Johnmorial Day River Camping
NEW — curious to hear about this trip from a different perspective? Read Erin’s write-up here!
We were not given the green light to camp by everyone’s favorite uncle Jay, but I think we had already determined to go camping regardless. We decided to stick to BLM (bureau of land management) land, which has been technically viable for camping the entire time, instead of state and national parks which were still closed.
We were however presented with one little problem: Erin and I are both relatively new to the American Northwest and not yet overly familiar with the land beyond the confines with of the city. Though finding state and nat’l park campgrounds is relatively trivial in normal times, finding a good BLM land campsite takes a combination of local area knowledge and good TOPO map sleuthing. My count in both lacking, I decided to enlist the help of an expert.
Martin (@arizona_water) my good friend in Arizona is notorious for delivering one-of-a-kind camping and adventure experiences, in no small part thanks to his obsessive BLM-map-combing skills. He also grew up in central Oregon and worked for the Oregon/Washington BLM.
Mere hours after asking, Marty delivered: “I have a big helper for you: The John Day River.”
With Marty’s helpful direction, we located a section along the shore down in the valley of John Day River that landed on BLM property and could be reached via a gravel access road off of Starvation Lane, not far from Cottonwood Canyon State Park.
The actual segment of BLM was nestled between state lands and private property, so there was some palpable finger crossing involved in selecting this plan. But I think this is true of some of the best plans. The actual destination of our trip selected, some stress was relieved and we could go on setting an itinerary.
Culinary concerns would be delegated to the company’s resident chef, Erin. The menu included boxed macaroni and cheese enhanced with broccoli and fresh jalapeño (Erin eschewed the jalapeño), ramen and canned chicken with Secret Sauce™, belgian liege wafels with Justin’s nut butter, and any number of savory and sweet snacks.
Libations were generously provided by Aslan Brewing out of Bellingham, WA (just as soon as I paid them appropriately).
Did I mention there would also be bikes? I think this should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with me or this blog (all 4 of you, you know who you are 😘).
A plan became to take form. Car camping the first night. Then pack up the bikes, and roll down the river trail as far as we could make it. The hope, and best case scenario brought us around a couple riverbends and eventually to the State Park itself, to refill on water, scope out the camping situation, and if needed backtrack out of sight for the second night’s stay.
I’ve just touched on something briefly that was on both my companion’s and my mind leading up to and during the trip. None of this itinerary was certain. There was no trip report documenting that which we were about to attempt. Some uncertainties included: would the dirt road to our initial destination be open to car traffic? would the private property that stood along our trajectory prevent us from passage? does the trail actually exist in full from our starting point to the state park? Google maps seemed to indicate… probably? what happens if one of the above answers is no, and we don’t have enough water to camp a second night?
We did our due diligence and concocted some half-formed contingency plans that would at least give us a lead in case anything fell through. Otherwise: onward! Some anxiety may remain, but what else is true adventure about anyhow?
These were our vehicles for the second leg of the expedition:
I would be riding my All City Macho King with rim brakes and swept riser bars, named Macho Libre, custom painted two owners back in white and rasta fade. This bike is set up with a 1x9 drivetrain and 97% loaded in the front, via a Surly crosscheck fork with a specialized pizza rack and Wald 137. The wheels are clad in 43mm Specialized Sawtooth tires, perfect for exploits off- and on-road both.
Though it is no stranger to heavy grocery loads, this would be my first bikepacking outing on this bicycle, on dirt no less. Needles to say, I was excited to try out a new rig.
La bicicleta de mi compañera seria la Sexy Snyder. A steel all-road/cross bike with comfy mountain bike gearing shod in 38mm Panaracer Paselas. This bike was supplied with a frame bag set from Rogue Panda and a beetle butt saddle bag.
This bike was recently reborn with the fatty road tires and has been known to crush gnarly gravel roads that would give many roadies nightmares.
The morning of our departure arrives. Around 8 or maybe 9 am, we pack up the car and hit the 90 east. By the way, for anybody who is wondering, fenders are a must-have accessory for Seattle winters, but a *serious* pain in the butt for transport in a car.
We stop in Yakima for gas, and also for Sonic Drive-in because it’s been at least 3 years since anybody has eaten there (I know Yakima is the somewhat well-kept Mexican food secret of the northwest, but given the constraints I did not feel up to doing the necessary research to validate for myself, oh well, next time).
After 17 attempts at ordering a cheesy bacon pretzel dog, a corn dog, and chicken strips, we finally decide to accept whatever fate chose to give us, which in this case was a chili cheese dog and a corn dog. Because this is a hotbed for the Rona, we take special care to sanitize (purell dogs anyone?).
Feeling nourished by peanut butter shake, tots, and the rest of our almost but not quite right meals, we push on. Two hours of beautiful scenic driving and we cross over the Columbia river and finally make it to the majestic Oregon steppe. Rolling Windows XP hills go for miles covered in unknown green grassy substance.
We turn onto Starvation Lane. Soon the truth will come to bear, and the continued access to the path we’d laid out for our weekend will either be granted or not. We keep driving along, and at least speaking for myself, the nerves are starting to increase. Either the turn off would be there or it wouldn’t be. We pass a turn-off on the right. It’s gated off, and appears very primitive. Was this our private drive we expected to traverse? Either way, we had nothing but to press on. We pass a larger marked turn-off, again on the right. This one is open, but marked with a very clear “Authorized Vehicles Only”.
It felt pretty likely that this was the route we had decided upon to access the river shore. But we mutually decided without speaking that it was much too early yet to push our luck and so flagrantly break such a rule. And besides, we knew of one more option for accessing the John Day river, this one sanctioned by the Oregon state park system. It took us further from our day two goal, but honestly I was happy for anything that got us on our way at all.
This road quickly turned downward and curved back and forth down into the valley, on a narrow off-camber ribbon of graded gravel with exposure that makes Gates Pass look like a drive to the corner store. I eased the Mazda around each corner and we safely made our way down to a gravel circle with a small over-flowing opening down to the river and a basic educational placard.
Just before the road’s terminus, a small offshoot of gravel veered off to the right, and had a sign indicating no motor vehicle traffic, but giving the OK for hikers, bikes and horses. This was our trail! Beyond the trail, and just outside the gravel clearing lay a field of tall weeds and grasses. Something of a path had been pushed through the vegetation leading vaguely to a pair of trees standing exactly 3 hammock lengths apart (dang). Despite being a trek from the car, this seemed like as good of a tent spot as anything else, and was subtly picturesque to boot.
While cooking our meal, Erin and I shared a ceremonial cup of broccoli broth. I was skeptical whether I would enjoy it or not, but its warmth was remarkably comforting and it tasted like a sort of tea. I diced a jalapeño to put in my own meal, and Erin insisted I wash my hands immediately; I obliged. Several glacial minutes oozed past as we awaited the softening of the enriched macaroni product that would become dinner. Even al dente would do, we were just hungry.
It was finally time to eat! The noodles, cheese product and veggies came together rather well, but I think both parties silently wished it was Annie’s Shells instead.
After dinner the daily required oral reading of Edward Abbey was performed and I pondered: what Abbey think about bikepacking? What kind of bike would he ride? Should his opinions matter to us at all?
These questions lulled us to sleep for an early night at camp, before even the sun fully set.
At some unknown late or early hour, I awoke and peered out of the tent at the unreal aurora borealis-lite swirl of stars in the night sky. I hadn’t seen such them on such a bright display since I moved away from Flagstaff (an IDA International Dark Sky Community™). Though I could have stayed out and basked in their light for an hour, for fear of disturbing my delicate state of half sleep, I eagerly slid back into the tent, into my sleeping bag, satisfied with a brief glimpse of heaven.
Historically, my expectations for tent sleep, especially on the first night of camping, are not high. Not high at all. The bar is: sleeping any, at all. Yet, this may have been the best tent sleep I’ve had in a long time. Perhaps it was the ideal temperature of an Oregon night, with an actually decent sleeping bag, an insulated sleeping pad, and the warmth of another human in the tent.
We roused well after the sun had risen, the river valley already begun warming for the day. We made the very conscious decision to eat breakfast before breaking down the tent. This is, after all, a vacation. In the early days of hype bike camping, it was all about packing the coffee beans, the aeropress, the porlex stainless steel grinder, the portable pourover cone, the small drugs scale, and then taking a picture of it to let everyone know how dedicated to coffee you are.
Here’s the thing, every time I did that my coffee came out pretty average.
You know what else is pretty decent? Trader Joe’s instant coffee. It tastes like coffee and takes as much time as it takes for water to heat up.
We warmed and caffeinated ourselves for the day ahead in the warm morning sun over the most bourgeoisie uncooked breakfast you can imagine of belgian wafels and almond butter.
And then Erin remembered something vital. The bacon! Of course we turned on the camp burner once more and fried up our more blue-collar second breakfast of processed red meat.
We broke down camp and set to packing our bikes. Fortunately both of our bikepacking setups lent well to making this quick work. Everything stowed neatly in its place, I locked the car and we hit the trail.
I have to say there is something about riding bikes in new remote locations that makes me giddy. We were likely the only people to have intruded upon this landscape in quite some time. The trail quickly became a more primitive double-track, and the sage brush wandered in and out of each track in an alternating fashion.
Riding along with high desert hillsides covered in sage to my right, a peaceful river flowing to my left, the uncertainty surrounding the day began to subside. I did not know where this trail would take me, but that was starting to excite rather than frighten me.
After only a couple miles, we came upon a thicker section of foliage obscuring the trail. Among the foliage stood a sort of structure, which upon closer inspection was a camper trailer resting on its left side. Beyond the trailer, some remnants of a wooden shelter. Several paces more and one could spot a wrecked 80s saloon car, possibly a Lincoln or a Buick (I neglected to check further). We dropped the bikes and I ran around a little bit to relocated the trail, which I did rather quickly, on the other side of the abandoned maroon automobile.
We pedaled on for some more vague undefined period of time. And we came upon the scattered remains of some poor perished bovine. I had joked previously about my desire/need to locate a cow skull and carry it with me on the front of my bike (insert link to North Rim Grand Canyon bike packing trip, oh wait I didn’t write a story about that one, my bad!). I attempted to pry a tooth out of the deceased animal’s jaw, but it disintegrated upon removal. I thought to leave it be, but Erin was hoping to find a skull, and I decided carrying the jaw was the next best thing, in a sort of black metal cowboy romantic gesture.
Aimlessly ambling along the road, we made it to our next big decision point in this trip. Our path was blocked by a large steel gate, locked to be certain. Curiously there was no signage barring entry, merely its physical preference. I was 100% open to whatever consensus we might come to regarding our passage; I myself am usually willing to sidestep this kind of silent rule, but also cannot fault anybody who would want to turn back at this point!
Erin validated my desire to hoist the bikes over and keep going, despite the fact that my bike weighed about 800 lbs. Painstakingly, after removing the panniers, I gripped my bike from the bottom and lifted up above the gate, using every ounce of strength not to drop it, and then with Erin’s help lowered it down over the other side.
Next: Erin’s bike. Because Erin’s bike wasn’t loaded with random animal body parts, it was quite a bit easier by comparison.
Shortly after hoppi- I mean courteously circumnavigating- the gate, the reason for the gate became more apparent. We knew from inspecting the maps that we had likely just passed from State Park land to Federal/BLM land. Later, Marty confirmed the need for such barriers, for delineating permissible grazing areas.
And we saw evidence of that, in the form of cattle pens, cattle poos and before too long real live cattle.
Around the corner, I saw an unoccupied ATV, and quietly came to a stop. We were coming upon the private land that lie on the other side of the federal stretch. I peered around and saw no sign of recent human activity; closer inspection revealed a tarp over the ATV.
Pedaling past, the road turned back to graded gravel and to our right we saw an exit sweep up over the edge of the valley, presumably back to Starvation Lane. This was likely the Authorized Vehicles only turn off we had seen the day before. Ahead and to the left lie a private ranch house and yard compound, behind a tall fence. We approached with caution, but to our relief we saw the trail we had been following continued around the edge of the property.
We continued down the path, and finally met the most populous residents of this abode. Erin stopped to say hi and asked for safe passage through their land.
We kept going along, as one does. And we came along to another gate, we deduced it was the edge of either private or BLM land, moving back into state land, where grazing was not permitted. Fortunately, this time around, Erin noticed an intentional break in the fence to the left of the gate. It required some pushwhacking, to get back to the trail, but we were relieved not to have to lift our behemoth bicycles over again with our tiring arms.
On the other side of the fence we were greeted with endless miles of baby heads. For those of you unfamiliar with the lingo, this term refers to rocks that are the size of baby heads, from a range of ages. As the descents were getting a tad rocky and hairy, I thought it was probably a good time to assess our progress and our caloric intake at the same time. Erin was in full agreement.
Another bike photoshoot, and several hours of riding later, we started getting into especially thick sagebrush. Every corner along this ride, I have a sneaking suspicion the trail will vanish deep into the thicket and we will have to make the decision to pushwhack or to turn around.
However, it was not the brush that ended up defeating us, but an abrupt erosion of the riverbank right through our trail. We did do some wandering in the brush to see if we could pick up the trail on the other side, loath to admit defeat, but it would be fruitless wandering as far as the eye could see.
We both sat and pondered with the decision before us. We had seen a small campsite just before the trail died, but it was still too early in the day to make camp. Besides that we didn’t have enough water between us to make dinner and breakfast *and* be hydrated for the ride back in the morning.
We knew we had to turn back. We had to ride all 18 miles back the way we came.
“I think my mood today has been inversely proportionate to our distance from the car” Erin revealed to me, and I understood why. Access to water and certainty of a place to sleep lived with the car; ahead: baby heads, sage brush and eroded cliffsides. However when I suggested we drink some beer upon returning to the other side of the cattle gate, she readily agreed and both of our spirits brightened a little. This beer was crucial fuel in our efforts to finish the last grueling 23 miles we had left.
I don’t know what it is but the and-back part of an out-and-back does tend to fly by. Maybe it’s the familiarity, or the confidence in the terrain we will face, even when we know it will be challenging. But those miles (all 47 of them) flew by. I recall coming upon the dark pea gravel that covered the first few hundred yards after the trail head and thinking ‘wow, this looks an awful lot like the gravel close to our campsite. I don’t remember there being more like this…’
And then I realized this was the trail head! Hooray! Every time I come back to my Mazda after a challenging ride, it’s white haunches bring me joy comparable to that of receiving a plate of brisket after waiting in line for 2 hours or watching Return of the King extended edition and crying when they bow for the hobbits at the end. I digress.
What would we do now? We needed water. And we knew of one place close by to get it. Cottonwood Canyon State Park. Our camping prospects here were still less than certain, but we could figure that out later. So I drove us out of the river valley on that snaking off-camber dirt road (someday I will ride down and back up that road!) and we emerged above onto Starvation Lane and into the endless alfalfa or clover fields, numerous turn-offs tempting us to get lost forever. Or maybe I can only speak for myself.
When we first got to the State Park, we ambled in slowly to take inventory of what was around. Big hilly views, ramadas, gravel parking lots, cars, people in cars, people not in cars, park rangers, camp hosts, water spigot! Bathroom!
We took some time to recuperate and indulge in some of the remaining snacks, while lying on the grass. The initial, unplanned plan we nursed was this: we go set up our tent in some unseen, forgotten corner of the state park, hope nobody notices, get up and leave in the morning. As time passed, and we saw the Ranger make his rounds and this felt like a hard sell. Though our bodies were spent, we knew there was but one other path forward.
This path happened to be a river trail that left out of the State Park, along the selfsame shore we had been riding along just earlier that day. In fact, it is the trail upon which we had hoped to victoriously ride in, except from the other direction. We weren’t entirely sure how safe the car would be (read: from tickets), and we weren’t sure what exactly to put in the sign-in ledger (“much love and blessings on your new marriage” probably wouldn’t communicate the right idea).
In fact, loading up the bicycles one more time, this late in the afternoon, for yet again, no certainty of a place to lay down our heads, it took a lot of reawakening of motivations that had thought themselves done for the day. I’m sorry to subject you to two Lord of the Rings metaphors in one post, but consider when Faramir returns with his company to Gondor, having strategically retreated from the Orc hordes in Osgiliath. His father, Denethor, the Steward of Gondor is not satisfied with this performance and sends his son and his wounded army back to almost certain failure. That’s what came to my mind as we loaded up our bicycles for one more ride.
However, what else did we come out here to do? We came out to ride bikes, and to traverse the John Day River trail!
I know I was a little dramatic up there. Honestly once we got on the bikes, and then turned around and added a better description to our log book entry, and then went on again, it really wasn’t so bad. We had nowhere to be fast. We had water, food and shelter, and only needed a place to put them.
And we really didn’t get very far (maybe 11 miles), before we saw a campsite with which we were satisfied. A decent sized clearing, directly under the arms of a very old and large walnut tree. I immediately decided to climb into the tree instead of doing something productive, like put up a tent or help with dinner.
The tent did eventually get put up. And dinner, it got made and eaten. On the menu this particular evening, we had instant ramen, canned chicken and Erin’s Special Secret Sauce as I mentioned near the beginning of this story (wow, reader, we’ve been together for so long now, such memories!). And it was honestly one of the best camping meals I’ve ever had.
In the morning, there’s not much to report. The 23 mile ride back to the car was uneventful and undramatic, thankfully including a lack of ticket or fee attached to my windshield. Always a nice touch.
We had enough time to drive past the Maryhill Stonehenge memorial on our way back into Washington. It was pretty neat, but the views were neater.
Maybe I should come up with some kind of nice closure here, but as of now I’m getting sleepy and I’ll just let you look at some pretty pictures.