When to ride muddy trails

Some Central Oregon singletrack trails are OK to ride when muddy

By Mark Morical / The Bulletin / @MarkMorical

Published Feb 5, 2014 at 12:11AM / Updated Feb 5, 2014 at 01:34PM

REDMOND —

If it had been the Phil’s Trail network, I would have had a hard time forgiving myself.

Much of the Maston area was a muddy mess last week, so as I splashed and squished my way along the singletrack trails on my bike one afternoon, I did so with some trepidation.

Mountain biking on muddy Central Oregon trails has become a controversial activity over the last several years. Doing so can seriously damage certain trails by leaving ruts that dry and harden like pavement in the baking heat of summer.

But different trails have different types of soil. While mountain biking through mud in the Phil’s Trail network is seriously frowned upon, riding at Maston or other winter riding areas on our High Desert when the trails are muddy is widely approved. These other areas include Horse Butte, Horse Ridge, Redmond Radlands and Smith Rock/Gray Butte.

Chris Kratsch, trail coordinator for the Central Oregon Trail Alliance, explains much of this in a piece titled “The Etiquette of Mud in Central Oregon,” available on the COTA website (cotamtb.com).

“Our winter riding areas in Central Oregon are the places to go, and while there are impacts to those trails the results are different for two reasons: Soil type is composed mostly of sand, and we tend to only use those areas in the winter,” Kratsch writes. “While the riding experience is always better if you get on those trails before they thaw as well, it is generally acceptable to ride them when muddy instead of our west-side trails.”

According to COTA, an organization made up of volunteers who build and maintain many Central Oregon trails, it was OK for me to be riding at Maston in muddy conditions.

But when biking in mud on winter trails, riders should adhere to some COTA guidelines, including never riding around mud on the trail because doing so can widen our beloved singletrack.

“If you’re going to ride through mud, we like to tell people, ride straight through it,” said Woody Starr, chairman of COTA. “Just go right into the middle of the mud. Your bike can take it, you can take it. Mud is not toxic, you know. It’s not going to hurt you. Ride straight through the middle and do not widen the singletrack.”

Mountain bikers should also never ride off the trail when another biker is oncoming, Starr notes. Instead, they should stop, put a foot down and let the other rider pass. In general, mountain bikers who are riding uphill have the right of way. (Because Maston is mostly flat, making the uphill rule hard to judge, I play it safe there and yield to all others.)

So which singletrack trails in Central Oregon should be avoided when muddy? Kratsch notes that the entire Phil’s Trail network, the Deschutes River Trail, Shevlin Park (all west of Bend) and Peterson Ridge (near Sisters) are trails that are the most susceptible to damage caused by riding when muddy.

“Due to the thaw cycle they can be very soft in places, and when we use them we leave behind tire ruts and post-holes,” Kratsch writes on cotamtb.com. “Those trails are particularly sensitive because they are composed of a high ash content soil, and when it dries it leaves ruts which harden like concrete. Those hardened ruts tend to break down as the trail dries out going into summer. Those areas are where later our corners are blowing out, the trail has been widened and swales are created which hold more mud for next year.”

COTA has placed yellow signs at these sensitive trails in an effort to keep mountain bikers, hikers and runners off of them when the surface is muddy. But COTA does not have the authority to close trails.

“If your tires are leaving ruts, if your footprints are sinking in and it’s soft and wet, then it’s muddy,” Starr said. “If you’re leaving ruts, then it’s causing lasting damage in the Phil’s (Trail) area. The ruts will be there in August — you can see them. We don’t want to be trail police, but we respectfully ask if it’s muddy, you can use roads or go to any number of great winter riding areas that we have around here.”

Maston is certainly one of those locations, and the area is no secret. Starr says he could not believe how packed with mountain bikers he found the trailhead on a recent Sunday. Even on a weekday last week in variable trail conditions I came across about a dozen mountain bikers.

My mistake at Maston last week was making the trip in the afternoon. Mornings might be the better time to ride at places like Maston and Horse Butte because the ground can still be frozen earlier in the day. When the trail surface begins to thaw in the late morning or afternoon, soupy conditions unfold.

Chris Sabo, trails specialist for the Deschutes National Forest, describes those conditions as “pudding.”

“Temperatures are the huge variable,” Sabo said. “Mornings they could be fairly rock hard, even icy, and then as the sun hits them in the late morning they can start turning to mud and pudding consistency. It’s an unfortunate situation. It does increase the likelihood of damage to the trails and erosion issues when people do use these trails. It’s best to avoid them if (riders are) coming across mud straight out of the trailhead. Likely they’re going to encounter it further up the trail as well.”

This past Sunday I headed to Horse Butte, just southeast of Bend, for a pre-Super Bowl ride. The temperature was about 30 degrees that late morning, and the trail was in ideal shape. On the way back to the trailhead, however, the ground began to thaw and the mud began to form in certain areas.

“If it’s frozen,” Starr adds, “then the conditions can be great, and it can be really fun.”

And completely guilt-free.

— Reporter: 541-383-0318, mmorical@bendbulletin.com