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On the Trail in Oregon: Charting America's Next Great Overland Track

The infamous 1,150 mile long Canning Stock Route through Australia’s Outback is renowned for its remoteness and difficulty of passage. While not the most technical track, the rugged conditions of Australia’s baking hot interior, paired with the dearth of amenities (you’ll need to be prepared 600+ miles between fuel stops) has turned the Canning Stock Route into the stuff of legend, and it has firmly claimed its place on the shortlist of world’s most iconic and difficult off road tracks.

Stateside, it can be difficult to find the same level of remoteness in the lower 48, but we still have a number of tracks that surpass the Canning Stock Route in total length and technical difficulty (Americans certainly love taking on rugged tracks!). Names like the Continental Divide, Trans-America Trail, California Crest Trail, and Pacific Crest Overland Route come to mind. But what if we wanted to create a track that attempted to rival the Canning Stock Route for its remoteness– where would it be?


Reference a dark sky map of the United States (like the on above) and one quickly notices the darkest locations on the map are all west of the Rockies, with the most most prevalent dark spots in places like Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Northern Eastern California, and Eastern Oregon. Now we’ve got some hot leads of where the most remote locations are in the lower 48, but if we wanted to create a route with an abundance of varied natural scenery and a rich record of indigenous and pioneer history, then our question is easily answered– focus on the area where CA, OR, ID and Northern NV come together, an area where the eastern reaches of the Cascade Volcanic Arc meets the Great Basin and the Snake River Plateau. We can find everything from dense conifer forests in the Cascades and Modoc Plateau, Aspen filled canyons in the Basin Ranges, pinyon pines and sagebrush in the high desert, and barren salt flat playas in the Black Rock and Alvord Deserts. Population centers are far and few between, but industrial towns like Winnemucca and Klamath Falls played (and still play) an important role with the development of the Western United States through mineral and timber extraction, agriculture (especially the cattle industry), and the freight distribution of these resources to what were once fast growing population centers like San Francisco and Portland.

A Grandiose Idea

And with this knowledge in hand, we set out to develop a totally new, and soon-to-be iconic overland route for North America. A 2,000+ mile loop consisting of mostly dirt roads and trails that snake through some of the most remote deserts, canyonlands, basins, mountain ranges, and the most remote town in the lower 48 (Jarbidge, NV). Introducing: The Great American Outback Trail *Complete Route Guide and GPX file coming Winter 2023

Current draft of the Great American Outback Trail

Piecing it All Together How did we do it? If you ever perused our route directory then you know we've got an extensive library of routes scattered across the Western United States. We pieced together a number of OTG's proprietary routes, with other established routes in the public domain like the Modoc Backcountry Discovery Trail, and from there we had to create a number of connecting segments to link everything together. Even after countless hours of scouring the internet for intel, there still remained a few locations that required boots-on-the-ground, aka a scouting expedition, which leads us to Oregon.

OTG Heads to Oregon One of the last remaining sections of trail that needed to be figured out was the connector from Bend to Klamath Falls. Early research led us to the Oregon Outback, a popular route among bikepackers. Except there was one major problem, a large chunk of the trail just outside of Klamath Falls follows a bike path-- a no go zone for vehicles! I knew exactly what was in store-- I'd need to plot out an alternative, vehicle friendly route in Gaia GPS, and then head north to scout the track. With the changing of the seasons happening before our eyes, I made plans to head to Oregon the third week of October with Shasta the adventure Shepsky.

Shasta the adventure Shepsky

Exploring in mid to late October isn't typically an issue in California, but up north I knew we'd run the risk of winter storms arriving early in the season. As the date neared, the forecast looked decent, with clear skies on Thursday and Friday, and a chance of rain/snow mix on Saturday. Beggars can't be choosers, so we hit the road ready to work with the cards that Mother Nature would deal. We timed our departure from the Bay Area to avoid rush hour traffic, hopped on Interstate 5 and made a beeline for Mt Shasta, which would be our camp for the night before burning the highway to K-Falls in the morning (Klamath Falls). With the help of iOverlander, I located what looked to be a promising camp with great views of Mt Shasta that was just a few miles off route 97, the main highway to Klamath Falls. We pulled into our campsite around dusk. On our way to camp we passed one other camper in an old ambulance that'd been converted into an adventure van about a mile down the road-- perfect, we'd practically have the entire place to ourselves! As soon as the sun set the temp dropped into the high 30s. With just the dog keeping me company, I decided to turn in around 8pm, which also meant we could hit the road early the next morning.

Mt Shasta

I slept reasonable well, save for the freight train that interrupted my slumber at 4am! But the drone-like hum of the passing big rigs quickly sent me back to my subconscious dreamland. I awoke shortly before 6am, and with her incessant whining, Shasta let me know she was ready to get up as well. Turning on my buddy heater, I figured it'd be more pleasant to throw my shirt on pants with a bit of warmth. We explored the surrounding area for about 20 minutes, taking in the views of morning light on Mt Shasta before heading back to camp, and quickly packing things up so we could hit the rode.

A pleasant 90 minute drive along Highway 97 found us in Klamath Falls. We'd work our way through town before exploring a dirt road that that passed through some of K-Falls more

Above Upper Klamath Lake

rural neighborhoods, until it transitioned into farm and ranch land. It certainly didn't feel like we were in the outback, but the dirt roads and beautify of evergreen hills and mountains interrupted by the occasional meadow and pastureland was incredible beautiful, especially with the brilliant sun illuminating the morning dew in the pasturelands. From here, we'd pop back out onto the highway for about 1/4 mile before jumping onto another road that would take us deep into the Fremont-Winema National Forest.

I noticed a viewpoint icon on the map, and veered the truck over to a dirt pull out that was clearly the vista point. With nary a breeze in the air, Upper Klamath Lake looked like a giant pallate of blue glass. Across the lake far into the distance stood the Cascades and Mt McLaughlin, with a slight peppering of snow towards the peak. With plans to cover at least 80 miles and unsure what sort of terrain we'd be encountering, I knew we needed to quit dilly dallying and hit the road. We passed one vehicle just beyond the viewpoint, and that'd be the last person we'd see for several hours.

Upper Klamath Lake

The forest grew thicker,

impeding the expansive views fo the surrounding scenery that existed just a few short minutes ago, and would remain a constant theme over the next several hours. The wide and well graded dirt road eventually grew narrower, with bumpier sections caused by erosion and short rockier sections, but nothing that a Stock Subaru couldn't handle. We managed to keep our speed around 20-25mph for much of this section, so making good time didn't appear to be an issue, but I was also noticing a lot of small downed branches, which had me concerned we might encounter a felled tree that would slow our progress, or worse, prevent us from continuing on our charted pass. As luck would have it, that turned out to be nothing more than a worrisome idea! We crossed the Sprague River and were closing in on Klamath Marsh Wildlife National Refuge fast! We were making really good time! The dense forest began to give way to the occasional meadow, and then the meadows started to fill with sagebrush, a telltale sign we were on the borderlands of Oregon's high desert that dominates much of Central and Eastern Oregon. I decided to whip out the tripod to take some action shots of the truck driving back when a lone motorcyle whipped by. We ended up catching up to him a few miles down the road where the dirt met the pavement at Silver Lake Road. We had a nice chat about the grandiose project I was working on, gave him a business card, and headed in opposite directions.

En route to Fort Rock

The plotted route had us burning a good 15-20 miles of pavement along Silver Lake Road, but upon closer examination, their appeared to be a number of logging roads throughout the area, so we opted to maximize our time exploring unknown dirt roads. The road eventually led us to a nice campground along a creek, where a lone hunter had set up camp, but was nowhere to be found. The bright blue sky from earlier in the day had disappeared behind a thick wall of grey clouds, that were beginning to look a bit more threatening. With a stand of mature pine trees and a picnic bench, the campground would make a nice lunch stop providing a bit of protection if it began to ran. Lunch was quick consisting of a sweet and crunchy honeycrisp apple complemented by slices of Kerrigold aged cheddar. Looking at the map, I noticed we we maybe 15 miles from Fort Rock. If the road conditions held, we could easily be there within the hour.

A Massive Rock in the Outback-- Oregon Style Leaving the hunter's campground behind, the trail began to climb higher and higher. We tried to visit a lookout, which looked promising in terms of 360 degree views of the mountains, but we ran into a gate and quickly reversed course. Dropping back down to elevation, the expansive prairies of the high desert began to envelope us from all sides. And then we spotted it. A massive outcropping of basaltic rock in the distance, Fort Rock. While not as remote as the Australia's Red Rock of Uluru, Fort Rock has a similar appeal as it looms over the flatlands of the expansive desert prairies. We pulled through the "town" of Fort Rock, when a series of old buildings caught my eye-- the Fort Rock Homestead Village Museum. Closed for the season, I decided to snap a few photos before heading over to Fort Rock State Park.

Old church in Fort Rock

About a mile down the road we pulled into an empty parking lot at Fort Rock State Park. The wind was really beginning to pick up, certainly a telltale sign that a storm would be rolling in soon. Luckily, the walk from the parking lot into the Fort Rock crater is a short one! With massive basaltic walls on 3 sides, one can easily imagine the early pioneers or local indigenous tribes using the massive rock as a defensive fortification. I noticed a hint of cell reception, so figured I'd check iOverlander again to see if there were any campsites in the vicinity. And as luck would have it, there was one about 10 miles down the road that was popular among bikepackers riding the Oregon Outback Trail.

Fort Rock

We arrived at camp about 20 minutes later and quickly discovered a number of campsites in the vicinity, along with a number of abandoned buildings. Looking at an old USFS map, it appears that this was once a USFS Work Station known as Cabin Lake. After exploring the area and some of the surrounding trails that also looked interesting, we settled upon the original site location that iOverlander had pointed us to. Under a dispersed grove of mature pine stood a massive picnic table and a nice fire ring.

With a couple beers in handle, I set out with Shasta to explore the old forest service work station. It can be difficult to garage how long ago the work station was abandoned, but my guess is that this place was fully staffed in the last 15-20 years. Many of the building were still in relatively good condition. The wind was really beginning to pick up. I figured the

time for exploration was coming to an end, and that meal preparation needed to become the new priority and fast. A quesadilla with aged skirt steak was on the menu, and the marbled, fatty skirt steak turned a mundane dinner into a semi-gourmet treat. My plans to end the night with a fireside beer were quickly quashed by two defunct lighters, and increasingly erratic winds. For a second consecutive night, we'd turn in early.

As we lay in bed, the pitter patter of light rain atop the camper roof lulled us to sleep. The light rain and wind would continue through the night and into the next morning. Would the rain turn to sleet or snow as we climbed in elevation? Would we encounter any downed trees before reaching our destination in Bend? The inclement weather had me on edge, especially since I'd planned to take an obscure trail to Paulina Lakes in Newberry National Volcanic Monument. I let the tailgate down for Shasta to take care of her morning business, and that's when it began. Massive, fluffy snowflakes, some nearly 3/4 of an inch in diameter begin to drift down from the sky. The falling snowflakes created a palpable sense of excitement, and just like that Shasta the zoomies had taken hold of her. She raced this way that, zigging and zagging across the red mud for several minutes. After Shasta regained her composure, I figured we should pack up and hit the road in case the snow turned back to rain again.

A Winter Wonderland The snow continued to fall, blanketing the trails. The brown and red dirt began to disappear under the white stuff, but I could still see the dirt through my tire tracks in my side mirrors. But we kept gaining in elevation, and steadily everything was covered in snow, and it wasn't letting up! We turned onto the trail that would take us to Paulina Lakes, and if luck would have it, we'd be in store for some incredible views as well! Well, luck wasn't on our side. After several miles the trail kept getting narrower and narrower, with small trees and shrubs appearing in the middle of the trail. It didn't look like this trail was used much, and I began to doubt that it was still in use despite what the MVUM map showed. Clearly we weren't going to make it to Paulina Lakes on this trail, we we turned around and decided to take one of the main forest roads. We made it up and over the summit and began to descend towards Paulina Lakes. Skies were blue and pleasant as we crested the summit, but the snow and wind began to pick up was we descended towards the lakes. It was a blustery 28F at the East Lake, but my guess is that the windchill was in the teens. The storm storm seemed to be sitting in the caldera and over the lake-- the wind was whipping as the icy snow pelted my face. The weather report had indicated the precipitation was supposed stop around 10am, but weather in the mountains seems to relish contradicting such forecasts. And so I figured it was in our best inerest to head over to the visitor center to see if we could get an update on the weather. No dice, closed for the season. I came across a couple in a Subaru and inquired about the forecast. The man driving said it was going to be like this all day. Great! Do I head back down the highway or risk going back over the summit.

A storm brews in the caldera of East Paulina Lake.

I made a risk assessment

I'd head up towards the summit again, and if things appeared to be getting worse I'd turn around and head back to Paulina Lakes and take the pavement down to the highway. But wouldn't you know it, as the Ram crested the the summit the clouds began to part and the blue sky began to appear. Sunlight began to break through the clouds and illuminate the snow covered pines.

The last leg of the route was on a narrow secondary road that weaved in and out of the trees. We were moving at a much slower pace, maybe 8mph, and I had to keep the speed down to ensure we wouldn't slide off the trail. Along the way, we passed a couple of small downed trees, but tire tracks around and over the small trees let us know we weren't the only ones exploring the backcountry today. We were inching our way closer to Bend when we came across a pair of guys out on dual sport bikes, and then we started passing more and more vehicles until we were back on a major forest road. The once thick white layer of snow was growing patchier and patchier, until we were rolling along at 25mph over mud and puddles. And just like that, we hit the pavement!

The reward for a successful scouting expedition.

I had plans to head south to Crater Lake, but the foul weather had forced the Park Service to shut down rim road. I decided to cut my losses and head into town to celebrate a successful scouting expedition with a well deserved warm meal, some libations, and plot my next move from there. The Great American Outback Trail We're still doing the last bit of development for the Great American Outback Trail. The final version of the route will extend over 2,000 miles visiting such locations and towns as Winnemucca, Jarbidge, Klamath Falls, Bend, the Black Rock and Alvord Deserts, Sheldon Wildlife Refuge, the Snake River Plateau, the Great Basin, the Medicine Lake volcano and the Modoc Plateau, the Warner Mountains and more. We hope to turn this into route into one of North America's iconic overland tracks by making the route only version available to all of our members for free. Subscribers will gain access to detailed GPX files that contain points of interest, discovery points, and recommended camp locations.

Copyright 2022, Overland Trail Guides

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