Editor’s note: Mountain Bike Trail Guide, by Bulletin outdoor writer Mark Morical, features various trails in Central Oregon and beyond. The trail guide appears on alternating Fridays through the riding season.
With snow falling and wind ripping across the High Desert, I somewhat reluctantly pulled my mountain bike out of the garage.
Sure, it is “springtime” and mountain biking season is here, but it sure hasn’t felt like it.
Horse Ridge, southeast of Bend, is known as a winter mountain biking destination. And since winter continues to linger, the trails there have been in perfect shape.
I made the 15-mile drive to Horse Ridge last week on a typical Central Oregon spring day — sunny at times, snowing at times, and windy all the time.
Horse Ridge was recently designated by the Bureau of Land Management as a High Desert Special Recreation Management Area. The primary significance of that designation to mountain bikers is a new official trailhead, just half a mile west of the unofficial old trailhead.
The trailhead features a paved parking area and a kiosk with a map of the trail.
A map is also available on the Central Oregon Trail Alliance website (www.cotamtb.com), but don’t expect that to end any confusion.
To me, Horse Ridge is a new adventure every time — barbed-wire fences, random turnoffs and dirt roads always make it so. Am I going the right way? Who knows? There’s nobody out here because, well, it’s snowing.
Such was the case last Friday as I mounted my bike at the trailhead and those little pellets of springtime snow started falling. The sun came and went through foreboding gray clouds.
From the trailhead, bikers have two main options for singletrack. They can go left and ride a rolling trail along a fence line close to U.S. Highway 20, or go right and begin a challenging climb through a short, shallow canyon. Both options can lead to 10- to 15-mile loops. And both trails lead to a fun ridgeline that offers expansive views of the desert landscape east of Bend.
I started out with the pretty tough climb through the canyon, which included a few rocky, twisting switchbacks.
The singletrack trail was in incredible shape — wet and tacky, with even some fresh powder snow in spots under the shade of trees.
Once past the grind of the initial climb, which served to warm me up quickly on a day when high temperatures would reach only the low 40s, I settled onto the side-hill trail to encounter a sprawling vista of the Badlands Wilderness and beyond. Twisted old juniper trees, no greenery left on their limbs, rose into the sky along the trail. Some of the oldest known Western juniper trees are found on the slopes of Horse Ridge, according to the BLM.
On a clear day, bikers can take in views of the Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, Three Finger Jack, and even Mount Hood to the distant north. Farther east lie Smith Rock, Powell Buttes and the Ochocos, together serving as a backdrop to the juniper-dotted Badlands that dominate the horizon. Directly across Highway 20 is Dry River Canyon.
The trail eventually became extremely technical, filled with lava rocks, as it turned back west. On previous rides, I would just go until I couldn’t take the strain of riding over the rocks, then turn around and double back the way I had come.
This time, I was determined to ride some sort of loop.
Fences are another issue at Horse Ridge. Depending on where they ride, mountain bikers may have to clear at least two barbed-wire fences, which mark the Horse Ridge Research Natural Area. The 600-acre area was established in 1967 to study Western juniper and big sagebrush plant communities, according to the BLM.
After clearing a second fence, I noticed Pine Mountain to the south covered in snow. Sun shined off the dusting that blanketed its peak.
Instead of crossing a third fence, which would have led me about 400 feet down to the far southeastern end of the trail system, I took a right and continued along singletrack high atop the ridge. I was just a couple hundred feet lower than the highest point of Horse Ridge, which rises to 5,148 feet.
I noticed a turnoff to the right, which would have led me back down to the trailhead, but I wanted to continue along the trail.
I eventually came to a dead end, or at least what seemed like a dead end. I started down the west side of the ridge and encountered a view of the area ravaged by the 1996 Skeleton Fire — a vast swath of barrenness.
The ridge seemed to drop 800 feet straight down. I could make out the markings of a primitive trail that appeared to switch back down the drop-off, but I had no plans to follow it.
I rode back to the turnoff I had seen earlier, hoping to find the trailhead. The turnoff led to a ripping downhill singletrack trail straight through a gully. The continuous downhill wore out my brakes as I tore down the side of the ridge.
Back at the trailhead, that uneasy feeling of isolation I always get at Horse Ridge was gone.
Two other vehicles were parked at the trailhead, two mountain bikers just starting out. More clouds rolled in, the snow started falling again, and I was glad to be done.
Horse Ridge may not be the first choice for Central Oregon mountain bikers, but with a huge snowpack this year, choices remain somewhat limited until other more popular areas thaw out.
Enjoy the winter riding while it lasts, because soon we’ll be complaining about the dusty trails of midsummer.