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In the far reaches of Northeast Oregon, flanked by expanses of national forest, stretch miles of isolated pavement for cycling adventures.
One such epic three-day adventure incorporates the area’s rich history of mining, ranching and logging.
Day one leaves Baker City for Unity Reservoir, a desert oasis in the middle of cattle country.
Day two focuses on the timber industry with large pumpkin pines standing sentinel as you toil your way to Bates State Park.
Day three emphasizes mining, spinning past Sumpter and back to Baker City.
In this article, I will be focusing on day two, a short but feisty ride from Unity Reservoir to Bates State Park.
This 23-mile day, with two attainable summits, starts at Unity Lake State Park with its sparkling water and wonderful camping and picnic areas just a few miles north of Unity.
Travel southwest on State Highway 245 which rises steadily in search of forest and the alluring vanilla-like smell of large ponderosa pines. Sage and rabbitbrush populate the open rangeland that offers splendid views of the surrounding peaks such as Buck and King Mountain. Cattle, gulches that seasonally fill with water, birds of prey and ground squirrels keep you company as you reach the junction with U.S. Highway 26. Veer right (northwest) onto 26, away from Unity and toward Prairie City and John Day.
Highway 26 bisects the Blue Mountains and skirts through the Malheur and Wallowa-Whitman national forests. The steady climb from Unity Lake continues 13 miles, with 1,284 feet of elevation gain.
With each pedal stroke the sagebrush and juniper trees dwindle and are replaced with statuesque ponderosa pines, firs and larches. There are multiple Wallowa-Whitman campground options on the way up the climb for places to take a pleasant break. Do not count on them for water, though.
Upon reaching the 5,109-foot Blue Mountain Summit, the scenery supports the main historical industry shift from cattle to that of forest harvesting.
Enjoy the view on the five-mile glide into Grant County past iconic meadows such as Sullens Cow Camp and Phillips Meadow. Dixie Butte looms in the distance promising more adventures and heralds the volcanic landscape to come.
Between Phillips Meadow and Camp Creek there is a snotty little climb that reaches a 7 percent grade. Spin into Austin Junction and enjoy a meal, snack, dessert, drink, trinket purchase or just a cultural adventure. If you are planning on Austin Junction for food make sure to call ahead and affirm they are open due to seasonal hours.
Leave Highway 26 at Austin Junction for State Highway 7, traveling northeast toward Sumpter and Baker City. There is a short one-mile glide between Austin Junction and Bates State Park which turns onto Middle Fork Lane. I suggest camping at Bates State Park, which opened a few years ago. The early 1900s was the perfect time to make a fortune in lumber. The now vanished lumber town of Bates is a perfect example of the process. Two businessmen, one from Utah and one from Portland, bought vast tracts in the Blue Mountains and started the Oregon Lumber Company. They started with a small sawmill in Baker City then focused on pushing the Sumpter Valley Railway into existence.
With an effective mode of transportation in place, another mill was constructed in the nearby town of Austin. After eleven years of milling, the partners once again changed their main location of operation. A short mile west of Austin, multiple creeks converge into the Middle Fork of the John Day River, allowing for a log pond to be formed and ease of transportation of logs to the mill.
The next 40 years were great for Bates as the lumber mill thrived. A school, church, dinning hall, hotel and various other businesses supported the 400 plus citizens who lived in little company houses or reconfigured railcars.
In the 1960s the Oregon Lumber Company sold to another company who continued the boom another 15 years before closing Bates. Many workers bought their houses for a dollar and moved them to neighboring towns. The mill and kiln were also dismantled and moved.
Now there is a beautiful meadow and state park, where the mill used to stand. There are hiking trails, Bates Pond as well as the Middle Fork John Day River to take advantage of on this short day of travel.
If by chance 23 miles of fun were not enough of an adventure, I encourage you to visit the nearby ghost town of Austin. Unlike Bates, the ghost town of Austin still stands tall with its beautiful sunworn skeleton buildings on display.