Lower Deschutes River Trail bike ride

June 21, 2023.

26.5 mi. | 800′ ele. gain | 4.5 hr.

lower deschutes river trail bike ride
Deschutes River

Photo album

It had been many years since I’d last visited the Deschutes River State Recreation Area, and all I had were bad memories. All I could envision was a packed campground with over-watered fields of grass that were actually more goose poop than grass. And the trains, rumbling through at all hours of the night. We had stopped there to tent camp for a night on our way from one interesting place to another and it was the only option I could find at the time.

I was long overdue for a second try with this park.

We camped elsewhere for the night and rolled up in the early morning. We left the van in the free, day-use parking area and I got my bike ready for a ride before the temperatures got too hot. The Deschutes River trail follows an old railroad grade on the east side of the river for dozens of miles, although the first 13 miles is what’s recommended by the parks department. That seemed to be a reasonable goal for the day.

Indian blanket flower
Indian blanket flower

The trail climbs up above the campground right away, then levels out for most of the remainder of the ride. I breezed past fields of dry, golden grasses and clumps of green trees. A few wildflowers remained: Indian blanket flower, thistles, asters. The late bloomers.

All along this stretch of river, there are pit toilets and designated camping areas for hikers and bikers. I was grateful for a backcountry pit toilet, although they were all downhill rides from the trail. The miles ticked away as I followed the gently curving banks of the mighty Deschutes. In places, the water formed a wide, blue ribbon across the dusty landscape. In others, it was pinched through ancient lava flows, which created little riffles and pools.

Wildlife kept me company the whole way. Deer burst out from below the tops of the tall grasses, running gracefully across the hillsides. Birds flitted and fluttered about. At one point, a small, coyote-like animal ran down the road right in front of me. It was just far away enough so that I couldn’t get a great view. I followed it for at least a half a mile. But the instant I looked away, when I looked back, it was gone.

lower deschutes river trail bike ride

For a novice mountain biker like me, this was the perfect kind of ride. Easy, mostly flat, plenty of room. At about the old Harris Homestead area (the buildings destroyed by wildfire in 2019), I was greeted by two large raptors in a nest high up in a tree. This is roughly where the roadbed surface became more loose and difficult to ride through.

Shortly after, a large downed tree blocked the road entirely. Not wanting to let a tree deter me from seeing more of the trail, I got off my bike and picked my way over the mangled branches, carrying my ride up and over. On the other side, the road surface continued to deteriorate and I kind of wished I would have turned back at the tree. But now committed to the journey, I pushed on a little further than maybe I should have before stopping to eat a snack.

two raptors in a nest

There was not a shred of shade to be found. I had been hopeful that “well maybe around that next corner” I would find some. No dice. I hopped back on my bike, climbed back over the tree and cruised back down the road as quickly as I could. There was one spot on the way back where the road passed just below a cliff. The cliff provided some much appreciated shade and I took my time completing that section. I took one more long break to paint, then bombed back to the van.

If I were to do this trip again, I’d cut off the last 3 or so miles. The riding gets more difficult, the views aren’t any better, plus at this point you have to negotiate that fallen tree (although I’m sure that will be taken care of quickly). My butt hates being on a bike seat for that long, so a shorter trip would mean a happier tush. I’ll save the long mileage days for when I’m wearing my hiking shoes.

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