Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is like the Chicago Airport for migrating birds; during fall and spring thousands of birds use these wetlands as a quick layover to refuel and then take off to their final destinations. Birders flock to this refuge to catch a glimpse of the 340 bird species which include an array of geese, swans, ducks, pelicans, and cranes. This route takes you by the various ponds and canals that attract the birds, to a scenic overlook, and finishes with a blaze back on paved roads.
Besides the amazing wildlife (deer, antelope, rabbits), this route offers up constant views of the Steens Mountain, a fault-block mountain that stretches 50 miles north to south, with a summit elevation of 9,733 feet. (We highly recommend you climb this mountain on your bike as well, the Steens Mountain loop route.) This entire area is also an artist’s dream: grasses, shrubs, water and big, open skies blend together to create colorful scenery. (Which we never can seem to capture in out photos!)
3500 years ago, small villages were built around the marshes and along the river. These people were known as the Wada Eaters. [US Fish and Wildlife Service]
Included in this route is a visit to the refuge’s headquarters: you might remember when armed protestors seized these buildings in 2016. For most of the occupation, law enforcement allowed the occupiers to come and go at will. At the conclusion, most of the leaders were arrested, and one was killed while traveling away from the refuge when the group he was leading attempted to evade a police roadblock. **Read More
The route is mainly flat, with the part through the national refuge on gravel and the return on paved. While on paper, this all seems like it might be a super easy ride, let us offer up two bits of caution: the national refuge had some fresh gravel and some washboard sections which slowed us down a bit. And this area is famous for wind. Also, make sure you look at the hill profile: there’s a rolling hill at the end which rewards you with a “no brakes needed” downhill.
From the starting point, the Narrows RV park, the route heads east on a good paved road that sees little traffic. You pass by ranches and have distant views of Steens mountain. At ~ mile 6 is the Malheur National Wildlife refuge headquarters where the standoff occured. There’s a pull out just past it (you’ll see a big tower) which provides an expansive view of the area below you. The visitor center is also a worthwhile stop to for information on the the area including flora, animals and the history. Be sure to get the Blitzen Valley Auto Tour Route guide.
From the visitor center, go south into the refuge on the gravel road (“bird nerd alley”). This sector is the highlight of the ride. Big views. Thousands of birds. Rabbits. Antelope. And mostly easy riding. You will also cross the Blitzen river several times.
… scan the cottonwood trees for various songbirds, great horned owls, and porcupine. Other species in the area include the cinnamon teal, coyote, deer mice, gadwell, garter snake, great egret, great horned owl, long-eared owl, mallard, mule deer, Northern oriole, Northern shoveler, pied-billed grebe, porcupine, and trumpeter swan. [US Fish and Wildlife Service]
At mile 23.5 make a right onto Diamond Lane (paved). Go about 1 mile, and make a right onto a double track trail / road that is just to the right of the canal. We call this the “grass highway”. You have gone to far if you reach Highway 205, an alternate option to the “grass highway”.
Follow the “grass highway” north for about 2 miles until you come to a proper gravel road. Go left. And in a few hundred yards, again go left and ride to the Buena Vista overlook. We loved this section of the route. Great views. More birds. It felt hidden and off the beaten track.
After the overlook, make your way onto Highway 205. Yes, it is a state highway, but with little traffic. The views are still good, but diminishing as you get closer to the start / finish. Near the very end, you do the only climb of the day, 300 feet of gain at 3% grade. But you shortly get that all back as you descend easily into the finish. [\read]
The route starts at the Narrows RV park, which may seem a bit odd. Some may think that the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge visitor center may be a better starting point, but this makes the last half of the ride long and tiresome as you have a 21 mile sector of pavement. By starting at the Narrows, you get a flat 5 miles of pavement for warm up, before taking on the gravel sector. With that, the last paved sector does not seem so long.
If you go during birding season, carry mosquito repellent with you … or move really, really fast!
We recommend a red blinky light for the highway section on the back half of the route.
Adventure / Gravel Route
Moderate–. Due to distance.
When we like to ride this …
To see the most number of bird species go mid May to mid June. But, we really recommend you take a look at this guide by Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for when to see what birds.
Red = paved road
Brown = gravel / dirt road
For help with GPS files, the RideWithGPs mapping app and to learn how to download our routes for free, see the “Using Our Rides” page.