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Scouting the Next Iconic Overland Route in the American Outback

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

This article was originally published on 4XOutdoors in Spring 2023. To get obtain more information about the 2,400 mile long Great American Outback Trail, please visit the route guide page, which contains detailed information including digital mapping files. The track is broken into 4 distinct segments, featuring 163 Discovery Points.

Somewhere in the high desert of Central Oregon.

The Continental Divide, the Pacific Crest Overland Route, the California Crest Trail, and the Trans-America Trail are some of the great overland routes of North America. Each route spans over 1,500 miles and can take travelers anywhere from weeks to months to complete. The Aussies have long been famous for traveling incredibly remote tracks through the Australian Outback, and perhaps the most famous and remote track on the continent is the 1,150 mile long Canning Stock Route that traverses some of the most inhospitable and remote regions in the outback that can be reached by vehicle. Serious off-roaders consider it a rite of passage in Oz. But what’s the equivalent in the United States, or even North America? In the American West, we have huge expanses of public land that are generally open and accessible to the public. One of the best ways to measure remoteness is to look at the light pollution within a specific area. Afterall, light pollution is perhaps the best indicator of reasonably large amounts of human inhabitants. The more remote you get, the less light pollution there is. And surprise, surprise, the darkest skies in the contiguous United States are all found West of the Rockies in places like Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada (of course!), South Dakota and even parts of northeastern California and eastern Sierra. Now we’ve got a general idea of where some of the remote regions are in the lower 48.

Black Rock Point, Black Rock Desert, NV.

At Overland Trail Guides (OTG), we curate and develop highly detailed route guides across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. I wanted this route to go through Jarbidge, NV, which most resources consider the most remote town/place in the lower 48. From there I began piecing together various OTG routes and other routes already in the public domain. After an exhaustive amount of research, I’d run through several iterations of the route until settling on a 2,000 mile loop through central and eastern Oregon, northern Nevada, northeastern California, and southern Idaho. The route would travel through spectacular scenery like the sagebrush ocean of the Great Basin Desert, the rugged Owyhee Canyonlands, the spectacular volcanic fields of the Modoc Plateau, the eastern border of the Cascade volcanic arc, and the Snake River Plateau. Not only would the route feature a wide range of flora and topography, it would visit key outposts and remote industrial hubs that helped build the American West (industrial towns like Winnemucca and Klamath Falls), all the while criss-crossing some of the historic pioneer Overland routes like the Lassen, Applegate, and Oregon Trails.

Upper Klamath Lake, OR.

Introducing: “The Great American Outback Trail” That’s got a pretty cool ring to it, except for one nagging problem: in order to complete the route I needed to figure out how to create a backcountry route connecting the Modoc Backcountry Discovery Trail in northeastern California up to Bend in central Oregon. Easier said than done. Information on the backroads through this corridor of Oregon was rather sparse, but I did stumble across the Oregon Outback Trail, a popular bikepacking route that adventure bike motorcycles also used from time to time. Except there was one big problem, a large portion of the track from Klamath Falls up to the Sprague river followed a bike path where vehicles were prohibited. My research kept running into one roadblock after another, but the dearth of information opened a door of opportunity: I’d have to head up to southern and central Oregon and scout the proposed connector myself.

Homestead Village and Museum, Fork Rock, OR.

I used all of my research thus far to build a couple of different options through the backroads of Fremont-Winema National Forest and Deschutes National Forest to the north. The National Forest MVUM maps were a veritable patchwork of roads criss-crossing through the forest and mountains. I figured if I came across a large downed tree, gate, or washout there’d be plenty of options for a reroute. After ample planning, I penciled in my scouting dates for late October, which typically isn’t an issue in California but inclement weather and snow tends to arrive earlier up in Oregon. My plans were to head out from the Bay Area on a Thursday afternoon and camp somewhere near Mt Shasta, and then begin the scouting expedition just outside of Klamath Falls on Friday. The weather forecast was showing clear sunny skies on Thursday and Friday with rain and possibly snow moving in on Friday night. The planned route was a hair under 250 miles and topped out at over 7,000 feet, as I’d planned to head over the summit to Pualina Lakes at Newberry National Volcanic Monument just outside of Bend– definitely a bit of a risk with inclement weather rolling in. On Friday morning, I took my 3 year old pup Shasta (yes, that’s her name too!) for a quick morning walk and then we packed up and hit highway 97 headed for Klamath Falls. The clouds soon broke and a brilliant blue sky sat above the glasslike waters of Upper Klamath Lake. We began our ascent into the high country of the Fremont-Winema National Forest, only passing a single adventure biker on our travels. We traveled through the fir and pine forests until spitting out near the Sprague river, which is a bit of a transition zone between the sagebrush ocean of the high desert and the evergreen forests. Making fantastic time, we traveled through the hamlet of Fork Rock and visited Fort Rock State Park, eventually camping about 10 miles north at a dispersed campsite marked on iOverlander that is apparently popular with the Oregon Outback Bikepacking crowd.

Somewhere in northern Nevada.

The expedition was going better than I’d anticipated, but as the weather forecast predicted, the wind began to pick up and thick gray clouds suffocated the once blue skies. The wind would continue to howl throughout the night with periods of light precipitation. On Friday, we’d awake to giant snow flakes falling from the sky. The dirt around camp was muddy from the rain and drizzle over the night. Looking at the situation, I figured our best bet was to hit the road early and cover as much ground as possible in case the snow really began to dump. Luckily, time was on our side as we’d covered a solid 150 miles on Friday– one of the major benefits of going out solo is the setting your desired pace! As we steadily gained elevation, the pine and fir forest grew thicker, but so did the top layer of snow covering the dirt. Within 45 minutes, snow completely blanketed the ground but I could still see some dirt in my tire tracks when looking out my side mirrors.

An early season snowstorm on the road to Bend, OR.

I’d planned a route along a secondary trail that climbed up the side of the mountain and over the summit to Paulina Lakes. As I continue to climb, the snow was getting deeper. My tire tracks were a solid white and the snow was probably 6” deep. If the rate of snowfall kept steady, I could be dealing with snowdrifts 2-3’ deep later in the day– not ideal, especially when traveling solo! Well, my plans would be thwarted twice. The original trail I’d planned to take over the summit grew narrower and narrower until baby pines began to appear in the middle of the trail. It seemed like the forest service was no longer maintaining this trail despite the fact it showed up on the official Deschutes MVUM (motor vehicle use map). I turned around backtracking to a paved road that would lead us to another dirt road over the mountain, except this time a massive 100’ tall pine had fallen completely blocking the road. Onto Plan C! We backtracked to the main forest road we’d been on before and continued north. In order to make it over to Paulina Lakes, there was another trail that led over the summit that appeared to be a primary forest road. The road was wide and a large sign pointed up the mountain indicating the National Monument was ahead; a good sign this road wouldn’t gradually dissipate into the forest like the previous trail. The snow was getting noticeably deeper as I neared the summit. Descending down the mountain into Paulina Lakes, a thick fog began to develop. The wind was quickly picking up along with the rate of snowfall. The Ram 3500 skidded from the snow onto the pavement, and it was slippery! Shortly thereafter, I pulled the vehicle into the parking lot of East Paulina Lake. The Ram registered 27 F outside, but I’d guess it was in the low teens with the wind chill. The wind was howling and the snow was coming down sideways as the storm roiled waves across the lake. I exited the vehicle for a quick minute, but after being pelted by the stinging snowflakes I figured our best option was to head over to the visitor center at the West Lake to get an updated weather forecast. The original forecast had indicated that the storm was supposed to break up around mid-day.

On the edge of the sagebrush sea.

I jumped back in the Ram with Shasta and drove the couple of miles over to the visitor center, except it was closed. A few folks were piddling about around Wast Paulina Lake, as the wind didn’t seem to be impacting this side of the park. Shasta indicated she’d been in the truck for far too long, and so I obliged and decided to take her for a short walk along the lakeshore. We passed a man and his friend loading up into their Subaru and decided this might be my last opportunity to inquire about the weather with the visitor center closed. He indicated the forecast called for snow all day up in the mountains. Great! I was thinking about the wind whipping through the East Lake and the summit getting hammered with snow. I compared the planned route in Gaia GPS, and it didn’t seem like it was too much further to Bend, except for the section just north of Paulina Lakes traveled through some of the higher elevations. I was having second thoughts about heading back over the summit fearing that we could become stuck. So I came up with a plan, which was to head up to the summit and check the conditions up there. If things look bleaked, we’d turn around and take the pavement back down to Highway 97, but if they didn’t look so bad we’d press north to Bend.

I swear to God that storm was sitting right in the crater of East Paulina Lake. We passed back through a second time, and the wind was approaching gale-force while the snow continued to fall. But as we neared the top of the summit, dark ominous clouds began to give way to patches of Blue Sky and sunlight. The rate of snow continued to slow, until stopping altogether. The route on Gaia indicated we’d need to turn left shortly after the summit. I maneuvered the truck left onto a narrow trail with a steep, downslope embankment on the passenger side of the vehicle. When you’re in a full sized vehicle like a Ram 3500, you immediately notice the extra width you take up on smaller trails. Normally, this wouldn’t be much of an issue, but the snow was packed at a downslope along many sections of the trail. When you’re in a 9,000 lb rig, you need to be extra mindful of the power of gravity in such situations! A set of fresh tire tracks help to put my mind at ease– someone else was out on the trails and they’d helped to pack down the snow along the trail.

Fort Rock is the American Outback's answer to Australia's Ayer's Rock (Red Rock of Uluru).

Shasta and I picked our way through the tight mountain trail traveling along at 5-8 mph for much of the trail. There were several sections that were especially narrow with enough exposure to convince me to put the vehicle in 4-low and proceed at a snail’s pace until the trail widened once again. As we closed in on the primary forest road that would lead us into Bend, we came across a pair of dual sport motorbikes. Chatting for a quick minute, I continued to the main road coming across more folks out camping and exploring the backroads. We were losing elevation and the snow began to dissipate as pine needles and dirt started to peek through the white stuff.

I’d planned a solid two days to scout the route, but we’d made it to downtown Bend by the early afternoon. The locals were out and about milling through downtown on an October afternoon that felt more like January. What better way to celebrate a successful scouting expedition with a warm meal and cold beer. And so that’s what I did, leaving Shasta in the truck to watch from the parking lot.

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