If you’re going to be exploring Oregon, eventually you’re going to end up spending a lot of time in your car travelling. While there are usually many very nice things to see close by, to really get a taste of Oregon, you need to expand. Oregon is made up of several very distinct areas, and each of them has wonderful things to offer. From the Pacific coast, with it’s dramatic ocean bluffs and lighthouses, to the rain forests of the coastal mountain range, the temperate forests of the west cascades and the high desert on the east of the Cascades, there’s definitely not a shortage of things to see. Within a few hours driving you can have a taste of it all. But you need to know some things about the roads you’re going to be traveling on.
To get up to the date information about the conditions of major roads, it’s best to always start with tripcheck. Tripcheck is run by the Oregon department of transportation and will contain any road closures, construction, and conditions that might be important to you, including many webcams so you can check out the roads for yourself. Some of the roads in Oregon, like the McKenzie Pass, or the Cascade Lakes scenic byway, are only open when snow-free, so it’s important to start checking those in November. These closures can provide an interesting opportunity for some, because they are only closed to vehicles. Hikers, Bikers, and Cross Country Skiers are welcome on them when they’re closed. Last may, I walked along about ten miles of the McKenzie pass the weekend before it was supposed to open to vehicles, and it was a great experience.
It is important to be cognizant of road conditions in Oregon, because unlike other states, Oregon does not salt it’s roads. This can be especially hazardous when entering from another state, whose roads are fine, only to find Oregon roads slick and dangerous. This is especially true if you’re going to be traveling through the Siskiyou Pass on I-5 south of Ashland.
You should also be aware of elevation differences. If you’re in Eugene, at elevation 450ft, it might be clear, or perhaps drizzling. At at the Willamette pass at over 5000ft, this can mean snow and ice. The weather forecast will usually include a snow line if there is snow predicted in the area. This will be the elevation where they predict rain will turn into snow. It can be a useful guideline.
Since Oregon does not salt it’s roads, it has something called the Chain Law. The chain law states that you should always carry tire chains or traction tires on highways. The chains are cheap. I think I paid about $30 for them for my vehicle. I’ve thrown them in my trunk and just leave them there. You’ll see signs like this:
The message on the chain law signs change when you are required to actually equip them:
I’ve only been through this requirement once, and for my vehicle, chaining up was not required. I had noticed that the message on the sign had changed, but I didn’t catch the entire message. When I saw trucks that were towing trailers sliding around, I knew something might be up. I had a very harrowing journey over the Santiam Pass, but in the end, didn’t experience any personal difficulty in my small car.
Foul weather is not the only thing you need to be considerate of when travelling. With all the rain that falls in Western Oregon, landslides are a problem. Some of them can be quite large. On more than one occasion, I’ve driven through a small path made through a landslide, and have been diverted from roads completely closed due to a landslide. They are something to be aware of, especially if you’re traveling on roads that do not see much traffic.
There are several different types of roads in Oregon. There are the usual roads you get everywhere: Freeways, Highways, and the like. When you’re out exploring, though, you’re likely to travel off the beaten path a little bit. In Oregon, this means traveling on National Forest Roads, or Bureau of Land Management roads. Some of these may be paved, but to get to some places, you’ll be traveling on gravel or dirt. These require special considerations.
First, the condition of the road if it is unpaved should be suspect until you actually lay eyes on it. Just because it’s on the map doesn’t mean it’s been maintained this century, or that it even is still a road. You might find that it’s been completely blocked off and abandoned. You might find that it is full of potholes and driving a car with low clearance on it is impossible. Or you might find it in fine shape and able to continue on. National Forest roads seem to usually be in better quality than BLM roads, but I don’t think there is a large difference.
If you’re going to be traveling on gravel, plan on it taking much longer to complete your trip. Even on good unpaved roads in Oregon, unless you’re in an off road vehicle, it’s going to slow you down. Incorporate this into your planning. Be aware that these roads are highly unlikely to have certain safety features, like guard rails. You will need to be more cautious, especially along ravines and ridges.
And clear cuts. At some point, you’re going to travel through an area of the forest that has been wiped of all vegetation for logging purposes. These are especially dangerous, because they can leave the road unstable. Studies have shown that land that has been clear-cut is more susceptible to land slides, especially large ones. So be careful. The only nice thing about clear cuts is that they can open up views that you might not have had otherwise. Usually, it doesn’t feel like it was worth the trade.
If you get off the beaten path a little bit, you’re likely to run into a sign much like the one on the right. The road you are on will narrow, and every little ways, you’ll find that it widens for 20 to 30 feet. If you see a car coming, pull off to the side and let them by. I haven’t figured out any etiquette for these encounters except whoever pulls over first lets the other one past. Of course, on these roads you want to travel more slowly in case you meet oncoming traffic. If you’re headed around a sharp curve, you might want to honk your horn and alert anyone around to your presence. Most of these roads are going to be gravel, but don’t assume that just because a road a paved, that it will be two lane. I went over a paved road in the Umpqua National forest that was paved, but down to one lane. It was also one of the roads that had been hit by a landslide. So it always pays to be careful!
On one road, I came up to a fork that wasn’t on the map. I was headed to the town of Steamboat, and looking at the map, I really wasn’t sure which fork to take. Luckily, someone had left this very helpful sign:
Not exactly what I was expecting, but it was right. I’ve seen signs that were knocked down and broken. It you’re at an intersection and not sure where to go, look for a sign that may have been knocked over. You might find something helpful!
When travelling over the large mountain passes, they require that you gain a few thousand feet in elevation, sometimes over a very short distance. When climbing the pass, you will eventually find yourself behind a very slow semi-truck. Be patient. There’s going to be a passing lane within a few miles, and you’ll be able to safely pass them and continue on your journey. When you’re coming down the pass, keep an eye on your speed. It’s very easy to build up speed and not even realize it. Coming down Mt. Saint Helens, I was enjoying the drive until I realized that I had hit 80mph coasting down the hill. This is a situation to be avoided.
Finally, you might see signs that indicate the road has a “Sunken Grade.” They can be easy to ignore, but you should pay attention. These signs indicate that the ground has shifted in that area, possibly due to a landslide. Likely, the should is unsafe to pull onto, or there could be unexpected dips in the road. The road may bank in an expected direction, especially around a curve. Luckily, these areas are usually not very large.
That’s all for now! Next time, I’m going to be taking a look at Oregon weather.