Picture Gorge - Northwest passages: riding out the storm - CycleBlaze

March 28, 2020

Picture Gorge

We pick up today where we left off yesterday - in Dayville, westbound on U.S. Route 26/the TransAmerica Trail.  This is an especially scenic stretch, passing through Picture Gorge and then continuing west up Rock Creek, one of the larger of the John Day’s many tributaries.

This wasn’t the ride plan though when we left the house this morning.  It’s still cold here today so we’re still staying with lower elevation downriver rides.  We planned to drive to Kimberley where we ended our first ride, the one through the National Monument.  From there we were going to bike west toward Service Creek, the western end point of the nearly hundred mile long stretch of the John Day that has a generally flattish highway following it.  Beyond Service Creek the John Day continues west through a large roadless area while the highway bends north and up into the mountains toward Fossil, on another gorgeous stretch of road that will have to wait for a warmer month.

The road from Kimberly to Service Creek will make a fine ride, and I expect we’ll see it soon.  Today though, as we look at what is an unexpectedly sunny morning, we opt for the ride through Picture Gorge.   I had wanted to save this for a fair day because I knew how dramatic it would be, and suddenly today looks like the perfect time.  Even better, it’s the weekend.  There shouldn’t be any large trucks crowding and alarming us as we snake through narrow, gnarly picture gorge.

We park Old Paint on the first decent pullout we come to on the outskirts of Dayville and start biking west.  It’s about seven miles from Dayville to the mouth of the gorge, through country very like what we biked through yesterday.

We park on the outskirts of Dayville (can a town with a population of 145 have outskirts?) on the oddly named Old Highway. Oddly named because it’s gravel, it’s only 300 yards long, and it ends at the river. Maybe there was a bridge here at one point?
Heart 3 Comment 0
Not a mile past Dayville we come to our big wildlife sighting for the day. Exciting!
Heart 2 Comment 0
Wild turkeys! If you look at the previous photo you’ll see there are two different flocks down there. I’m pretty surprised I spotted them way out there. It’s amazing what the eye can discern.
Heart 2 Comment 0
West of Dayville, approaching Picture Gorge just around the bend, off-frame on the right.
Heart 3 Comment 0
Picture Gorge is the immense gash in the landscape ahead. Hard to imagine that the John Day threads through that formation, much less accompanied by a two lane highway.
Heart 2 Comment 0

I’ve ridden through Picture Gorge twice before: once 35 years ago on my ride to Baker (now Baker City), and again in 2007 on a five day figure eight from Spray.  My memory of it is pretty hazy, but Rachael and I have a fresher, scarier memory from our drive down from The Dalles last week.  As soon as we entered the gorge we encountered a large semi coming the other way through the narrow, twisting, shoulderless canyon road.  We didn’t even like driving past the truck, much less having one pass us while biking.  Rachael was pretty sure we’d never bike through here until we later realized how little traffic there is.

Today we’ve almost got the road to ourselves so it’s not at all scary.  There are regular pull-outs on the gravel shoulder every few hundred yards, and you can hear oncoming vehicles in plenty of time to just get off the road.  It’s easy to stop almost anywhere and look up in wonder at the basalt cliffs towering nearly a thousand feet above the river.

As so often happens though, I learn something new when writing up the day.  I thought the gorge got its name because it is so picturesque.  Nope.  It’s because of the pictures!  The gorge contains Native American  pictographs that are over 200 years old.  Obviously we have to come back.

The eastern entrance to Picture Gorge is remarkably abrupt.
Heart 2 Comment 0
The conditions are perfect for biking through the gorge. Minimal traffic, a sunny day, and early enough in the day that the walls are still illuminated by the sun in the east.
Heart 4 Comment 0
Basalt cliffs line both walls of the gorge. Now I wonder where the pictures are though.
Heart 4 Comment 0
In Picture Gorge.
Heart 3 Comment 0

About halfway through the gorge we come to the T-junction with Route 19, the road that follows the John Day as it sharply bends north toward Kimberly.  This is the road we followed on our first ride here, when we parked the car a few hundred yards north of the junction.  Today though we continue west on Highway 26, following Rock Creek upriver toward its source in the high plateau between here and Mitchell.

We don’t really have a distance or specific destination in mind.  We’ve put ourselves into a time-gumption box.  We’ll turn back by 1:45 or by when we get tired of climbing, whichever comes first.

I don’t remember this stretch of road from when I passed through 35 years ago on my way to Baker, but it’s a surprisingly great ride.  After a flattish mile or two along a slender pasture the road starts climbing gently but steadily.  Rachael continues on for about 12 miles past the gorge before reaching the time limit and turning back.  She picks me up only a mile behind her - I’ve biked a bit more steadily for a change, only stopping for a few photos along the way.

I was surprised profiling this road to see for how long the climb extends from this direction and how modest it is the whole way.  From the junction with Route 19 it climbs 25 miles to Keyes Creek Summit before dropping steeply to Mitchell on the other side of the pass.  When we come back to see Picture Gorge again, a good plan would be to park at the west end of the gorge and bike to this summit and back.

Still inside the gorge, but now following Rock Creek.
Heart 2 Comment 0
Along Rock Creek. The vegetation has changed here. There’s not enough bottomland for cultivation, and it’s mainly juniper and sage.
Heart 2 Comment 0
Along Aldrich Creek, before the climb begins.
Heart 3 Comment 0
After a couple of miles we leave the last of the small bit of pastureland and climb through another impressive, narrow basalt-walled gorge.
Heart 4 Comment 0
After gaining about a thousand feet we look back at views of the Aldrich Mountains.
Heart 1 Comment 0
Colorful lichen encrusted columns line the gorge along Rock Creek.
Heart 3 Comment 0

We’re up at about 3,500’ when Rachael comes riding around the mountain, riding her grey-green Surley when she comes.  It’s cold, quite windy, and the sky is darkening fast.  We start wondering if we might get wet so we quickly bolt down another light roadside meal and start biking back toward the Jetta.

The ride back is exhilarating, as we drop 1,300’ feet to the gorge over the next twelve miles in a fast rewind of the climb we just completed.  It’s more dramatic in this direction with the distant Strawberry and Aldrich Mountains showing occasionally through the gap ahead.  We enjoy a tailwind all the way, so we’re really flying (by our standards anyway - we’re just speed-weenies).

Back through the gorge again, it’s even quieter this time.  We’re still going downhill and downwind and are only passed by two small cars in the two mile long gorge.  Out the other side it’s a different story as we encounter a headwind for the last seven miles back to Dayville.  We keep a good pace though and soon see the west end of town just ahead, happy to be arriving dry.

Yippee! Time for lunch! We bolt down another fast one. We’re up around 3,500’ here. It’s windy, cold, and quickly graying over. We start wondering if we could get wet, so we should start making tracks.
Heart 1 Comment 0
Dropping back along Rock Creek.
Heart 3 Comment 0
Through this gap we can see both the Strawberry and Aldrich ranges.
Heart 1 Comment 0

 Video sound track: Sonho (Dream), by Nando Lauria 

So I think we’ll just stop here for now.  We’ve enjoyed an outstanding 44 mile ride (or 42, but who’s counting?).  We’re still a mile from the car yet, but let’s save the story of that last mile for a rainy or snowy day when we’re shut in by the weather.  There’s some stormy weather just ahead, so we might as well save some material to talk about then.

Here’s a composite of the first three rides. The first began at the junction and ran north to Kimberly. The second began in Mount Vernon and went west to Dayville. Today we began at Dayville and biked west to a point about halfway to Keyes Creek Summit.
Heart 3 Comment 0
Rate this entry's writing Heart 8
Comment on this entry Comment 5
Bob DistelbergWow. Spectacular. Can't wait for the rest of the story.
Reply to this comment
1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Bob DistelbergSorry to drag this out, but you’ll just have to wait. My fingers were getting tuckered out after 44 miles.
Reply to this comment
1 month ago
Ron SuchanekThat is beautiful country! I'm glad to be back in Oregon
Reply to this comment
1 month ago
Jen GrumbyThat video really captures the magic of Picture Gorge!

Makes me want to go back in spring or fall.

We rode through on a very early summer morning to beat the 100+ afternoon heat, so I'm sure we didn't take the time needed to really let our jaws drop and take it all in before we continued up the hill to Mitchell.
Reply to this comment
1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Jen GrumbySpring or fall is definitely the time - and also east to west. My first time through here, 35 years ago, was in early June also and going the other direction. Between the heat and going the wrong way up Mitchell Grade it was almost too much.
Reply to this comment
1 month ago