In addition to soaking in the Bog, Virgin Valley, and Hart Mountain Hot Springs, highlights include camping on the playa of a dried up ancient lake bed, poking around historic ranches, climbing Hart Mountain, and exploring the dramatic Thousand Creek Gorge.
The riding itself is not particularly difficult, but I thought the route was more logistically challenging and significantly more committing than the Oregon Outback route.
The best time to ride is in late spring after things start to dry out but before the heat of summer rolls in. As noted in more detail below, mud will make this route unrideable, so timing will be critical. Avoid winter, when snow and higher rainfall will shut it down, and the extreme temperatures of summer. Water access is also presumably less reliable in the late summer and fall, although we don’t know that for sure. Come prepared.
We rode the route clockwise and collectively decided we’d do it that way again. I think the most compelling reason to do it this way is that the two Hart Mountain Hot Springs are the best of the bunch and we preferred hitting them last. The approach to Hart Mountain from the southeast is also much more dramatic and photogenic.
The folks at the Frenchglen Hotel have always been very accommodating when we’ve asked to leave a car parked out front for a couple days.
Frenchglen is limited to a tiny general store and the Frenchglen Hotel, which serves lunch (open to the public) and dinner (by reservation only). We recommend eating at the hotel if you get the opportunity; it’s a great little place run by some really nice folks and the food is excellent. And they sell beer.
Water will be one of your constant concerns on the route. Expect to carry excessive amounts of it through several sections, especially if you plan to do any dry camping.
Despite the multitude of springs on the map, we found very little water along most sections of the route, including the entire Funnel Canyon area (miles 38-78). We were surprised given that it was early spring and they’d had snowfall in the area a week before we rode. Funnel Canyon is littered with wells and cow troughs, but we came up dry at all but one random well. I would absolutely not count on finding water in this section.
We noted all reliable water sources on the map. Plan to carry everything you need in between those areas, despite the potential for additional sources. Knowing everything we know now, it would have made our trip easier – we were extremely conservative. Expect any lakes or reservoirs on your map that we did not mark with water symbols to be empty. Few of these exist any more.
We highly recommend carrying a pump-style water filter instead of purification tabs or a Steripen. You’ll be drinking out of springs, creeks, and reservoirs, but many of them have resident cattle. It’s also possible you’ll find additional water sources that are too muddy or disgusting to treat. It’s worth the extra weight for the added security.
I found the most helpful navigational maps to be the 7.5 x 7.5 “US Topo” maps you can download for free off usgs.gov. If you download all of the segments of the route and keep track as you go using navigational cues like the topography and landmarks, you can navigate the entire route with these maps.
We also recommend visiting the Hart Mountain and Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge websites for more information and to download their brochures. Both brochures include rudimentary maps of the refuges which we found handy.
Our standard recommendation stands – a rigid 29er (or similar) with ~2” tires with some tread. Going fatter (29+) would not be a bad thing.
The geology of the area is also unique, including the massive fault blocks of Steens and Hart Mountains, the unique drainage off Steens Mountain that creates the giant shallow lakes of Malhuer and Harney, and the rain shadow that creates the Alvord Desert. There are also several rockhounding areas just off the route.
For anyone who enjoys obscure books, check out the slightly racist historical fiction novel “Pete French Cattle King” by Elizabeth Lambert Wood and Eileen O’Keeffe McVicker’s memoir of growing up on the flanks of Steens Mountain, “Child of Steens Mountain”.
Lastly, and most importantly, we highly recommending checking out Gabe’s fantastic writeup and photos from our trip over at Limbertlost.
One other random thing I wish I’d known beforehand is that NOAA does not have precipitation radar over this entire area. So if you start obsessing over the weather, as I did after getting shut down on this route several times, don’t rely on the radar to show if its raining. I suggest checking daily rainfall totals for surrounding cities.
We recommend turning this into a 5 to 6 day trip if at all possible and allocating some extra time for the hot springs, hiking into the mouth of Thousand Creek Gorge, and hiking up to the top of Hart Mountain.