The Best of the Western Slope

Why go from A to B in a straight line? How boring! That’s not how an adventure tourer rolls. Recently I had to travel from Sandy, Oregon to Diamond Lake, Oregon. There is a boring A to B way to get there, and there is a route more appropriate for a Two-wheeled Astronaut.

My goal was to travel along mostly Forest Service roads along the western slope of the Cascade mountain range. After poring over topographical maps and consulting Google maps, I picked a route. I would stay one night at Diamond Lake, then retrace my steps back home.

To start, I rode on highway 224 from Sandy to Ripplebrook ranger station, then south on NF 46 to Detroit, OR. Familiar stuff. The air was getting thick with wildfire smoke, some from as far away as British Columbia, but the most was from the nearby Whitewater fire east of Detroit in the Jefferson wilderness.

After getting gas and a snack in Detroit, the next leg took me along highway 22 into Sisters, Oregon. I stopped at a Chevron station for a quick break. The station was busy, and had nearly two dozen bikers on cruisers, revving their engines and blasting their stereos. The next leg would take me on highway 242 up and over McKenzie Pass.

This was new territory for me, and I regret not having ridden it before. The scenery was incredible! High, jagged lava rock walls lined the narrow road. The road itself was narrow and twisty in parts, especially on the western slope of the summit. At the summit itself was an incredible view of the Three Sisters.

The western slope of highway 242 winds its way down through primeval forest, with many switchbacks. It was 2nd gear heaven.

Highway 242 merged into highway 126. I stopped in the community of Rainbow for a snack before catching the Aufderheide Drive (NF 19) headed south. This road memorializes a beloved Forest Service manager that passed away in 1959. It follows the western shore of Cougar Reservoir before heading up into the forest. The road had excellent pavement, wonderful curves, and more trees. It is a fantastic riding road.

NF 19 ends in the small community of Westfir, which lies a mile west of Oakridge, on highway 58. I pulled into Oakridge and got gas, then ate lunch at the very busy Dairy Queen next door. The temperatures and wildfire smoke were both high so it was nice to get inside and enjoy some air conditioning.

The next leg was my biggest concern for the trip, as I had the least amount of information about the route. I took NF 21 south along Hills Creek Reservoir, a familiar pattern before heading up into the hills. The road was in good shape and the scenery was nice (mostly forest), but the route itself wasn’t as clear. I saw some signs that indicated it was the Diamond route, or something. NF 21 turned into NFD 2145, and began to climb elevation. Once I was over 4,000 feet, the pavement ended.

The gravel road was covered in washboard ripples that got deeper and more aggressive, jarring my bike’s suspension. My GPS was unsure where to take me, and after stopping to consult my topographical map, I realized I likely had 60 or more miles of that nasty washboard road to go before I hit highway 138 north of Diamond Lake.

At this point I had ridden 34 miles into the wilderness after leaving highway 58 in Oakridge. I could press on with an uncertain outcome, beating myself and my bike to death on a gravel road with worsening conditions, or I could backtrack and take the paved and safe but long way around.

It was already after 4 PM, and I didn’t want to get stuck on back roads with an uncertain route after dark. I erred on the side of caution and backtracked to Oakridge. There, I caught highway 58 east over the Willamette Pass, then highway 97 south. I gassed up in Chemult and chugged a bunch of water, as I was getting dehydrated from the long, hot day. A dozen miles down the road brought me to Diamond Junction, where I rode up to the lake and my rest for the evening. I didn’t get there until 6:30 PM.

The next morning, I left Diamond Lake at 7 AM and rode into Chemult where I had an unappetizing breakfast at the Pilot gas station and adjoining Subway sandwich shop. At least the trucker coffee was good. I backtracked up 97 and then 58 to Oakridge, where I filled up my gas tank. I headed north on NF 19, the Aufderheide Drive.

The air was getting thicker by the mile with wildfire smoke. It became apparent that the fire was nearby. I came around a bend and saw a fire crew truck with two firefighters in reflective gear and hard hats, stopping traffic. The young man told me the road ahead was blocked by fire down to the pavement and they wouldn’t let me go through. I could either backtrack or take a gravel detour up into the hills.

The firefighter was nice enough to give me written directions for the various Forest Service road junctions, but he cautioned, “It may take you an hour.” He wasn’t kidding.

I left the pavement and headed up into the hills along some steep gravel roads. I was standing up on the pegs the whole time, and rarely got into second gear. The smoke was thick, but soon I was above it. The wildfire smoke settled half-way up the valley, and once I was above it, it looked like a field of white snow that I could have walked across. It had its own beauty … when I wasn’t trying to topple off the narrow, jagged rock road.

I eventually made it back down into the smoky valley floor and back onto pavement. After looking at the map back home, I estimated I’d made a four mile detour that took an hour to travel.

Back in Rainbow, I stopped for gas and a much needed snack break. This time the air was clearing a little bit. I headed east, past where 242 branched off toward McKenzie Pass, and continued north to where highway 126 merged with highway 20 and then highway 22 north to Detroit. The further north I travelled, the thicker the smoke became.

I stopped in Detroit to top off my gas tank, and then boogied up NF 46 toward home.

The first day of my trip, I rode 434 miles and was on the bike from 7:45 AM to 6:30 PM. That had been my longest riding day ever, in terms of hours, and maybe even in terms of miles. The second day was 356 miles, but I was only on the bike from 7 AM to 3 PM.

My bike now needs new tires, a new chain and new sprockets. It’s covered in dust and is resting comfortably in my garage.

It was a tiring trip, and I’m thankful I stayed upright and never got lost.

Adventures only suck while you’re having them.

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