Oregon’s Desert-To-Pines Backcountry Discovery Route

Oregon’s Desert-To-Pines Backcountry Discovery Route

When the merry route mappers at Backcountry Discovery Routes (BDR) announced their latest addition, the Oregon Backcountry Discovery Route (ORBDR), I started planning. I use a dual-sport bike (a Suzuki DR-Z400) so I attack the adventure a little differently than you adventure-bike riders. My ride strategy worked out great so I pass it along to help other dual sporters and maybe even you adventure-bike types.

I hauled the DR-Z in Big Red (my Field Van Sprinter) from home in Somis, California, to Bend, Oregon. Bend is pretty close to the center of the ORBDR and I have a bunch of friends in Bend where I could park the van for a week.

My DR-Z’s rear tire probably could have made the 750-mile ORBDR but I was concerned because of the pavement miles getting to the start and then back from the finish. Arriving in Bend with the intention of leaving on the bike the next day, I pulled into Pro Caliber with the hail-Mary hope that the dealership would have a tire and be able to mount it that afternoon. They not only had a tire, they had a selection and they made the time to mount it. Unlike most shops in Southern California, these guys keep a little time open to accommodate riders like me. They even unloaded and loaded the bike for me. Thanks, Pro Caliber!

If you start in Bend like me, study your Butler ORBRD map (you do have a Butler ORBRD map, don’t you?) and plot your 250-mile route to Fields or Denio Junction (the official start of the ride). This may be the most desolate 250 miles in Oregon. Dual-sporters will want to top off before leaving Bend. There is nothing until you hit (or miss) the tiny town of Riley and its one gas pump. Look close at the map and you’ll see unpaved roads you can ride on your way to Fields. They are not as much fun as the BDR route but they are still better than riding the highway.

I highly recommend (after you fuel up) riding Steens Mountain Loop Road out of FrenchKiss, I mean Frenchglen, on your way to the ORBDR Start. The road is no longer a loop. It is an out-and-back ride while under repair (may reopen in 2024) but still worth it. The views are spectacular and there was still snow in September! Thank you BDR for the route update on the Steens Mountain Loop Road partial closure because the first closure sign posted by the land-management agency is at the halfway point of the “loop.”

Majestic View: The top of the Steens Mountain Loop Road is well worth the extra miles just for the views. Fields Station is farther away than it looks on the map, so plan your ride time accordingly.

Since we are talking about route updates, it is essential to check these updates before attempting the ORBDR (or any other BDR ride). Don’t check it a month before your ride. Check it the day you leave for your ride. The ORBDR Riding Season Route Updates had a number of changes due to everything from fires to sensitive habitat protection.

I need to vent a little here. The land-management agencies are real good at closing a route with a sign or fence and then blaming BDR riders for disobeying their orders. First, BDR riders already know a section is closed and have the GPS tracks to get them on approved and open routes. Second, these land managers need to stop pointing fingers and start concentrating on proper signage. Closures are posted without route recommendations. This is worse than closing a highway without offering a detour.

I’m not saying to post signs ever mile but folks in jeeps or motorcycles can follow alternative routes marked by wooden stakes (maybe with a little color on them). There was one closed dry lakebed that did have an easy-to-follow detour and it sure looked like drivers and riders were using it.

Arrive early: If you are starting from Fields Station, get there before 4 or you’re gonna miss dinner (I did). Do not order the Cory’s Creation for breakfast if you are solo. No way you can eat it all. Eating half an order is a gut bomb you’ll carry most of the first day. It tasted soooo good, the gut bomb was worth it.


The end of your first day (the most desolate day of any BDR route I’ve ridden) ends in Plush. The Hart Mountain Store is the place to fuel up both the bike and body, but if you are not into camping (like me), accommodations are scarce. Luckily, Heidi at The Hart Mountain Store gave me the number of the Steve Gipson Bunkhouse (541-219-0052) in Adel. This adds 18 miles of pavement to the day, but it is a beautiful 18 miles on the shores of Crump Lake and the ride back up to Plush in the morning was just as good.

Bunkhouse living: After a day in the desert (and in the saddle), this is all that is needed for a great night’s sleep. There was no cell service the first two days of riding. I used a Garmin InReach Mini to let Gail (my wife) know that I finished the day safely.

The Steve Gipson Bunkhouse was the least expensive and most memorable stay on my ride. You get your own room and shared bathroom. If you are hauling food, there is a kitchen. The bunkhouse was built for employees of a family farm that stretches out for miles like the mother of all front lawns. The place is now used mostly by antelope hunters (and smart BDR riders) who were singing the blues because heavy rains had spread the herds to multiple new watering holes. I never met Steve and was told by the hunters to leave my money in the microwave on the way out.

The first two days of the ORBDR are desert riding; Isolated, sneaky technical sections, varied road surfaces, hot temps and little shade. You really need to stay alert. One memorable section has riders going up a narrow gulch that appears to just dead end. There the tricky road takes an abrupt right turn up a loose, steep, sandy climb. The DR-Z made it up after searching for, and finding, traction. Adventure-bike pilots better be ready.

Must-visit store: Sisters’ main drag, E. Cascade Avenue, is touristy but ride one block North (E. Hood Avenue) and you will find the amazing Big Chief Vintage store. It is a mix of vintage motorcycle and cowboy stuff. What could be better? Just across from the Ace Hardware.

Christmas Valley, the end of day two, feels like a metropolis compared to everything that came before it. Heading out from Christmas Valley, you want to budget the time to check out Crack in the Ground. It is a special place. You’ve got another half day of riding before you reach the real Oregon. The day ends in Sunriver but that place is expensive! My hack here is to skip the Paulina Peak bonus loop for now. Ride the main route so you don’t miss the Luge towards Sunriver. Turn around and ride the route backwards (you get to ride up the Luge) and then ride the Paulina Peak bonus section. Once you return from the peak, ride to La Pine instead of back to the route. La Pine has far-more affordable accommodations. Of course, you rich guys can forget this tip and just ride to Sunriver.

Starting day four, stay off Route 97 and find your way to the Sunriver start from La Pine on back roads. This is when the ORBDR really delivers the Oregon experience most riders are expecting (who knew Oregon had so much desert and so few people?). Get ready for tacky dirt, shaded pine canopies, glassy lakes and panoramic views. Every mile gets better (and colder).

When I go back to the ORBDR, I’ll probably start in La Pine. I’m glad I experienced the desert portion and can brag I rode the complete route (once), but the best riding along the ORBDR starts in the middle of the state.

May I help you?: I thought it was cool watching this lumber crew work their machines until one of them asked me, “May I Help you?” That never means “May I Help You?” It means, “You looking for trouble?” I rode under the tractor to escape.

The last stage, Government Camp to Hood River, has a large section removed due to fire repairs (there wasn’t a fire going on). Again, BDR has the tracks modified so there is no reason to ignore closure signs. Just follow the modified track that is downloadable from BDR (for free, but get a membership to support the organization and earn a bunch of discounts on cool stuff).

Instead of finishing the ride and heading down Highway 26 (an uncomfortably hyperactive stretch of pavement with drivers in a bigger hurry than me), I backtracked the ORBDR to forest road 44 and followed it over to Dufur and Highway 197. You pretty much have the highway to yourself until you reach Madras where it gets busy. Highway 197 leads you back to Bend.

Perfect timing: I rode the ORBDR in early September and it was getting cold when I hit Government Camp. Leave later (or start too early) and snow may be encountered. You don’t see equipment like this if they don’t get dumped on.

Gas stations, restaurants, hotels, convenience stores and Big Chief Vintage loves BDR riders. “I’d rather have our parking lot full of you BDR riders than one car with California plates,” said one proprietor, unaware that my bike has a California plate. “You don’t abuse the rooms, you don’t complain, you support our store and you tip great.” Sisters Moto asks BDR riders to take a shot of themselves in front of their shop (it was closed when I came through). I was pegged as a BDR rider while visiting stores from Flush to Detroit. And it was all positive. ORBDR riders have made a good impression during the first year of the route being open.

Can’t say enough about the Backcountry Discovery Routes organization. They are amazing. They consistently develop interesting routes that would take an individual rider years of trial and error to put together.

Still going strong: The magazine business is tough these days so it was so cool to see my mentor Jody Weisel’s magazine, Motocross Action Magazine, getting top billing in Sisters, Oregon.