TERREBONE, Ore. (AP) — More than 10 years ago, and still a relative newcomer to Central Oregon, I joined a group of friends and acquaintances on a mountain bike ride at Gray Butte and Smith Rock State Park.
I have ridden in the area several times since, but until last week I had never attempted to repeat that exact ride of many years ago that stuck in my mind as such a thrill.
Determined to find the starting point — somewhere on the northeast flank of Gray Butte — I set out with riding partner Dustin Gouker to Smith Rock, where we paid the $5 fee to park Dustin's car. We then hopped in my car and drove 8 miles northeast to Skull Hollow Campground.
Because of the logistics hassles of doing a shuttle ride with two cars, I had always just biked out and back at Smith Rock and Gray Butte over the past few years. But doing that requires a grunt of a climb up Burma Road — a grueling dirt doubletrack that rises sharply along a barren hillside just above Smith Rock. Also, I wanted to find that trail that I had not ridden in a decade.
Still driving, I climbed up a rather sketchy dirt road searching for the start of the singletrack that skirts just below the summit of Gray Butte.
That was where things went awry.
I think we should have continued driving, but instead, we parked the car and rode our bikes up a doubletrack road that was quite steep — and only got steeper. Soon we were pushing our bikes up a 45-degree slope, on a dirt path that was barely visible. Before we knew it, we were probably about 500 feet from the summit of Gray Butte.
Finally, after some shots of energy gel, we decided to head down a different dirt road. I followed Dustin, who noted the sprawling view of the Crooked River National Grassland and the Cascade Range, its peaks shining white with snow in the distance to the west.
"This would be pretty awesome if it didn't suck so much," Dustin quipped.
I mumbled something about how getting lost makes it more of an adventure, but on the inside I was dying to find the trail. We were in the middle of the vast Central Oregon High Desert, with nobody around, but I never doubted that we would find our way.
As we rode down the precipitous slope, Dustin stopped and raised both hands in the air.
He had found the singletrack.
"That's what I'm talking about!" I screamed.
It was a stark reminder that mountain bikers would be wise to pinpoint the start of their rides before heading out on any old dirt road. Sure, we found the singletrack we were searching for, but if we had not, it certainly would have continued to suck. I guess I was a bit too eager to get out of the car and hop on my bike for what was my first big ride of the spring.
After an hour of scrambling up scraggly desert slopes, a trail had never felt so good under my tires. And the Gray Butte Trail is a true jewel.
I know Phil's Trail complex near Bend is riding supreme right now, but Gray Butte offers an entirely different experience. You are out in the open on a sometimes scary side-hill path, with views nearly the entire way — not tucked away deep in a pine forest.
The Gray Butte Trail cuts along the hillside and is fast, flowing and fun. Keeping both eyes on the trail is a must, because it runs along a steep drop-off. If riders want to take in the view, it is best to stop first.
Our spirits brightened as we cruised along the trail, which was a bit loose and rocky in places but overall pretty firm and fast. (Bikers should hit the trail in the spring before it becomes too dusty in the summertime.)
Eventually, the trail led us to the top of Smith Rock State Park. The park, from that vantage point, is truly unique, giving us a chance to look down on the breathtaking cliffs and rock faces of the geological wonder.
The spot where we stood marked the top of Burma Road and the start of a new trail called the Summit Loop. Paid for with a grant from the Recreational Trails Program, the Summit Loop connects to the River Trail that wraps around the park and follows the Crooked River.
We rode the switchbacks down the Summit Loop, then hauled through desert singletrack before connecting to the River Trail, where the Crooked flowed fast and high. Monkey Face, a 350-foot rock spire at Smith Rock, rose in the distance.
We continued along the rolling trail until it led us into the main rock climbing area. We slowed down for hikers, and noticed dozens of climbers clinging to the towering rock walls above.
While Smith Rock will always be a place for rock climbers, the mountain biking opportunities in the area should not be ignored.
Gray Butte is a thrill ride on a bike — once you find the trail.
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Information from: The Bulletin, http://www.bendbulletin.com
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