Riding the Sun-Lava Path

New paved route connects Lava Lands and Sunriver

By David Jasper / The Bulletin

If you go

Getting there: From Bend, take U.S. Highway 97 approximately 11 miles south to Lava Lands Visitor Center (58201 U.S. Highway 97). Sun-Lava Path trailhead is located in the southwest corner of the parking lot.

Difficulty: Moderate. Because of elevation, an out-and-back ride could be challenging for some riders.

Cost: $5 day use or Northwest Forest Pass (Lava Lands is open through Oct. 12)

Contact: 541-383-5300

Change is the only constant, you can’t fight progress, and so forth.

Those embrace-the-inevitable adages couldn’t stop me from scoffing when I first heard about the plan for Sun-Lava Path, the recently finished paved link between Sunriver and Lava Butte. The 5-mile asphalt path links Sunriver and Lava Lands Visitor Center, with easy access to the Deschutes River (and Deschutes River Trail) at the Benham East Day Use Area. The cost: $1.85 million, funded by the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Rail Safety Program and Public Lands Highways Discretionary Program, according to previous Bulletin reports.

The Sunriver-Lava Butte connection, to my thinking, had already been accomplished by the singletrack of the very nearby Black Rock Trail, a favorite destination of mine for running and mountain biking.

True, Black Rock goes only as far as the Benham East Day Use area, but one can then get to Sunriver by way of the Deschutes River Trail.

But neither trail is paved, and both have technical sections that make them a challenge for many potential users. Forest Road 9702 — which parallels the other side of the paved path — already provided a paved link, though few would want to ride a bike or run on a rough, narrow, shoulderless road.

My thinking was selfish, of course, with Black Rock being a personal favorite. It’s far less crowded than many other singletrack spots in the area, including Phil’s Trail, the Deschutes River Trail and the Horse Butte area.

By “less crowded,” I mean there was rarely anyone else around when I went there. Why would I want to share this magical place with imagined hordes of Sunriver vacationers when I was already sharing it with nobody?

Either way, once pink-ribboned stakes for the trail began peppering the pine forest, I began to see, grudgingly, the possibilities of being able to run (or ride) out on the trail and back on pavement.

Change is the only constant, you can’t fight progress, and so forth.

The path officially opened last month, so a few Sundays back, my daughter Lilly and I headed there right as rain, thunder and lightning swooped in from the south. We liked what we saw, even though we made it only 1½ miles before deciding to turn around.

It wasn’t just the weather that made us retreat, however. It was also the fact that almost the entire ride had been downhill. It’s a blast to coast, but it comes at a cost. We labored back uphill and got pelted by large raindrops, just making it back before a true downpour began.

Last week, Map Guy and I decided to head there under better weather circumstances. Something akin to muscle memory — or maybe the call of Black Rock Trail — made it hard to leave my mountain bike at home, but I knew my commuter bike would be the better option given we’d be pedaling on pavement.

Our plan was to ride the path to Sunriver, negotiate the resort’s web of roundabouts, grab lunch in the village and do the same trip in reverse.

No problem, right? Well, no problem except for that pesky uphill ride back to Lava Lands. Interestingly enough, we passed just a handful of riders on the 3.8-mile ride to where the trail intersects Benham Falls Road (Forest Road 9702) near the Benham East Day-Use.

The ride the rest of the way to Sunriver, on the other hand, was packed with cycling couples, large groups of pedestrians hoofing it to see Benham Falls and so on. One man who was walking toward Benham as we rode toward Sunriver on this portion of the path asked us, “How much farther?”

“To where?” Map Guy reasonably asked.

“Benham Falls,” he said, an edge of “duh” creeping into his voice. Ah, tourists. What’s not to love about them?

We could have asked him the same question. We knew it was a little over 5 miles to Sunriver, but that’s just the northwest corner of the resort. By the time we connected the dots of Sunriver’s many traffic circles, we’d ridden nearly 10 miles.

Knowing we had to ride that same distance again — a lot of it uphill on the return trip — we ate gluttonous amounts of pizza before getting back on our bikes.

Surprisingly, we made good time riding back to Lava Lands. It took just over an hour, and just 6 minutes longer than it had taken us to ride to Sunriver. The climb north to Lava Lands, which was again uncrowded, was nothing to sneeze at, but the wide, smooth path had a few pull-outs where riders could theoretically take a break, as well as one welcome downhill portion you’ll appreciate should you ride there.

It will be interesting to see how popular the path becomes once locals and visitors begin to discover it. I’m already hatching plans to use it again. Maybe take a run out on smooth pavement, then back up the hill on Black Rock.

Or maybe lock up a bike at one of Lava Lands’ plentiful bike racks, drive to Benham East, run to the bike and coast back to Benham.

It’s probably better to embrace Sun-Lava Path than resent it, because change is the only constant, you can’t fight progress, and so forth.

— Reporter: 541-383-0349, djasper@bendbulletin.com