Gravel Grinding

This Beautiful Ride along the Deschutes Is the Perfect Intro to Bikepacking

Looking to ease into two-wheeled, off-road travel? This mellow gravel trail offers dramatic canyon views and bucolic riverside campsites.

By Rebecca Jacobson June 11, 2018

Beginning the very mellow gravel grind of the Deschutes River Trail. (Meanwhile, it was raining in Portland.)

Bikepacking is where bike touring and backpacking meet: two-wheeled travel, usually off-road, plus camping. In other words, it’s a glorious way to merge the (relative) speed of cycling with the remote beauty of the backcountry. Want to cover far more ground than you can on foot? Of course you do. Care to trade highway shoulders and big-rig exhaust for forested trails and rugged riverside campsites? No-brainer.

But finding a way in can feel ... intimidating. Or at least it was for me, and I ride my bike everyday. But ditching pavement? That made me nervous.

Enter the Deschutes River Trail. Located about 100 miles east of Portland, where the Deschutes flows into the Columbia, it’s an ideal beginner bikepacking route, with low mileage and mellow terrain. A converted railbed on the eastern side of the river, it’s mostly flat, with just one brief down-and-up stretch to keep things interesting (and/or remind you that there’s no shame in pushing your bike up a gravel hill). I rode it as an overnight in late May—about 15 miles out—and lemme tell ya: it’s good. Real good. Sure, there were a few teeth-chattering rutted sections, some chunky rocks, and a brief spell of sluggish-making sand, but most of the gravel is no-sweat. (The route is also easily doable as a day trip, if schlepping gear isn’t your thing.)

The abandoned boxcar at mile 5.6

And the scenery? Giddy-making, with rolling green and brown hills, sagebrush-lined trails, and dusty canyon views. Wind whooshes through tall grasses as freight cars rumble down the western bank of the river. On my trip, the butterfly swarms hit insect sanctuary levels. Go earlier in the spring for wildflowers in bloom. Plus? An old boxcar and the abandoned Harris Homestead to explore. (The area has a rich past: In the early 1900s, two railroad barons raced to lay tracks to Bend along opposite sides of the Deschutes. Gunfights and dynamite-happy sabotage ensued. Fist bump for Old West history!)

Ready to pedal? Here are a few more things to know:

The trail begins at the Deschutes River State Recreational Area, just a smidge off I-84, some 16 miles east of the Dalles. Overnight parking will set you back $7, and the route begins near the park entrance.

Exploring the Harris Homestead

At mile 5.6, you’ll hit the abandoned railcar—the wood floor is still pretty sturdy, so you can pop in with minimal fear of cracking through the slats. Mile 11 brings you to the Harris Homestead, which dates to the early 20th century. These days, it’s all horror movie-worthy remains: raggedy curtains, corroded appliances, questionable structural integrity. A clapboard house has totally collapsed, but the barn still stands, with rusty farm equipment and decaying corrals inside. Continue a little farther down the trail to reach the Harris Canyon Water Tower, built in 1909 to feed the boilers of the steam locomotives, abandoned in 1936, and restored a decade ago.

After the homestead, the trail gets rougher: rocky and sometimes sandy. I'd advise pitching your tent here, or turning back for one of the few established boater campsites along the river, several of which have pit toilets. Don't want to share space with rafting groups? This is BLM land, so technically you’re allowed to make camp anywhere. 

Though you can filter water from the Deschutes, agricultural runoff makes that tough to advise. Better to carry it yourself—heavy, but pesticide-free.

Where rimrock meets rusty farm equipment

Image: Rebecca Jacobson 

I rode on 32 mm tires, which was fine, but it would be more comfortable on wider rubber. My pannier-loaded bike sometimes got squirrely, so if you’ve got a more sophisticated bikepacking setup—frame bag, seat bag, etc.—use it. A road bike might struggle, and a full-suspension mountain bike is overkill, but really, head out on whatever you’ve got, and you’ll probably be fine.

Pack several spare tubes, and know how to change a flat. I got lucky, but the area is known for goat heads—dastardly prickly thorns—that can do a number on your tires.

If you’re riding in the summer, check the forecast, as temps can soar in this broad, exposed canyon. And watch for rattlesnakes, which also slither out in warmer weather. (I spotted a few snakes on my trip, but no rattlers.)

On your way back to Portland, make a stop at Freebridge Brewing, which in 2016 became the first (!) brewery to open in The Dalles in a century. (Sedition Brewing entered the fray shortly thereafter.) Housed in a never-opened mint (blame the end of the Gold Rush), the taproom has coffee house vibes—think floral couches and turquoise armchairs—and sidewalk seating. Recommended: the juicy, Mosaic-hopped Scandalous Pale.

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