Not all trails are created equal.
From the smooth, High Desert trails just west of Bend to the more rugged, rocky paths in the Cascades, Central Oregon is home to an enormous variety of singletrack trails.
Some of these trails are built and maintained by mountain bikers with the Central Oregon Trail Alliance — designed specifically for fat-tire enthusiasts.
Other trails are more fit for hikers or horseback riders. The Sparks Lake Trail seems to be one of these trails.
I rode part of it last week, and I left disappointed. The trail, which I had ridden twice before in recent years, might be one of my least favorite in Central Oregon.
My opinion might be different had I left a shuttle car at Lava Lake and ridden from Sparks to Lava on a mostly downhill route. But I opted for an out-and-back combining the Sparks Lake and Metolius-Windigo trails.
The Sparks Lake Trail starts near the entrance to the lake off Cascade Lakes Highway and connects to Metolius-Windigo.
Bikers can ride past Hosmer Lake south all the way to Lava Lake. A popular route is to then loop back along Cascade Lakes Highway. But that loop covers an ambitious 28 miles and takes as long as five hours.
My original plan was to ride to Hosmer Lake and back for a relatively easy 12 miles.
The trail started at about 5,400 feet in elevation, taking me through unique stacks of lava rocks. I descended gradually to the remote south end of Sparks Lake, and Mount Bachelor was visible to the east through the trees as I pedaled.
The lake from that end, with the cloud cover and the quiet, seemed so isolated — not the kayak- and canoe-filled lake of a warm, summer day.
From there, the experience soured. The trail was rutted with horse-hoof marks and covered in places by horse excrement. I turned around and decided to just make my way back to Cascade Lakes Highway via the Metolius-Windigo Trail, where it appeared no horses had been recently.
(We mountain bikers often complain about this, but fact is, much of the 120-mile-long Metolius-Windigo Trail would not be clear if not for horseback riders. The trail is maintained by the Back Country Horsemen and Oregon Equestrian Trails, along with the U.S. Forest Service and the mountain-biker-led COTA.)
After a couple miles on Metolius-Windigo, the climbing became too steep and difficult, and I turned around to head back to the Sparks Lake Trail.
Sparks Lake Trail is not really made to ride back uphill. Several short, steep climbs and lava rock sections make dismounting frequently a necessity — for this mountain biker, anyway.
By the time I made it back to the Sparks Lake Trailhead, I was winded but ready for a different experience. I drove farther southwest down Cascade Lakes Highway and made a short hike around aqua-blue Devils Lake.
Cascade Lakes Highway offers endless opportunities for combining a mountain bike ride and a short hike into one day.
Now is a good time of year to hit those upper-elevation trails that may have eluded mountain bikers so far this summer. Before we know it, our options will dwindle as fall and winter settle in on the Cascade mountains of Central Oregon and the snow returns.
While the Sparks Lake Trail may not be my first choice, no doubt other mountain bikers enjoy it.
And, if not, myriad other singletrack trails exist in the high country of Central Oregon.
Editors note: Mountain Bike Trail Guide, by Bulletin sports and outdoors writer Mark Morical, features various trails in Central Oregon and beyond. The trail guide appears in Outdoors on alternating Wednesdays through the riding season.
Sparks Lake Trail
From Bend, head 25 miles west on the Cascade Lakes Highway. Turn left at the entrance into Sparks Lake. Stay left on the gravel road. The trailhead is located a short way down on the left.
The out-and-back from Sparks Lake to Hosmer Lake is 12 miles and takes two to three hours. Shorter and longer options are available.
Aerobically moderate and technically advanced.
The trail winds through unique formations of lava rock, with Mount Bachelor in sight for much of the ride. Riders will encounter some technical rock sections and short, steep climbs.