I keep going back to central Oregon and route 218 between Shaniko and Fossil, so there must be something to it. Flawless pavement, well-banked corners, wide open scenery, no traffic — it checks all the boxes.
Since I began riding back in 2007, I calculated I have ridden the route from my home in Sandy, Oregon to John Day, which includes the amazing state highway 218 smack in the middle, more times than any other overnight route. Only my day rides to Detroit, Oregon on NF46 exceeds it in volume.
This latest trip was intended to explore a new road and to camp in a tent overnight before returning the next day. I had spotted South Fork Road, which follows the south fork of the John Day River south from Dayville, many times and have always been curious what it was like. It’s like a snake off it’s medication on the map, and I’m drawn to roads like that for two-wheeled travel.
The terminal destination was Pine Tree Campground, roughly 10 miles south of Dayville. I had no on-the-ground reconnaissance, just satellite photos and a few topo maps. When I got there, I realized it wasn’t going to work. The entire campsite was on a slope that made it less than ideal for a tent camper like myself. Further, the river was blocked by brush and there was no privacy amidst the few juniper trees.
I backtracked on the gravel road to Dayville, then took highway 26 east into John Day and checked into the Best Western. A hot shower and nap on a king sized bed felt a lot better than a hot and dusty campsite with a terrible view.
The ride itself was fantastic. It was windy and warm when I left my house, riding with the liner out of my Aerostich Darien jacket. It was a bit chilly when I got gas in Government Camp, but not uncomfortably so (I’ve ridden in 9 degrees Fahrenheit before, so cold is something I’m used to enduring). My route was familiar: highway 26 east, cut over to NF 48 via NF 43, past Rock Creek reservoir and into Wamic, then over to Tygh Valley and back up the hill and then down to Maupin on the Deschutes River.
I stopped at my usual convenience store in Maupin but it was “Closed 4 Now” — one of many such signs I saw on my trip. I backtracked to another store for a brief snack and bio break before heading up Bakeoven Road to the high, windswept prairie above.
Bakeoven cuts southeast to Shaniko. Here, I caught state highway 218 and about 50 miles of riding greatness. It passes through Antelope, made famous by the Netflix documentary “Wild, Wild Country” and then winds its way eastward through the Clarno Unit of the John Day National Fossil Beds.
Highway 218 between Antelope and Fossil is in two sections, one on either side of the John Day River. Both have sections of amazing twisties, perfectly banked and almost entirely free of gravel and other hazards. You climb up to a ridge line and look across a 20-mile wide valley with amazing hills in the distance. I literally said, “Holy crap!” in my helmet the first time I crested that hill and saw that amazing view, and to this day I am awed at the scenery every time I see it.
The road descends through grass and sagebrush that reminds me a lot of the English moors, with fast sweeping curves posted at 45 mph but can be taken by a skilled rider at nearly twice that. Once across the John Day River at the bottom of the valley, it’s up the other side for another round of amazing twisties.
The town of Fossil isn’t much to look at as far as scenic beauty, but there is a lot of very interesting history there to be explored. Fossil even plays a small role in my upcoming novel, Second Citizen. Stay tuned for details of when that hits the shelves.
A few miles south of Fossil, I stopped at Bear Hollow county park and campground. A spray-painted plywood sign at the entrance said, “Park Closed” but I rolled in anyway and found myself a cozy picnic table under the pine and fir trees. Lunch was dehydrated beef stroganoff. It’s not much to look at but it fills the belly, especially when all the restaurants are closed due to the Coronavirus quarantine. Other people had used the park as well, considering the trash I found inside the trash can near my site. Even the water spigot worked.
The air got warmer as I descended to lower elevation and the one-store spot-in-the-road called Service Creek. A half-dozen motorcycles were parked outside as I rode by.
The next town was Spray and I stopped at their lone gas pump to fill up my tank. You pump the gas by hand and write your total on a little pull-tab ticket, then carry it inside and pay with cash. I had to wait for a local in a mini-van to pull out of the spot next to the pump; she parked there just to park. She was nice enough about it when she asked, “Are you waiting for me?”
By this time, the temperature was in the low to mid 80s with ‘abundant sunshine’ as the meteorologists describe it. After leaving Spray, I rolled through the junction town of Kimberly, where the north fork of the John Day meets the main stem of the river, and highway 402 connects with my road, highway 19. Apparently a Harley-Davidson rider went off the road on 402 over the weekend, went down an embankment into the John Day, and drowned.
I was glad to have gassed up in Spray because the anticipated gas pump in Dayville was “Closed 4 Now.” I pulled off the highway and headed south toward Pine Tree Campground, and — well, I already told that part of the story up at the top.
Jump ahead to John Day. I had showered and napped and was ready for dinner. I called my favorite restaurant in town, The Outpost, and ordered a chicken cranberry salad to go. I walked over 15 minutes later, paid with cash and left a big tip, then walked back to my room.
Three older gentleman on Yamaha FZ9s had arrived and parked in the spot next to me. They were intensely curious where I got my food. I shared my knowledge and menu (that I had grabbed from the motel lobby) and chatted with them briefly while they argued over which burger to order.
Despite the pleasant fact that I wasn’t in a tent in the heat, I didn’t sleep very well. I know it’s a first-world problem, but having the air conditioning noisily come on every 10 minutes throughout the night tends to disrupt your sleep.
Breakfast was impressive: dehydrated biscuits and gravy (really) cooked with my little one-burner camp stove in my motel bathroom, along with a cup of complimentary Keurig coffee.
I was packed and heading westward by 7:40 am, this time with the liner in my jacket and my cold weather gloves on my hands. I didn’t shed those layers until I was on the western slope of Mt. Hood, nearly home.
After filling my tank in Mt. Vernon just east of John Day, I stopped at Cathedral Rock along the John Day, a few miles south of Kimberly, for a photo op. I pulled into the same one-pump store in Spray to buy $3.50 worth of gas, which would be more than enough to get me the rest of the way home. I don’t think I paid more than $2.68 a gallon at any point on this trip.
After riding the amazing stretch between Fossil and Shaniko, I stopped on a wide spot along Bakeoven Road for a break. I listened to the high prairie wind, hearing some cows arguing a half mile upwind. In the distance to the west was Mt. Hood, reminding me of the Lonely Mountain described in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I’ve always loved seeing that mountain — which is practically in my back yard — when returning from long bike trips, because it’s a symbol of home. I’d be on the other side of it in less than two hours.
Once past Maupin, I took highway 216 back toward the main highway 26. This bypassed Tygh Valley and Wamic, and was a more sedate change of pace. It passes in a straight line through windswept grasslands before abruptly entering pine, and then fir, forest. The smell was amazing.
There wasn’t much traffic on highway 26 as there usually is on a weekend, jammed with slow RVs and even slower Toyota Priuses (what is the plural of Prius?) The air was getting noticeably warmer as I descended down the western slope of Mt. Hood so I pulled over and shed some layers, opened my vents, and ate a quick snack. The rest of the route home was uneventful.
Getting home, I looked at my bike admirably, thinking of the 75,000 smiles it has given me since I bought it in February, 2007. It’s gotten me into and out of a lot of very interesting places, and enabled me to experience some amazing scenery. I’ve met some of the nicest people on two wheels, and obtained memories that will never fade, no matter how demented my mind becomes as I get older. (I know demented isn’t the right word, but in my case, I feel like it fits perfectly.)