May 16-19, 2019 Hart Sheldon

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  • PDXPConklin
    May 20, 2019 at 12:35 pm #2094

    Well…that was hard. And beautiful, and amazing, and borderline dangerous, and did I mention hard? A buddy and I just completed this route in four days and loved the vastness and spectacular scenery. We both highly recommend this route to experienced, strong bikers, but also urge extreme caution with regard to the weather, water, and route finding.

    A month ago we were stoked about the late April warm temps and drying conditions. Mid to late May would normally be the right time to do this ride, after snow has melted, mud has dried, but before all the water is gone and the searing temps arrive. 2019 is not a normal year. With promising reports from locals we pressed forward despite a ten day forecast that called from more rain and then showers and perhaps some colder temps we pressed ahead undeterred with baseless optimism.

    Day 1 began in Burns with steady, drenching rain. Still raining in Frenchglen. A slow packing up had us on the road just after noon, and low and behold, the rain stopped, and stayed stopped for the rest of the day. Beautiful riding beside the Steens and eventually off the pavement towards Slicky Lake. With the bikes laden with extra food, water, rain gear and lots of warm clothes, we dry camped just beyond the Basque Hills. The SW wind was relentless and we found just enough space for two single tents behind some boulders for shelter. After a solid dinner in the tent, the wind continued unabated and the rain returned for most of the night.

    Day 2 started dry, and yes…windy. Still heading south we cursed and fought the relentless wind until we reached the upper end of the Hawks Valley and joyously turned left. We flew across the valley with the tailwind and a smooth track. After cresting a ridge at the west end of the valley, we descended the ~1200 ft and continued east toward the Oregon End Table and eventually Bog Hot road. The Bog hot springs were wonderful! We soaked in the stream and soothed our legs before lunch and the push to the Virgin Valley.

    When we departed the gravel of Bog Hot road for the pavement of Nevada state route 140, aka the Winnemucca To The Sea Highway, we thought we’d be in for some smooth pedaling. It was smooth, but it also was straight into the teeth of the 20+ mph headwind from the west. We opted to take the diversion off 140 to see the 1000 Creek Gorge and do the hike-a-bike up and over to the Virgin Valley campground. Through out the day, the temps were mild and only the wind seemed to be working against us. The Virgin Valley springs and oasis were stunning. The juxtaposition of this lush oasis teeming with life in the middle of the vast sage brush desert was amazing.

    Feeling strong and re-energized, we set out again with hopes of making West Rock Spring campground at about mile 125. Along the route out of the valley we chatted with the Virgin Valley camp hosts and they let us know that Catnip reservoir was releasing water and that the area roads might be flooded and impassable. With that in mind we opted to skip the southern loop down to Catnip. The wind and long uphill grade took it’s toll on our legs and we camped in the lee of some hillocks just atop the summit a few miles east of the turn off for County 8A. For the second night in a row we camped at the limit of our legs and found a delightful spot in the sage brush sheltered from the wind. After a long but dry day we enjoyed a beautiful sunset and slept again with the sound of rain on our tents.

    Water is an issue along this part of the route. After the descent from the Hawks Valley, before a steep hike-a-bike section, there was a foul cattle tank with some water in it. It might be life saving…if you needed saving, but we were in no mood to drink or filter it. The last water we had passed was at Home Canyon along Hwy 205 at about mile 30. The next reliable water is Bog Hot at about mile 84 and then the Virgin Valley at mile 106. Folks at the hot spring told us that the stream water, which IS the hot spring, was brackish and/or too minerally to drink. They re-filled our water bottles for us so we did not have to test it out. I believe the guide lists another spring with fresh water nearby, but we did not look for or see it. If you don’t refill at Bog Hot, that is about 76 hard miles with no water. Our temps were very cool (40s to low 50s) and we were not drinking much. In warmer temps, this stretch would require some serious water carrying capacity.

    Day 3 marked a change in the weather pattern. The relentless W-SW wind had abated overnight and into the morning. It was clear, crisp (low 30s) and sunny as we pedaled west on 140 towards the Sage Hen Hills summit at 6349 ft. The vistas were breathtaking. We finally saw the first of a number of pronghorn antelope. If you take this route (and avoid the Catnip Reservoir loop) the summit is a wonderful place to stop, take in the scenery and chat with your friends back home as the cell service was decent. With the wind and an approaching storm now coming from the south, we cruised along on 140, dropping off the edge of the world on the Doherty Slide (check your brakes before launching this descent) and then we crossed the broad swath of the Guano Valley. Once across, we turned north and under increasing clouds and decreasing temps we flew along the smooth dirt road towards the Shirk Ranch.

    While we had good riding conditions on this and other roads, there were many extended sections that had clearly, recently been mud bogs. In early April, you probably couldn’t have walked some of these roads, let alone bikepacked. A hearty lunch at the Shirk ranch fueled us for the long, epic afternoon/evening ahead. The ranch history is fascinating and you can learn more here, Two Lakeview woman out hunting shared some beers and told us that the family had been murdered in the house over a hundred years ago. Later, we heard from another couple that there had been a stage coach robbery there. Seems like everyone has a tale to tell about the Shirk Ranch. Whichever story you choose to believe, the artifacts of the place are fascinating and a great window into a different time and way of life.

    Beyond the Shirk Ranch and it’s life giving water, the road turns up towards the higher plateaus of the Guano Valley. Another short hike-a-bike, led us to the most amazing expanse of high sage brush yet. The views went on forever and we were ringed by snowy ridges and the imposing snow covered Hart Mountain in the distance. Abundant wildflowers littered the road and sage brush in small explosions of color. I found myself wanting to stop for pictures, but there is just no way to capture the scale and grandeur. It was literally hard to believe that we were in such a beautiful place. We passed serene Jacob’s lake and then swiftly flowing Guano Creek. As we continued, Guano creek overflowed it’s banks and then filled the road. An alternate track temporarily took us through the sage brush until it too was flooded. Up and over some boulders, we hefted our bikes and eventually pushed them through the sage brush until we regained the road about a quarter mile later on slightly higher ground. The next few miles included numerous stream crossings, some over 2ft deep. No way around…you gotta get wet and go straight through. On a 90 degree day it would have been refreshing, but it was now in the mid 40s and a storm was bearing down on us from the south.

    The Pronghorn are plentiful in this area and it was startling to watch them cover huge distances so effortlessly. We traversed a high wild flowered basin in the increasing spitting rain and dropping temps and eventually reached the headwaters of the Guano Creek watershed on the upper slopes of Hart Mountain. Shivering, we donned our raingear and waterproof socks and contemplated our destination options for the day. The Guano Creek campground was just 4-5 miles ahead and offered water and shelter and rest. Further up and over the pass though, lay the promised land…Hart Mountain hot springs, and lots of campers offering us free beer. The lure proved too great and we decided ride past the sheltering trees, flowing water and fancy pit toilets. Our legs were toast and our feet were beyond numb but we put the pain aside and started the 1200 ft climb to the saddle. When we reached the saddle, at nearly 7000 ft., it was snowing, but we had made it and were certain that the hot springs were an easy down hill ride away. Hart Mountain would not yield her hot springs that easily though and decided to kick us in the nuts a few more times this day. She threw several hike-a-bikes through snowfields and more stream crossings at us before we would safely emerge at the campground to incredulous looks. After dropping our bikes at a site, we headed to the springs with our donated beer offerings and SLOWLY began the excruciating process of thawing our feet. Once warmed, we never wanted to leave. In the moonlight we scrambled for dry clothes and set up our camp, with temps now in the upper 30s. A hearty dinner at 10:30 while tucked into my sleeping bag was an awesome way to finish a truly epic day of bikepacking.

    Day 4 began once again with the pitter-patter of raindrops and the view outside my tent was white. The overnight rain had dusted the campground and thoroughly covered the mountains above us. We thought for a while about the bullet we had dodged. Had we camped in Guano Creek, the road to the saddle may not have been passable due to the snow. Has we been able to reach the saddle, the snow-covered descent would have been treacherous. A retreat towards Shirk Ranch and Hwy 140 might have been impassable due to mud from all the rain overnight. Little decisions can end up being big ones and this time we chose well.

    With 55 miles between us and our car at the Frenchglen hotel, we knew we were almost done. The elevation profile looked downhill…how bad could it be? The locals at Shirk Ranch had warned us though about the terrible road back to Frenchglen. We just thought that because of the washboard, she could only do 50 mph instead of 70 in her pick up. Actually…the road is THAT awful. The snow that had dusted our camp now turned to rain and became more steady. As we pedaled, washboard became the least of our worries. The road became wetter, softer and slower. Sand and grit coated everything and the sound of it rubbing on my disk brake rotors was discouraging as I worked to pedal across the vast expanse of sage brush. It was well over 40 miles back to the luxurious pavement of Hwy 205 and almost all of them were gritty, gruesome and soul crushing in the wet conditions. The occasional pronghorn sightings, the steady tailwind and the funniest thing we saw on the whole trip kept us going. A couple miles out of camp, we heard shotgun fire and cautiously came across a pair of locals. One was in his in his underwear, scampering across the road the road. Given that it was about 40 degrees out and raining, this was odd enough, but his buddy was on the other side, taking aim at the first guy’s pants, which were hanging on a sage brush bush. Not sure if he had a license, if pants are even in season this time of year or if he was sober enough hit a stationary pair of pants. We pedaled out of range as quickly as we could.

    Those last few miles on the smooth pavement of 205 were wonderful. We were back up at speed and covered the ground back to the hotel in no time.

    Like the route description says, this route is difficult and remote. We pushed our luck and went when the conditions were iffy. We were fit, prepared and had a plan but we now realize what a thin margin for error we had. Do not take this route lightly…it will kick your ass in any number of ways. Was it hard? Hell yes it was. Would I do it again? Hell yes. Would I wait for better weather? Absolutely!

    Pete Conklin

    June 14, 2019 at 4:25 pm #2109

    Thanks for the writeup! Love to see some photos.

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