Mark Morical
The Bulletin

Sutton Mountain bike tour

Directions: From Prineville, head east and then northeast along U.S. Highway 26. After 45 miles, turn left onto Burnt Ranch Road. After 5.6 miles, turn left onto Bear Creek Road. Follow Bear Creek Road left when it forks and park at a small parking area with restrooms. Begin the ride by heading north on the gravel Burnt Ranch Road.

Distance: 34 miles of mixed gravel/dirt roads and paved roads.

Features: A long loop around the Sutton Mountain Wilderness Study Area. Opportunities to hike into the proposed wilderness area from various access points.

Rating: Aerobically strenuous and technically easy.

Information: onda.org

For the last six years, this series has been called Mountain Bike Trail Guide. And while the emphasis is often on the trails themselves, the miles and miles of superb singletrack in Oregon, sometimes the focus should be on the PLACE.

Sutton Mountain is just such a place for the ideal mountain biking adventure — offering the chance to explore remote wild areas on two wheels along a mix of gravel roads and pavement.

A Wilderness Study Area near the Painted Hills portion of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, and just north of the small town of Mitchell in Wheeler County, Sutton Mountain is a 29,000-acre plateau of basalt, canyons, creeks and other intriguing geological features.

The Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association has been making a passionate push to permanently protect some 58,000 acres of the area by designating it as wilderness. Bikes, of course, are not allowed in wilderness areas.

But Ben Gordon, ONDA’s John Day coordinator, came up with a 34-mile gravel-grind tour around Sutton Mountain that would appeal to any mountain biker looking to explore this unique desert terrain. The route is along roads that will always remain open to bikes and motor vehicles, as it mostly circles the proposed wilderness.

The 85-mile drive from Bend to the Painted Hills, where Gordon and I started our ride, took about an hour and 45 minutes. The Painted Hills, one of Travel Oregon’s Seven Wonders of Oregon, are, of course, jaw-droppingly surreal and beautiful, their swirling gold and red hues shaped by time and geology.

But if you drive that far to see them, the half-mile hike to the viewpoint can leave you feeling rather empty.

“We get calls all the time: ‘I’ve been out to the Painted Hills and I like it, but there’s just not a lot to get out and do,’” Gordon said.

An avid mountain biker and runner, Gordon has embarked on a mission to market the untapped recreational potential of the Painted Hills and Sutton Mountain area. Hence, the challenging mountain bike ride with an eager, albeit overmatched, reporter.

“For somebody looking to bike and do some side hikes, you can make a whole day out of this 34-mile loop by combining riding and hiking,” Gordon said. “I foresee a lot of people wanting to do that.”

The area is teeming with wildlife, including antelope, mule deer, bald eagles, hawks and rabbits.

After admiring the Painted Hills, we started our ride from a small parking area on a washboard gravel road. Much like driving a car on such a road, we had to find the smooth track in between the rough patches.

To the east, Sutton Mountain’s basalt summit stretched along the horizon. The geologic and fossil records of Sutton Mountain date as far back as 40 million years, according to ONDA. Many Native American pictographs can be found on and around Sutton Mountain, some dating back thousands of years.

Also, the Sutton Mountain area has its own Painted Hills.

“But they’re far less tourist oriented,” Gordon said. “You just go explore them on your own. The subtlety within this landscape, as you start to understand what it is, and look a little bit beneath the surface …”

With that in mind, we hopped off our bikes after a few miles and hiked from an access point into the Wilderness Study Area and found some Painted Hills-like formations, examining them up close.

Back on our bikes, we rode along the gravel around to the north side of Sutton Mountain, and the John Day River popped into view, backed by another dramatic plateau. The John Day is the longest free-flowing river in Oregon and the longest dam-free tributary of the Columbia River.

From a high point above the river, we rode a fast and fun downhill stretch into the hamlet of Twickenham, which basically consists of a couple of ranch-style houses.

The east side of Sutton Mountain is more of a rounded hill shape, and we began a climb up that side along the paved Girds Creek Road. The road cut through Black Canyon, an area of small, rugged cliffs and jagged rock wall formations. The Black Canyon hiking trail is accessible in that area.

A hike along the highest points of 4,694-foot Sutton Mountain is also possible along the Carrol Rim Trail, accessible from state Highway 207 just south of the Black Canyon Trailhead.

“They’re kind of trails, but they’re more access points to follow game trails,” Gordon said.

Some of the “No Access” signs at these spots are misleading, as the signs are referring to motor vehicles, Gordon explained.

“It’s the wrong message,” he said. “In actuality, it’s all public land and it’s open for exploration. We need a clearer strategy for how to communicate that these public lands are available to everyone who comes out here.”

As we continued the long 8-mile climb along Highway 207, I began to fade, and had to dismount my bike a couple of times. Gordon gave me the option of riding into Mitchell, and he could ride back to the car and return to pick me up.

But I stuck with the original plan, and I was rewarded. The old dirt logging road we took to cut back to the Painted Hills was a supremely fast downhill stretch with many tight turns. Riding downhill on a gravel road is sometimes just as enjoyable as riding downhill on singletrack.

We connected back to the paved road leading to the national monument and cruised past more Painted Hills, taking in their beauty from the seat of our bikes.

Before the ride, Gordon had predicted that we would average about 12 miles per hour and would need about three hours to complete the 34-mile loop. The duration ended up being closer to five hours, this reporter no doubt slowing us down.

The ride was taxing, but discovering Oregon’s most beautiful places is just better on a bike.

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

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