Sometimes you return to a place you thought you knew, only to make a new discovery.
This time that place was Horse Ridge, the long, imposing landmark you see rising off to the southeast as you approach the Oregon Badlands Wilderness east of Bend. What exactly is it about buttes and ridges that makes us think ascending them would be a good idea?
I'd been there a few times before — twice on trail runs with my dog and once on an attempted bike ride that turned into a hike on a sandy road.
Hardly enough to make me a Horse Ridge expert, yet enough to make me think I knew the place better than I really did. On Friday, Map Guy and I rode on singletrack that, after two miles, led us to one of those finds that seems like a big deal, even though it's probably old hat to regular riders.
After weeks of cross-country skiing appearing in the Outdoors section, it was time for something completely different, so I asked Map Guy if he'd want to head out east to juniper and sage country, away from snow. Once again, he willingly said, “Sure," signing on even though I hadn't a clue where we'd go. But I did have the foresight to suggest he throw his bike in his rig, just in case.
Our options narrowed further Thursday night as I looked at my Central Oregon Mountain Biking Trail Map and my sights trained on Horse Ridge. As one rider at Horse Ridge would tell us, it's among the only places to ride this time of year.
Horse Ridge is in high season, winter and spring being the only times you'd want to try to ride here. Come July, you'd sink to the spokes in sandy soil. Your best bet for getting around Horse Ridge in July would be driving by on U.S. Highway 20 or riding high overhead in a balloon chair — anything but a mountain bike.
However, as of Friday at the 600-acre Horse Ridge Recreation Area, located about 15 miles southeast of Bend, the trail was firm, dry and mostly void of ice and snow except on north-facing nooks and crannies and closer to the top, approximately 4,700 feet, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
From the trailhead there are a few options; we decided to stick to the left-most trail, if you will, which hugs the barbed-wire fence separating U.S. Highway 20 and Horse Ridge. This route skips the two trail options that would have taken us higher faster (well, not exactly “faster" — let's say more directly).
The ride starts deceptively low-key, then steepens at a grade roughly commensurate with the nearby highway, on the other side of which lies Dry River Canyon.
I had a digital recorder in my pocket to capture audio highlights. Here's a sample: “PANT PANT PANT, GULP. PANT PANT. We're both. Out of breath. Walking uphill. We've gone 1.6 miles. Probably the best mountain bikers in Bend."
We didn't walk our bikes up the whole way, just over a couple of places too steep or too technically challenging for our middle-aged and 60-something selves.
Two miles in, we came to a place that reinvigorated us, or more accurately, sparked whatever remnants of childhood wonder remain within. It was a portion of “trail" that would appeal to any explorer, post-apocalyptic novel reader or history buff: A buckled, 2½-mile section of Old Highway 20, where yellow passing-zone lines still dot the surface, sagebrush pushes up through cracks and juniper branches lap over the lanes, ready to clip off a side mirror should a vehicle once again find its way here.
What had begun as a cold, overcast morning with a low, gray cloud parked overhead quickly turned sunny. We pedaled up, and up, beneath bluebird skies, stopping now and then to take in views of Mount Jefferson and other peaks off in the distance. While some would probably rate those views as more scenic than a dilapidated stretch of highway, I was busy snapping photos of nature's takeover of Old Highway 20, half-expecting to see Viggo Mortensen appear around one of its winding curves.
About 4½ miles into our ride, we stopped for a water and snack break at the precise spot where the singletrack resumed its uphill climb. We were both more enamored of the road and the ride back down we'd earned than climbing farther, but in the interest of journalism, we decided to ride another half-mile.
The singletrack was fine, and conditions still firm, but we arrived at a couple of traverses surrounded on either side by snow, the trail covered in a thin layer of muddy ice, which one of us found scary (OK, OK, it was not Map Guy). It was on this section that we stopped and talked to fellow rider Don Leet.
Asked how often he rides at Horse Ridge, he replied, “All the time."
“Some people like to come up on the (old) highway, other people would have taken the right just before; it's more technical," Leet told us. Weekends get pretty crowded, but weekdays tend to be lighter.
A minute or two later, we hit the 5-mile mark and decided we'd had enough of the icy patches. We rode back toward the old highway, hung a left, climbed one slight rise and then began riding down the old highway, cruising at high velocity. I made a slalom course out of the old yellow lines, hands ready to brake should I get too close to one of the many large gravel sections or cracks. Taking a spill here would not be good.
On the descent, we flew past a couple of guys slowly pedaling up the section we'd been on not long before. Back on the last 2-mile stretch of singletrack, Map Guy hit a rock hard enough to cause him physical pain. Then he hit another one hard enough to get a flat front tire.
So be careful out there. The heightened views are worth it, the singletrack firm, but the terrain — and rustic Old Highway 20 — can prove tricky.