Steens Mtn Tour Report – Sept 9-11

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  • mudworm
    September 18, 2014 at 6:29 pm #993

    Here is our tour report and hope the information can be of some use to future travelers. My full report is published here: Steens Mountain Tour Full Report. What I did not copy over are some lessons learned and notes taken for touring and tandem riding.

    I hope the below report comes out fine because this site does not allow preview, so I’m just blindly copying a portion of my report over and hoping that it will not be too messy.

    We did one variation of the Steens Mountain loop in three days. We are three travelers: Mr. Mud and I on our tandem, also our first bikepacking tour; Tom on his touring bike with plenty of previous touring experiences. Despite our intention of doing the Oregon Bikepacking (OBP) loop, we ended up making some modifications (on the third day) to it due to our shortened itinerary, and we are very happy with what we experienced doing our variation.

    Ride link: http://www.strava.com/activities/193632192

    Day 0: We drove to Crystal Crane Hot Springs and camped for the night. The tent camping itself is very primitive there on an open field. However, its amenities make it worth the $20/night rate. They include an easy-to-get-to hot spring pool, clean restrooms and shower rooms, a standalone kitchen with cookware and utensils for all to use (24 hours), a comfortable common area (like a large living room) that has coffee in the morning (7am-9pm), and a convenience store (9am-9pm), etc. What’s also helpful is since we camped the night before the tour and reserved the night after the tour, we were allowed to leave our vehicle there for two nights for free (YMMV).

    Day 1: Crystal Crane Hot Springs to Fields Station: 105 miles / 2.5k’ / 42 miles gravel / 07:54:34 over all time

    This is the flattest century I’ve ridden. Kinda nice especially when you have a hard time limit to reach the destination. We had read that the restaurant at Fields closed at 4pm, and we were counting on the food there to refuel. The day before, Tom said we needed to start riding at 6am. After a day of lolly gagging and a short late afternoon mountain bike ride, we went to stash one vehicle at Tom’s friend’s place in Bend. Following that was some last minute shopping and dinner, so we didn’t leave Bend until almost 9pm, which is 2.5 hours away from the Hot Springs. “Okay, we should start riding next day absolutely no later than 6:30am.” At 6:30am in the morning, we were still sipping the wonderful coffee that Tom pressed. 7am, yes, 7am is the hard limit! Any later than that we would be screwed. At 7:23am, we hit the start button on the GPS unit, and we had about eight and half hours to cover the century. Touring Lesson #1: you almost never leave at the time you plan to leave.

    Having expected no easy water refill and full on sun exposure riding through Alvord Desert, we carried all our water, lots of it, with us, including the two camelbaks that Mr. Mud and I were carrying. But what really slowed down the pace was the 42 miles of gravel road after about 50 miles in. Overall, the gravel road is pretty packed, but in September, everything had been dry for a while, and there were some soft spots and washboards when we went through in mid-September. We were joking and laughing early on the ride, but by now, the slowed pace and the noon sun sapped our energy, so we all went quiet. One pedal stroke at a time, we focused on the task at hand. On the ride, we had no idea how long the gravel section was. Tom did the most research on the route and gave us a 30-45mile range. 30 miles passed, and we saw no end of the gravel, then 35 miles passed… The pavement was a very welcome sight when it finally came into view after about 42 miles. By then, we knew we had the ride in the bag for that day. Whew!

    So, this day’s riding has a hump of about 1000′ of elevation gain in the first half. And again in the second half on the gravel. But nothing is very steep. At Mile 40 (or so), you will make a right hand turn off Hwy 78. That’s the east most point on the whole loop. If you have a GPS, you will notice that at one point, your time has shifted by one hour, as if you’ve lost one hour. Do not despair as the time will shift back once you’ve ridden westward far enough. Apparently, this loop crosses time zones somewhere. Desolate is the word that comes to mind when describing the view. At around Mile 72, the Steens Mountain summit will be to your right. It’s interesting to know that the route will take you up the mountain only <5 miles horizontal distance away, but >5000′ up. Enjoy the flat riding when you can.

    We arrived at Fields Station around 3:15pm. We then learned that the restaurant would take the last order at 4:15pm (for that day at least). That gave us plenty of time to go into our suite (very reasonably priced) to all take a shower and get comfortable. Oh, it felt so good! We made some large orders and when people say the world’s best milkshakes are made here, they are not bluffing.

    Everyone at the Station was genuinely friendly, including a cute little boy who just got out of school wearing a backpack that was almost as tall as he was and he was very excited about the new books he received. He asked pointing at our bike, “What’s that?” “That’s a tandem bike.” “What’s a tandem bike?” “A tandem is a two-person bike.” “What’s a two-person bike?” “Well, it’s a tandem!” We all laughed before more explanations. Even a resident cat, a 7 month black kitty named Lance, was the sweetest cat I’d ever encountered. He curled up on my chest in all forms and nudged my chin with his cold nose again and again and at one point, even stole a kiss on my lips! I was just about to empty out one pannier to see how I could fit Lance in, and then I saw the piston the store clerk was wearing on his waist and changed my mind. Jade, the lovely chef/waitress in the restaurant, did warn me that her husband is the crazy cat lady.

    There is no TV in the room, but there is abundant entertainment that is composed of dozens of flies and a swatter. I was just reading a Yelp review the other day on a motel in Klamath Falls, OR, where the reviewer complained about all the flies in the room. I thought it was funny (although not funny to the motel owner) — when you are in the middle of some agriculture land, there is bound to be flies, especially when you leave the room door open for any period of time. Between Tom and Mr. Mud’s swatting competitions, we got a very peaceful night of sleep.

    The breakfast next morning did not start until 8am, and was served with a typical small town pace. If you are ever in the hurry to get out, plan ahead and maybe make/order your breakfast the night before. Or, like us, plan a short day and be relaxed about it. I quite enjoyed the breakfast at the Station.

    IMG 4446 First half of the riding was on smooth pavement with occasional gentle hills.
     

    IMG 4460 Then the gravel hits and it does not seem to end.

    IMG 4469 This is Alvord Desert we are riding through.

    Day 2: Fields Station to S. Steens Mtn Campground: 61 miles / 3k’ / 20 miles of gravel washboard / 06:51:40 over all time

    There is a 1000′ climb pretty much right out of the door from Fields Station, so you may want to order your breakfast accordingly. Between Mr. Mud an Tom, there were sausage burps and bacon burps. Thankfully, it was never so steep that would trigger pukeages. Actually, it was so gradual that Tom was able to ride by his Powermeter trying to maintain a sustainable power up, except that he also tried to draft off of our tandem that blocked some of the headwind. So, every time Mr. Mud stood up (to relief the saddle pressure), I heard Tom behind me, “God!” “Jesus!” “Jesus Christ!” I was expecting him to be a convert when we reached the summit.

    At Mile 40, we reached the turn off to the South Steens Mtn Road. From here, it was mostly unknown to us as we hadn’t read anything about the riding of this section. Well, first, we were surprised by the traffic on the gravel road. Of course, it was all relative and there had been very little traffic on the roads we had traveled so far, so a dozen vehicles encountered on the 20 miles to the campground were considered heavy traffic. Then the washboards. Wow, the washboards! I didn’t know it before, but there was almost nothing we could do at the worst washboard sections. Tried to go fast and float, and we were bounced right off the side of the road. We stayed up right but that was scary! Tried to go almost no speed and roll, and still, the frequency of the washboard and the tandem frame flex resonated so much that we were literally bouncing straight up and down. Once you start bouncing, there is little you can do to stop it effectively.

    After gingerly navigating the rolling washboardy gravel road, we reached a short steep section where my GPS registered 11%. When that was over, the climb, albeit not as steep, continued, and then we saw this wall, a long one in front of us. Thank god, that was also when we saw the sign for South Steens Mtn Campground, right before it!

    The family campground was not crowded on that Wednesday night. It has a few well houses. We were all able to take a dip shower and got cleaned up. The outhouses were among the cleanest and best smelling I had ever used. I got to talk to a couple who apparently visit the area frequently. They told me that the washboards are at its worst right now because it had been so dry. I suppose the road condition could be better early in the season, but the loop road is only open on July 4th weekend from what I heard.

    We found one tree on the way to the campground and they sat in its shade for a while. Otherwise, it is overall a high plain desert. We could see the steep climb going across the mountain side. We would be tackling it next day.

    IMG 4493 The climb out of Fields Station is pretty gentle.

    IMG 4496 So is the descent.

    IMG 4504 At the turn off 40 miles after Fields Station. A mystery awaits.

    IMG 4502 And this added the mystery. Is it only Stop signs they shoot at?

    IMG 4509 One lone tree on the gravel trek to the campground. If you see it, use it.

    Day 3: S. Steens Mtn Campground to Frenchglen Hotel to Crystal Crane Hot Springs: 100 miles / 5.5k’ / 40 miles of gravel / 11:11:50 overall time

    We knew this would be a big day. I was a bit apprehensive about the steep climb right out of the campground (gaining 4500′ in 10 miles) and the 30 mile gravel descent on the other side. I guess it was good to set the expectation for the worst. The steep gravel climb was steep alright, but at 8-12%, it was still rideable by our loaded tandem on skinny tires. There was only one spot where seemingly firm ground collapsed under our skinny tires and we got off. The best part was the washboards on the other side of the loop were not as bad as the day before. Rather, they were not bad at all! I found it too nerve wrecking to watch the fast approaching turns on the descent when I couldn’t do anything, so I kept my eyes fixated on the GPS unit mounted in front of me. When we hit 30+ mph, I’d make a weak plea to my captain, “s…l…o…w…” We miraculously made it to Frenchglen without mishaps.

    Off the Steens Mtn Rd is a 1/2 mile road to the East Rim. Do no skip it. You are greeted by an expansive view of Alvord Desert. When we arrived, there was high wind over the rim, but by simply dropping down a few feet on the cliff side, we were able to enjoy a leisurely bagel lunch while basking in the sun taking in the gorgeous view.

    From there was 30 miles of downhill on gravel, but 10 miles down, we stopped at Fish Lake Campground to fill up our water. Make sure to <span style=”text-decoration: underline;”>stay left</span> at the forks that lead you to the well house.

    We had hoped to have lunch at Frenchglen Hotel and we were lucky to arrive there before their closing time. We were not aware of the closing time at 2:30pm. Our lunch did not disappoint. The best part though was we got to chat with some other travelers (by RV’s and cars) as well as some locals. We learned from a couple of locals the “best” way to get back to Crane Hot Springs. It would deviate us from the original OBP route, but by now, we were pressed on time to finish the route and we had had our share of gravel for the day. So, from Frenchglen, we took the paved Hwy 205. As the ranger told us, it skirts the same wild life refuge that the gravel road would take us through. Not sure if we missed much in a dry season like this. 17 miles later, we turned right on Diamond Ln, then left on Lava Bed Rd, which become Diamond Craters Rd, which led us all the way back to Hwy 78. The whole way was on quiet pleasant paved roads. We made it back to Crane Hot Springs just when it got dark, although we did make a stop 5 miles before the end to pick up a 6 pack from the Crane general store.

    While climbing and descending Steens Mtn Loop Rd, we had a few stunning canyon views, but on the descent, the color display of the aspen forests (near Fish Lake Campground) was more than memorable as well. Again, I don’t know what we missed by not going through the Malheur Lake area, but we were quite pleased with our experience through the Diamond Craters area. And after the 40 miles of gravel climbing and descent, we appreciated the smooth pavement from Frenchglen to Crane Hot Springs.

    IMG 4531 Just a view while climbing Steens Mtn. I took it when still pedaling.

    IMG 4579 View from the East Rim vintage point.

    IMG 4556 Mr. Mud says the colorful display of the aspen trees was the high light of this tour.

    Route Overview:

    Wow, what a loop this is! It was like riding on a 20′ wide bike path the whole way albeit on mixed terrain. There were times where I could count all the vehicles we encountered in 30 miles of riding on one hand. And all the vehicles including trucks pulling trailers and semis were very courteous. The straightway also helped because they could all drive in the other lane without any concern for on coming traffic.

    The scenery was one of a kind. For eyes can see, you only see hills, mountains, high desert vegetation, and blue sky. If you are one who fear loneliness, this may not be for you. When you are out there, you are alone. Such a great feeling!

    Our three day itinerary is compact, but fairly demanding. I’d recommend it to fit and efficient riders. But I think a four day itinerary might work better for most riders, although it would costs a bit more due to two nights of stay at Frenchglen Hotel. On the other hand, no camping equipment needs to be carried. This is what I personally recommend:

    • Day 1: Crystal Crane Hot Springs to Fields Station
    • Day 2: Fields Station to Frenchglen Hotel (A very relaxed day for its short distance and minimal climbing)
    • Day 3: Steens Mountain Loop with an out and back to East Rim as well as an 1/4 mile out and back to Kiger Gorge outlook (which we regrettably skipped). I recommend CCW so you climb the steep and descend the moderate grade.
    • Day 4: Frenchglen Hotel to Crane Hot Springs. After a night of rest, the gravel riding through the wild life refuges will not seem too bad and you also have plenty of time to cover the distance.

    A soak in the Crane Hot Springs feels sooooo good after the tour! Enjoy!

    IMG 4551 Descending from East Rim. The wind chill was so cold that we started the descent in our weather gear.

    • This topic was modified 5 years, 1 month ago by  mudworm.
    doug_id
    October 3, 2014 at 7:49 am #1039

    Nice trip report. I spent 4 days doing day trips a few weeks ago based out of crystal crane hot springs. Neat area and I want to get back next year to do the full loop.

    doug_id
    October 3, 2014 at 9:59 am #1040

    Oh my pics: https://www.flickr.com/search/?tags=drg53114psteen

    I loved seeing the fall colors on the climb up. Steen mtns are amazing!

    Donnie
    October 3, 2014 at 8:16 pm #1041

    Thanks for posting Mudworm, great writeup and glad you fellas enjoyed the trip. And Doug! I recognize that mug of yours. Sweet rig!

    Donnie

    • This reply was modified 5 years ago by  Donnie.
    doug_id
    October 6, 2014 at 8:30 am #1043

    Hi Donnie, yep tis me….the OG from idaho 🙂

    Bummed I had to miss the stampede ride this year. Your post has me wanting to do that hart-sheldon route next year. i will probably die out there lol.

    timo
    February 28, 2015 at 5:32 pm #1206

    Thanks for the trip report – it is helpful. I plan on doing this route, actually the one out of Cycling Sojourner for this area, in early April. Looking forward to it!

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