2 Day Bikepacking Trip Near Oakridge, OR: Waldo Lake to Cultus Lake

The Map

Want the GPX version of the map or just more detail?  Click here.

A Few Preliminary Mistakes

I’ll be the first to admit that the planning I usually invest in a ride like this was slightly neglected.  I had been told earlier in the week by my riding partner that he just couldn’t make the ride fit into his schedule, so I didn’t check the past week’s weather report up at Waldo Lake, I didn’t call the Ranger Station for trail conditions, and no, I didn’t even check to see if Waldo Lake was still open.  I just knew the details of the route I had planned and had put it on my GPS.  So when a last ditch effort to find a riding partner Friday evening resulted in unexpected success, I threw all my gear in the car and drove 2 ½ hours southeast to Waldo Lake only to find out that all the campgrounds were closed (this is usually a good thing in my opinion; while the facilities are all locked up, nobody is there!) AND a giant mound of snow was piled up at the entrance to the campgrounds, with no way of getting around it.

This was not good.

Taken the next morning, since it was pitch black the night before.

My riding partner was someone I had never met before named Brandon Davis, and he was driving down all the way from Tacoma, Washington; a 6 hour drive.  This meant an alternative had to be hashed out.

After calling him and scrounging for an open campground in Oakridge, to no avail, I instead opted for the cheapest motel money could buy, the Cascade Motel, and did a massive rehaul of my previous route.

Cheap AND janky? Actually no, just cheap. The motel itself was quite nice.

The details of said route rehaul: since we had to start the ride at the bottom of Forest Road 5897 – 13 miles from my original plan of camping at the North Campground – I completely cut out the ride around Waldo Lake and replaced it with the ride up the Forest Road. Although paved, it proved more rigorous than Waldo Lake’s singletrack because it basically ascends for 11 miles straight, before our turn off at Forest Road 4290.  Other than that, the ride remained basically the same… so I guess the rehaul wasn’t actually all that massive after all.

Brandon, who I never had met, showed up at the motel around 10:30pm.  We warmed up to each other rather quickly after exchanging some bikepacking and backpacking stories, and it was well past midnight when we finally were able to quiet the bikepacking chatter and get some shuteye before our 6am wake-up call.

Bikepacking essentials.

Day 1 – Winter is Coming

The morning started at 6am when we both jumped out of bed, loaded up the cars and headed for Waldo Lake.  The road up to the lake was a bit challenging to navigate because there were only thin lines of black tarmac to follow; the rest of the road was mixture of frozen snow and ice.  Northwestern Oregon recently received a rather nasty rain and wind storm, and it appears that some of it reached Oakridge as well.  However, we were soon off the paved Waldo Lake Road and onto the gravel Forest Road 4290, with some brief singletrack connecting the two.

Our brief encounter with singletrack did not bode well for the miles of singletrack we had in our future though: it was completely covered in thick, crunchy snow, and our large 3 inch tires didn’t float as would be expected, but instead sunk to the bottom, making the snow feel more like soft sand.  If this was going to be our fate throughout the ride, there was no way we would reach Cultus Lake, 20 miles away.

All packed up.

The ride started with some easy rock gardens.
But quickly upgraded to an icy labyrinth.
Which ended up being a guessing game; snow? Ice? Brandon guessed wrong on one occasion and was on his back immediately, but that was the only misplaced step on our journey up the road.

However, when we did finally get to our first major section of singletrack on the Metolius Windigo Trail, we found to our relief that there were only small patches of snow, and that the majority of the singletrack was in great shape, frosted over and hard as a rock.  Our only obstacles over the next four miles were the plethora of downed trees along the way, blown over no doubt by the previously mentioned storm.


One of many lakes.
One of the many downed tree sections.

We made it to Little Cultus Lake around noon, which was only 8 miles from our final destination, a campground on the east side of (Big) Cultus Lake.  Instead of trudging on to the big lake and putzing around camp for a few hours, we decided to detour up to the top of Cultus Mountain, an 1,800 foot climb on a VERY primitive forest road.

Although the road initially was free of snow, it eventually looked like this.

Sorry Brandon, there’s still a ways to go…

While I wouldn’t exactly say that Brandon was in a good mood while climbing up the mountain, any ounce of negativity festering within his unconscious was forgotten once we made it to the top and had 360 degree views of the cascades, including excellent views of Bachelor, Broken Top, and the Three Sisters to the North, and Diamond Peak to the south.  It was definitely worth the 5 mile climb up; even Brandon would agree.

Finally, the view at the top; this is looking south.
And north, with the Three Sisters, Broken Top, and Bachelor in the background.
Brandon arrives!
On top of the world… well, at least 6,700 feet above sea level.

Once back down the mountain, we headed for Cultus Lake, and once again were plagued with endless scores of downed trees, which made the 8-mile stretch of singletrack much more time-consuming than first anticipated.  We got to camp around 5pm, just before dark.  Instead of setting up our tents, we decided to quickly scrounge the campground for dry wood and attempt to make a fire, but our efforts did not yield results.  The wood was quite wet, and after exhausting half my supply of toilet paper as fire starter, we admitted defeat and relied on our headlamps for light and jackets for warmth rather than the hoped-for fire.

Back on the trail with Brandon navigating some downed trees in the background.
Quick water fill-up.
More messy tree action on the trail; picture 2 of 50.
The closest we ever got to a fire.

We then commenced in a long and cordial dialogue about all manner of bikepacking nerdery, and found that through our shared interest we had much in common; who knew that such an esoteric hobby could make complete strangers into friends?

Sun setting over Cultus Lake.
And the ice is starting to creep across the lake’s shallower surfaces.
The campsite. We had it all to ourselves.

At 7pm, we both went to our separate living arrangements, he to his tarptent and me to my Big Agnes, and braved the winter weather wearing every scrap of clothing we brought.  It was needed.  The weather dropped down into the low 20s, possibly even the teens, during the night.

Day 2 – Winter Came, Settled in, and Made Itself at Home

Despite the inevitable sleep deprivation in such harsh conditions, the next morning we both got up with that unnatural feeling of refreshment one only gets when in the wilderness, and went about our morning routines.  It’s always interesting to observe other’s bikepacking routines and rituals, and comparing them to one’s own.  Brandon and I actually had quite similar patterns.  Both of us like to get up a bit earlier than necessary in order to make coffee, sit and relax a bit before tackling the day’s riding.  Once again, a short stint of bikepacking gear nerdery ensued until both of us had finished the coffee and were ready to pack up and hit the road.

Morning rituals. Apparently my butt is the only thing hot enough to thaw the frost on our picnic table.
A large part of this shallower side of the lake was frozen solid.
Before take-off.

The first 6+ miles were spent on quiet gravel roads.  It was a great way to get warmed up.  Then, it was onto the singletrack.  The route I planned makes a sort of figure 8, which allowed us to take different singletrack the whole way back.  This time, we rode on the Charlton Trail, which proved a bit frustrating.  The catalyst for our frustration was downed trees; which then developed as occasional snow drifts made the trail difficult to navigate on our bikes; and which finally reached its pinnacle via deep snow that refused to be ridden through.  We ended up doing the vast majority of the 6 mile trail trudging step by laborious step through the snow rather than biking.  There were short stints we could ride, but it was mostly hike-a-bike.

Beautiful, quiet gravel road.
On our way back, we ran into this shallower lake (Lemish Lake?) that was completely frozen over.
Delayering a bit.
Before the 6 mile trudge through snowy singletrack.

Finally, we arrived at Charlton Lake around noon, which meant the hard part was over.  All that was left was a 10 mile downhill cruise to the car, where thoughts turned to how quickly we would regain feeling in our toes once the car’s heater was maxed out.

We took a pit-stop in Oakridge at Brewers Union, Local 180, where we both ordered burgers and beer.  It was mutually agreed that we would ride together again soon, then it was out the door as we both went our separate ways.  Overall, a great ride with a great riding partner.  We’ll do it again sometime soon Brandon.