6 hours drive east from Portland, the snake river separates Oregon and Idaho. Hells Canyon, carved by this ancient river, is the deepest canyon in North America.
The areas that surround this feature are as breathtaking as they are diverse. Ponderosa pine forests cling to the edge of impossibly steep cliffs, rushing rivers snake their way through stark canyon walls, rolling green hills sparkle with wildflowers, and snow-capped peaks command the horizon.
When we suggest to ride in Hells Canyon...
We suggest venturing out to Eastern Oregon to ride in early/mid spring, before the heat starts to settle in for the summer. Late spring and summer days get brutally hot and consequently removes all moisture from the area, which leads to a fall season primed for wild fires; like this year. When the temps are high, hydration can quickly become a ride changing factor... as it was for us. The Imnaha River is the only opportunity to filter water on the route, and even then, finding an access point that isn't down hill from grazing cows can be challenging.
If you choose the classic route, stopping at the Imnaha Store & Tavern is a must to cool off, chat with Cody, the owner, and resupply for the next day. They have water and walls of snacks (literally). Don’t expect wifi or cell service in Imnaha. However, if you do have any questions about the area, Cody is the man to speak to.
If there's snow on this route, you're most likely to encounter it climbing towards the top of Aneroid Mountain on NF-3920, and sections of NF-39 Wallowa Loop Road (NF-39 Wallowa Loop Road typically doesn't open until late spring). If you’re clear here, you can assume you're in the clear everywhere else. The best place to get the info on the snow conditions is by checking this site before you go: https://www.fs.usda.gov/wallowa-whitman.
What Hells Canyon taught KOMPAS...
We are outsiders to the communities we ride through. Respect is imperative.
As adventure cyclists, we often find ourselves riding through places where bikes aren't common. This garners a lot of attention, and also a sense of responsibility to represent the adventure cycling community at large. Even though we were outsiders, we found that the people who call Eastern Oregon home have a lot they're wiling to share; local knowledge of roads, wildlife tips/cautions, (very) tall tales, friendship, and perspectives different than ours.
We consider the locals we meet along the way just as much a part of the KOMPAS community as you or me. After all, this is their backyard we are exploring. We are entering their space with efforts to form genuine, positive connections so that we can all continue to visit these places for years to come. In our experience, meeting people where they're at, with respect and smiles, leads to opportunities to build a rich connections.
Bikepacking is better with others.
To KOMPAS, sharing the experience of bikepacking leads to a much more rewarding time. It gives us the opportunity to forge friendships based on trust, and share the full spectrum of emotions that come with adventuring like this; we're together for the highs and the lows.
It's one thing to share our stories in writing, however, its something entirely different to embark on the journey together and share the experience. It reminds us what it was like to be a part of a team; working together and supporting each other to reach a common goal. We hope these write ups inspire you to join us on a future adventure. This is what fuels KOMPAS.
A red Subaru left Portland mid-afternoon packed to the brim with passengers, their two-wheeled weekend vehicles, survival necessities, and bike bags.
Driving east across the state, the view through the car window slowly morphed from the dense evergreen covered walls of the gorge, into endless plains of tan and brown farmlands. Inside the car, we laughed, we sang, we went over our pack list one more time, and then we laughed again (some more nervously than others) at our varying levels of preparedness.
The five person KOMPAS crew for the weekend gathered at a campground just outside of Joseph. A healthy increase from our previous crew of two that gathered for the last Oregon Sweet 6 adventure in the Siuslaw National Forest.
Saturday, day 1 of 2 - 79 miles / 3,500 ft up (6,600 ft down)
Spirits were high as pedaled away from the chilly campsite. The Wallowa's towered in the distance as we made our way along farm roads leaving Joseph towards the first gravel section; a climb. After this close encounter with Aneroid Mountain, we were spat out onto the beautifully paved NF-39 Wallowa Mountain Loop.
Our freehubs sang on smooth pavement for nearly half an hour in the middle of the day; 2100 ft down over 11 miles (yes please). Heading into the Imnaha Canyon, we were mesmerized by the abundance of wildflowers. Streaks of green, purple, white, and yellow covered our peripheries. Our serenity was interrupted by the familiar chime of our Wahoo giving us the next direction. At the cross roads, turn left, follow the river to Imnaha. So, we did. 35 dusty miles stood between us and our final destination for the day.
Still descending, the evergreen overstory eventually cleared to reveal grass covered canyon walls so large it felt as if the earth could swallow us at any moment.
A few miles down Upper Imnaha Road, the five of us instinctually formed a paceline. Without exchanging words, we traded pulls on loose dirt rewarding each other with fist bumps, and hoots and hollers about the absurdity of the effort that no one spoke of. Maybe we were feeling the effects of being dehydrated, or maybe we were just delirious from the 90 degree weather, or maybe it was both. All we know is that it made those 35 miles tick down much quicker than we expected, and we were ready for some cold water by the time we arrived at the Imnaha Tavern.
We parked our bikes outside the Tavern. Dirty, smelly and very thirsty, it was clear that we were from out of town. Cody, the owner (and more) sat us in a table at the back and simply asked what we were up to. Our table was conveniently greeted by fridges stocked with soda pop, and shelves lined with cookies and chips. While we like to indulge, this wasn’t the sort of food we were seeking. Cody, we now knew as the bartender, waiter, store owner, self-proclaimed town mayor made us feel immediately welcome in his home. We tried to best explain what we were doing, and the food dilemma we faced. Our bikes brought us here from Joseph. Five minutes later he asked us to go out to his backyard to consult with one of his laying hens for eggs (and golf balls?) to hard-boil.
We lounged out over multiple tables, placing unique requests while Cody patiently listened and catered to us. We laughed with him, he told us stories, we shared why we were visiting, he helped reroute us around a private road, we shared our plan to create a community around adventure cycling, he shared his vision to ban phones in his tavern to save the intimate interactions that the Tavern fosters. Then, before leaving, we all helped him set up for a birthday party that the Tavern was hosting that night. To us, it was a stark reminder that we are all humans and have the choice to meet others with respect and kindness. We all deserve to give, and be given, the time of day. The people who call Imnaha home may see the world in a different way than us, but we entered a place and time when none of that mattered. Mutual respect and friendship were cultivated that day.
We left the Imnaha Tavern with smiles from ear to ear. Fed, watered, and re-routed, we set off towards our campsite for the night. As we posted up next to the Imnaha River, our new neighbors made sure to warn us of the very real threat of rattlesnakes. Rattled ourselves, we chose to not take any chances and set our tents up right in the middle of a wide open gravel section - safely away from the tall grass, which we now know is there ideal habitat.
Sunday, day 2 of 2 - 55 miles / 5,200 ft up (2,100 ft down)
We pedaled west from Imnaha while the town was still asleep, trying to evade the midday heat. None of us really knew the oasis that was at the top of the day’s big climb. After enduring the Camp Creek Road climb (take your time on this behemoth), we landed on what felt like another planet.
Surfing the rocky roads atop of the Zumwalt Prairie didn’t feel like real life. The breeze against our perspired skin cooled us as we stopped and took in where we found ourselves. Looking out over the ocean of wildflowers, we could trace the road ahead as it flowed over the terrain for miles.
After an hour of riding through scenes from The Sound of Music we were brought back to earth by the sobering realization that we had run out of water. Not a tree for shade in sight, we were simultaneously hit by the full effect of the midday heat while we decided our next move. We surveyed the land around us for possible water sources. No chance. With a few hours of riding still left in the day, and on the out and back section of the route, we made the call; turn around. We needed water more than we needed to finish the route we had planned. A lesson learned on the Siuslaw National Forest ride, Mother Nature decides the fate of these rides.
We would love to report that after our decision to turn around we stumbled across a natural spring where we could all fill up and shower ourselves with precious water. However, this was not the case. We laughed deliriously at the very real possibility of what could have happened to us had we decided to not turn around. Still five miles from Jospeh, just when we felt like we were at our lowest point, the universe heard our cries and granted us a miracle.
In the distance, stood a small blonde girl behind a homemade booth. Condensation poured off the outside of the jugs that lined the booth. The large capital letters above her head read: LEMONADE. Karree giggled after we told her that she saved our lives as we drank her lemonade; we were serious. We left after our wallets were empty and Karree's beverage jugs also empty.
Fully buzzed from the sugar high we were on, we danced and celebrated when arrived in Joseph to fill our bottles. It was hot, we were dehydrated, we were hungry, and we didn’t want to be on the bikes any longer... but we were safe. We knew we made the right call turning around early. Slap happiness came over us as we pedaled back to the campsite. What a day.
What transpired over those 36 house spanned across the entire emotional high/low spectrum: the adrenaline rush of extended rushing descents, the symphony of gravel under our tires, grit needed for chunky gravel climbing, being awestruck by the unbelievable changing environments, crucial safety decisions, hearing the local’s lore, overcoming adversity with teamwork, just to name a few.
The second ride of the Oregon Sweet 6 was in the books and we're confident in the direction the group is heading.
On the drive home to Portland that night we received a message on the KOMPAS instagram. Over the soothing sounds of Hermanos Gutiérrez, we read Abe's generous message of interest for KOMPAS to share experiences on The Paperclip. An exciting proposition and a wrap to an eventful weekend.
Double Creek Fire...
In the Fall of 2022, the Double Creek fire burned 171,505 acres of the Hells Canyon Wilderness. Months after visiting Imnaha on our bikes, we called the Tavern to check in and hear how the town was handling the recovery. Cody wasn't in, but Tara, another employee, met us with enthusiasm on the other end.
The Double Creek fire ravaged the landscapes just east of Imnaha. The townspeople were told to evacuate their homes as the fire was expected to crest the east ridge and fill the town with flames; not everyone evacuated. The fire fighters strategically back burned the ridge and retreated due to high temperatures. The back burning, a slight change in the winds, and frankly a miracle, meant that the fire was able to be contained and Imnaha was spared. The Imnaha Tavern kitchen stayed open the the duration of the fire to provide food and, much needed, company for the townspeople.
Tara said that the high risk days were stressful, but assured us that the area is still beautiful, just different. The canyon around the Imnaha River wasn't affected, but thousands of acres just east are completely burned.
This conversation served as a reminder to us just how fragile these places and communities are especially as weather patterns become more unpredictable and extreme year over year. This is a reminder to us to treasure the moments you have as you never know when it might all change.
Hells Canyon, Classic
BIKEPACKING – 2 DAYS (SUGGESTED)
144 MILES / 9,700 FT
SURFACE: 65% GRAVEL, 35% PAVED
RECOMMENDED TIRES: 38MM+
WATER FILTER: REQUIRED
HYDRATION PACK: REQUIRED
SUGGESTED GEAR: KOMPAS BIKEPACKING CHECKLIST + HYDRATION PACK