Mountain Bike Trail Guide

Lookout Mountain in the Ochocos has a dizzying descent

By Mark Morical / The Bulletin / @MarkMorical

Published Sep 16, 2011 at 05:00AM

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 in Adventure Sports on alternating Fridays through the riding season.

Every year I encounter a late-summer mountain biking rut when I simply refuse to get on my bike.

The dusty trails seem featureless and boring, it’s too hot, and I’m too busy with other stuff.

Again this year, I found myself in that same rut. I rode singletrack only a handful of times in August.

I needed something to remind me of why I love mountain biking. I found it earlier this week — in the Ochoco Mountains.

The Ochocos have it all: gut-busting climbs, cliff-side exposure, electrifying descents, spectacular vistas, wildflowers and solitude.

Located east of Prineville, the Ochocos feature trails that are different from those closer to Bend, offering mountain bikers a more challenging, backcountry experience in a truly distinctive place.

Lookout Mountain, the highest point in the Ochocos at 6,926 feet, is perhaps the location in the mountain range most frequently visited by bikers. The summit can be reached via several routes, but the highlight is the descent along the Lookout Mountain Trail, which features eight miles of fast, hair-raising downhill.

The terrain in the Ochocos is rugged and remote, and it offers a sense of adventure and isolation that is sometimes missing in present-day mountain biking.

It had been three years since I had ridden up and down Lookout Mountain, and it was time to go back.

But I was nervous about a few things: getting lost, hurtling off a hundred-foot cliff and cougars.

Luckily, the U.S. Forest Service has recently added a few signs, making it much easier to navigate the remote trail system. But those new signs include cougar warnings.

After parking near the Ochoco Ranger Station, I began the climb up the paved Forest Service Road 42. After about six miles of asphalt, I arrived at a trailhead. Singletrack trail options there included Round Mountain, Independence Mine and Lookout Mountain.

I took a right on the Lookout Mountain Trail (No. 804) and immediately began climbing ... and climbing.

The uphill seemed interminable, marked by several steep, punishing sections through a mixed conifer and ponderosa pine forest.

The ascent continued through thick vegetation and yellow and purple wildflowers. Every now and then the forest would open up into a meadow, offering sprawling views of the gently sloped Ochocos.

After 3,000 feet of elevation gain, the top of Lookout Mountain was a welcome sight. The summit is not much but a broad swath of sagebrush above the tree line. To the west is a sheer drop-off, with the rolling green mountains in the distance.

The panorama atop Lookout provides a glimpse of Oregon’s diverse terrain, the brown and barren desert to the east and the dark green of the Ochocos to the west. Normally the peaks of the Cascades would be visible to the southwest, but on this day those mountains were shrouded by smoke from wildfires.

After eating lunch at the summit, I prepared for the teeth-chattering descent of Lookout Mountain.

The trail cuts along the knife edge of a cliff — a drop of hundreds of feet awaiting had I somehow veered just a few feet off the trail.

I had to stay on the trail while simultaneously negotiating extremely technical rock gardens and managing the fear of straying too close to that sheer cliff.

In some of the more exposed places, I chose to dismount my bike and walk.

The trail included a couple more miles of abusive, rock-strewn downhill riding before turning into a smoother, faster route down the mountain.

The descent is so fast and steep, with a few switchback turns, that bikers would be wise to check their brakes before the ride. Most of the trail is cut along a side hill, though riders there are not nearly as exposed as they are atop Lookout Mountain.

While quite technical in spots, the screaming downhill was a thrilling release after the grueling climb.

Before long, I was at the ranger station, exhausted but back in the mountain-biking spirit.

The route was about 18 miles long, and I covered it in about four hours. But I had experienced only a small sample of the trails in the Ochocos — Lookout Mountain can be combined with Round Mountain Trail for an epic loop of some 35 miles.

If you hit the rut, you know where to find renewal.

Breaking down the trail: Lookout Mountain

Directions

From Prineville, take U.S. Highway 26 east to Forest Service Road 22 (follow sign to Walton Lake). Park at the Ochoco Ranger Station (about an hour and 15 minutes from Bend). Options for ascending Lookout Mountain include riding up the paved FR 42. After about six miles, turn onto the Lookout Mountain Trail, No. 804. This singletrack trail climbs to the top of Lookout Mountain and then descends back down to the trailhead, across the road from the ranger station. TREADMAPS Central Oregon Part 2 includes trails in the Ochocos and is available at local bike shops.

Trail Features

Lots of strenuous climbing along paved road and singletrack with incredible views atop Lookout Mountain. Some rocky, technical portions are extremely challenging along the eight miles of ridge-line, downhill singletrack back to the ranger station.

Length

The FR 42 and Lookout Mountain Trail loop is about 18 miles and takes four to six hours to complete. Other options are possible for even longer loops, including combining the Lookout Mountain and Round Mountain trails for some 35 miles of riding.

Rating

Aerobically strenuous and technically difficult.