North Fork-Flagline Loop

Directions: Follow Skyliners Road west of Bend until it turns into Forest Road 4603 (a gravel road) and crosses Tumalo Creek. Continue another 3 miles to Tumalo Falls and park there.

Features: Lots of climbing followed by descending, and plenty of scenery, including numerous waterfalls, high alpine meadows and views of Broken Top. (This loop is at high elevation, so bikers should ride it before snow accumulates.)

Distance: About 21 miles.

Elevation gain: 2,000 feet.

Rating: Aerobically strenuous and technically intermediate to advanced.

Season: Mid-summer to fall.

It seems to happen every time I ride this quintessential Central Oregon loop.

Just when I think the climbing is over after arriving at Happy Valley, it only becomes increasingly steeper and imposing.

I was seriously tired, but I somehow managed to keep pedaling throughout the 3,000 feet of climbing near the base of Broken Top, deep in the Cascade foothills.

Mark Johnson, my partner for the ride, is one of those retired Bendites who defy their age on a daily basis with impressive displays of fitness. This climb did not appear to bother him much.

It was his first time riding the North Fork-Flagline Loop west of Bend — a 21-mile ride that is the jewel of the high country for mountain bikers who are just too stubborn to shuttle — and he came away impressed. The loop, which begins and ends at Tumalo Falls, is not too technically challenging, but it is certainly strenuous with all the climbing.

North Fork-Flagline offers a little bit of everything we love in Central Oregon mountain biking — deep-forest singletrack, lung-busting climbs, dramatic alpine views, creek and waterfall scenery, and hair-raising descents. But bikers should go soon, before the snow accumulates in the coming weeks and months.

From Tumalo Falls west of Bend, the North Fork Trail climbs on a grueling grade, rising from 5,000 feet in elevation to nearly 7,000 feet in the span of only about 10 miles. While the climb is severe, the views along the way — including seven scenic waterfalls — invite frequent rest stops.

The 4 miles from Tumalo Falls to Happy Valley will push the limits of most mountain bikers, but the climbing continues along the Metolius-Windigo Trail, which cuts through the Deschutes National Forest to near the boundary of the Three Sisters Wilderness. In that area, we arrived in a high alpine meadow from where we could see Broken Top to the northwest, the mountain’s jagged edges pointing into the blue sky.

Above the tree line, we pedaled our bikes over rocky, dry creek beds that cut through dry meadows.

The Metolius-Windigo Trail parallels Road 370, which starts at Todd Lake. Many hikers drive the rough road to reach the hiker-only Broken Top Trail, which leads to dramatic mountain scenery on the approach to Broken Top.

We turned onto Road 380 and rode toward the Broken Top Trailhead for about half a mile to get full views of Broken Top and South Sister.

Back on the Metolius-Windigo singletrack, we finally reached a downhill section after miles and miles of climbing. The trail turned from sandy, high-desert-style riding to smooth, tacky dirt with lots of pine needles as we picked up speed. Occasionally, striking fall colors of red and yellow emerged from among the enormous old-growth Douglas fir trees.

After twisting downhill for a couple of miles through the thick forest, we arrived at the junction with the Flagline Trail, which opens every year on Aug. 15. (It is closed until then to protect elk calving grounds.)

Flagline would take us mostly downhill to the Swampy Lakes shelter — but first, more climbing. Yes, we encountered about another mile of steep ascents along the northern base of Tumalo Mountain before the downhill payoff finally took hold. The dusty, rutted trail has seen better days, and it will probably improve with some fall precipitation and frost.

That downhill stretch was somewhat technically demanding, as we had to negotiate ruts, roots and rocks.

From Swampy Lakes we connected to the South Fork Trail, a steep, switchbacked path that runs along the South Fork of Tumalo Creek.

Much like Flagline, South Fork is fast and a bit technical, littered with obstacles like roots, rocks and sharp turns. Catching a little air over the inclined roots can be fun, but riding under control is a must on South Fork, especially in sandy conditions.

The trail led us down to the South Fork of Tumalo Creek, a small, trickling brook that is easy to miss when speeding past on a mountain bike. Shortly thereafter, we made a left turn onto the Tumalo Creek Trail and arrived back at Tumalo Falls about 4½ hours after we had started.

We chuckled to ourselves as we reached the Tumalo Falls parking lot. The lot was full of vehicles with Washington, California, and Arizona license plates. But many of those folks would likely not venture past the upper viewpoint of Tumalo Falls.

Mark and I could not help but think of what they were missing — a 21-mile ride through the best of the Central Oregon high country.

— Reporter: 541-383-0318,