Exploring the forest by the numbers
Last updated 12/13/2022 at Noon
Anybody who has explored the forests of Sisters Country is familiar with the numbered forest road markers. What do the numbers actually mean?
The only thing systematic about the Forest Service road numbering system is that there is nothing systematic, at least in the sense of consistency. Each National Forest is more or less free to employ their own numbering scheme. So if you came to Sisters from say the Southern California area and were a regular at the Angeles National Forest you may have seen roads like 2N18 or 3N47.
Other than FS for Forest Service, you won’t find any alpha characters in the Deschutes National Forest, only numbers. One might assume using all numbers makes it easier to get around. Perhaps. And there is a method, mostly, to all of it.
It helps to think of it conversely: smaller the road number, the bigger and most likely paved the road. Forest Road 16 is also known as Three Creek Road. Most all of us know it by that name. It’s the one that starts just south of town on Elm, where it turns into County Road 16 and then Forest Road 16.
All FS roads off of 16 are numbered with a series beginning with 16, right? Well, no, actually. As an example, Forest Service road 1514 terminates on the east end at 16. It’s easy to explain, though: 1514 begins at FS Road 15 to the west and is an offshoot of that road only coincidentally connecting Road 15 with Road 16.
Think of 15 and 16, both paved, as avenues (two digits), and 1514 as a street, although unpaved. Off the avenues and streets are the equivalent of lanes, ways, and cul-de-sacs. Sort of. Now all the numbers off the streets (four digits) turn to seven numerical digits —like 1624320, the road into Upper Three Creeks Sno-Park.
Using this city map comparison, here’s the breakdown of 1624320: Avenue 16, Street 24, Lane 320. It’s possible that without a map or GPS/nav system one could make it to 1624320, provided they started at the beginning of 16, in this case Elm Street in town.
It’s also helpful to know that as you get farther away from the start of the primary road —the avenue — the numbers get higher. So 1605, also known as Brooks Scanlon Logging Road (also known as power line road, depending on your length of time in Sisters), is but one mile from town, whereas 1624 is about 10 miles.
Some fun facts: If you told Charlie to meet you at noon at 16 and 1605, and you told Sally to meet you at 16 and 4606 at noon, where would you all wind up? The exact same spot: Brooks Scanlon Logging Road and 16, because Brooks Scanlon east of 16 is 4606 and west of it is 1605.
Here’s one most of us aren’t likely to get. We just talked about 16, everybody knowing that one. The 15 road? Of course, Pole Creek Road off of 242 (McKenzie Highway). Forest Road 11? Easy: Indian Ford off of Highway 20. The 14 Road? Sure, the Camp Sherman road. But what about 12? Fewer know that right off the bat — Jack Lake Road in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness Area off of US20.
But where’s Forest Road 10? That’s right, it’s Highway 242, the McKenzie Highway. Notice next time that everything off 242 is 10 something — like 1012 at Cold Spring Camp Ground.
If you have the usual topographical map of Deschutes National Forest, the road picture is nowhere near as complete as the MVUM Map (Motor Vehicle Use Map). Trappers, miners, and loggers carry both. You can get one here for free: https://bit.ly/3PhLwKd.
The earliest forest roads date to the 1800s and included wagon trails through federal lands. The Forest Service was for many decades the world’s biggest road builder. The road system in national forests was largely built to harvest timber and develop other resources. In 1950, loggers harvested 3.5 million board feet from national forests. It is estimated that then 14,000 vehicles per day accessed forests for timber purposes compared to 137,000 per day for recreational use.
Today, the Forest Service manages 371,000 miles of road on which over 100 million vehicles per year travel. More than 8,500 miles of those roads are in the Deschutes National Forest. Oregon as a whole by comparison has 3,460 miles of highways and byways.
With that many roads originally built primarily for logging, maintenance might be equated to an exercise in futility. The sheer and growing mass of recreationalists — campers, anglers, hunters, climbers, hikers, snowmobilers, equestrians, and others were never envisioned when the roads were built, much less designed for the speeds on which they are driven. Keeping these roads maintained to current users’ satisfaction is daunting.
So, before you complain too much or too often, think of the scale of the effort.