June 12, 2023.
16.7 mi. | 650′ ele. gain | 3 hr
From our basecamp at the beautiful Southwest Shore Campground on Phillips Lake, I planned a ride that would connect the trails on the south side and the north side. It looked like just a couple short roads would let me make a full loop. And you know, I love a good loop…
The morning air was cool and clear, but I knew thunderstorms were on the way. I got an early start by riding towards the trailhead on the east end of the campground road. I immediately got disoriented. An obvious, but overgrown, road led right down into the lake. That wasn’t right. I poked around at the edge of the marshy grass. I looked at the map on my phone, which showed me as being in the lake. That wasn’t right either. Back in the parking area, I looked around for signage and sure enough, I had to wiggle through a narrow gap in the fence and take a sharp switchback to get onto a barely discernable single-track trail. Here we go.
Once on the trail, I was in heaven. The tread was narrow, lined closely by tall, wet marsh grass. My legs dripped with the morning dew. Wooden boardwalks crossed the wettest areas as the trail snaked along the undulating edges of the water. I felt like I was tracing the outline of an amoeba.
There were a few gentle ups and downs, but they weren’t too bad. I stopped several times to look at the wildflowers and the ever-changing view of the lake.
The South Shoreline Trail terminates at the Mason Dam. This dam is the whole reason this lake exists; it blocks the flow of the Powder River so that the water can be managed for irrigation as well as flood control. It is quite an impressive structure. As I munched on a snack, I tilted my head up towards the highway above me. Oh no, I thought, that’s my connection to the other trail. It was time to get ready for a hill climb.
I rode across the dam, up a gravel road to the main highway, then turned left to ride on the highway. Thankfully, only one vehicle passed during this time and the driver moved well out of the way to give me some room. Since there was no shoulder, I much appreciated this kindness.
From the road, I dropped down a steep, paved hill towards a boat launch. There, I picked up the North Shoreline Trail. This side was drier, with a bumpy paved section through a massive campground. And all my mountain views were gone. But, I enjoyed seeing some new wildflowers and getting to look back at where I just was. The sun felt hotter now, and there was less shade to boot. I took a few more rest breaks.
At the west end of the lake, things suddenly got more interesting. Suddenly there were birds. Lots of birds. I had made some recordings of sandhill cranes from camp the previous night, so I knew they had to be in here somewhere. I stopped riding and walked slowly, intentionally, along the edge of the water. And there they were, a pair!
Since the initial confusion at the very start of the ride, the entire trail was easy to navigate. But here, the trail dropped down to what looked like an old road, then entered a maze of wetlands. Again, I looked at my map and I appeared to be underwater.
The only directional signs I could find were located in places where it was quite clear where the route went, of course. At one point, I got off my bike and walked in each cardinal direction to assess my options. I was on the edge of what the map labeled “Powder River Tailings.” These are piles of rocks left behind by old gold dredging operations that took place on the Powder River. From my perspective, I was trapped in a web of loose rubble, lake water and thick riparian shrubbery with nowhere to go than back the way I came.
When I feel this way, I give myself a few minutes of rest. Obviously I wasn’t stuck. There was a way out, I just couldn’t see it yet. Maybe the water was a little higher than normal, as it seemed to have been for this entire trip so far. My route was hiding at the moment, and it was my job to seek it out. I looked at the map, then I looked all around. I eliminated the ways that were absolutely not possible, then I began to get more clear about what could be possible. Exasperated, I took my shoes off and was prepared to wade through however much water I needed to find my way. And then, there it was.
Two lines of rock on either side of a TRAIL! I picked up my bike and walked through the shin-deep water to a dry patch on the other side. The trail continued to reveal itself ahead of me, with breaks in the vegetation and rocks piled in cairns on top of the tailings. What an adventure this had become!
I made my way through the final gauntlet, popped back out on to a road and followed that to the turnoff for our campsite. I was almost finished. One final stretch of trail took me back to the van and I completed the circumnavigation of the lake.
This ride took me three hours, although I’m sure if you’re a more competent biker who doesn’t stop to look at every wildflower, you could do it faster. And if you really like to take it easy and enjoy your time, you could spend all day out here. If you’ve only got time to do one section, I recommend the South Shoreline. I found it more scenic, with more interesting variety of terrain and plenty of shade. Although, you’ll miss the wetlands, which were quite magical.