MTB in the PNW – An Oregon-Washington Road Trip

I’ve been a Sierra snob for a while now. And a California snob too. But Lynn has dutifully, gradually opened my eyes to the Pacific Northwest – a few quick family and friend trips to Seattle, Reardan and Bellingham, and an impromptu road trip to Bend in the middle of winter.

In July, we bit off a bigger chunk of the PNW, linking together Oakridge, Bellingham, Leavenworth, Reardan and Bend with a mountain bike theme over the course of a little more than a week. That’s a lot of miles, a lot of hours behind the wheel, but also a pretty incredible swath of country outside my usual roaming territory.

Seven-plus hours in my packed flying toaster (#toasterroadtrip) on the back roads of north-eastern California and Southern Oregon delivered us to Oakridge, a small, sleepy one-time logging town that’s been the topic of a lot of talk on the economic engine that is mountain bike tourism.

Sure enough, after setting up the tent and hammock in the lush green moss-veiled forest campground just up Salmon Creek from town, we found ourselves in the local brewpub (Brewers Union Local 180) among many other Northern Californians from the Bay Area, Nevada City and elsewhere.


Shuttle booked for the famed Alpine Trail, we hit the sleeping pad early in a mercifully quiet campground, and woke up early the next morning.

The Alpine Trail did not disappoint. The shuttle (Oregon Adventures) grunted and bounced us up a dirt road into the soil-soaking clouds – the driver stopping a couple times to explain trail crossings and intersections. Soft, black loamy dirt and a brisk first climb delivered us to a cool, foggy meadow with views to other wooded ridges decorated in wisps of mist.

Not a technical trail like, say, the Downieville Downhill, smooth, flowing singletrack with great berms and occasional steeps and tight switchbacks quickly had me counting this as one of my favorite rides. As we lost elevation, soil occasionally gave way to loose shale or dry dirt with a few sections of steep exposure off the side. And while the majority of the 14 miles were downhill, both Lynn and I were spent by the time we were done.

Another long drive through some Portland and Seattle area traffic landed us in Lynn’s college town of Bellingham, Washington. The last trip here in February sold Lynn on her Transition Smuggler, and she was eager to bring it back to its native habitat – Galbraith. This time our loop of SST was dryer and we were both a little quicker, but I did enjoy the tackier winter conditions of our first trip. Amazing trail building really keeps you on your toes – and while I love my Trance – I did kind of miss the Transition Patrol I demoed last time. Must resist.

The drive up Highway 2, over Stevens Pass, had this Sierra snob wide-eyed on our way to Leavenworth Washington, where we met up with Lynn’s parents and friends. One of her friends, Tommy, lead us on the Freund Trail. Starting off in quickly rising temperatures and a longer, steeper climb than we’d done in a while had me doubting, but once the trail turned downhill into an endless series of berms and whoops, I took it all back. Lynn said it was her favorite ride of the trip, and while it didn’t dethrone Alpine Trail for me, it was a blast.

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On the Wenatchee River. #toasterroadtrip

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After a stop in Reardan, Washington near Spokane, where Lynn grew up, we pointed south, crossing into Oregon at The Dalles, and set up the tent in a familiar favorite – Smith Rock State Park, just north of Bend. While we brought a rope, harnesses, shoes and other climbing sundry, the crowds and heat dissuaded us from tackling Smith Rock’s amazing walls. Instead, we spent our days mostly in Bend, checking out breweries, hitting up some great restaurants, and sampling the Phil’s Trail Network.

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Early morning at #smithrock #toasterroadtrip

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This area was decidedly XC compared to our previous destinations. Starting up the smooth and gradual Ben’s, we cut over on Voodoo into some chunky and awkward terrain before a seated pedal “downhill” on Phil’s. I’m betting this is a network that takes some time to suss out the best stashes and sequences.

A day after getting back to Truckee and I’m already poking around the internet, looking at videos of Ashland, Oregon and Issaquah, Washington, pondering the next trip. I think I might be willing to expand my territorial range in a northwesterly fashion.


Backcountry Skiing Lassen Peak

Slipping and sliding on my climbing skins, sweat dripping into my sunglasses, I looked back down the steep, blinding-white snowfield I’m slowly switch-backing up to watch Bunker pass me, tentatively placing the toes of his snowboard boots on the hard snow, while Sylas, Jensen and Renda pound their way up on snowshoes, boards strapped to their back.

We’re carrying the tradition of a group of journalists who previously tackled the Ruby Mountains and explored the Trinity Alps. This time, we’re climbing Lassen Peak in Lassen Volcanic National Park, with plans to ski and snowboard back down.


We reached a burned-off ridge and walk carefully on the loose scree – even so I manage to kick a rock down at Renda.


Bunker spotted the summer hiking trail, exposed and dry on a ridge to our east, and we decided to hike as much of the route as possible. We pass more hikers than skiers and snowboarders along the way, and stop occasionally to catch up on oxygen and enjoy the view of the coast mountains to our west and Sierra to the south – picking out the Sierra Buttes and maybe some familiar peaks around Tahoe.


Eventually we reach the top, dropping skis, boards, backpacks and other gear to scramble the last bit to the true summit, looking at the caldera and north to Mt. Shasta.


Summit marker.


Team shot, looking south, with Matt Renda, Sylas Wright, me, David Bunker and Adam Jensen.


Looking north, Shasta in the background.

With a large audience of hikers who still had to walk back down, we clicked into skis and boards, tentatively pointing down runneled and sun-cupped snow stained with red dirt. The steep pitch sends a couple of us sliding on their backsides for a few feet.

Rather than running it out to the bottom of the south-east aspect and a long slog back to the parking lot, we decide to click out for one switchback on the trail to get back to the steep and slick pitch we first climbed, now softened perfectly by the sun. Smooth, creamy turns all the way back to the car capped off the trip.

2016 Tahoe Trails Summit – Takeaways

Tahoe Area Mountain Bike Association, the US Forest Service, Truckee Trails Foundation, Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, Scott Nichols of Ibis, Gary Sjoquist of Quality Bicycle Products, officials from South Lake Tahoe, Mammoth and elsewhere all came together on a rainy weekend at the beginning of May to talk Tahoe trails.

There was good news and bad, reason for optimism and cause for caution. Here are some of the highlights I took away.


  • There are tons of stats out their supporting the benefits of bike trails, from positive impacts on property values to an average of $1 spent on trails saving $3 in healthcare costs in a community. The facts are there for the argument to be made.
  • People are putting their time and money where their tires are: Kevin Joell, trails director for TAMBA, counted almost 4,000 hours of volunteer trail work in 2015.
  • Sales taxes to support trails are popping up and proving effective in places like Truckee and Mammoth Lakes.
  • NICA: Sjoquist is at the helm of a Nevada high school mountain bike league that not only represents a future generation of mountain bikers, but also brings their parents into the sport, and requires trail building and maintenance as part of team activities.
  • The undeniable force of the outdoor industry: Netting $650 billion a year (26 billion for mountain biking alone) with 6.1 million jobs; a unified voice from outdoor recreation is a force to be reckoned with.
  • Tourism done right: The Wall Street Journal declared cyclists the new golfers in terms of tourism spending, and to those saying #dontmoabtahoe, Nichols pointed to the iconic southwest mountain biking destination as a model. “They have 700,000-800,000 mountain bike user days a year, and it doesn’t feel crowded out on the trails,” he said.


  • An image crisis. Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Trails Engineer Jacob Quinn described a scene we’ve all watched on Youtube or Pinkbike of a slowmo rider drifting (skidding, in reality) through a turn, spraying up dirt and said it makes him cringe, and should make anybody who’s volunteered on trails cringe. It’s hard to convince land managers people like that should be allowed into wilderness.
  • Localism: Being a territorial jerk while living in a tourist destination isn’t an indicator of high IQ. You can be an ambassador for the trails and be more effective in protecting what you love. “I’ve seen more than a little resentment about change and more people on your trails,” Sjoquist said. “If you’re not happy because trails aren’t the way they used to be, get over it.” I’m looking at you #dontmoabtahoe hashtaggers.
  • “User conflict boils down to people choosing not to get along with someone else on the trail,” said Garret Villanueva with the Forest Service.
  • Less than 10 percent of Americans are visiting National Forest Lands. So why should they care about it?
  • TAMBA, a powerhouse for good trail stewardship and advocacy inside the Basin (and out) is fragile. One or two key volunteers burn out and we’re back to square one.

These are just a few of the points that I took away from the two-day event. What’s clear is there are many passionate people taking the sport in a positive direction. What isn’t clear is if a few bad apples will pull it in another.

SCUBA Diving Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Lynn, my parents, my sister and I board a Hello Kitty jet in a daze of sleep deprivation and time zone punch-drunkenness, Christmas music playing over the speakers in early March. We’ve already put in solid 12 hours to get to Taipei, where we wandered between themed boarding gates and endless Sony stores. We have a flight to Singapore and three more ahead of us.

hello kitty01

Photo by Lynn Baungartner

The Hello Kitty themed everything starts to sink into our heads as safety instructions are rattled off in other languages, and both Lynn and Lexi go straight for a Hello Kitty barf bag, also eying the Hello Kitty toilet paper.

That was only a small part of the roughly 48 hours of travel time it took to get to Raja Ampat, Indonesia, with three two-hour flights from Singapore to Jakarta to Makassar to Sorong in the middle of the night, preventing any kind of sleep, still to go.

At a hotel in Sorong, we’re too tired to figure out how the patio door closed (like a door, it turned out the next morning), and without even a fighting chance and a few days worth of malaria pills in my system, I’m already covered in mosquito bites.

Then came a boat ride, around two-hours long, sweating, enclosed in a plastic canopy, stinking of fish – a seasickness patch stamped behind my ear.

And it was all worth it.

It’s been my dad’s mission, for the last few years, to find, and get us all to, the best dive location on earth. For him that means the best coral reefs, the most biodiversity, the place, of all places, you’ve got to see before rising sea levels and temperatures take it all away. Go to Netflix right now, and click on the series Planet Earth. You remember, the one with all the mind-blowing footage of wildlife around the globe. Pick the episode titled “Shallow Seas” and after David Attenborough quickly notes the enormity of the Great Barrier Reef, he ushers the viewer to where the real splendor is. Raja Ampat.

Meaning “Four Kings” for four of the major island, the seas, now protected by Indonesia, are thought to be the birth-place of the modern coral reef, and on a bright note, a reef system that seems to be holding up a little better than the rest to coral bleaching in our warming oceans. Called the heart of the coral triangle, it’s home to 1,508 fish species and 537 coral species (more than 70 percent of the species on earth), making it the most biologically rich and diverse reef in the world.

We are greeted by Papuan song and dance as the boat pulled up to the jetty at Papua Explorers Resort, our home for the next 10 days, followed by coconuts with straws protruding from them. A young French man named Arno gives us the rundown – everything from dinner to dive operations, and we take off our shoes for the last time in 10 days.

Papua Explorers Resort

Lynn and me on our deck, Papua Explorers Resort.

A soft sand path wanders behind the 15 guest pondoks – thatched huts stilted with dark tropical wood over the warm turquoise ocean, an imposing limestone and jungle wall to the other side. The walk is set to the most musical bird songs I’ve ever heard, and each boardwalk to each room has a small faucet to rinse the sand off your feet before entering.

Papua Explorers Resort

Looking at the Pondoks at Papua Explorers Resort – the room, the deck, and the view.

Lynn and I settle onto the deck of our room, her in a red hammock swinging in the warm tropical breeze, a flat, tranquil straight of blue water between us on the island of Gam and the islands of Pulau Mansuar and Kri across from us. Schools of hundreds of tiny tropical fish leap from the water in a shimmering rainbow arch, hardly disturbing the water with a splash on reentry. I’ve never seen so many fish so keen to take to the air, and that’s not even counting the flying fish.

Papua Explorers Resort, Raja Ampat Sunset

Over the next 10 days, we would trade that view – in thunderstorms and bright sun, sunrise and sunset, high tide and low – with boat rides around the rich blue straight and beyond to different dive sites, each offering up at least one stunning example of tropical reef that trounces anything I’d seen before.

I’ve been to the Great Barrier Reef, Bunaken in Indonesia, Bonaire, Tobago and Roatan in the Caribbean. This was a whole new world, in the most literal sense possible without leaving the planet.

Hard corals and Doctor Seussian soft corals in every color, schools of fish that form solid walls of flickering metallic light, octopus that instantly change color, texture and shape – not only as camouflage, but when he or she showed us a solid-white strip, must have been trying to tell us something – along with turtles, rays and so much more.

Tiny dolphins play in our bow waves as we move from dive site to dive site. And between dives, we are delivered to pristine white-sand beaches, jetties hanging above the reef, or overlooks with sweeping views of surreal mushroom-shaped tiny islands.

Raja Ampat Scuba Diving

Photo by Andy Howard

Breakfast, lunch and dinner were at communal tables with fellow divers from Germany, Australia and elsewhere. We got to know the Turkish family that owns the resort – their two amazing children who ate just about every meal with us and told us about growing up in Jakarta, Raja Ampat, and soon, Sydney. A visiting relative from Turkey turned out to be a fellow journalist who loved basketball. While we were there, he’d find out his newspaper had been taken over and dissolved by the government – yet Donald Trump would make ours the country regarded with the most dubiousness while we were there.

Us in a cave in an area called the passage, a river-like dive with lots of current.

Us in a cave in an area called the passage, a river-like dive with lots of current.

The Papuan dive guides and workers play music and sing, and each night we would fall asleep to the sounds of the ocean under our mosquito-netted bed (I think the only mosquito bites I got were in Sorong, didn’t see any at the resort).

We had our challenges – Lynn, as a new diver, took a couple dives to dial in her buoyancy control – occasionally getting to the surface at the end of a dive before she intended to. I was kept out of the water for what at the time was a melancholy two days with an ear infection. But Lynn quickly gained control over her BCD, easily outdoing more experienced divers also at the resort, and I made it back into the water for one last day before we had to leave. And what a day.

Raja Ampat scuba diving

Examples of the reef from clown fish (upper left) to a wobbegong shark (upper right), giant clams and turtles. Photos by Andy Howard, Lexi Troll and myself.

Me, swinging in the breeze at a white-sand beach in Raja Ampat. Photo by Lexi Troll.

Me, swinging in the breeze at a white-sand beach in Raja Ampat. Photo by Lexi Troll.

Arno knew I was disappointed I’d missed out on Blue Magic, a dive with a lot of current where Lynn and my family saw manta rays. He, a marine biologist who holds ecological preservation above tourist attractions, wouldn’t go for the easy way to see these incredible creatures if it impacted them, but he took us to a cleaning station, where mantas come to have small fish clean them.

When we arrive to find small dive boats from live-aboard ships circling, Arno’s brow furrows. He jumps in the water with mask and snorkel, assessing the scene. Divers are smack-dab in the middle of the cleaning station, risking scaring off the rays for good. He talks with their guides, taking pictures of their boats for follow up, and gives us a strict set of rules for watching mantas at the cleaning station.

Raja Ampat manta ray

Manta Rays at Manta Sandy cleaning station, along with Arno (upper left) and me (lower left). Photos by me and Lexi Troll.

We descend to a sandy bottom, staying behind a line of dead coral, and wait. Just as we get ready to give up and swim toward another section of reef, they appear. Like some alien creature, with wingspans of up to 20 feet, they circle and loop in the cleaning station, and we watch with wide eyes. We end up seeing five rays before surfacing.

As the trip came to a close, I scoured my memory of the trip, trying to shore up the fleeting pictures competing for space and blurring in my mind. The boat ride through a narrow passage – like a river between a bay and the open ocean. Lynn’s first night dive at the resort’s reef. The smile and laughter of the Papuan guides as the teased “crocodile! Crocodile!” Or “selfie! Selfie!” The one-foot-tall picturesque island of Arborek and its grinning children. The gestured and multi-lingual conversations with other divers from around the world. The birdsong and sunsets.

Papua Explorers Resort

Arno’s citizen science project for reporting spotted sea creatures, the dive center, dive briefing and map of dive sites.

Inevitably, we’re on the boat back to Sorong, three flights through the vastness of Indonesia, and back to Singapore, where best-laid plans become plan B become a hotel stay in the red light district. Five flights on two different airlines in each direction and we didn’t lose a checked bag, and the hardest airport experience was reserved for America’s immigration, where we waited almost two hours for our stamps back in.

To sum it up, this place is truly one of the world’s great treasures. If you dive, go there now. As fast as you can. If you don’t dive, learn, then go there. Despite the jet lag, airline food, hot and humid tropical airports and mosquito bites, it’ll be worth it.

My dad, Lynn, me, Lynn, Lexi and my mom at Fam Island.

My dad, Lynn, me, Lynn, Lexi and my mom at Fam Island.

Fam Island, Raja Ampat

Learn From Our Experience

  • Take care of travel immunizations early – we were up against the clock on some series of shots that had to be a month apart.
  • Quick drying clothes, but nothing fancy – we constantly fought to dry out damp clothing, but don’t overspend just to have it mildew over.
  • Don’t forget desiccants for camera housing – Our cameras fogged up often. On another note my Light & Motion Sidekick light for my Gopro was great for photo and video, if only the Gopro itself were as good.
  • Reef Safe Sunscreen – Keep your skin nice and pale, but don’t turn the reef white too.
  • Be ready for current – Raja Ampat has currents at many dive sites, and resorts or guides will likely issue reef hooks. Buoyancy control is critical.

Quick Trip: Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

I grew up in California, going to Yosemite at least once a year since I was born. I live in Truckee, explored the Tahoe region, Downieville, the Sierra Valley, the Eastern Sierra from Bridgeport to Lonepine, and lots of places in between.

So how I’ve missed Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks up until now is a bit of a mystery.

Lynn had some site visits for work with the U.S. Forest Service and the Sequoia Riverlands Trust, so I decided to tag along with plans to take a quick side trip into the Southern Sierra Parks.


Sequoia Riverlands Trust was a great stop in and of itself, where we visited a green and blooming oak preserve in the foothills. Driving through a verdant Yokohl Valley to Three Rivers was worth the trip on its own. But then we started to climb, switchbacking up into the park, getting views of granitic outcroppings like the one above.


While I’d never been to these parks, it wasn’t like I’d never seen a sequoia tree – they’re in Yosemite and other parts of the Sierra. But there’s a reason a National Park is built around these ones. Lynn patiently put up with my sprinting bursts around tourists and quiet staring into the distant tree tops.


I know there are good ways to take pictures of giant trees, but I wasn’t equiped. It’s tough to express through pixels or words the impact of standing in front of a giant sequoia.


Most trees were fenced off, protecting their shallow root system, but I found myself staring at the intricate bark patterns almost as much as the trees’ immensity.


It was a short afternoon trip, hemmed in by scheduling and not-yet melted out snow higher, but I definitely look forward to coming this way again soon.

Transition Patrol Demo Review + Galbraith Ride

Transition Bikes have been on Lynn’s and my radar for a while now, not only because they’re from her neck of the woods, but because we’ve seen a lot of solid reviews and get a vibe from the company that we both appreciate – fun first.

With a trip up to Bellingham, Washington planned, Lynn called ahead to see if we could demo some bikes – for her, to find out if the Transition Smuggler was what she wanted in a 29er trail bike (we rode the Trek Remedy and Trek Fuel a while back), and for me to ride whatever awesome bike I felt like, in this case the Transition Patrol.

We walked into their unassuming warehouse on a drizzly Friday afternoon, got our pedals on, suspension dialed in and seats adjusted, then handed them $20 each that goes entirely to local trails.

That was a $20 well spent, it turns out, as Galbraith, a dense and extensive network of Bellingham trails, was awesome.

We went full enduro with clear-lensed Smith Squad MTB goggles (more on those down the road) and pedaled up the trail. This was my first time on a really slack (65 degree head angle) enduro-y bike with a super short stem and 800 mm bar, and I was curious if the archetype lived up to the hype, or if they were wasted on all but the most extreme terrain.

While I can’t speak for the whole 6-inch travel slack, long and low genre, the Transition Patrol was definitely not hype.

Climbing was a pleasant surprise, which, for my 6’3″ self at least, was largely due to the steep seat tube angle, which kept me over the cranks, not hanging out over the rear hub. The suspension always moved slightly with each pedal stroke, no matter the position of the climb lever, but never excessively, or to the detriment of forward progress.

Even the long, slack front end didn’t wander as much I worried it would. Being generally out of shape and not having a lot of time on one-by drivetrains, I was wishing for an easier gear or two, but other than that, there isn’t much to say about the way up.

Then we got to a trail named Family Fun Center on our way to SST and Golden Spike, where the fun really began. My bike, a Giant Trance 27.5 isn’t some old-school XC geometry relic. In fact it’s pretty awesome. But the stupid stuff the Patrol let me get away with left me grinning ear to ear – whether it was dipping a bar into a bermed turn or letting it roll over a steep drop without really checking out what happened on the other side.

Quick in the corners yet stable enough to save my bacon in some rough spots, playful yet burly, it would be fair to say this short ride left me impressed. Next time I’d set up the suspension a touch softer (never bottomed out on either end), and had no idea how to make a 1-point turn around a couple of switch backs at the end of the ride, but I can see how this bike could be a quiver-of-one for many riders.

Tight chainstays are all the rage these days, and while I’m no manualing monster, it made small corrections and steering from the hips a little easier than on bikes like my Trance or the Remedy.

As for the trail itself – a couple slick, muddy spots were to be expected this time of year, but the mix of tech and flow were really something. I can see why backyard trails like these shaped Transition bikes the way they have.

I’m not in the market for a new bike, but I’ll be taking some lessons away from my time on the Transition, with plans for a shorter stem, wider bars and a couple suspension tweaks in the works. If I were in the market, my usually conservative tastes might be swayed by this big goofy-fun bike.

As for Lynn, who was testing for more serious purposes – well I’m sure she’ll write up here own review, but I think the Smuggler may have unseated the Remedy for her number one contender.

Photo credit: Lynn Baungartner