Bromptoneering the Blue and Wallowa Mountains

Monday morning a week ago I rode my Brompton in the rain to the Portland Airport, brought it and my camping gear aboard a $49 flight to sunny Pendleton, and before noon was climbing the west face of the Blue Mountains, on the old Emigrant Trail. And a week later, 10 pounds lighter, happier, and smelling of campfire smoke, pine-tar soap, and sweat, I came out of those bright mountains and returned the same way, into the same cold rain. In between I rode about 375 miles and 22,000 vertical feet through the Wallowas to Hells Canyon on the Idaho border, and saw lots of gorgeous country I never quite knew existed.

Hells Canyon Inspired by Path Less Pedaled‘s tantalizing reports from the same country, and needing another fix of what I got on my own Pacific Coast tour last summer, I found the restorative solitude and physical challenge I was looking for personally. And professionally, I can attest yet again to the fantastic multimodal ease, versatility and toughness of Bromptons as touring bikes!

Whether you go by Brompton-on-tiny-plane or find some other way to get your bike to this corner of Oregon, you’re missing out if you neglect to ride this country once in your life. I felt the shame of ignorance as each new breathtaking vista and charming town blew another hole in my preconception of eastern Oregon as pretty much all sagebrush, dust, and truck stops.

Here was my route, minus some detours intentional and not:

Bike route 1289027 – powered by Bikemap 

Hells Canyon overlook

My itinerary, by nights:

Approaching Baker City

  1. Emigrant Spring State Park (~30 miles of climb)
  2. Baker City (~80 miles, net elevation loss and tailwinds)
  3. Halfway (~50 miles, easy except for the giant climb at the end)
  4. Ollokot Camp (~30 miles, hard climbing)
  5. Ollokot Camp again (rest day except for climbing excursion to Hells Canyon overlook)
  6. Joseph (~50 miles, up and down)
  7. Elgin (~50 miles, mostly down)
  8. Back to Pendleton airport (~70 miles, big climb, BIG descent, last 20 flattish)

Hunting and fishing are popular in this part of Oregon the way coffee and breathing are popular in Portland. Every fifth dude is in camouflage, even if only hunting wifi. The walls of most establishments I entered are thick with taxidermy and photos of local youth’s first kills of elk, bear, and deer. Unlike many other places this beautiful, with the quality of light this elevation gives, it hasn’t yet turned into an artist’s colony or New Age healing/knick-knack center. The selection of chia-laden kombucha beverages is entirely lacking. I saw no places selling frozen yogurt for dogs (as in Manzanita on the coast). Most of the dogs have field jobs, and seem happy for it. Less cheery is the very high percentage of businesses and properties for sale. That and the many reminders of how heinously mistreated were the Wallowa Nez Perce little more than a century ago.

I saw not a single other bike tourist. Traffic on the busier roads is maybe 10% of what it is on the Oregon coast. My own private almost Idaho. If you’re not as very introverted as I am, bring a friend or three.

What, me cold? My camping kit and all-wool clothing was the same as last summer down the coast, except I took Alex Wetmore’s advice and sprung for a hammock underquilt and top-bag. It got into the 30s at Ollokot Camp, and I stayed truly warm for the first time ever all night in the hammock. I was cold only when I had to get up and make breakfast. This time I went with the standard reduced Brompton 6-speed gearing, and for the first time ever rode courses like this with no knee pain whatsoever, thanks again presumably to the dietary, supplement, and technique regime described previously.

I stayed in the only motel in Halfway, a charming, sleepy town with a gem of a cafe called Levi’s. The motel owners are great. How great? I was a good 20 miles up into the mountains the next day when a vehicle approached from behind, and slowed. I waved the vehicle to pass. It would not. They rolled down the window and held out to me a little headphone patch cord for my iPhone I had dropped in the parking lot. “O! You drove all this way for this?!” “We had nothing better to do.” “Thank you!” And the music resumed.

20 thoughts on “Bromptoneering the Blue and Wallowa Mountains”

  • Andrew Kreps

    Bromptoneering. I love it. Keep the inspiration flowing.

  • Derek

    Fantastic. Hard to deny the extreme usefulness of those funny looking bikes! :)

  • AllanF

    As regards "some other way to get your bike to this corner of Oregon," may I humbly suggest the <a href="" rel="nofollow">PortlandSagWagon</a>.

    You'll need a party of 4 or more to be cost competitive with flying, but hey, we take full-sized bikes and even tandems for those so equipped.

  • Todd (admin)

    Sagwagon gets there in under an hour? Awesome! :-)

  • AllanF

    Regarding travel times, SagWagon has a strict don't ask, don't tell policy. :-)

    At the risk of taking this ever more off-topic, I have to say, I don't see how that aircraft can get off the ground for $50/passenger. With four windows I assume it seats 8, or 12? That's a gross of $400-$600, to pay for 3-4 man hours of flight crew, aircraft lease/financing expense, PDX take-off fees, and fuel. For $50, I'm impressed enough that it makes me want to make the flight myself just to take in the scenery. May be bring the boy as a reward for something or other.

  • Todd (admin)

    pretty sure it's subsidized, just like roads and other forms of motor transport.

  • Joseph E

    The Amtrak Pioneer used to stop in Pendelton, until it was discontinued in 1997. That would have been a nice option, if the longer trip time wasn't an issue. I'm pretty sure that was rather subsidized, like the plane you took.

  • Todd (admin)

    Amtrak stops not too far from Kennewick. In the middle of the night, when it's on time. I looked into that first. Cheaper and vastly faster and more comfortable to fly, multiple flights daily, etc.

  • Olaf

    Which saddle bag are you using? Are saddle bag supports compatible with Brompton seat posts?

  • Todd (admin)

    It's a Carradice Lowsaddle Longflap, 12 years old. I have never used any bag support so I don't know. I use guy wires to the fender roller wheel to prevent bag sway. Russ over at used another Carradice with some sort of support bracket before opting to carry a whole backpack resting on a rear rack. They carry much more than I. My entire setup (bike and all camping gear, clothes, tools/spares, food but not water) weighed 57lbs wet. (Literally, it was weighed at the airport after riding there in the rain.) Could have reduced that, but at the cost of eliminating contingency items (stuff i didn't need, but might have...)

  • Mark

    You certainly visited a fine part of Oregon. The Wallowa's are a favorite. The only thing you might add to your set up is a 5-piece fly rod and assorted flies because the fishing can be really good.
    We stayed in Halfway many years ago at the Pine Valley Lodge. I think it's still there, though it looks a bit changed or expanded and perhaps under new ownership. At the time, they had a great restaurant where folks from as far away as Baker City would travel just for the food.
    Great report, once again. Thanks, Todd.

  • Micheal Blue

    Thanks for posting this. Very inspirational and beautiful photos (how were those panoramic ones done?). Did you have to cool your rims with your liquid output, as you did during your tour of the west coast? Next year I'll take my folder (20" wheels) for a tour of either British Columbia or Alberta mountains.

  • Todd (admin)

    Thanks Michael. The panoramas come from an iPhone app whose identity is perma-spammed into the images: see upper left of each. No rim-peeing necessary; none of the grades were nearly as steep as those encountered in the Lost Coast last summer.

    I didn't write it above, but when people have asked me in person how my trip was, I've had to say that while it was great in most every specific way, I couldn't help but keep comparing it to the once-in-a-lifetime greatness of last summer's trip. Wistful. Some things happen only once. In fact, everything happens only once. Enjoy it because it's never coming back! Let go of the past. That was the lesson.

  • Micheal Blue

    Todd, thanks for the answers. Yeah, living in the present moment is my mode of operation, as well. During tours like this, have you ever stealth-camped? If so, did you find it pleasant?

  • Ransom

    Nice articles, Todd. I haven't visited the Clever website in a while and am glad I took the time to do so this morning.

  • Ken Wetherell

    Thanks for sharing your adventure and photos, Todd. I always enjoy reading your stories and your clever wordsmithery.

  • Todd (admin)

    Michael, sorry to have left your question unanswered. Yes, I have stealth/free-camped on a few occasions. The ready availability of potable water and often hot showers at campsites is a powerful motivator to choose them when available. I am a shower whore. Also I am often rather tired at the end of a day's riding, enough that I lack the presence of mind, energy, and daylight remaining to do a good job of scouting stealth sites. But if I were to repeat this ride, I would stop at the first night's campsite, shower and refill my water bottles, and then head a mile or 2 down the road to find a more peaceful (and free) campsite a few hundred yards into the woods. The incessant traffic noise of I-84 and $18 at the official camp site was not worth it. I brought earplugs and still heard traffic.

  • Micheal Blue

    Thank you, Todd. This is helpful.

  • Bree Hamilton
    Bree Hamilton June 14, 2012 at 4:15 am

    Hi! Could you please tell me what GPS you used, and how you managed to keep it running long enough on batteries to capture your tracks for the entire route? I have a Garmin Oregon, and find it runs for about 16 hours, max. Storing waypoints and then trying to string them together to "make" a track didn't work for me either.

    Did you recreate it manually in BikeRoute online?

    Please, can you shed a bit of light on how you managed to capture your tracks for the entire trip. I'd sure like to!

    Thanks, Bree.

  • The Mgmt

    Bree, I used my iPhone, which I kept charged from my dynamo hub using the Biologic Reecharge system, which we can order for you if you like. I detail use of this system in the gear section of my longer, earlier post about my Brompton trip <a href="" title="Down the Pacific coast by Brompton" rel="nofollow">down the Pacific Coast</a>. I created the route online first using the tools, not capturing my track as I went.