Worth the climb

Video: Explore the Sandy Ridge Trail System east of Portland

By Mark Morical / The Bulletin / @MarkMorical

Published Sep 3, 2014 at 12:07AM

BRIGHTWOOD — After nearly an hour of climbing up the paved Homestead Road, I began to wonder what I was getting myself into.

This was my first visit to the popular Sandy Ridge Trail System east of Portland, and I knew the network was built with a distinctive downhill/freeride flavor. But would this be a long hour of climbing a road followed by just 15 minutes of bombing down trails?

If so, I might as well have headed to the Mount Bachelor Downhill Bike Park, where I could pay $34 for an entire day of chairlift rides to ride down similar trails.

But the 3½-mile climb to the upper trailhead at Sandy Ridge was well worth the time and effort, as numerous singletrack loop options give mountain bikers a chance to enjoy a variety of trails before letting gravity completely take over on a 1,300-foot descent.

Located 12 miles east of Sandy just off U.S. Highway 26 — about 125 miles from Bend — the Sandy Ridge Trail System is a joint project among the Bureau of Land Management, the International Mountain Bicycling Association and the Northwest Trail Alliance. Those groups have worked since 2007 to design and build the network to meet the growing demand for mountain biking opportunities near the Portland area.

The $1.5 million bike-specific system, also open to hikers and runners, includes about 15 miles of trails for all abilities, rated as easy (green), more difficult (blue) or most difficult (black). It opened in 2010 with only one 3½-mile stretch of intermediate trail, Hide & Seek, which remains the main corridor of Sandy Ridge.

I made the 2½-hour drive to the west side of Mount Hood last week, eager to ride trails that are distinctly different from those in Central Oregon. The parking lot at the trailhead was nearly full on a Thursday morning.

Those considering a trip to Sandy Ridge should not be fooled by the area’s location on BLM land. While Central Oregon’s BLM land is mostly sagebrush-dotted desert, Sandy Ridge is mostly all deep woods, as it lies just outside of the Mount Hood National Forest boundary.

The entrance to Homestead Road is blocked by a gate, allowing access to bikers but not to motor vehicles. This means shuttling the Sandy Ridge system is not possible, which I deem a positive. This likely keeps the crowds down and means cars are not flying past as bikers pedal up the road to “earn their turns.”

As I made my way up the road, I chatted with other bikers who were doing the same, and we could hear the distant whoops and hollers of those enjoying the thrill of the downhill trails.

When I finally reached the top trailhead — at about 2,400 feet — a kiosk and map provided an intricate description of the trail options. The several other seasoned mountain bikers there were friendly and quick to offer suggestions on different loops and descriptions of the trails.

While the area does offer riding options for all abilities, those who climb Homestead Road need to be prepared for some bone-jarring downhill trails that require concentration and decent bike-handling skills. Many trails are designated as downhill-only routes, and maps and signs indicate the recommended direction of travel.

I decided to start out with the 2¼-mile Three Thirty Eight Loop, a blue-rated trail that would eventually lead me back to the upper trailhead. I was surprised to find that this trail rode more like rocky, technical singletrack than a freeride trail. It was a decent loop, but I found myself thinking, “Hey, where’s all the banked corners and jumps?”

I found them on the 1¾-mile Quid Pro Flow, a black (advanced) trail on which I was forced to walk my bike along two gnarly rock gardens to get to the good stuff. Once there, I cruised along several swooping turns and jumplike features before the more technical riding returned on the climb back to the trailhead.

At this point, I was pretty taxed from the climb up the road and the two loops, but I knew I wanted to experience more of the upper trails before I descended Hide & Seek.

I decided on Rock Drop, a short, three-quarter-mile loop that sounds downright scary but really is not. The actual rock drop on the trail does not even require any air time.

As I approached Hide & Seek, I encountered an oncoming mountain biker, a friendly fellow who warned me that while the trail is rated as blue, the upper section could easily be rated black.

Negotiating numerous rocky sections and tight switchbacks, I found out quickly that the other rider was right. After I crossed over Little Joe Creek on a small bridge, Hide & Seek became less technical and more of a true downhill trail. I swirled around huge berm-lined corners and endless bumps and jumps, the types of trails that I had envisioned Sandy Ridge would offer.

I arrived at the bottom trailhead and parking area after nearly four hours of riding. I decided to call it a day, but there were several other trails that I did not experience, including Communication Breakdown, Two Turntables and a Microwave and Flow Motion. With names like that, they have to be fun.

Well, next time I’m headed to Portland, I’ll make another stop at Sandy Ridge.

— Reporter: 541-383-0318,

mmorical@bendbulletin.com

Sandy Ridge Trail System

Directions: From Bend, take U.S. Highways 97 and 26 north and northwest toward Portland. Just past the unincorporated community of Brightwood, make a turn right onto Sleepy Hollow Drive. After 0.3 mile make another right on Barlow Trail Road. After about a mile, the sign for the Sandy Ridge Trailhead is on the left. (About a 2½-hour drive from Bend.)

Features: Trails with downhill/freeride features and technical singletrack. A 3½-mile climb up the paved Homestead Road is required to reach most trails at the upper trailhead.

Distance: Ten trails of varying difficulties total about 15 miles.

Rating: Aerobically moderate to strenuous and technically intermediate to advanced. (Easy trails are accessible at the bottom trailhead.)