The story of Oregon’s “Lost Wagon Train” dates back to 1845 when a group of 1000 emigrants set out on the Oregon Trail hoping to start a new life in the west. Due to a series of misfortunes, including wrong turns, lack of food and water, and hostile encounters with Native Americans, the group became lost and stranded in the high desert of eastern Oregon. As conditions worsened, some members of the party set out to find help while others stayed behind to wait for rescue. After weeks of wandering, suffering, and numerous deaths, the surviving members of the group were eventually rescued by a group of settlers from The Dalles. The tragedy served as a cautionary tale for future emigrants on the Oregon Trail, and its legacy has been preserved through various historical markers and monuments in the region.
This route traverses some of the same land covered by those on the Lost Wagon Train. Fortunately, your route is predetermined, so you won’t be plagued by the same concerns of the lost parties back in 1845. Instead, you can focus on the highlights of the route, all of which illustrate why riding gravel is so wonderful in Madras. You’ll pedal through the Baldwin Hills, past Hay Creek, and skirt the Crooked River National Grasslands. You’ll visit the farming community of Gateway, pedal along Lake Simtustus, and pass through the Dry Canyon. Keep your eyes upon for jaw-dropping views of Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Hood.
This route is a moderate distance, includes small climbs, and offers an abundance of pavement. This is an excellent choice for early-season training as it is neither long nor arduous. Just beyond the halfway point, there is a flat stretch of 6 miles that allows you to spin some energy back into your legs in preparation for the infamous Pelton Hill Climb at mile 45. Enjoy!
In the spring when the fields are green and the grassland flowers are in bloom. The route rides well most of the year, even in the winter. Look for times when the snow levels are high and the desert is dry. On hot summer days or windy days, avoid this route as it is too exposed.
Madras Aquatic Center. Flush toilets. Water. No parking permit or fee required.
Lat / Long: 44.632995, -121.105463
The route starts at the Madras Aquatic Center. After leaving the aquatic center, you’ll roll on pavement for a couple of miles. Then a quick, speedy downhill will deliver you into a long, 15-mile stretch of gravel. The riding is through the scenic Baldwin Hills and skirts the National Grasslands. It is up and down (more down than up), with some technical bits.
At ~ mile 26, make a left on the edge of the farming community of Gateway and then climb one of the Gateway grades, a hill of less than a mile at 5% gradient. From here it is relatively flat for the next 11 miles with the exception of one bump at mile 31. This is your chance to spin and rejuvenate your legs. The crux of the ride is yet to come.
The sign for Barry Ranches (Herefords & Angus) marks the end of the farming flats. Get ready for a moderately steep gravel descent with a couple of big sweeping S-turns with great photo opportunities. As you bottom out, the road becomes more narrow and passes between a set of buildings and a house. It will feel almost as though you are on a private drive to a home. You are not! You are on a public road. (Just in case somebody stops you, consider showing them the attached photo that shows the road as a public right away.)
Soon, the gravel ends with a left-hand turn onto Pelton Dam road. Enjoy the short, winding section along Lake Simtustus as you are about to be smacked by the crux of your ride day. Fourty-five miles into the ride, you’ll encounter a steep, short kicker hill, the Pelton Hill Climb. The climb is 1.3 miles-long with an average gradient of 11% and a long false flat climb to the junction with Belmont Lane.
From there it is more downhill than up, with a drop through Dry Canyon as you head west to east through Madras.
Homesteaders first settled the area in the 1880s, constructing more than 700 homes. By the 1930s, insufficient rainfall and unfavorable economic conditions led to farm failures and land abandonment. By 1935, about 35% of the homesteads were foreclosed upon by federal and private mortgage banks. The government repurchased the land from the remaining homesteaders. The Crooked River National Grassland was created by Congress in 1960 to improve range management and the forage resource. The grasslands, which cover 173,629 acres, include two National Wild and Scenic Rivers: the Deschutes and the Crooked. There are 20 national grasslands across the country, but Crooked River National Grassland is the only national grassland in the Pacific Northwest. [Ochoco National Forest]
Richardson’s Rock Ranch is well known by rock hounds all across the globe. The shop sells an impressive collection of rough and finished stones — including fossils, geodes, and polished spheres — from all over the world, including Morocco, Madagascar, Brazil, India, China, Indonesia, Africa and beyond. The shop used to allow customers to dig in the Kennedy and Priday agate beds, but digging was permanently closed in 2019. The shop still digs for and sells thundereggs, the Oregon state rock. These are gorgeous nodule-like, agate-filled rocks formed within rhyolitic volcanic ash layers. [Richardson Rock Ranch]
Photo Credit: Richardson Rock Ranch
Agency Plains is a plateau just north of the city of Madras. Approximately 250 feet in elevation above the east side of the Deschutes River, the area is within the “Madras Y” (the Y formed by Highway 97 to the east and Highway 26 to the west). The area consists of arable land on which a variety of seed crops are raised, but that was not the case for early settlers who were challenged by dryland farming. Edith Smith, who maintained a family home on the Agency Plains in the early 1900s, recalls: “…there were a lot of flying ants, sage rats and sagebrush to contend with. [We] had to haul water to the homestead as there was no water source nearby.” [The Madras Pioneer]
Meek’s Wagon Train tragedy refers to an incident that occurred in 1845 during the westward migration on the Oregon Trail. Stephen Meek, a mountain man and guide, led a group of 200 emigrants on an alternate route to the established Oregon Trail. The group faced multiple obstacles, including a lack of water and difficult terrain, which resulted in the loss of many oxen and horses.
As the group became increasingly desperate, Meek convinced them to abandon their wagons and attempt to cross the Cascade Mountains on foot. The journey was treacherous, and the group suffered from starvation, hypothermia, and exposure. By the time they reached the Willamette Valley, only 48 of the original party survived. This tragedy is considered one of the deadliest incidents on the Oregon Trail and is often cited as an example of the dangers of traveling westward in the mid-19th century. [Wikipedia]
The town of Gateway earned its name because it is located in a naturally eroded valley where a depression in the terrain provides a natural gateway from the Deschutes River to the upper plateau. When railroads first entered into Oregon from the north along the Deschutes River, one of the rail lines used this pathway to emerge to the uplands. The presence of the railroad helped grow the Gateway community into one that could support a school, a church, a railroad depot, and a store. Many of the settlers’ ancestors still live in the area today, but the community is no longer the thriving metropolis it once was. [Mecca Grade]
Photo Credit: Mecca Grade
Portland General Electric owns and operates Pelton Dam, a hydroelectric facility on the Deschutes River. This dam was constructed in 1958 and features a concrete arch design. The dam is 204 feet high from the bedrock and has a width of 965 feet at its crest. It generates 110 megawatts of electricity.
Located upstream to the south, Pelton Dam impounds the waters of the Deschutes River, creating the deep Lake Simtustus in a relatively narrow canyon. The lake extends approximately 7 miles upstream to the 1964 Round Butte Dam. [Wikipedia]
Lake Simtustus is named after Pipsher Simtustus (1839-1926), a famed warrior from the Warm Springs tribe who served as a scout for the US army in 1867 and 1868. [Lake Simtustus Resort]
The grizzly bear sculptures in this roundabout were created out of hammered rusted steel by Chris Buffalo Folsom. The sculptures consist of four grizzly bears — a mother and three cubs. The mother bear, who stands on her hind legs, is 27-feet tall. The cubs range in height from 8 to 12 feet, depending on their pose. [The Oregonian]
Listen to the podcast in the sidebar to hear the artist talk about his sculpture.
This roundabout sculpture called, “Red Tail,” was created by Eastern Washington resident Miles Pepper, an artist who creates kinetic sculptures for public places. This hawk, which sits above a 25-foot steel sculpture shaped like an arrowhead, has a wingspan of 15 feet. The sculpture is a weather vane, as the hawk’s wings move in the wind. [The Bulletin]
The route starts at the Madras Aquatic Center. Let the front desk know you are doing a Dirty Freehub gravel bike route and they will usually allow you access to the locker rooms without a fee. After the ride, consider using the hot tub and taking a shower. This will cost you a day pass, but it’s well worth it.
Some of the roads see little traffic and little upkeep. The route is suitable for a road bike, but much more fun and comfortable on a gravel bike.
Even though the route is more pavement than gravel, larger width tubeless tires are a must for this route as punctures and sidewall cuts can happen. 40 mm tires work great. 35 mm is doable with good bike handling skills.
Have you ridden this route? Got a question? Join the discussion!