The Oregon Department Of Transportation owns and maintains about 8,000 miles of state highways
One small section of that 8,000 miles is unique. And it’s located in the High Desert.
Oregon Highway 27 starts as Main Street in Prineville.
On its entire 44.78-mile southbound route, there is only one sign telling you that you’re driving OR 27.
And that drive is spectacular — along the Crooked River through some of the wildest basalt cliffs in basalt cliff country. Up over the Bowman Dam that’s holding back the slim puddle that is the Prineville Reservoir these days.
Down to the south, through open range and the land of cows you’ll find an occasional mailbox and a dirt side road or two.
But this is where the story really starts.
And where the pavement ends.
“We are out here on Highway 27, which is the only gravel state-maintained through highway in the entire state,” said Kacey Davey of the Department of Transportation.
“I did the math and it’s 0.002% of the roads we maintain are gravel.”
Highway data shows OR 27 averages 17 vehicles per day.
How quiet is this road? Just ask Pam and J.W. Hart. They’re at the Sage Hollow Ranch — the only property that has a driveway off the gravel section of OR 27.
They bought the place 35 years ago.
“You’d go weeks without seeing a vehicle up and down the road. You might see a neighbors truck go by that you know but as far as anybody from the outside world. You just didn’t see that much,” J.W. said.
So what’s rush hour like there?
“I guess is when you got a bunch of cows that’s been stampeded by a mountain lion,” J.W. said.
They say you can probably go a half-day without ever seeing a car.
“And then there’s other days, holidays and stuff when the weather’s nice and you might have fifty cars in one day,” J.W. said.
In the three hours and 20 minutes we spent shooting this story, we saw three cars go by.
One of those was being driven by road warriors Steve and Lisa from Seattle. We met them where U.S. Highway 20 and OR 27 meet. They were considering what looked like a shortcut on the map.
“We found this road and it looked like something interesting. We have a vehicle that can handle it so we though, let’s give it a crack,” Steve said.
But they didn’t know about the gravel thing.
After considering their options, Lisa makes the call.
“I was going to say no. I’ve been driving in the crosswinds all this way and I don’t think I want to do 25 miles of gravel,” Lisa said.
It’s a little shorter than that. ODOT says it’s 18.5 miles. Our odometer says 17. And it’s really good gravel.
Wikipedia says it’s also known as the “Les Schwab Highway.” It’s not. That’s Millican Road a few miles west.
A technicality here. There is one short stretch of pavement over a little bridge.
You’ll pass under a Bonneville power high voltage line that’s electricity to Burns. And you’ll hit five cattle guards.
At the south end, you’ll see just one sign heading north that tells you what road you’re on.
And it turns out this stretched out gravel patch is useful.
“We use it to train our new employees on how to use our graders,” said Davey.”
Once or twice a year, it’s the grader driving school for ODOT rookies.
“We also use graders for things like blade-patching which is a type of pavement repair that we do. We use graders on the gravel shoulders and also to move snow in the wintertime. So our crews spend a lot more time on graders than just maintaining this one highway,” said Davey.
The road is nicely graded in places and looks like it will stay that way for awhile. ODOT says it has no current plans to pave this stretch of OR 27.