Bike Camping the Clackamas

I love mountains. I grew up in Michigan, which is pretty flat, and my first trip to Oregon blew me away. In the 11 years I’ve lived in Oregon, I’ve explored many places, but my favorite is the Clackamas River in the Mount Hood National Forest (MHNF). The Clackamas has a lot of camping variety, from Milo McIver State Park in Estacada (which has a secret back entrance for cyclists) to private campground Promontory Park, to the US Forest Service campgrounds, and ultimately, dispersed camping -- where you pedal until you find some random spot you like, pitch a tent, and stay there. I found one of those sites in the Big Bottom old-growth area.

"The Narrows" on the Clackamas River

I usually start by riding the Springwater Trail from Portland, or taking the MAX to Gresham and riding the last few miles of the trail to Boring (seriously, that’s the name of the town). From there it’s a fairly straightforward route on the shoulder of Highway 224 to Estacada. Estacada is a cute little city with over 20 murals adorning the buildings in the commercial district. They bill themselves as “Gateway to the Clackamas,” and you can find a full range of services, including bike supplies in the local drugstore. It’s also the last gasp of civilization on this trip as one heads into the forest.

Faraday Road

Outside Estacada about a half mile is Faraday Road, a PGE access road which is the original highway converted to bike/ped-only use (plus the odd PGE service vehicle). It’s 3.5 miles of car-free quiet scenery. After returning to the highway, you ride along the reservoir and enter the National Forest. Rounding a corner you’re confronted with Big Cliff, an iconic towering mass of rock that signifies the start of Clackamas Canyon. For the next few miles, rock walls, trees, rapids and a succession of developed campsites are your companions. These fill up quickly in the summer months so reservations are recommended. In this section, camping is only allowed in developed sites due to an upstream hydro project. Once clear of the restricted area, you climb a moderately steep grade for a few hundred feet of elevation and Highway 224 becomes Forest Road 46. From this point on, it’s a seasonal road, and under snow during the winter months. The next 20 miles are very low-traffic, gorgeous, and right on the river. A turnoff leads to Bagby Hot Springs –- worth a visit, but high use. Further along is Austin Hot Springs. Austin has burned people with high temperatures and is on private land, so I recommend avoiding it. A few miles past Austin, the river leaves the road at the start of the Big Bottom old-growth area. Much of this area is now wilderness, where bikes are barred from entry, so check the map before setting up camp. Find a vacant spot on a logging road, and camp!

The highlight of this route is the route itself. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful ride.

Get more information about bike overnights.

14 responses so far ↓

Steve Durspek - May 17, 2011 at 5:16 PM

I used to work the Clackamas drainage when I worked for the US Forest Service. I was stationed out of Estacada, OR. It is a beautiful area, however, there are narrow winding sections of road (46 road) and motorists often drive too fast. This is one of the most heavily used areas of the forest due to its proximity to Portland, so beware. There is a shady element that likes to visit the area, so there is some crime to be concerned with. They commonly find abandoned vehicles all the time, usually lit on fire after they are stripped of anything of any value. Stay away from rock pits, too, as they are a haven for shooting practice for gun owners. Its legal on Federal land. Just be wary of your surroundings, and use care when picking a dispersed camping site. Pick a spot thats near a busy road and doesn't seem to be well used. Better yet, stay in the official camp grounds.

Bagby Hot Springs is place you must see. Don't worry about a swim suit. Most people don't wear one. Take the 63 road turn-off from the 46 road, then take the 70 road turn-off from the 63 road. Its nice for a day visit, but the parking lot is a target of smash-and-dash thieves. Bagby can be a party spot on weekend nights, so don't camp there. Groups have been known to bring in kegs.

I hate to be a downer here, but I just want ya'll to be aware.

Winona Bateman - May 18, 2011 at 1:48 PM

Steve - Thanks very much for the heads up!

matt picio - May 18, 2011 at 8:17 PM

Thanks, Steve! Generally, I haven't seen any problems up the Clackamas - most bike tourers will be along Hwy 224, FS 46 and FS 57. Cycle Wild has led about 15 trips up the Clackamas and I've been on both solo trips and trips with 1-3 friends. We have yet to see any issues anywhere other than the Bagby parking lot. Most of the crime is either at Bagby (which was mostly controlled while the Friends of Bagby were helping to manage the site) and along Memaloose Road and in the OHV areas.

Big Bottom itself is nearly 70 miles from Gresham, and many of the areas out there have no traffic, no people, and no crime. Crime up the Clackamas varies from year to year, though, so it's best to check with the Clackamas Ranger District office in Estacada or with the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office near Clackamas Town Center. CCSO is the responding agency for most law enforcement calls in the district (USFS has only 2 law enforcement officers on the west side of the national forest) and is responsible for coordinating any search and rescue efforts within the county. (including federal land)

Full disclosure - I used to sit on the CCSO citizen's advisory committee.

Steve Durspek - May 23, 2011 at 4:17 PM

Matt, you are correct that the farther you get from Estacada the less you will encounter people or crime. Friends of Bagby wasn't too active when I was there, but I hear they've done a lot to improve things. Its truly a beautiful area and I miss working on the Clackamas River Ranger District. The Clackamas is definitely worth exploring. Cell phones don't work once you leave Estacada. Clackamas Sheriff's Department is the patrolling agency as you said. If you need help, flag down a Forest Service vehicle who can radio for assistance, but they're not allowed give you a ride (maybe in an emergency). There used to be a pay phone at Ripplebrook, but I think that's gone now. Another place to get assistance would be the Ripplebrook guard station (Fire), the Job Corps facility at Ripplebrook. From there its a long way to Detroit Lake in the Willamette National Forest. Call or stop in at the Ranger Station in Estacada before going and they can help you with any questions you may have. I'm going to have to join you on your next trip. I haven't ridden up there in a few years now.

matt picio - May 24, 2011 at 9:26 AM

Friends of Bagby is no longer involved since the USFS has decided to replace them with a concessionaire. Ripplebrook Guard Station is no longer manned and has no payphone, but during camping season there is a small store in the north building. (note to cyclists - there is potable water on the front facing of the north building and back facing of the south building - these are turned on year-round, even when the store is not operating)

Also, if you are on Verizon, or TMobile, your last cellphone reception is at mile marker 34 on Hwy 224 - there is a weird spot of coverage there, I think the signals are being conducted by the high voltage lines in that area. Best bet in an emergency is to get back to the main road (Hwy 224 / FS46 / FS57) and flag down a motorist - forest service vehicles are somewhat sparse most of the year.

Bill Wolfsen - Sep 28, 2011 at 1:28 PM

This page article on Bike "Camping the Clackamas" in the Oregon section has a problem when you get into the read more part after the pictures the typing goes all in on long line and you have to scross way across to see it. Maybe this was a glitch and whe Webmaster needs to fix it. I did enjoy reading about it. I enjoy all that country east of Estacada. Bill

Winona - Oct 6, 2011 at 6:03 AM

Hi Bill - Thanks for alerting us. I could not recreate the error but I will let our webmaster know.

John S - Oct 6, 2011 at 8:27 AM

@Bill - Thanks for letting us know about the formatting issue. It should be fixed now!

Melanie Wagner - Mar 2, 2012 at 10:42 AM

Thanks for the great article "Bike Camping the Clackamas." I work for the City of Estacada and we are really looking for ways to enourage more bike tourism. If you are coming through the area feel free to stop at City Hall. It's right off of OR-224 and the Chamber of Commerce/information center is located in our building. Happy biking! Hope to see more of you all this summer! Estacada really is the Gateway to Great Adventures!

Michael McCoy - Mar 2, 2012 at 11:49 AM

Thanks, Melanie, this is good to know!

matt picio - Mar 2, 2012 at 11:58 AM

Thanks, Melanie! We might have met if you were at the Bicycle Tourism studio a few weeks back. When I lead trips for Cycle Wild up the Clackamas corridor, we always stop in Estacada at least for Thiftway and Fearless Brewing on the return, but there's a lot of other great businesses there we like to patronize. Best of luck enhancing bike tourism there, we'll continue to promote Estacada wherever we can!

Sean - Jun 4, 2013 at 9:55 PM

Just followed this route to spend a night camping just outside of the Indian Henry Campsite (just before the restricted camping area ends). Thanks for sharing this beautiful route Matt. This is the most beautiful route I've been out within 50 miles of Portland! Except for the connection between Boring and Highway 224 (which was pretty bad) the shoulders were generally quite wide and traffic mostly kind. We got lots of peace signs and waves from cars, PGE work vehicles, and motorcyclists.

matt picio - Jun 5, 2013 at 1:36 PM

Sean,

Glad to hear you enjoyed it! If you get out that way again soon, there have been a change since this article was first published. The concessionaire the USFS hired now maintains a camp store at Ripplebrook Guard Station which is open every day during prime camping season, and weekends year-round.

Kathleen - Jul 10, 2013 at 11:30 PM

Hi, I am planning a bike tour soon from the Hood River Valley to Timothy Lake, then on along the Clackamas River.
I am looking for a bicycle-friendly route back to the Hood River Valley (old Gorge Hwy? But the best route to get there?).
Thanks for any help.

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