Our youthful superiority complex deflated with a whimper when we saw Mike - a scruffly man who we took to be in his 50s, wearing clothing you’d more likely expect at the library than on the trail. He’d been taunting us from the saddle of a curvaceous steel singlespeed, the brand wiped clean and stickers for local breweries in its place. Mike had been pushing us for miles while leisurely chatting us up and now we could see why. With miles of trail, a culture built upon cycling of all sorts and dozens of breweries to both initiate and sustain the most epic adventures, bikers like Mike had at his fingertips the adrenaline junky’s Shangri-La we’d come to Central Oregon to find.
The stats on the city of Bend alone are staggering: more breweries per capita than any other city in America; hundreds of miles of pristine singletrack for hiking, trail running and mountain biking; and at least as many bike lanes and multi-purpose paths as roads by my observation. With airfares as cheap or cheaper than most other larger cities in the Northwest, it’s the perfect adventure destination on paper alone. For us, it was merely an appetizer.
We flew into Redmond, a suburbanized hamlet just 17 miles north of Bend. I’d shipped my bike ahead to the repair shop inside the Bend REI store, which was cheaper roundtrip than I could have rented a bike or checked it on the airline. Marin, as I like to call her, was a bit disheveled when I opened the box but it was good to see all her pieces were still there. The guys in the REI shop let me borrow one of their repair stands and within 20-30 minutes I had her all gussied up and ready to tackle some Oregon gnar.
We were already blown away by the number of cyclists and bike facilities we’d seen in the first 30 minutes being in Oregon, but we were equally bemused by the hospitality we were shown. The people we met in Bend were as nice and hospitable as anyone I have ever met in the Southeast. Within five minutes of walking in REI alone, the manager personally came and found me in the bike shop and welcomed me to the city and the store. Fifteen minutes later we had four or five employees giving us advice on where to camp and ride over the next four days. We even had an offer to crash on one of their couches.
After Marin was ready to go, we purchased a trunk rack to put on our rental car and went to find Hunter a steed for the week. We tried several rental places and he ended up with a carbon Santa Cruz Tallboy full-suspension 29er. Hunter was already a superior rider and now I was going to be chasing him with a steel hardtail all week. Great.
We camped along the Deschutes River where we thought we'd been told to camp (we later found out we were trespassing on federal land and therefor, became default outlaws - we continued to live the Western dream). On our first day of riding, we rode out along the river to Phil's trail system. I’m not sure who Phil is but I would like to buy him a beer.
Phil's trails are amazing in every sense of the word. Every type of terrain is there but it's dominated by fast flowy singletrack. Fortunately it had rained a good bit the days before so the sandy soil was nice and tacky. Several locals we talked to said those were the best trail conditions we could have hoped for as it's normally really sandy. We rode about 30 miles of glorious singletrack as far up in elevation as we could before hitting snow. When there isn't snow, bikers have interconnected trail options providing hundreds of miles of singletrack.
After such an intense day of biking, we were pretty blown up so we headed back into Bend for beers and a couple of dinners (yes, a couple). We started at Parilla Grill, which had been recommended to us by several people on our flight and bike ranger Mike. Nestled in a neighborhood away from the town center, fish tacos, jumbalaya burritos, thai-inspired fusion burritos and several local microbrews just scratch the surface of Parilla’s offerings. There are tons of dining options in Bend; this one is an absolute must!
We found another must for our second dinner in two hours just a few blocks away at 10 Barrel Brewing Company. With brews like the India Session Ale and Hop Junkie, our taste for beers that bite your tongue off was satisfied and our sore muscles began to fade from our consciousness. 10 Barrel is relatively new to the well-known Bend beer scene, but I was already in love before even trying some of the most established breweries. It was the perfect send-off before delving deeper into Central Oregon’s bag of tricks.
Off To The Epics
Phil's trail system was so awesome that we couldn't believe it wasn't listed as an IMBA Epic trail. Having ridden other Epics like Tsali and the Pinhoti Trail in the Southeast, we really thought it would have been since it was amazingly well-maintained and I swear we hit only two roots in our entire ride, and I think those were purposefully placed.
Three hours away from Bend, the McKenzie River Trail is not an IMBA Epic either, but we had always heard it was one of the finest mountain biking trails in the country. It's on the rainy side of the Cascades so we were in a totally different climate. Like Endor-type climate. We camped at the southern terminus of the trail and rode north as far as a gemstone-colored eddy called Blue Pool, which was further than we thought we'd be able to based on snow reports. We like to say we turned around there because we didn't want to get stranded in a really isolated section if we did hit snow. The reality is we’d been riding uphill through trenches of babyhead lava rock for several miles and we didn’t want to admit defeat.
The McKenzie Trail was our first introduction to true wilderness trails in Oregon. Looking 50 feet ahead, you could hardly see the trail as it blended in with the moss-covered rocks. The whole time we were cruising along the crystalline blue river with huge old-growth trees all around us. The trail surface was pretty mucky, which we felt bad for, but there appeared to be lots of other bike tracks and we'd been told the trail was always muddy anyway so we mashed on.
There were sections of flat river plain and sections carved right into the rocky hillside with lots of exposure. It was an incredibly varied trail. It wasn't constructed with bikes in mind, so it gave a feel of riding somewhere you weren't supposed to. It definitely suited the full-suspension better though as it had a fair share of rocks, roots, and dips. The log foot bridges were a little annoying as they definitely are not made for bikes and are spaced at relatively short intervals. But it did slow you down to take a look around. We stopped in McKenzie Bridge after our ride to pick up another pack of Oregon microbrew, but tour company Cog Wild will give you the same trail and make sure the beer is cold and waiting for you at the end. And you only have to ride down the babyhead lava death trench, which we found much easier than going up.
The next day we transferred three more hours south to the North Umpqua Trail between Crater Lake and Roseburg. Altough the flora and terrain is similar to McKenzie, I can hardly begin to describe this trail. It is an IMBA Epic and when we hit this one, I knew what "epic" meant! We decided to camp at one of the many Forest Service campgrounds along the river and ride the Panther and Mott sections after talking to the ranger to see what sections were relatively clear of blowdowns and snow. We rode Panther first.
The Panther section was brilliance defined! Most of the time we were 100-200 feet above the river with a 70-degree slope running all the way down to the banks. Our trail was the only break in the cliffside. The trail was never wider than about 18-24 inches and many times it was only 6-12. It had some super steep sections lasting about 100 yards, but for the most part it was plenty rideable. We ducked in and out of river gullies, crossing well-constructed bridges next to waterfalls and doing our best not to look down. If you didn't execute your line when the speed picked up you'd be toast. The soft, loamy soil threatened to give way as our tires pried into every turn. Luckily I was on my game (for me) and held pretty good lines. Again the trail is probably a little better suited to a full-suspension rig, but the old hardtail did just fine. We did have to dismount a few times as there were a lot of rocks and roots that refused to hold onto our tires in the mid-May moisture.
It was now day two of our Umpqua layover and the fourth day of our Oregon bike trip. The Mott section was completely different than Panther. Where we had been riding hundreds of feet above the river on the latter, we were more often right on the river bank during the Mott ride. It was a bit more technical in my opinion, with many more rocks, but I also might have just been tired and flying like a hummingbird in a glass box. The coolest part of that section was about a 200 yard roller coaster of mossy pavement that was only about a foot above the blue frothing river (some of it looked like riding atop a Roman wall, other parts were asphalt that looked 100 years old).
And then it was over. After Mott and Panther, our riding was done for the trip, but we'd still been on our bikes for about 80-100 miles over four days with the majority of the mileage being on singletrack. McKenzie and Umpqua are part of the Oregon Three Rivers Bikepacking Route, an interconnected series of trails and connections including the McKenzie and Umpqua trails as well as the North Fork of the Wilamette River to total almost 400 miles of what Bikepacking.net calls “the most rideable singletrack route” on their website. After sampling two of the three, the entire route is on my to-do list.
We drove the four hours back to Bend through snowy passes at the edge of Crater Lake and then we were back in scrub desert. While we dropped our bikes in Bend and then redeployed to the slopes of Mt. Shasta for some climbing, we could have easily spent the last four days of our vacation riding from brewery to brewery and enjoying the active culture in the city.
When we had officially finished our Oregon trail adventure, we made sure to stop in at the most famous of Bend’s microbreweries, Deschutes Brewing Company. We sipped Mirror Pond Pale Ale and Black Butte Porter and dared sample the food too - we’d been warned by locals that the food wasn’t very good and while it wasn’t anything too unique, it was pretty damn tasty. In the amber colored wooden glow of the Bend Brew Pub, we regaled ourselves of the week’s success in the company of people like us, pioneers of the church of adrenaline who had found this Central Oregon oasis. We suppose that the clientel that evening was pretty indicative of the region: locals and those, like us, who want to be locals. For now, Central Oregon should be your go to spot whenever budget adventure crosses your mind.