Leg 40 – Climbing the Malheur Canyons to a High Desert Campsite

6/16 posted late

I made about 85 miles today, from Vale, Oregon to the Stinkwater Wild Horse and Burro Management Area at the top of Stinkwater Pass.

I got an earlyish hotel start, with no hotel breakfast to delay me. On the road at 7 am, I remembered why early morning starts are important in the desert. The air is cool,and still.

Rt 20 followed the Malheur River, and the vistas soon became grand. Each bend revealed a steeper, taller, drier, and redder mountain, with no visible path for the road to follow. And though the road was ever climbing, the anticipation of the grander view around the next bend distracted me from the work of pedaling.

My original goal for the day was the Chukar BLM Campground six miles up a gravel road from Juntura, at mile 55. Juntura also had a motel, and I assumed if it was big enough to have a hotel, it would have some sort of groceries, too.

At mile 22, as expected, there was a gas station in Harper. But the highway sign said “next gas 68 miles.” That was way beyond Juntura. I stopped at Coleman’s Gas. Even though no signs advertised a bar or cafe, inside the building there was a bar with a few people drinking Sunday morning beers, and a snack counter. I bought a Pepsi, and asked if there was really no gas or groceries in Juntura. The guy at the counter said, that’s right, no groceries until Burns.

So I rode off up more canyons pondering how I might put together a camping dinner and weather I should waste a beautiful still day for just sixty mikes of progress. I convinced myself that Burns was 68 more miles, a very doable 90 mile day. Burns was a good sized town with several motels and stores. I had no internet to confirm my plan.

So I rode higher and higher up the arid valleys, the Malheur River mysteriously brimful in this dry place. But as I gained altitude, the hills got greener, the air a little cooler, and then pines began to dot the hillsides. I pictured lunch in the shade of a pine tree, but they all seemed to be on the wrong side of the cattle fences, so I settled for a cottonwood with soft tall grass beneath it.

After a high pass, the road dropped into Juntura, and I dropped into the Cafe Oasis to reconnoiter. I ordered a Corona with lime, and asked the waitress where the next grocery store was going west. She said Burns. I had enough signal on my phone to see that Burns was still 68 mikes away. “I thought there was a gas station about 35 miles from here.” “There is, But they don’t have groceries, just chips and snacks like we have here.”

So I drank my beer, then a chocolate milkshake, and pondered. I could stay right there at the Oasis and have their burgers and fries for dinner. I could hope to find something better in Buchanan Springs, where the gas station was, but there was no place to stay there.

Someone asked me to move my bike to get at the ice chest outside, and asked me about my trip. Later, the same bunch of guys were at the register loudly paying for eighteen blocks and six bags of ice. “Must be some party you are having,” I said. “We’re going camping in the desert north of here, and we’re going to need it.”

“Maybe you can tell me, then, is there any place to camp in the desert west of here on Route 20?”

“Well,” said the guy who had asked about my trip, “if you go to the top of the second pass west of here – Stinkwater Pass – the first Pass is Drinkwater and the second Pass is Stinkwater – there’s a gravel road into the BLM Wild Horse Management Area, and you’ll see some campsites there.”

“ is that after the gas station in Buchanan?”

“No it’s before. Once you get in the valley, the land is all private and you can’t camp.”

So I had a plan. But dinner would have to be what I could cobble together from the snack counter at the Oasis. So I bought some barbecue flavored beef jerky, citrus punch, two bottles of water, and a quarter pound of their homemade fudge. I figured I could cook the beef jerky with the half box of couscous I still had, and it would be pretty close to an authentic Oregon Trail meal.

So I made the long climb into the pines up Drinkwater Pass, then dropped into the Malheur Valley. Where a bridge crossed the Malheur, I drank all the water left in one bottle and filled it with Malheur water, figuring I could cook with it at my dry high desert camp.

When I got back to my bike the front tire was flat again. I patched it, found the hole in the tire where something had punctured it, and put the wheel back on the bike.

A short ride and a drop into the Stinkwater Creek valley, and my tire was getting soft again. I pumped it up and pedaled on, counting the miles to my high camp, wishing I had replaced my tires in Casper, and worrying about water.

After several more pump stops and the climb up Stinkwater Pass, I finally reached the BLM gravel road. I pedaled down the high sage plain. Something tawny ambled across the sage away from me. It seemed too small for a horse, but it did not walk like a cat.

I lay my bike down and started to set up camp. A tall white van with faded lettering “heating and cooling” on the side came up the road from down the valley and stopped. The woman who was driving smiled and waved. I waved back. A skinny, shirtless young man popped out of the passenger side. I did not immediately register that he, like me, was wearing bike shorts.

“Looks like you are riding unsupported,” he said. “We saw you in Juntura. Is there anything you need? Would you like a cold beer?”

“YES!” I said, “ did God just send you?”

So I had a beer, filled up my water bottles from their tank, chatted. Dave was riding across Oregon, east to west, and Naomi was supporting him with the van – just for the weekend. They were also going to camp here for the night. Dave was ready to share his stock of spare inner tubes, but we figured out that they had the wrong valves – Schraeder instead of Presta, which was wrong for both of us.

Beef jerky couscous tasted just fine. I bent my tent stakes in the rocky soil, and enjoyed a brilliant moonrise over the high desert


2 thoughts on “Leg 40 – Climbing the Malheur Canyons to a High Desert Campsite

  1. There is a great hot spring in Juntura, wish I’d checked on your route before you got there so I could drop you the pin!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s