2-Day Bikepacking Trip in Oakridge, OR: Bunchgrass Trail to Waldo Lake – A Tale of Two Trails
Mountain biking is often defined by contrasts: it can be the best of times, it can be the worst of times; it can feel profound, it can feel foolish; it can instill ecstasy, it can instill agony; and going into this ride, fate seemed to be leaning towards the latter portions of these contrasts. For one, my riding partner, Dan, had to bail last minute because of work. Instead of postponing the ride, however, I mentally prepared for my first serious solo trip. Also, my coworkers and parents seemed really worried about me being completely alone on isolated singletrack. But instead of heeding their wisdom, I dismissed it by reminding myself that I was an experienced bikepacker. Finally, the main trail I planned to use – Bunchgrass Trail (Tr. #3559) – had very little information available online, and when I called up the ranger station, they seemed very impressed that I was going to take this trail and a handful of others all the way to Waldo Lake. With gear. In one day. I should have perceived their voice inflections as additional warning signs, but instead shrugged my shoulders and didn’t think twice.
Now that it’s over I see why they, along with a worker at Oakridge’s local bike shop, sounded impressed. This ride is quintessentially brutal. Had my first day gone with zero mishaps, I would have been riding into the night. Fortunately for me, I got lost and didn’t go through the potential level of agony I had ignorantly planned for myself. Here’s how it went down:
Day 1: The Failure that was Bunchgrass Trail
Want the GPX version of the map or just more detail? Click here.
*Note: This map should definitely not be used for navigation purposes, unless your plan is to ride 13 miles up Bunchgrass Trail, and then turn around and ride back down.
The Bunchgrass Trail is 22.4 miles of granny gear grinding agony, and I don’t think this is an exaggeration. I only made it 13 miles up the trail and climbed almost 5,000 cumulative feet in that distance. It’s unrelentingly steep. Period.
It’s also incredibly isolated. It’s the only actual hiking/biking trail between highway 58 and highway 24, and while I was on it, I saw a total of zero people. Yep, zero. And I was on the trail for over five hours.
What I did see was fresh bear scat and, as luck would have it, a black bear. Probably about a quarter mile after the bear scat sighting, I heard a crash in the brush to my right and a medium sized black bear came barreling onto the trail and sprinted away.
After careening around a corner, he hurtled into the brush and out of sight, but I was a little disconcerted after the encounter. Unlike my bear encounter with Trish near Ashland, this bear felt close enough to touch, even though he was probably between 10 and 20 feet away.
It’s actually kind of funny because after telling my coworkers at lunch that I was going to be riding isolated trails solo this weekend, one of my fellow English teachers insisted that I at least put bells somewhere on my bike in order to warn the bears that I was coming. While it sounded kind of dorky, his persistence worried me enough to drive out to Craft Warehouse on the eve of my adventure, purchase some bells, and then proceed to zip-tie them onto my front harness.
I wonder if the bells were the difference between a bear busting out of the bushes 10 feet in front of me and a bear/Ben t-bone collision resulting in a somersault (bearhug style) off the nearby cliff? I guess I’ll never know.
Anyway, the bear sighting was about 6 miles into the ride and I made it another 7 miles or so before getting to a weird junction in the trail that I didn’t see on the map. Long story short, I wandered aimlessly up my two trail options unconvinced either was correct. This is probably because I thought I was farther up the trail than I actually was, which again, the local bike shop employee pointed out to me when I pulled up on my bike later that afternoon, having chosen to retrace my steps back down to my car, which was parked at his shop, and then drive to Shadow Bay Campground at Waldo Lake where I would do some unloaded riding the following day. And since I was car camping, why not bring along some cold beer to enjoy at the campsite?
The rest of the night was spent getting prepared for the next day’s ride, leisurely biking around to the other campsites, and coincidentally, writing this entry.
Although I’d never heard of Waldo Lake until a few months ago when one of my school counseling cohort members mentioned it as a great place to mountain bike, I found the riding to be basically a perfect contrast to the day before. Relatively flat, very rideable, diverse riding landscapes (rocky, rooty, flowy), and populated. I didn’t see tons of other people on the 21 mile Waldo Lake Trail (Tr. #3590), but the 6 or 7 I did see made it feel like a buzzing metropolis when compared to the previous day. I also didn’t see any bears, which I was ok with.
The ride had beautiful scenery, including numerous little ponds just off the path, beautiful viewpoints of the lake at various angles, and even some forest diversity. There was one section where a fire had turned a once lush forest into a desolate, rocky, tree graveyard, which was a stunning change to the otherwise dense canopy of trees.
Final Thoughts on Bunchgrass Trail, Waldo Lake, and Oakridge Riding
I will definitely be returning to the Bunchgrass trail, but I think that I’ll try to set up a two-car situation and ride it east to west only. I realized after more closely analyzing the map that Waldo Lake is almost 4,000 feet higher in elevation than Oakridge, which is where the Bunchgrass Trail starts.
My next attempt will probably consist of exploration of some of the trails surrounding Waldo Lake and end with the challenging trek east to west across Bunchgrass Trail. Now I just have to find out whether I can fit it in before the snow hits this year.