mines and ghost towns, the Painted Hills, all the way to the friendliest hostel around. The availability of water, great camping, and fairly non-technical terrain makes this a great ride for all levels of experience, just watch out for goat head thorns!
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Contributed by Sarah Swallow; photography by Benedict Wheeler (Ultraromance)

This ride begins and ends in Prineville, Oregon, which is a 50-minute drive from Bend and 3-hour drive from Portland. Sitting in the rain shadow east of the Cascades, Central Oregon has an arid, high desert climate and is a great place to visit at almost any time of the year.

This ride begins with a long, twisty, gradual, paved 20-mile climb over the Ochoco Mountain Range from the town of Prineville. Soak in the old growth ponderosa pine forest and streams before reaching the top where the paved road turns into a narrow gravel road, which will take you down the North side of the Ochoco range, and into the John Day Basin, an uplifted and eroded volcanic landscape with rocks up to 225 million years old. The climate here is more arid and high desert than you will experience at higher elevation in the Ochoco Mountains where the sagebrush and juniper trees give way to Ponderosa pine. It seems there are as many streams, although they exist at the base of some heavily grazed cattle lands.

Make your way up, down, and around these volcanic highlands, past dilapidated ghost towns and mines until you reach the John Day River, one of the longest undammed, free-flowing rivers in the U.S. furnishing a diverse habitat for wild steelhead and Chinook Salmon. Follow the John Day River for a brief period before riding through Coyote Canyon along the Bridge Creek down to the Painted Hills, which reveal changes from a tropical to temperate climate in ribbons of color across its ancient shale hills.

  • Central Oregon Backcountry Explorer, Bikepacking Route
  • Central Oregon Backcountry Explorer, Bikepacking Route

Spend some time reading and exploring around the Painted Hills before you make your way to the very small town of Mitchell, an early pioneer town seemingly changed very little by time. In Mitchell you will find a town park that has water spigots, bathrooms, and $10 camping. There is a small general store in Mitchell and even a brewery serving chicken wings from a food truck. The Spoken’ Hostel is probably the most exciting place in Mitchell. Built within an old church, the Spoken’ Hostel is a donation based 5-star hostel experience for traveling cyclists.

The biggest threat of the John Day River Basin is the prevalence of goat head thorns. Tubeless tires are recommended for this ride and fresh sealant in your tires is highly recommended. The number of flats our group received with various tire combinations ultimately added an extra day to our ride and nearly ended our ride completely. This is all the more reason why the town of Mitchell serves as a perfectly timed respite after the heavy goat head section through the John Day Basin, before you re-enter the Ochoco Mountains. Please note that the Spoken’ Hostel does not yet carry tubes or latex sealant. There is a car shop down the road that carries a latex sealant that will work in an emergency.

After Mitchell, you will be climbing back into the Ochoco Mountains along a twisty gravel road that can get steep at times. It’s a long climb filled with views volcanic rock formations, prairie grasslands, bald eagles and wild horses. Make your way to the highest point of the route at 6,400 ft along Summit Road and enjoy the Central Oregon views. You will spend the last 20 miles riding a paved 1-2% grade down to Prineville.

  • Highlights

    camera

  • Must Know

    alert

  • Camping

    home

  • Food/H2O

    drop

  • Trail Notes

    signpost

  • The Painted Hills a unique reflection of climate change in bands of colors on ancient shale hills.
  • The John Day River camping and fishing opportunities
  • Spoke’n Hostel a donation based 5-star hostel experience for traveling cyclists
  • Ochoco National Forest: Old growth forests speckled by grass prairies and wildlife
  • The John Day Basin is an ancient volcanic land that has been uplifted and eroded over millions of years.
  • When to go: This route travels through an arid high desert climate, making spring, summer, and fall the best time to visit. The highest point the route reaches is 6,400 ft. so if you plan to visit in the border seasons of late fall and early spring check the snow line. Some of these roads can get very muddy when there has been a lot of precipitation or snow. Half of this route is also very exposed, so keep that in mind when you are considering going on a hot day.
  • This is a 3 hour drive from Portland and a 50 minute drive from Bend.
  • Parking is available at the Prineville Crook County Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, just let them know how long you will be leaving your vehicle and ask where they would like you to park it.
  • Goat Head Thorns are the biggest threat on this route. A tubeless system is recommended. Before you go, ensure you have fresh sealant inside your tires, carry some extra sealant with you, a fresh tube, and patch kit.
  • This route is 60% dirt and 40% paved. The majority of the pavement occurs outside of Prineville. The dirt roads vary from smooth gravel roads, washboard, and double track. There can be many creek crossings and the amount of climbing per day coupled with the potential difficulty that the goat head thorns along the route makes this route a 6 out of 10 on the difficulty scale.
  • There can be many creek crossings along this route and most of them are rideable. The rest of the surface of the route is easily rideable.
  • There are many camping options along this route in the Ochoco National Forest, and along the John Day River.
  • There are some long sections that are fenced off for private property, specifically on Gosner Road, after Horse Heaven and Upper Bridge Creek Road out of Mitchell. Be considerate and camp before or after these sections.
  • The Spoke’n Hostel is a donation-based hostel catering to traveling cyclists inside an old church building. Stop in for a comfortable bed and atmosphere, access to kitchen, and bathroom with shower. This is not your ordinary hostel!
  • There is camping in the town park of Mitchell for $10
  • Filterable water is available throughout this route from creeks, rivers, and springs.
  • The only food available along the route can be found in small town of Mitchell where there is Bridge Creek Café, Tiger Town Brewing Co. with a food truck, and Wheeler County Trading Co, a general store with basic food items (Trading Co. Hours Monday – Friday 7 a.m. – 6 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m. – 6 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. as of Oct. 2016)
  • There is a water spigot in the town park of Mitchell as well.

This route could be toured at a leisurely pace in 5 days or knocked out in 2.5 days. The key with this route is to allow time to take in the scenery and the interesting geological features and to have a back-up plan if you do have a serious problem with goat head thorns.

For a 5-day leisure ride I recommend the following mileage and camp spots.

  • Day one: Drive to Prineville and ride 27 miles, climb 2,769 ft to the Skookum Rock Bush Camp (the first 20-miles of this day will be paved).
  • Day two: Ride 43 miles, climb 3,110 ft and camp at Burnt Ranch Campground along the John Day River.
  • Day Three: Ride 22 Miles, climb 1,785 ft. Explore the Painted Hills, go to Tiger Town Brewing Co., Stay at the Spoke’n Hostel, resupply at the Wheeler County Trading Co.
  • Day Four: Ride 27 Miles, climb 4176 ft. and Camp off of Summit Road or at Walton Lake
  • Day Five: Ride 31 Miles, climb 150 ft. descend 2,550 ft. This day is mostly pavement and should allow you enough time to get a bite to eat in Prineville before driving home.

For a quick 2.5 day ride I recommend the following mileage and camp spots

  • Day One: Ride 27 miles, climb 2769 ft and camp at Shookum Rock Bush Camp
  • Day Two: Ride 70 miles, climb 5,000 ft and stay at the Spoke’n Hostel. Be sure to take in the beauty of Horse Heaven, the John Day River Basin, and the Painted Hills. Goat head thons can be a problem this day.
  • Day Three: Ride 60 miles back into Ochoco National Forest, climb 4,300 ft, Descend back into Prineville. Nearly half of this day is on pavement.

 

Additional Resources

Terms of Use: As with each bikepacking route guide published on BIKEPACKING.com, should you choose to cycle this route, do so at your own risk. Prior to setting out check current local weather, conditions, and land/road closures. While riding, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, carry proper safety and navigational equipment, and of course, follow the #leavenotrace guidelines. The information found herein is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by the specified contributor and/or contributors, the accuracy of such and judgement of the author is not guaranteed. BIKEPACKING.com LLC, its partners, associates, and contributors are in no way liable for personal injury, damage to personal property, or any other such situation that might happen to individual riders cycling or following this route.

  • Doug Nielsen

    I don’t know what it was but her red bike is saaaweeeeet!

  • Mike

    What would be the minimum tire size you all would recommend for this trip? Would 700 x 40c be too narrow? I have been looking for a good gravel trip in Central Oregon.

  • steve

    No photo’s of you? great shots and cool trip

  • Great pics!!! Is that a late 80’s, early 90’s Specialized StumpJumper? pure awesomeness.

  • Joe Faulkinbury

    I would say a mid 80’s Stumpjumper. And I agree. Absolutely a beautiful and great riding bicycle.

  • Quinn Rohlf

    Did the Prineville->Mitchell section of the route this weekend. Water between Ashwood and Burnt Ranch is virtually nonexistient despite the generous snowpack this year. There is currently one small stream that the trail crosses two or three times on the descent which is drinkable in a pinch, but is definitely tainted with some agricultural runoff. It’ll probably be dried up in another week. Any party planning to do this route unsupported should plan on carrying enough water out of Ashwood to get through the subsequent ~30 miles of climbing and rollers.

  • Kevin Machtelinckx
  • Ben Barber

    Hey Quinn, a friend and I are doing the full loop starting next Saturday. How many litres of water did you carry with you?

  • Quinn Rohlf

    I had two 28oz bottles, which would maybe be enough if you move quickly between ashwood and the burnt ranch recreation area. We had a pretty slow group and ran out of water in that section, if I was going to do it again I’d probably roll with a 3rd 28oz bottle to be safe.

    It’s worth talking to the Spoke’n Hostel folks, they mentioned something about getting a water resupply in that section last time we chatted.

  • Ben Barber

    Thank you!

  • crissly

    My buddy & I are slated to ride this loop in September. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Oregon, but is that a good time to ride this loop? We’ll both be riding Specialized Sequoias. I noticed a Sequoia in one of the pictures. It is on 650B wheels? If so, how wide are the tires? If not, what’s the width on the 700c’s? I also couldn’t find anything on Skookum Rock Bush Camp, would you have any information about this campsite?

  • Matt C.

    I just did this route last week, and the Skookum Rock “Bush Camp” is basically just an unmarked pullout area on the side of the road. There is a stream for water (treat or filter), and decent spots to set up tents and such, no other facilities. You can also walk upstream a short way for views of Skookum Rock, which isn’t really visible from the road. I didn’t actually camp there (ended up a short ways down the road), but seems like it would be a pleasant place to camp.

  • Matt C.

    I did this trip for the recent solar eclipse, since I was looking for something in central Oregon and this entire route was located within the path of totality. A lot more traffic than normal, but it was a nice loop, did it in 4 days of riding, with a few extra days camped out waiting for the eclipse at Burnt Ranch. I ended up using a mix of public transportation to access the route, since I didn’t want to have to worry about dealing with a vehicle given the eclipse crowds, but also wanted to save some time over biking to the start of the route. I took an Amtrak Cascades train (which has bike racks) to Eugene. Spent the night in Eugene, then hopped on a Lane Transit District bus (route 91) to McKenzie Bridge early the next morning, riding it to the end of the line. Biked from there about 39 miles up and over the pass on Hwy 242 to Sisters, which was a scenic ride. From Sisters, took a Cascades East Transit Bus to Redmond, biked out to Smith Rock State Park to camp (a scenic spot, $5/night/person, with showers). Had planned to bike from there to Prineville, but needed to back track to Redmond to a bike shop, so ended up taking the bus from Redmond to Prineville to save some time. Definitely possible to make it between Eugene and Prineville in a single day with some planning and by taking advantage of public transit.

  • Matt C.

    I think 700 x 40c would be fine for the vast majority of this route. I rode it last week, and the worst sections were on Summit Road (starting at mile 107): there were some relatively short sections of big, chunky rock and also some sections of thick dust/sand, both of which were hard to ride on 26 x 2″ tires. But most of those sections were less than a hundred yards before the road improved again. You could also easily bypass that section of the route by just remaining on NF-22 instead. The other section I remember that you might wish you had fatter tires was the descent to the John Day River, probably starting around mile 55 or 60 or so? This section of the road was noticeably worse than most other sections, but better than the Summit Road stretch. Of course, gravel road conditions can vary a lot, depending on when they were last graded and such, so YMMV…

  • crissly

    thanks for the reply. Looking forward do riding this loop.

  • Stephen

    This route was great! Thanks to Bene, Nam, and the Swallows. A friend and I rode this at the end of August taking 5 days. A few notes to contribute. In late summer, we found water sources running low. Creeks near Skookum Rock were a trickle but okay. Pisgah Spring was running but Bridge Creek and surrounding area (mile 113-114) were trampled/overrun by cattle. Carry extra water, days were very warm and the air is very dry. Forest fires throughout the west led to some unpleasant conditions – check smoke forecasts. The general store in Mitchell closed at the end of August 2017 (retirement). Tiger Town isn’t open everyday! We echo the recommendations to run tubeless as we pulled many thorns. Spoken Hostel is incredible..Pat and Jalet were great hosts. Call ahead for reservations and/or inquire about current conditions. Be prepared for some sandy stretches up on Summit Rd, esp if conditions are dry. Lastly, late summer/early fall is hunting season (be alert). Have fun!

  • Abe Torchinsky

    I’m looking for a 5 day route in Oregon or Washington for early November. I live in Northern BC and am not too familiar with the weather in the PNW. Would this be a pleasurable ride at that time of year? Should I expect snow?