Adventure is alluring. The excitement of the unknown and the anticipation of what might happen, the siren song that seduces you to see what’s around the next corner, the stories you’ll tell your grandkids. Now add mountain biking to that spirited feeling. Suddenly you are flying quietly through the backcountry and on surreal alpine ridges with nothing but the crunch of your tires on dirt and the earthy fragrance of the forest engulfing your senses.
Through-hiking has always been appealing to me, with destinations such as the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, and Colorado Trail coming to mind. The explosion of bike packing (aka mountain bike backpacking) has gained popularity with adventure-minded mountain bikers. The Oregon Timber Trail (OTT) is the newest player in the through-trail deck and is paradise for both the expedition-minded mountain biker and the weekend warrior.
It features four tiers, 10 segments, covers 668 miles, gains 66,000 feet, and crosses the entire state of Oregon from north to south. Terrain is 51% singletrack, 15% 4×4 jeep road, 25% gravel, and 9% pavement. Time guess’timate to complete the entire route is 20-30 days, and there’s an accompanying website that’s packed with useful information about the route and planning your ride.
Whether you want to take several weeks and bikepack the whole thing, or ride segments and stay in lodges along the way, the OTT offers a diverse backcountry paradise of dense rain forest, prehistoric volcanic formations, panoramic alpine ridges, commanding views of colossal mountains, and pristine lakes.
Starting at the California/Oregon border in the town of Lakeview, the Fremont Tier (201 miles, 19,000 feet elevation gain) takes you over the high point of the route at 8,000 feet. Vistas and rugged trail wind through one of the most barren sections of the OTT. The Willamette Tier (148 miles, 13,000 feet of gain) offers the transition from dry deserts and vanilla-scented ponderosa pines to dense, dark, loamy forests in the Cascade Range with ancient old growth trees and plentiful ferns.
Emerging from the rain forest, you’re back to the dry side with the Deschutes Tier (130 miles, 10,000 feet of gain) with views of Mt. Bachelor, volcanic formations, Waldo Lake, and the city of Bend in the distance. Finishing off with the longest section, the Hood Tier (193 miles, 24,000 feet of gain) takes you be back into the rain forest with spectacular views of Mt. Hood and relentless undulating terrain. The pristine water of the Columbia River and its banks of soft grass await you at the finish of the Oregon Timber Trail.
The route is grand but the work and communication behind a vast project like the OTT is even more immense. It’s no easy task to link and maintain singletrack trails across an entire state. The Oregon Timber Trail Alliance was formed in 2017 to unite over 10 mountain bike stewardship groups. Each group clears and maintains segments of the trail during the season. The OTT Alliance even offers a class for those interested in running a chainsaw as part of a trail crew. The Alliance has brought communities together with bike-specific wilderness first aide courses, hosted beginner bikepacking classes, and even worked with students to develop a guide to cultural and natural history along the OTT.
“We founded the OTT Alliance with four key tenets: stewardship of forgotten trails and fallow public lands; education of the trail’s users about the landscape, history, and sensitive or threatened areas; engagement with the communities along the route and how active recreation — especially bicycling — can be a huge boon for rural economies; and lastly a focus on experience and how our organization is dedicated to maintaining and improving our users’ backcountry mountain bike experience along the OTT corridor,” explained Gabriel Tiller, a member of the OTT Alliance.
Additionally, alignment of land managers, U.S. Forest Service, and user groups was paramount in establishing this continuous route. “We knew from the onset of the development of this concept that since the Oregon Timber Trail route was on 90% Forest Service land we would need to establish a solid relationship with the USFS Region 6, Forests, Ranger Districts, and individual USFS staff,” said Travel Oregon’s Harry Dalgaard. “We developed a charrette process that allowed the USFS and key trail stakeholders to discuss what the Oregon Timber Trail was all about and how we could improve the alignment and mitigate perceived user conflict.”
Clashes aren’t uncommon among user groups and the forest service when mountain biking is involved, but Oregon exemplifies teamwork and camaraderie between user groups. IMBA also gives mountain bikers a voice. Residing in Oregon’s mountain bike mecca of Oakridge, USFS employee Kevin Rowell says there are a lot of opportunities for user groups to learn from each other and it comes down to communication.
Creating education through events where equestrians can explain to mountain bikers how to operate when coming upon a horse has proven helpful. Horses perceive mountain bikers as aliens with our helmets and glasses, so if we can take our glasses off and step off the trail downslope, it makes it easier for the horses. “Everybody should try to understand that we have a limited number of trails,” said Rowell. “We have to be able to share them.”
In addition, hikers don’t like to be startled by mountain bikers on the trail and a simple advanced warning mitigates feelings of being ‘run over’ on the trail. And the mountain biker’s holy grail to their experience is the tread and traction of the dirt. “Mountain bikers really need good tread to enjoy the experience and just want a good trail,” adds Rowell. “And the other user groups understanding that will also improve the mountain biker’s experience. Understanding different values of the trail experience and on-trail communication is key between user groups. A little bit of a change in attitude to unite everyone as one trail user group rather than distinct user groups will help provide mutual respect and improve everyone’s experience.”
Thus the Oregon Timber Trail provides an amazing adventure across all the landscapes Oregon has to offer — and sets an example of camaraderie and stewardship among user groups.
I was in Oregon for only a few days and got a taste of the Willamette and Deschutes Tiers of the OTT. As an experienced bikepacker with segments of the Colorado Trail under my belt, I was impressed by the amount of rideable singletrack and variety of terrain. I got to ride the iconic Bunchgrass Trail, the spritely rain forest section of the Middle Fork, and the volcanic Waldo Lake to Sisters. Even in those short sections, I got a taste of the distinct and quickly changing terrain. I experimented with both bikepacking and taking shuttles and staying in local communities. Needless to say, I will be back.
Two others rode the OTT in its entirety with a sag vehicle and are currently the only people to have taken on the full distance of the trail. That’s the great thing about the OTT. You can ride segments, you can choose to have support or be unsupported, or do the whole thing at once for the ultimate adventure. The OTT offers every flavor of a mountain biker’s dream experience, from uniting communities and user groups, to creating new opportunities for adventure.
To learn more, head over to oregontimbertrail.org.