Deschutes River Trail

An introduction to bikepacking

Overview

We’re aware that most of our routes are for the more experienced bikepacker. For those interested in a very low commitment beginner’s route, this is it. The riding is easy, you’re never far from the car, and it’s a great route to get out and shake down your gear. It doesn’t hurt that it’s in a gorgeous setting and that you’ll likely have the place to yourself.

Highlights include the stunning Deschutes River canyon, exploring the old Harris Homestead, petroglyphs, and the opportunity to reel in your first winter steelhead.

At a glance

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Map

Details

Route

The route begins at the Deschutes River State Recreational Area just off I-80. If you’re coming from Portland, take the Celilo Park exit and follow the service road east towards the park. If you miss this exit you’ll have to backtrack from Biggs.

The trail is railroad grade with the exception of one short up-and-down section where an old bridge was removed. There’s maybe a total of 500 feet of climbing on the whole route, combined, round trip.   It’s as easy as it gets.

The majority of the route is decent gravel. Trail conditions begin to deteriorate after you pass the Harris Homestead at mile 11. Goat heads become a serious issue around mile 14, if not sooner. Unless you have legit thorn protection, it might not be worth riding the last couple miles up the canyon. The trail unceremoniously ends around mile 19 where an old train trestle was removed.

Summer can bring extremely hot temps and it can snow in winter. Fall and Spring are ideal, but it’s good almost year round if you’re prepared.   The crowds are minimal except during busy fishing weekends. You may want to check the powerboat schedule – they alternate weekends in summer. It can be a bit off-putting having boats running up and down the river all day and it’ll mean bigger crowds and some competition for good camping spots.   But even at its busiest, this place is never overcrowded once you get a couple miles up river.

The Deschutes River State Recreational Area has overnight parking. There is a fee for overnight parking. To access the trail backtrack to the entrance of the park near the small gravel parking lot by the park sign.  Cell service is non-existent once you get a mile or two up the canyon.

Check out the route forum for the most up to date information

Services & Water

There are no services on the route.   If you happen to also camp at the Deschutes River State Recreational Area they sell firewood and ice in the summer.

There is no potable water on the route. We don’t endorse drinking from the Deschutes River, regardless of any filtering or water treatment. The river has a lot of agricultural runoff, which isn’t something treating or filtering will remove. There is a small seasonal creek at the Harris Homestead, but it likely has the same agricultural runoff issues.

Although we’ve been known to drink from the river on longer trips, the ride in is easy enough that we usually haul in water for the entire trip.

Also, be advised that in the winter months they shut off the water at the Deschutes River State Recreational Area. Plan accordingly.

Camping

Theoretically, you could camp just about anywhere you want along the route. The nicest spots are generally the established boater campsites. Some have BLM-style pit toilets.

The established BLM campgrounds are marked on this map – the trail is on the east side of the river and located on maps 8, 9, and 10. The trail poops out right around river mile 19 on map 8.

Navigation

It would be nearly impossible to get lost on this route. The trail is obvious and follows the river upstream. There are couple offshoots, but none go very far. You should be on established two-track the entire route. If for some reason you can’t remember which way is home, follow the river downstream to get out.

Maps 8, 9, and 10 at this link are probably sufficient, if you feel compelled to bring a map. If you’re a map geek consider the Lower Deschutes and John Day Rivers map, or the free 7.5×7.5 US Topo quads you can download for free off USGS.gov.

Bike & Tire Selection

We think a lighter rig is appropriate for this route – a cross bike or touring bike with 32-40c tires will probably be just fine for most folks. Our standard bikepacking rig (rigid 29er, or similar, with ~2″ tires with some tread) is fine but definitely overkill.

Route Alternatives

Lots of folks talk about linking this trail up with Mack’s Canyon, further upstream.   While it’s a great idea in theory, practically speaking it’s probably not worth the effort. There is a 5-6 mile section that is in very rough shape and the trestles have been removed. You’ll basically be carrying your bike for most of this.

There is an old road heading up a side canyon at the Harris Homestead. It narrows down to an animal trail as you get further up the side canyon. This will dead end into private property.

Highlights, History & Other Resources

There are several signs on the trail that give a hint to the history of the rail-to-trail you’re riding.   The short version is there were competing rail lines going up simultaneously on both sides of the river.  The history of the winner-take-all rail battle is fascinating (including bombings and using rattlesnakes to scare off workers) and you can read more in this book.

One not-to-miss highlight is checking out the petroglyphs. Continue a short way on the main trail past the water tower at the Harris Homestead, and keep your eye out for a short, steep trail heading up the hill on the left.

Hunting and fishing is popular along the river. We’ve done a couple bird hunting trips, but the decent bird hunting areas are pretty limited. Deer and bighorn sheep are the bigger prize, but mostly it’s about the steelhead and salmon.  Folks come from all over to fish this river.

Mind the rattlesnakes, they can be pretty thick in summer.   Also, the semi-recent fire burned down one of the old rail cars.  Bummer.