This post is up by popular demand, although I’ve been a little hesitant to post about it. If you’ve been following along on my Instagram stories, you already know half the story. But if you’re new here, then I’m talking about the utter disaster that was our trip to Oregon and how we lost our entire vacation trying to get to Bagby Hot Springs in the winter.
I pride myself on my ability to travel plan. I check and double check everything, weaving together bits of information from a rabbit hole of blogs, forums, and pinterest pins; covering all my bases and every detail of everything from sightseeing to safety. But sometimes, nothing can prepare you for some of the unfortunate travel situations you might find yourself in.
And if you travel, the chances are you’ve been here: caught in an unfortunate situation that costs you time, money, and a little bit of a blow to your ego.
Keep reading to find out how we lost $1800 and pretty much our entire vacation, how you can learn from our mistakes, and how you can be prepared for this unfortunate side of travel (aka the kind you don’t see on Instagram…).
Here’s how it happened …
I’ve wanted to visit Oregon since before I can remember. So, I was totally elated when Greg and I finally booked a trip to hunt hot springs for my birthday in January. I quickly reserved an SUV, put a road trip plan in place, and posted a countdown on my Instagram stories.
But then life happened and due to a combination of work obligations and scheduling conflicts, we were forced to postpone our trip to late February.
I was actually a little bit worried at first that pushing our trip to the end of February would mean there wouldn’t be any snow on the ground (lol, silly me). So I sat up all night scouring pinterest and google for annual snow reports, crossing my fingers for lingering snow, as I imagined soaking in the wild hot springs.
What I learned…
Be careful what you wish for. Because 24 hours before our trip, Mother Nature dumped over 2 feet of snow across Central Oregon.
I quickly hopped online, only to be faced with a wall of travel advisories and road closures. I searched google maps for any part of our itinerary that I could possibly salvage, only to be disheartened by the volume of red X’s that peppered the map of road closures. Every single one of our points of interest fell within the boundaries of the crazy storm.
Except one. The only road that was open was the road to Bagby Hot Springs. These hot springs are basically a collection of bath tubs in the PNW wilderness, and are well trafficked in Central Oregon. But what was the road like now? I had no idea. So I checked the travel advisories, live streams of the nearest highways, and any local advice I could get from my friends who lived there. No one seemed to have any idea about the conditions at Bagby and the only travel advisory I found was this one on the Bagby Hot Springs Facebook page:
It warned us not to attempt the road to Bagby in a passenger vehicle or SUV. But it told us that the road was accessible to high clearance vehicles. Surely they would have closed the road (like all the others) if it was totally impassible…or so I thought. So we traded in our SUV rental for a high clearance Jeep Wrangler and then boarded a plane set for Portland.
Everything looked fine in Portland
When we landed in Portland, the sun was shining. Not a single snowflake was on the ground. It was around 1:30pm and everything looked good, so I texted our Airbnb host in Eugene to tell her we’d be checking in after we returned from Bagby.
The drive only took about 40 minutes as we weaved through small towns and down curved roads lined with mossy trees. The temperature was certainly dropping, but we were 20 minutes out from Mt. Hood National Forest and there was still no snow. I thought how odd – maybe it wasn’t going to be so bad. We continued to follow our offline Google Maps, as we left our last bit of cell phone service behind in Estacada, Oregon.
The temperature dropped significantly once we arrived in Mt. Hood National Forest. The wind had also picked up a bit, but still the roads remained relatively snow free. It looked nothing like the photo we saw on Facebook.
One mountain road faded into the next as we continued to snake our way up into the forest. And suddenly it was like someone had flipped a switch. The thick stands of conifers turned from evergreen to snow white. The pavement on the roads slowly disappeared beneath a blanket of snow. But still, our Jeep Wrangler handled it like nothing. It plowed effortlessly over the lonely unplowed roads, through rockey valleys and tunnels of snow covered conifers.
And then things started to get sketchy
It wasn’t until we turned onto the very last mountain road that we ran into trouble. As we climbed in elevation, the snow suddenly became much deeper, thicker, and incredibly icy, blowing across the windshield and obstructing our view. We were following tire tracks from someone who must have been there earlier in the day, but the tracks started fade in the snow drifts in the wind blown valleys.
We need to turn around, I said. But the road was too narrow – flanked by walls of rocky cliffs on one side and and a sheer drop on the other. Besides, the snow was too deep outside of our tire tracks. If we stopped or slowed down we’d surely be stuck. With the only option of moving forward, we sat in nervous silence as the jeep struggled to make it the last remaining mile to the hot spring.
Suddenly, we stopped. Our jeep had become hung up on a patch of thick ice. After several attempts at trying to free ourselves, we quickly realized that digging our way out was futile. I checked the clock. It was almost 2:30pm. I checked the map. We were 10 miles from the nearest ranger station. If we started to hike out now, would we make it by dark? Would anyone even be there? Even if we waited to be rescued, it surely wouldn’t be tonight.
With no other options, we decided to spend the night; surrounded by deep snow and dense forest 35 miles from cell phone service.
Luckily, we had packed accordingly and had a full tank of gas to keep the heat running. We bundled up in wool baaselayers and down jackets. And then we waited for dark. As the sun plunged below the tree line and a heavy blackness enveloped us, our whirling thoughts took center stage. Would our Airbnb host wonder where we were when we suddenly just didn’t show up? Would Greg’s parents call for help when we didn’t call?
We spent the hours in and out of sleep that night as heavy snow started to fall around us.
Our only options.
We woke at first light. The snow had finally stopped, but a fresh blanket of powder had been dropped all around us. Any progress made yesterday at digging ourselves out had been thwarted by the new layer of snow that fell during the night.
One more attempt at freeing ourselves was met with spinning tires and a cloud of smoke. We weren’t getting out of this. As we stared out the window, we weighed our only options: wait to see if anyone rescues us, or hike back down the mountain to try and find help.
I looked around. Everything was eerily quiet and the snow was piled so high that, realistically, it could take days for someone to get to us. So we began to pack our gear.
We sifted through everything we brought with us that we’d need to bring in the event of an emergency. Only those things came with us – the rest we left behind in the jeep. All of our bases were covered, from extra food (thank you JECA bars – more on that later) to first aid kits and snow pants. The only thing we didn’t have was water.
Without any kind of water purifier, we couldn’t risk drinking from the nearby stream. And I remembered reading something once about never eating frozen snow. So we melted the fresh snow in a cup in front of the Jeep’s heater, and then strained any particles through napkins into our Hydroflasks. It tasted exactly how you’d imagine melted snow would taste, but it did the job.
Finally, we snapped on our snowshoes and hit the trail.
10 miles out
For 10 miles, the only sounds were the trudging and clicking of our snowshoes on the icy top layer of snow, as the wind violently howled through the valley. Our tire tracks had almost disappeared overnight along the winding and twisting roads we had just driven the day before. Only a faint imprint was visible where the depth of the new snowfall had just fallen short.
The silence between us was only broken by our occasional attempts to lift the mood by counting down the miles left until we reached the Ripplebrook Ranger Station. I had never in my life been so happy to have remembered snow shoes. It was an exhausting trek even with them, for sure. But I can only imagine what would have happened had we forgotten them.
As we approached the 2-miles-left mark, we spotted a small car, stuck along the side of the trail. A pair of shoes, a tow rope, and a few tissues were scattered on the snow nearby. We approached the car, to find two girls huddled in the back seat. They told us they tried to get up to the hot springs in the middle of the night, but had gotten stuck and spent the rest of the night there. They had no heat because they ran out of gas, but they couldn’t make the trek back because they only had jeans and sneakers. The third person in their party tried to run down the mountain to look for help. We let them know that we’d send help back for them and continued on.
Finally, the ranger’s station!
We arrived at the ranger’s station a little before noon, only to find it empty…and it didn’t open again until the weekend. We were starting to get cold, but had no choice except to wait for someone to drive by. But we knew there were cars in the area because of fresh tire tracks on the road. So we waited.
About an hour passed by until Greg was able to flag down a ranger’s van as it drove down the road. We explained our situation and he assured us help would be on the way.
Soon, another ranger picked us up to bring us to a field station a mile down the road, where he offered us a warm place to rest, along with food, water, and a bit of conversation (and a lot of shocked questions about how we managed to hike out on our own) while we waited for our Jeep to be towed.
But our luck got worse
The ranger’s called the only tow truck that serviced this area of Mt. Hood National Forest, and assured us that’d have our Jeep back that night…as soon as they pulled the other car out that was behind us.
But as we waited for the tow truck, a semi truck, misguided by his GPS, ended up stuck at the bottom of the mountain road. Then the tow truck broke trying to pull him out.
We spent all day at the field station, now without a car, until the Sheriff could give us a ride back into town to book a hotel. He gave us the number to the tow company, and assured us that we’d have our car back the next day.
We spent $130 that night to stay at the Best Western in Sandy, Oregon. With no restaurants open nearby, we settled in with TV dinners and fell asleep, crossing our fingers for a better day tomorrow.
And the next day, more bad news.
As if our luck wasn’t bad enough, in the middle of the night, a mini van attempted the road to Bagby and ended up stuck alongside the already stuck semi truck. We were without the Jeep for another day, and had nothing but the clothes we were wearing and whatever we packed in our backpacks before our hike days prior.
But determined to salvage the two days left of our trip, we hitched a ride to a nearby Enterprise and requested a 2-day rental of the smallest and cheapest car they had. With a Ford Fiesta now in our possession, we drove away from the snow to Cannon Beach on the coast. Which honestly was the highlight of our trip because I’ve wanted to go there for years – and it definitely lived up to all the hype.
We didn’t get our Jeep back until Friday morning – the day before our flight home.
The tow company couldn’t retrieve our jeep until all of the other cars had been removed from the bottom of the road. Then they had to take a Snow Cat with a plow attached to go up and dig it out. And I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a Snow Cat, but it looks like a military grade snow vehicle – with massive snow tracks and all. It took them 6 hours to retrieve the Jeep, that had now been stuck at the top of the mountain for 5 days.
None to the car. But $1800 to our wallets for the tow…ouch.
The tow guys did admit that they had no idea that conditions were that bad up there and they were totally impressed by how far we got. They were also completely flabbergasted that we managed to hike out on our own. Why was this a shock to everyone? Who knows..
The total cost of our unfortunate adventure:
The tow: $1800
The cost of the jeep rental: $400
The cost of our back up car rental: $100
Our Airbnb that we never made it to: $200 (which was later refunded when the host learned why we never showed up. Bless her heart)
Our night in the hotel: $130
2 nights in a back up Airbnb outside of Portland because that’s all we could get to with the tiny car we had: $200
The experience: terrifying and painful…but priceless.
Anyway, that’s the story in a nutshell. I think it’s important to remember that travel isn’t always glamorous. One mistake could cost a lot of money and sometimes things are just outside of your control. And its even more important to remember that these moments do exist, regardless of the highlights that you see on social media.
As for us, we just finished paying off that tow. We lost a lot of money during that week, but we learned a few valuable lessons. One being a humbling reminder to never underestimate Mother Nature. But another one being to always always always be prepared. Even if you don’t think you need to be.
And lucky for us, we brought everything we needed. We were even praised by the ranger’s for how prepared we were because it allowed us to stay warm and hike out relatively easily. But it would have ended a lot worse had we not packed accordingly.
What was in my pack
- JECA Bars: my go to energy bars. I was so glad to have these because they’re the only food we had for 2 days. I brought a box from home because they’re so easy to grab and go, especially when we’re on the trails. They’re vegan-friendly, gluten free, and packed full of plant-based superfoods to always keep you fueled and ready to go. They’re also really thin and easily packed, so they fit perfectly in my pack as a meal replacement to keep us going while we were searching for help.
- Water (snow melted into our water bottles)
- Packable down jacket (I always carry this with me)
- Snow pants
- Extra base layers (top and bottom)
- An extra pair of socks
- Extra gloves
- A neck gaiter
- An extra hat
- Hammock: in the event we ended up having to sleep outside, at least we’d be off the ground
- First aid kit
- Rain fly
- Valuables: my camera, laptop etc – things I didn’t want to leave behind in the event we didn’t get our car back before our flight home
Are there things I would have added to my pack? Definitely. Namely a satellite phone and water purification tablets.
Tips for if you find yourself in a similar situation
- Tell someone where you’re going! This includes always signing in at trail heads. We told Greg’s dad where we were going to be and provided him with emergency contact numbers for the ranger station. When we arrived at the ranger’s station, we found out that his dad had called, but we made it out before they deployed search and rescue.
- Be prepared for the worst. This includes extra food, water, and appropriate clothing and equipment needed in an emergency.
- Keep track of relevant emergency phone numbers.
- Download offline maps and always have a way to keep your electronics alive.
- Always check road closures and familiarize yourself with the general area.
- Don’t panic.
- If you’re ever stuck in the snow: always check the tailpipe to be sure its not buried and never try to eat frozen snow.
- Learn from it. Then laugh about it. Hopefully you made it out alive and well. Brush yourself off and take it as an invaluable learning experience. And one hell of a story!
What would you have done in our situation? Is there anything I missed in my pack? Let me know in the comments!
Created in parternship with JECA Energy Bar