Otter Bench trail system

Directions: Turn west on Lower Bridge Road, off U.S. Highway 97 just north of Terrebonne. Follow signs to Crooked River Ranch. To find the Otter Bench Trailhead, continue past the golf course to the end of the road, about 11 miles from Highway 97. Look for a trailhead sign and map. Parking is free.

Features: Dramatic desert scenery and cliff-side riding on singletrack along the Crooked River Gorge.

Distance: About 8 miles total (5.2 miles are open to mountain bikes, including the 1.7-mile Otter Bench Trail and the 3½-mile Opal Canyon Trail).

Rating: Aerobically easy and technically intermediate.

Season: Fall, winter, spring.

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CROOKED RIVER RANCH — Opal Canyon is one of those places where mountain bikers dismount frequently — either to take in the dramatic cliff-side views or purely for safety measures.

Portions of the trail parallel the edge of the Crooked River Gorge, leaving little room for error along the 300-foot-deep, 4-mile-long chasm.

On Monday, riding partner Mark Johnson and I were happy to hop off our bikes and enjoy the sprawling views along those sections of the trail.

The gorge features some of the most breathtaking desert scenery in Central Oregon, and spring is one of the best times to ride there, before scorching summer temperatures and sandy trail conditions make it less desirable.

The area is fairly popular among hikers and bird-watchers, while mountain bikers are fewer and farther between.

About a 45-minute drive from Bend, the Otter Bench Trailhead, located on the western edge of Crooked River Ranch, was completed and designated in 2010 by the Bureau of Land Management’s Prineville District. The trail system offers hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians a chance to explore the deep gorge carved over the centuries by the Crooked River.

The trails — about 8 miles in all — include new sections and some reconstructed paths that anglers have hiked for decades to travel down the canyon walls and reach the river below.

Two of the trails are open to mountain bikes: Otter Bench (1.7 miles) and Opal Canyon (a 3½-mile loop). Neither of these trails offers a way down to the river, but they include lots of thrills for riders seeking a desert experience far different from singletrack trails closer to Bend.

After making the drive from Bend, we started out from the Otter Bench Trailhead on a mild, sunny morning and rode along the hillside through juniper trees and sagebrush. The trail was in prime shape after some recent rainfall.

After about a half-hour of riding, we arrived at the intersection of the Otter Bench, Pink and Opal Canyon trails. The Pink Trail is a hiker-only path that leads down to the Crooked River along switchbacks. (Another trail in the area, the Horny Hollow Trail, is for hikers only and is closed from Feb. 1 to Aug. 31 to protect breeding wildlife that are sensitive to human activity.)

We turned onto the Opal Canyon Trail, which started out with an uphill, rocky technical section that required us to dismount and hike.

After a short walk, we emerged on the side of a cliff, the deep, rugged canyon flanking the river far below. We rode with extreme caution, our tires bouncing along the rock-strewn trail that runs near the edge of the canyon, the drop-off just a few feet away.

At a couple of areas we decided to get off our bikes and walk to the canyon’s edge. Below us in the gorge, we saw several turkey vultures circling above the river. Along the trail, we noticed tiny wildflowers just starting to bloom.

As the singletrack veered away from the cliff side, it transitioned into a smooth and fast dirt track that allowed us to pick up our speed significantly as we cruised through the sagebrush.

Soon thereafter, the trail looped back south onto its upper tier, offering a rolling and rocky stretch that challenged our bike-handling skills in the early season. Once back at the connection with the Otter Bench Trail, we had ridden only a little more than 5 miles, so we decided to ride the Opal Canyon loop again.

The second time was a bit easier, just knowing what to expect along the more technical sections.

We connected back to the Otter Bench Trail, and the descent back toward the trailhead was surprisingly fast. It was a smoother and faster section of the loop and a great way to end the ride.

Along the ride, we saw a handful of hikers, but no other mountain bikers on what turned out to be a warm, pleasant afternoon in the desert.

Johnson has ridden many of the singletrack trails near Bend, but this was his first experience on the Otter Bench Trail system.

“It was the perfect mix of cross-country and some technical stuff, some rocks,” Johnson said. “The cliff was a little unnerving, but the view made it worthwhile … definitely worth the drive — I’ll go back. I’ll go back and hike it, too. It would be nice to do at sunrise. It’s short, but you can loop it twice.”

The approximately 10-mile ride included 760 feet of elevation gain and took about 2½ hours — though we spent much of that time off our bikes enjoying the views of the striking Crooked River Gorge.

— Reporter: 541-383-0318,