For nearly 20 years, I have been curious to reach Badger Lake on the southeast slopes of Mt. Hood, in Oregon. It is near my home but very remote, with only one road in. That road has a reputation for being disagreeable, and that reputation is well-earned.
Once I got into motorcycling, and adventure touring specifically, my curiosity and desire to ride to Badger Lake increased. I knew it was possible, as I’ve seen evidence on the Interwebs that dual-sport riders have made the trek, but the majority of what you’ll find on YouTube seems to be 4wd trucks reaching the lake. None of the videos or photos you’ll see are of a particular section of the route, however, and there’s a very good reason for that. It would be like trying to take a selfie while getting mugged.
I decided to take a stab at it for a quick overnight camping trip off the back of my 2007 Suzuki V-Strom 650.
I did the best I could to investigate the route, the road, the campground, the weather conditions, even the fire hazard (there’s a small-ish fire burning twenty miles to the north of the lake). There are some things you just can’t understand until you experience them for yourself, however.
The NF 4860 road from NF 48 is in fairly decent shape. The first few miles are even paved, although there are some huge potholes that need to be avoided. Once the pavement ends, the gravel road is easy enough to handle. There are some narrow sections and a few ruts, plus some depressions where deep puddles would form in early season or when it rains. I stood up on the pegs and took my time. So far, nothing seemed insurmountable or overly dangerous for my bike or my skill level.
I found the 4860-140 spur road and noticed the sign. 4wd high-clearance vehicles only, no trailers, and I saw two little ideograms with red slashes through them. One was a quad and the other was a motorcycle. “Hmm,” I thought. “Why can a 4wd truck go through but not a motorcycle?”
Seeking adventure, I pressed on and soon found it.
Spur road 140 is the only road into and out of Badger Lake. It makes a sweeping 270 degree arc from the south and looping counter-clockwise toward the west. The leg heading north is tolerable, although the ruts get noticeably deeper and the road is quite a bit narrower.
I had to maneuver in some tight spaces to get around an oncoming vehicle (a Toyota 4Runner, if I remember correctly). When 140 makes its bend to the west, however, is when things got gnarly.
The road surface became very rocky and rough and began descending in earnest steeply toward the valley floor. I was standing on my pegs, ass all the way back against the camping gear strapped to the back of my seat, and both brakes engaged. Without any margin on my right separating me from the very steep drop to the valley below, I descended the bumpy and rocky road as slowly as I could while still maintaining control of the bike.
I quickly realized that stopping was not going to be easy, and turning around was physically impossible. I would have to reach the bottom before I could get back to the top.
At one point another 4wd vehicle was crawling up the hill toward me. He pulled up against the bank as far as he could go and I inched past him between his vehicle on my left and the cliff on my right. There was about two feet of ground underneath me and my right foot only had a few inches of loose gravel to touch (gently!) to keep from falling to certain death. My aluminum tank bags were about two inches away from scraping the side of his vehicle.
Gingerly, I made it past him. I got the back wheel into a divot between two large rocks to arrest my descent and took a quick breather. I knew I couldn’t stop too long or think too hard about what was going on or I would likely lose my nerve. I put the bike back into first gear, let out the clutch, and stood up on the pegs to continue my harrowing descent.
I rode down the steep, rocky slope one bang and bounce and jerk and foot at a time. At one point my bike slid sideways off a large rock and bottomed out, smacking my skid plate hard on the rocks below. Fortunately the front wheel corrected and kept me pointing mostly in the direction I wanted to go rather than toward the cliff on my right.
The experience was similar to a controlled crash, where you’re only partially in control. Gravity was pulling me down the slope and I was unable to fully arrest the descent, all I could do was struggle to keep the bike pointed in the most deliberate direction I could. I’d say I was only 70% in control of the situation at any one point. My mind kept flashing, “You have to ride UP this!” and I kept fighting to push that thought away and focus on what I had to do then and there. Time enough for the climb out if I make it to the bottom.
I could see the slope easing ahead and I caught a glimpse of a tent tucked in the brush. The valley floor was within sight! Then I noticed the moguls. The grapefruit-sized rocks gave way to large in-ground boulders mounded up in an uneven pattern, gaping depressions nearly two feet deep between them. A four-wheeled vehicle can pass over the top, sort of averaging out the highs and lows, but a two-wheeled motorcycle must choose a track and go through them.
My bike jumped and dropped and lurched around and my speed increased. I smacked my skid plate and hoped I didn’t leave any hard parts behind. Somehow, 95% through sheer luck alone, I bounced my way through that 20′ section of rocky moguls and was still standing upright on the other side.
The slope evened out and emerged into a wide area with a small tent camp with a Subaru Forester — wait, how could a Subaru get through that? — on my left, and more campers in the brush to my right.
I spotted the lone outhouse pit toilet on a slope to my left and the bumpy road going forward. I was surprised at how many campers were there and began to worry that I’d not find any open sites for me and my tent.
I passed several more campers and saw the road narrow and turn hard right through some dense brush. I stopped and wondered if the road was even viable. I took a chance and rode forward, made the hard right turn, and saw a large brown puddle spanning the width of the road. Water crossings freak me out, especially when you can’t see how deep the water is or what rocks or other obstructions lie underneath the surface.
I approached the puddle and stopped. All the water crossings I’ve seen on video have the rider sitting down rather than standing on the pegs, feet wide for balance. If you have to put a foot down to catch yourself, you get wet. Deal with it. But you keep the throttle going and keep going forward.
That’s what I did. Feet wide, throttle open, I rode forward through the chocolate water — and made it out the other side.
I was dismayed to see even more campers surrounding the road’s end. I parked the bike and shut it off. Then the shakes started. The exertion of what I’d just experience hit me hard and I mentally forced myself to stay calm, relax, and realize I’d made it safely to the bottom.
I drank water, walked to the lake’s edge to take some quick photos, then went back and sat in some shade and ate a granola bar as my nerves calmed down. Mentally, I kept telling myself that I could do it, that I could make it back up. I didn’t have a choice. I can do this. If a Subaru can do it, so can I. I can do this.
There wasn’t any room at the inn, that much was clear. I’d have to go back. I made the decision and then forced myself to stop thinking about the challenge of riding back up the hill. I’d do it, taking each foot of the climb as it came, and not dwell on the difficulty. I’d do it. Period. That settles it. Now get on with it.
I suited back up, got the bike turned around, and gave gravity the finger as I lurched and jumped and bounced my way back up that gnarly, evil hill.