When the snaps, crackles and pops of my campfire fall silent, the occasional hoots of Great Horned Owls echo through forest casting a spell on my soul.
Staring at the bright orange and yellow flames dancing before me — warming my face, hands and bare legs while a curtain of cold descends around my island of serenity — I’ve found my nirvana.
I measure time by the log. I stoke the campfire with semicircle timber once it begins to rage, then slowly tick down toward bedtime with quarters and eighths, finally studying the mystical images of flameless red coals as they disappear into black darkness.
Another collection of memories we categorize as a day draws to a close.
We just celebrated our 17th anniversary of christening Oregon as our home and yet on this day I once again discovered a new adventure, as fresh and rejuvenating as ever.
First, full disclosure: Most likely I selected the McKenzie River Trail and Oakridge as my first cycling destination columns to establish some legitimacy among those who hit the trails.
Truth is, I spend most my time off the grid, riding a lot of lesser known rides because, as I’ve said, I prefer to ride alone with my Golden Lab.
So here’s an introduction to my preferred viewpoint of cycling.
If you find yourself in Oregon, there’s no shortage of fantastic trails and rides to experience. If you’ve come here often, you might be drawn to something a little more off-beat.
If you’re somewhere along the I-5 corridor in the Willamette Valley — from Eugene to Salem — for a fun getaway head east up the Santiam Highway, U.S. Highway 20, out of Lebanon.
Tucked away on your right, easy to miss if you’re not paying attention, is the Yukwah Campground, that surprisingly delivers on a number of fronts.
With just 20 campsites and only four first-come, the ample spacing between them enhances the solitude that ripples through the trees as softly as the Santiam River glides past.
Plenty of campground access trails along the river offer spots to cool off on a hot summer day, or cast a fly in spring or fall.
About five miles farther east on the highway lies a trailhead onto the Santiam Wagon Trail. (You can ride a short bit of the trail right outside the campground, but it’s less than a mile before it dead ends onto private property — but note the distinctive sign so you recognize it up the road.)
If you’re coming from the west, good luck. There are no signs. Eastbound there is nothing more than a simple warning a quarter mile before a very small parking area sits adjacent to a wooden bridge transversing the Santiam River.
Once you cross the bridge, a completely abandoned wooden trailhead sign casts an ominous tone. Fear not. One glance confirms this trail is well worn.
A climber’s dream, this section infamously known as Seven Mile Hill, rises and rises, occasionally hitting some seriously steep sections reminding you that you are experiencing the work of pioneer horses rather than the sight-seeing ranchers guiding atop.
This is work — a workingman’s trail. Ranchers built this wagon road in exchange for 800,000 acres of land back in the 1860s. When it was first traversed it would take a good rider on a strong horse four days to travel from Albany to Sisters.
It makes one wonder: What would prompt such a venture back then? Certainly something more than sight seeing, a quilt festival, maybe a rodeo, or a stop at Three Creeks Brewery — the present day attractions for Sisters.
You’ll wonder more than once or twice how wagons ever made this crossing and surmise that anyone with the reins in his or her hands back then qualified as an Xtreme athlete a century before the phrase was coined.
The Xtreme of their day outlived horse drawn wagons to the birth of automobiles. In 1905, Dwight Huss drove his Oldsmobile in the first transcontinental car race and he proclaimed Seven Mile Hill the toughest section of the marathon — of the whole cross-USA race.
You can climb this on your bike. How cool is that?
The many creek crossings, even in late August, maintain enough of a trickle to keep a canine companion cool and hydrated.
Just when you need a mental pick-me-up you can’t miss a weathered wooden sign the size of a cheese cutting board that boasts “World’s Best Hamburgers 200!!”
The only problem is the arrow directs you back down hill, toward the Oregon Coast. I’m still unsure whose hamburger they speak of, although I would boast the ones grilled at my Yukmah campsite could give anyone a run for their money.
You can hang at Sevenmile Camp, a horse campground that’s, you guessed it, seven miles up the climb, or continue on toward Tombstone Pass and beyond.
All these years in Oregon and I have never heard a cyclist mention the Santiam Wagon Trail, but if the Oregonian Pioneering spirit hits you, it can be an unforgettable treat.
Time to ride.
TCI and Johnnie Raz are sponsored by Shimano, makers of the Dura-Ace C50 disc wheel.