This gravel bike route is not only a stunning ride through the countryside of Eastern Oregon with a chance to also learn about the history of Chinese immigrants in the region.
The route starts with a beautiful 14-mile ride along a mostly flat paved road with breathtaking views of the Powder River. After that, get ready to conquer a climb on a “Cadillac” gravel with plenty of switchbacks. The climb is worth, it, though, as the top offers a breathtaking view of the Wallowa Mountains. Along the way, you’ll pass by the Hole in the Wall slide, where you can see remnants of a landslide that created a temporary reservoir, the ghost town of Sparta, once a thriving mining community and the Sparta Ditch, a 32-mile-long ditch built by Chinese laborers, that supplied water for local mining operations.
So come along on this gravel bike adventure and discover the stunning scenery and rich history of Eastern Oregon!
Mid-week spring and fall. The route has an extended sector on Highway 86. Thus, we strongly encourage riding the route outside of the summer tourism season and not on weekends. Also, the rotue is exposed and we do not recommend it on hot or windy days.
Dirt pull-out at the intersection of Baker-Copperfield Hwy #86 and Sparta Lane.
Lat / Long: 44.830181, -117.431536
This route begins with about 14 miles of easy, mostly flat paved roads with stunning views along the Powder River.
At ~ mile 14.5, you come to a gravel road with lots of switchbacks to climb. But don’t forget to take a look down as you are ascending to see where you have been; it’s a view earned! The surface is smooth gravel, with not much washboard.
As you crest the Sparta Grade (mile 21), views of the Wallowa mountains explode! Over the next 7 miles you continue to gain elevation (1100 feet) but at a much more gradual rate. The terrain is open and treeless at first, moving to a mix of grazing lands and woodlands. At mile 27.5, you pass by the ghost town of Sparta and just after this, it is all downhill. It is not a difficult descent even though some of the gradients get up to 9%. The views are big ad the riding is fun as you twist and turn back to the Powder River.
In 1984, part of the hillside next to Highway 86, between Hole in the Wall Gulch and Maiden Gulch, detached and slid, covering the highway and isolating the communities of Halfway and Richland. The “Hole in the Wall” landslide dammed the Powder River, creating a temporary reservoir. Remnants of the slide are still visible today. [Oregon Geology]
“The Columbia River Basalt Group (CRBG) is the youngest, smallest and one of the best-preserved continental flood basalt province on Earth, covering over 210,000 km2 of mainly eastern Oregon and Washington, western Idaho, and part of northern Nevada.” Small outcrops of this 10-15 million year old continuous lava flow basalt are visible along this route. [USGS]
New Bridge was established beside Eagle Creek by Joseph Gale (pictured), a significant contributor to the development of “Oregon Country.” The town functioned as a trading hub for miners near Sparta, selling agricultural goods from Eagle Valley. New Bridge contained a cannery for fruits and vegetables, a box factory, and an apple packing shed. However, even though the New Bridge post office operated from 1878 until 1967, the emergence of Richland in 1897 contributed to the eventual decline of New Bridge. [Wikipedia]
The Wallowa Mountains are primarily comprised of the Wallowa Batholith (granite from 120-16- million years ago), encompassed by Columbia River basalt. During the most recent glaciation period, known as the late Pleistocene epoch, valleys were sculpted by glaciers, resulting in a range of moraines. The melting of the glaciers produced a significant amount of water, which transported sediment to the valley floors, leaving behind delta deposits known as glacial till atop the previous sedimentary layers. [Wikipedia]
In the late 1800s, Sparta was a prosperous mining town that yielded $677,000 worth of gold from lode mines. It had three stores, a temple, a bordello, a doctor and multiple gambling halls. Sparta Chinatown had over 1200 Chinese immigrants who worked primarily as laborers and miners. A Chinese cemetery on a ridge close to town still has pits marking the sites of remains that were disinterred and returned to China by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.
Still standing in Sparta is the general goods store originally built by Sigmund Heilner in 1872. Sigmund and his brother set up and operated the general store and banking business under the name E. D. Cohn & Company. [Oregon Encyclopedia].
The 32-mile long Sparta Ditch is an example of the valuable contribution made by Chinese laborers in northeastern Oregon. The ditch supplied water for local mining operations and was made with a series of wood and earthen flumes and tunnels. A Chinese crew worked without pay for up to 11 months, digging through 30 miles of rock by hand. When gold mining declined, the ditch was used for irrigation before falling into disrepair. It begins on the U.S. Forest Service lands northwest of Sparta. Some sections of the original ditch are still discernible. [Oregon Encyclopedia]
We recommend a red blinky light for the paved sections.
If you’re going to stop in Richland for a bite to eat, you’ll need to detour slightly off route.
Have you ridden this route? Got a question? Join the discussion!