With the great mountain and everything ending in Hood now behind us, Simon and myself head deeper into Oregon on our Vanlife odyssey. Bend is our destination and the arid alpine trails call to us. But with America’s Independence Day coming up, it’s not just the trails that are urging us on.
Words: Robert Conroy
Photos: Simon McLaine and Robert Conroy
We rose early and B-lined it to Bend, arriving to blocked streets and pretty much a ghost town. Well it was July 4th and only seven in the morning. So leaving the van parked just off the main street we head down to the river a block away. There is a small pop up market, so we grab some food as we check out the location. Bend is a large town with plenty on offer for those who indulge in an outdoor lifestyle.
The Stars and Stripes become ever more prominent and displayed in stranger and stranger ways. Soon the main street is packed. Four or five deep around the block, even more in the corners. The pet parade begins. With a fire truck leading the way, dog, cat, weasel, horse, chicken and snake owners parade through while the rest of the town cheers on. On a whim, I jump into the parade and start taking snaps. It’s one giant love-in and people seem to think I’m the event photographer. Simon shoots from on top of the van.
We leave the festivities and head for the trails, ending up on the far side of ‘Phil’s trailhead’ trails in a playground called ‘The Lair’. A simple lay out of jump lines and a bunch of dry, dusty berms ripe for berm blasting. This is where Carson Storch comes to finesse his free riding skills. We meet a couple of Western Australians on their own road trip odyssey and we slay some lines.
There are three jump lines, each a step harder than the next. The small and mid lines are table topped and the berms are full of deep powder. We get blasting. It’s not hard to get roost. The line back up is fast, so we churn out lap after lap until the sun starts to go down and we can ride no longer.
Chilling in the freezing river, parties are littered all around us and we find ourselves constantly looking to find the source of the next spectacular bang. Whilst Simon has been exposed to some of this during his expat days in Canada, I have never experienced fireworks outside of a New Year’s celebration. Whilst these are not nearly as amazing in arrangement, the community feel and waiting to see who has the biggest rocket and what neighbour would outdo the other was fun to watch. With darkness in full swing we find a quieter place to camp by the trails, fireworks still firing frequently into the night sky. The faint pops echoing as we sleep.
PARTY AT PHIL’S
The next day we head to ‘Phil’s trailhead’ for a full day of exploring Bend trails - our second day without a road trip, just pure riding. Excellent. As we park up a couple of ‘vanlifers’ notice our automobile. They are rock climbers and slack liners, fresh off a day of heavy celebration. Amid the various bits of van chatter (what solar panel is better than another etc) we get a slack lining display.
As they head deeper into the hills, we head up. We ride up ‘Ben’s trail’, a directional up trail. The gradient is gradual yet punishing, it comes with the feeling of a long climb that just won’t end. Whilst marked intermediate, the feel is much easier, the corners are flowing and the hardpack ground covered in loose silt gives a light drift. In the heat of almost midday we begin to falter, having set ourselves the task of creating the longest loop possible. To add some context, there are ample chances to cut across and descend on the climb, and we finally succumb. We branch off on a fire road, and hit a mixture of lower Helipad, Voodoo, Kent’s and Phil’s trails as we descend back to the car park.
The upper trails roll up and over hillocks, the pace is fast and we finally get to some more technical trails. Double black diamond. What looks like once-molten rock litters the pine forest landscape, with roll overs and slippery dirt-covered roots adding a little mayhem to our fast pace. Simon crashes on a particularly tight section of trail. Up and over crests we fall. It’s hard to sustain such a long effort, with no descent really carrying us for more than 20 seconds.
As we get closer to the car park, the trails mellow out. We return to the van exhausted, the gradual inclines or declines have meant a lot of time on the pedals.
Bend has plenty on offer and there are areas of trail we just didn’t get a chance to ride – deeper into Phil’s Trail network or the plethora of trails at Mt Batchelor. On our way out, we had a play on the famous jump and pump lines near the main car park. Chances are you’ve seen these in a video at some point in time.
SEE THE SIGHTS
With a wedding to get to, it was then a day on the road. Southwest and down, down, down we drove, past Chemult and across into the Crater Lake National Park. Whilst visiting the Crater was too much of a time deviancy, the national park itself is beautiful. Tall luscious green pine and fir trees line the road, between perhaps the occasional glance of a far off mountain or a crisp blue lake. We stopped off at the famous Rogue River as it passes its way through the park, carving stunning volcanic gorges shaped over centuries. We camped (in the van) in a National Parks campground near a natural bridge and underground cave. At just $10 for the night, it was a steal.
SOME BUCK’S PARTIES ARE BETTER THAN OTHERS
Ashland was to be our final riding stop of the trip and it was one part buck’s party as well. Luke, my friend and the buck, had lined up a day riding Mt Ashland. So, rousing ourselves from our forest camp, we headed to ‘Ashland Mountain Adventures’. For $15 they will drop you at the top of Mt Ashland for a 45 minute descent (that’s for the pros). With bikes loaded on the roof, everyone then piled into the back of the modified van and after a brief 20 minute drive, we were at the top.
Mt Ashland stands at 7,532 feet, the only other near vertical thing on the horizon was Mount Sterling just over the Oregon State border. The rest of the world at our feet, it was time to ride.
We dove through the first 100ft of fire road, flat chat before getting a serious wake-up call on an unmarked trail. Deep loam berms and extremely steep, both feet quickly fell out of the pedals and it was a lot more slide not ride. The only climb we encountered, a brief one to the next col, was surpassed by the near endless descent that followed. Soft berms mixed amongst flowing single track through wildflowers and fallen trees. Every now and then a glimpse of the destination way, way below us.
Luke, and local Logan, guided us through the trails, directing us to the best lines and dropping us through lush forest. It was littered with wild technical lines and floaty table tops - seemingly epic section after epic section with deep-dish berms and skinny single tracks with drops to the side that truly got the heart racing.
The trails soon turned khaki and silt-like, the final drop through to Lithia Park filled with plenty of hair raising moments over drops and twisted singletrack. The park leads right back into town, the long road leaving ample opportunity to dial in the old aero tuck.
Our new friends coaxed us to try the bubbler water in the square for a special mineral-laden drink. The lithium dense water is definitely a taste to acquire. Although for something with a less sulphury tinge, head to the Brickroom just off North Main St for a classy beverage. They served us well whilst we were there.
AVENUE OF THE GIANTS
We had made plans to attend a baseball game in San Francisco two days later and with 500 miles to travel, the rush to get there was on. We had originally planned on riding in Redding and perhaps also Sacramento on the way down, but after finding out the UNESCO World Heritage Redwoods were much higher up the Californian coast than we had thought, we decided to head back up to Grant’s Pass and cut across to Cresent City - ready to go full tourist.
Travelling through these ancient forests is breathtaking. The best section is the Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park near Cresent City. If you drop by the local visitor centre they will direct you to the highest and girthiest trees you can find on a short time frame. If you have the time you can trek in much deeper to see the biggest of the giant trees.
Back on the highway, with the smell of weed permeating the air on our rapid trip down the coast, we stop at a classic drive-through tree and visit the 900ft giant - ‘The Big One’. With our last night spent on the shores of the Eel River near a tiny highway town, the next morning we make the final trek out of the Avenue of the Giants.
ONE LAST RIDE
Mid-afternoon we cross the Golden Gate Bridge and b-line it as fast as we can to AT&T Park to watch the San Francisco Giants take on the Arizona Diamondbacks. Now neither of us knew a thing about baseball when we decided to go, and we spent the entire game trying to figure out how it all worked - but it was worth it just for the atmosphere. From the chants, to the organ playing ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’, to the deadly delicious fast food. It was amazing.
With that our short trip was over. Simon had to head back to Canada, ending almost three weeks of Vanlife on the run. I, however, headed to a hostel on the edge of the bay and engaged in one free day in San Francisco.
Bike hire is big here, but having a bike of my own certainly made things easier. With a bike lock in hand, there was plenty of asphalt bashing. I traversed town from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Mission District. Capping the day off in the suburb of Forest Knoll, the short singletrack sections enough to whet my mountain biker appetite for the flight home. Oregon you were amazing and California, we’ll be back another time.