Southern Oregon Cascades Trip by Jeff Olsen

July 30~Aug 6th, 2000
Every time I’ve driven through Oregon, I have watched the Cascade mountain range scroll by, visible in the distance through the windows of the car. But that’s the closest I’ve ever been to them. This summer I finally got an up-close dose of the Cascades, from the seat of my bike.

crater lakeThis is the report of my one-week trip pedaling through the southern Oregon Cascades. The route was through two big river valleys: the Rogue and the Umpqua. Connecting the two valleys took me past Crater Lake and Diamond Lake. The segment along the Umpqua river was not part of the original agenda, but it was a great highlight of the trip. The largest town along the route is Shady Cove, Oregon – population: 1351. I used a Cannondale road touring bike with 35mm tires, loaded to the hilt with food, cooking supplies, camping gear … the whole nine yards. Most of the route was on paved roads. And most of it was through National Forest, so camping sites were easily found. Following are the day by day details of the trip.

-- Day One: Sunday July 30th: Shady Cove, Oregon to the Natural Bridge Campground.
Maybe I should call this “Day Zero” – I actually spent nearly the entire day driving to the start of the ride. Didn’t get on the bike until 4pm. I left the car in Shady Cove, a busy little watersports town along the Rogue River at about 1400 ft. elevation. It was blazing hot –mid nineties- and there was a severe shortage of shade in this fraudulently named town.

Rode northeast, up into the mountains along Hwy 62, which runs alongside the Rogue River. By about six o’clock the temperature was really comfortable. By that time I was a thousand feet higher, the sun was lower, and the road was in the cool of the forest.

A few miles before reaching the tiny town of Prospect, a sign alongside the road warned visitors: “Entering Cougar Country”. That seemed odd … cougar country is nearly everywhere these days. What makes this more of a cougar habitat than any of the other western backcountry I’ve just pedaled through? Once I reached town, I saw that “Cougars” is the name of the high school athletic teams.

At seven o’clock I reached the Forest Service campground called Natural Bridge, and decided to stop there for the night. The elevation is 3000 ft. There are sixteen campsites and all were full. So I pushed the bike along an abandoned, sandy road through the woods and along the river, and quickly found a great “wilderness site”. Filtered some water from the icy, raging river and enjoyed the cool breeze blowing down the canyon. The banks of the river here are polished rock, with large pockets of sand. There are no trees within fifty feet or so of the water’s edge. No mosquitoes; no need for a tent.

Natural Bridge is a bizarre spot where the Rogue River abruptly disappears into a huge hole in its rocky channel, flows under ground through a network of lava tubes, then bursts back above ground a short distance downstream.

-- Day Two: Up and Over Mt. Mazama; First Glimpse of Crater Lake
Up at 7am; it’s sixty degrees F. Today’s route will bring me into Crater Lake National Park at its southwestern entrance. It’s about sixteen miles from here, and about three thousand feet higher. Then I’ ll ride north along the western rim of the caldera, gaining another 1800 feet of elevation and reaching a maximum altitude of 7800 ft. The route then descends from the mountain, leaves the park at the north end, and leads past Diamond Lake at about 5100 feet elevation, where I may camp.

A mile or so after leaving Natural Bridge, the road passes the “gorge” section of the river. Here the river charges through a rocky channel that is deep and very narrow. The bedrock here is actually ancient lava from past volcanic activity. It is riddled with buried lava tubes. The collapse of the roof of one of the lava tubes created this rugged gorge, which then became the channel for the entire river.

Back on the road, the morning is quiet and cool. The forest starts abruptly at each edge of the road. The two walls of tall trees create the sensation of riding along the bottom of a deep canyon. There is no sunlight on the road; the skylight is only visible directly overhead, where the canopy is interrupted by the road corridor.

Two hours of riding brought me to the park entrance, where the attendant waved me through without charging an entrance fee. Shade was becoming scarce, but at this elevation of 6200 feet the air was cool and comfortable, even in direct sun. After a few flat miles, I passed the visitors’ center and began another short climb. About a mile later the road reached a col, passing over the lip of the crater and revealing the first view of Crater Lake and its caldera.

crater lakeThis is a spectacle that would stun nearly anyone. From the lip, one looks down into the “crater” of what remains of Mt. Mazama. Mt. Mazama was a giant volcano … about 12,000 feet tall. Seventy-seven hundred years ago it erupted, disgorging so much material from beneath its foundation that the foundation collapsed beneath the weight of the mountain. The entire central part of the mountain “sunk” into the pit, leaving only the lower, outer flanks of the original conical mountain. These now form a huge circular basin (caldera) -- six miles across and 4000 feet deep. Over the years rain and snow have filled it with water to a depth of 1900 feet. From the rim, one sees the rocky interior walls of this basin drop nearly vertically to the perfectly blue lake below.

Riding north along the western rim drive provided one great vista after another. The views to the west, away from the lake, are nearly as fine as the views of the lake basin to the east. I stopped at all the turnouts and made very slow progress. The local language in Crater Lake Park is not English, it’s German. At least eighty percent of the conversations I overheard while at the turnouts were in that language.

Continuing north from the lake, the road descends and, after a few miles, crosses the “pumice desert”: a flat, barren clearing a mile or so in diameter. It appears abruptly and for no apparent reason from the forested mountainside. The park brochure explains that the lava that once flowed through that area and settled out there has not turned to fertile soil during the ensuing millions of years. For some reason it is so void of nutrients that it has never been possible for the normal local vegetation to grow there.

Exited the park and headed north on Hwy 138. It was mid-afternoon and the headwind was pretty tough. My legs were feeling trashed after climbing 4800 feet, and they were not appreciating the extra punishment. Turned off the road toward Diamond Lake, where I hoped to find a place to buy a coke and relax for a while. I took a wrong turn, missed the store, and pedaled the wrong way for a few miles … around the north end of the lake and halfway down its west side. Never did find a coke but instead stumbled across a forest service campground on the western lakeshore. The late afternoon sunlight made the whole setting spectacular, and after a quick dunk in the lake I was rapidly losing interest in riding farther north that day. The campground was looking pretty tempting. A family who was camping there for the week offered me a beer and a lawnchair, and that was all it took to bring this day’s riding to an end.

We had a great time yakking by their campfire. By the time they were ready for dinner, they apparently felt that I was going to be difficult or impossible to chase away, so they cooked some extra food and shared it with me. After dinner we paddled their canoe out onto Diamond Lake to watch the sun go down. Mt. Thielson, a rocky 9100 foot peak that looms over the lake, is perfectly positioned to catch the alpenglow … it was lit up dramatically. An excellent summer day.

-- Day Three: A Failed Attempt; Shift to Plan B
45 degrees F at 7AM. Diamond Lake is at about 5100 ft elevation. About six miles north of Diamond Lake, where the main road bends to the west and heads toward Roseburg, the maps show a “gravel and dirt” Forest Service road heading north for thirty-one miles, over Windigo Pass, and finally reaching pavement again at Hwy 58, near the south end of the Cascade Lakes Highway. I’ve been hoping to be able to use that Windigo Pass road to reach the Cascade Lakes Hwy, and to ride and camp in the lakes region for a couple of days. But I know the thirty-one miles on the graveled road will be very slow, if they are rideable at all. I’m a little worried I’ll end up spending the entire day rassling the bike along a hot, dusty, road with no water along the way.

This morning in camp, a ranger saw me packing up my bike and stopped to talk. He pointed to the south and told me about a free hiker-biker campground I could have used last night … could have saved myself nine dollars. I asked him about the Windigo Pass road, and he confirmed that indeed it is unshaded, dusty, and arid. “It seems to go on and on forever”, he said referring to the times he "drove" it.

Stopped by Rob and Kathy’s camp on the way out, and had a cup of tea. Rode north along the west shore of the lake, then climbed out of the lake basin and onto the main road. The first six miles to the north were an effortless descent on perfect pavement in perfect mountain weather. Then Windigo Pass road appeared to the right, and I turned onto it to begin the grind.

The road surface actually wasn’t bad as far as gravelled roads go. A two wheel drive passenger car wouldn’t have much trouble on it. But for my one-wheel drive, fully loaded bike it caused all sorts of trouble. On the descents, the bike handled like it was in snow … plowing through the deep gravel, the front end wanting to wash out whenever I made a steering input. A few times it was able to escape my control long enough to run itself off the side of the road, and twice I dumped it while trying to recover. This was some nerve-wracking riding. On the uphill sections, the gravel again fought me for control of the front wheel. The road surface was heavily washboarded on the flat and uphill sections, causing the bike to act like a bucking bronco.

After about a mile of this punishment, I concluded that thirty more miles was just not going to be possible. It had taken twelve minutes to go one mile. I turned around and retreated toward State Route 138. A giant pickup truck towing a trailer full of horses came clambering down the road with a huge plume of dust in his wake. It took nearly a minute for the whiteout to dissipate. I was glad I was retreating.

Back on the pavement, I turned to the west and set out to spend the rest of the day riding down the Umpqua River canyon. Above Toketee Lake, the road runs parallel to the Clearwater River. The Forest Service has built nice campgrounds, trails, and waterfall viewpoints every few miles along the way. Below Toketee Lake, the Clearwater merges into the Umpqua, and the river volume picks up considerably. Below here the canyon is spectacular. It is narrow and deep, defined by rugged rocky cliffs of basalt -- hard dense volcanic rock. The river is classic western whitewater, roaring and bashing through the canyon, with a sound intensity like a 747 taking off.

By mid-afternoon, a wicked headwind was blowing up the canyon. Every so often a big dust squall would come spinning wildly along the road and leave me with a faceful of dust and grit. Although I was descending, the miles went by slowly and the pedaling was laborious.

At Dry Creek there is a small store, so I stopped to re-stock my food supply. A mile farther down the road, I turned into the Horseshoe Bend forest service campground to check it out. There were several excellent campsites – in the shade and along the riverbank, with great views up and down the canyon. The elevation is only 1400 feet, and the temperature up on the road was in the mid-nineties, but the cool wind along the river surface made the campground feel great. I decided to stay there.

I chose a campsite, and rolled over to the one next door where a group of 6~8 people was camped. I asked whether they’d been having to cope with mosquitoes in the evenings. The guy I spoke with started asking all about my trip, about how the bike handled on the gravel road, and this and that and so on. He knew an awful lot about bikes. He turned out to be John Moreland, the CEO of BikeE – the company in Corvallis that makes the short-wheelbase recumbents. They took me along on their little excursion to show me where the campground’s best swimming hole was, while his wife scolded me for riding an “old fashioned” bike.

After a swim and some dinner, I read until about nine o’clock without needing a flashlight. The air temperature had cooled to 68 degrees F. As the last traces of light were fading from the sky, several billion bats suddenly filled the sky, strafing the airspace over the river.

-- Day Four: Back Up to Diamond Lake
Fifty-five degrees F at 7 AM. The first sunlight is illuminating only the trees and rock outcroppings way up on the opposite side of the canyon. But down here, the view up and down the river is dark, like a morning in the middle of winter.

Today I’ll head back east, up the Umpqua River canyon, backtracking yesterday’s route. By tomorrow afternoon I’d like to get to the Lost Creek campground, in the far (southeast) corner of Crater Lake park. There’s about seven thousand feet of climbing between here and there; giving myself two days to get there will permit me to ride in vacation-mode rather than nose-to-the-grindstone mode. Tonight I’ll camp at Diamond Lake – the last campground before entering Crater Lake Park.

Cooked some breakfast, loaded up the bike, and was on the road by 9:00 AM. Weather was perfect, the canyon was cool and quiet, and the traffic was nil. This lower stretch of the Umpqua River and its canyon is amazing; I was filled with awe every time a new vista presented itself. It was a nice morning of riding.

The roads never seem to get very steep here in snowplow habitat. This long climb toward Diamond Lake gains 3800 vertical feet, but the grade is uniform and comfortable, with the steepest grades only gaining about 250~300 feet per mile. Nevertheless, by the time I stop for lunch at the Clearwater River waterfalls, I’m plenty tired. Most of the climbing is over with, so I’ll indulge in a long lunch.

After four peanut-butter-and-jelly burritos, I was feeling utterly fine. Took a dunk in the river, and got back on the road. Arrived at Diamond Lake around mid-afternoon, intending to try to find the hiker-biker campground I had heard about. I looped around the west side of the lake to stop by the Thielson View campground and say “hello” to Rob and Kathy, who had given me the VIP treatment two days earlier. I found them sitting by the lakeshore, reading and taking in the amazing, postcard-caliber view. We yakked for a while, and they dissed my idea of riding on to the hiker-biker campground, inviting me to have some spaghetti dinner with them and to crash at their camp. We had another nice dinner, an after-dinner canoe trip to watch the sunset from the lake, and a campfire.

--Day Five: Back Up to Crater Lake; and Down to the Camp
When I rode through Crater Lake three days ago, I rode along the western rim of the caldera, then descended to the north, exited the park, and continued north. Today I want to climb back up to the rim, and spend some more time on the spectacular road that circles the caldera. Riding around the north and east sides will bring me to a spur road that heads south from the southern part of the rim, and four miles down that spur road is the Lost Creek Campground … a good destination for today.

Had a nice breakfast and a leisurely morning, and it was late morning by the time I got rolling. Already the wind was a nuisance. The climb south toward the rim drive at Crater Lake gains about 2000 feet or so from Diamond Lake. A section of the road travels through the Pumice Desert – the “bald spot” in the forest -- and across there the wind really roared. Re-entering the forest at the south edge of the desert brought immediate shelter and relief. A few miles later, though, as the road climbed above timberline, the shelter disappeared and the wind became more and more difficult.

The Rim Drive, along the north and east sides of the lake, travels through alpine scenery that’s about as good as it gets. It actually doesn’t provide many views of the Crater Lake, but when one does appear it’s enough to stun you. At other times, the road travels in and out of the folds of the mountainside: through dark groves of Shasta Red Fir, across exposed, rocky slopes, and along narrow purpose-built berms across perfect alpine meadows. Along the eastern side of the mountain some vistas of the eastern Oregon high desert begin to appear.

There is a stiff and persistent wind now, and a pretty serious looking stream of clouds from the west that’s been building during the afternoon. When one panoramic view of eastern Oregon appears, I can see that what’s been looking like a cloud "cover" is actually a single narrow band of clouds passing directly over the mountain I’m on. Like a standard “banner” except the scale is enormous. This I can tell because nearly all the desert floor below and to the east is in sunlight … except for where the banner of clouds projects its shadow down onto it – creating a long narrow band of cloud-shaped spots extending, I guess, fifty miles or so to the east. It’s an interesting scene.

There are now some incredible blasts of wind coming from the west, and the air temperature is chilly. It’s sometimes a real battle to keep the bike tracking on my half of the road. Along most segments of the road the mountainside provides pretty good protection from the wind, but when the road leaves that shelter the force of the wind is almost scary. If I was blindfolded I doubt whether I could distinguish its sound from that of a winter storm.

The end of the climbing comes as the road passes over a shoulder of Mt. Scott, at about 7200 ft elevation along the eastern side of the rim. The road has gained ~1000 ft. of elevation in these last few miles along the rim. I’m really anxious to get done pedaling through these chilly blasts of wind, so the descent is a great relief.

The wind quickly ceases to be problem as the road loses altitude. Another 8~10 miles and I roll into the Lost Creek campground. It’s small and quiet, but all the sites are already full. It’s only about four o’clock in the afternoon, and it’s a Thursday. There’s a gravel road heading west from the campground, and the map shows that it will cross a creek in a couple of miles. I’m sure I can find a spot to camp somewhere along that creek so I pedal west. An hour later I’ve got myself a great “wilderness” camp, six litres of filtered water from the creek, and I’m a happy camper.

--Day Six: The Pinnacles; and Back to the Rogue River
In camp last evening, the sky looked like it just might be planning to ambush the mountain with a surprise storm during the night. So all evening I debated whether or not to set up the tent. I finally did it, and the entire night was free of rain.

Today I’ll backtrack to the paved road, ride down to the Pinnacles Overlook, then do a one-eighty and climb back up to the rim drive. Ten miles or so on the rim drive will bring me to the Park Headquarters, completing my circumnavigation of the rim. From there, I’ll head west, out of the park and into the National Forest. Near the tiny outpost named Union Creek, the road enters the valley of the Rogue River, and I will begin searching for a nice riverside campsite. Tomorrow, then, will be my last day of riding, and it will be a short one.

The ride down to the Pinnacles Overlook was a nice surprise. The road and forest actually reside on the top surface of an ancient lava flow on this south side of Mt. Mazama. Sand Creek, which parallels the road, has cut a steep, dramatic chasm deep into the old lava. At the overlook, a vast section of the canyon is visible, and in it are clusters of spectacular, huge pinnacles protruding from its floor and walls. Why are these columns of ancient lava still standing here alone, while all the other bajillion tons of material that once filled the canyon have been dislodged, crushed, and washed away by thousands of years of erosion?

These pinnacles, the sign explains, are actually hollow tubes. When the lava flow was still young and it completely filled the canyon, pressurized steam and other gases from the interior of the mountain escaped through vents or “fumeroles” through the thick layer of lava. These gases carried minerals with them, and heated the interior surfaces of the vents to temperatures in the range of 400C. These temperatures were sufficient to cause reactions between the minerals and the vent surfaces, producing a hard, stable lining … like a hardened arteries. Seventy-seven hundred years of erosive action has broken down and removed the “normal” lava from the area, but the tough, hardened columns lining the vents have resisted those forces and survived.

From the Pinnacles, it’s a quiet, relaxing eight mile climb that gradually gains about twelve hundred feet and meets the rim drive at 6700 ft. elevation. The sky has a vague overcast and the air temperature is cool. Whenever the road enters a shady section, I’m anxious to get back into the sun.

The rim drive continues to climb, and to the left are abrupt dropoffs and excellent birds-eye views of the canyon from which I’ve just climbed. Beyond that are hundred-mile vistas of the Klamath Lakes basin and beyond. To the right is the wall of the mountain, rising steeply to the rim of the caldera. My lane of the road is wet from hundreds of sparkling little creeks that tumble down the mountainside and splash onto the road from the snowfields above.

As the road winds in and out of the folds in the terrain, the vegetation changes abruptly. The sheltered pockets contain groves of huge, handsome Shasta Red Fir. These groves have a clean, organized, almost manicured look to them. The canopy casts a dense, uniform shade; but within this darkness are the warm reddish toned, massive trunks of the trees, and covering the ground is some sort of bright green grass like you’d expect to see in a city park. The exposed south and west-facing slopes, on the other hand, look like tundra. There is no soil, only gravel. There is no shade, and there are no trees. Unless you count the tiny, stunted and gnarled skeletons of a few wind-blasted subalpine firs.

The climb tops out at about 7200 feet, and the next few miles of the road are visible in the distance as it twists and winds along the upper walls of the Sun Creek canyon. There is a large waterfall on the right as the road crosses Sun Creek, then a moderate climb out of the canyon to the top of Vidae Ridge, where another awesome vista presents itself. But I’m really hungry now, and all I can think about are peanut-butter-and-jelly burritos. A few more rolling miles brings me to the Park Headquarters. The loop around the rim is now complete. It’ s time to make those burritos.

The next few hours of riding were through unremarkable country. Just nice, western forest … nothing breathtaking. Once I reached Union Creek, I began looking for riverside campsites in the Forest Service campgrounds. There are quite a few campgrounds along that stretch of road, but it was Friday afternoon and the riverside campsites were all occupied. Finally, about 8~10 miles west of Union Creek, I followed a sign pointing down a gravel road toward the River Bridge campground and found one vacant spot.

This is a barebones campground with only about eight sites and no drinking water. But the river is beautiful here, and the banks on this side are made of polished rock with pockets of sand. It’s an excellent place to take a quick swim and enjoy the river. A longer swim would be out of the question, as most of this water was snow just a day or two ago. The Rogue River originates from springs and snowmelt on the western side of Mt. Mazama. The elevation here is 2700 feet, and the local mosquito population seems to be extinct now (end of July). No need for a tent here.

Tomorrow I’ll need to pedal back up the gravel road to the main paved road. That’s about a mile. Then it’s only about twenty-five miles to Shady Cove, where I hope I’ll find my car waiting. Then I’ll spend the next six hours driving back south. It will be blazing hot during the day, now that I’m down at these low elevations, so the earlier I can get rolling, the better.

-- Day Seven: River Bridge to Shady Cove
Fifty-seven degrees F at 5:50 AM. Somehow I managed to get myself up immediately. Cooked breakfast and had the bike packed up and ready to roll by 6:45. In the campsite next to mine, a three-year old boy was already up, pulling around his red wagon with his two favorite toy bulldozers in it. He clattered over into my campsite to say “howdy”. We had a bunch of fun for the next twenty minutes: he sat in the wagon and I pulled him all over the place on a neat little network of footpaths that runs through the campground. The rocks and roots gave the wagon a good jostling around, and he had a blast pretending he was in a jeep.

I rolled out at 7:05am. A few spots of sunlight lit up some of the tallest treetops on the other side of the canyon, but the campground and the road were still in the shadows. After a few miles I had to stop to put on a vest and arm warmers … the riding was a little chillier than I expected. The forest looked great, with orange shafts of early morning, low-angle light filtering through the trees.

Arrived in Shady Cove at 9:00 AM, and was in the car and headed home by 9:20 AM.

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