The Badlands Wilderness east of Bend, Ore., offers hikers the chance to explore an intriguing desert landscape of sagebrush, twisted juniper trees and curious rock formations. But because it is a designated wilderness area, it is not open to mountain bikers.
No problem. Just across U.S. Highway 20 from the Badlands sits Horse Ridge, an area with terrain similar to the Badlands that is open to mountain bikers. But Horse Ridge holds the potential for more elevation gain than the flat Badlands – much more.
Every time I ride at Horse Ridge I am surprised by how challenging it is – both for the amount of climbing and for the technical, rocky trails.
While Horse Ridge is a popular winter riding destination in Central Oregon, the trails there generally remain in good shape well into spring. By summertime, they are usually too sandy to be enjoyable.
And this time of year it is pretty much assured that the trails at Horse Ridge will be ridable, while some other popular areas – specifically, west of Bend – might still hold lingering snow or mud.
Horse Ridge presents a fairly technical challenge, with loads of lava rock that dots the trail on certain stretches. In general, the east end of the trail system is easier than the advanced black diamond and double-black diamond trails on the west side of Horse Ridge, which include many rocky areas.
On a full-suspension 29er mountain bike, riding downhill over rock gardens is actually pretty fun, but riding uphill over them can be extremely challenging.
Recently, I made the 20-mile drive east of Bend to the Horse Ridge Trailhead, ready for a ride through the rocky juniper forest that includes expansive views of the High Desert.
I started out on singletrack along a barbed-wire fence that paralleled the highway. That trail offered a relatively easier climb toward the top of the ridge than other trails in the area.
Trail conditions were good, with little dust or sand. After rolling through the sagebrush and juniper trees for a couple of miles, I passed a couple of right turns and the trail eventually connected to Mad Max, an old, cracked highway that gradually leads to nearly the top of the ridge. (This is the way to go to avoid steeper, more arduous climbs up the ridge.)
Near the end of Mad Max, I turned right onto the Has No Horse trail. This trail climbs steadily along the top of the ridge and includes some rocky sections.
Bikers can ride this trail to the summit of Horse Ridge and a viewpoint looking south.
From the viewpoint, at about 4,700 feet, I looked out at the vast High Desert for miles and miles. To the north was the Badlands, to the west the snow-blanketed peaks of the Cascade range. Mount Jefferson and Mount Hood were visible against the blue sky to the northwest. To the east sat the never-ending desert and snow-capped Pine Mountain.
After taking in the view, I headed back the way I had come and turned onto the Sand Canyon Trail.
Sand Canyon is a notoriously steep, winding and bumpy trail that starts out rocky but leads to sandy, sweeping turns through a small canyon on the north side of Horse Ridge.
I held on tight to the handlebars and clutched the brakes for much of the way down. The trail straightened out as it followed a creek bed back toward the trailhead. Riders should take note that for some reason this is a two-way trail. But many Central Oregon Trail Alliance members are hoping to change that for safety reasons, according to bendtrails.org.
Sand Canyon took me back to the doubletrack that leads to the main trailhead.
All told, I had ridden 12 miles in about two hours. The ride included a lung-busting 1,200 feet of climbing, which was pretty challenging for me this early in the mountain biking season. But I was able to enjoy 1,200 feet of descent, much of it on the Sand Canyon trail.
Horse Ridge offers a perfect mix of challenging climbing, technical riding and fast downhill singletrack.
It also allows mountain bikers to enjoy a remote, desert, wilderness-like experience.
Directions: From Bend, drive 20 miles southeast on U.S. Highway 20. Take a right on the Horse Ridge Frontage Road. After half a mile, a Bureau of Land Management trailhead is on the left. It includes paved parking and a kiosk.
Length: Varies. Loops or out-and-back rides of 10 to 20 miles are possible. In total, Horse Ridge offers about 30 miles of trail.
Elevation gain: Up to about 1,500 feet.
Rating: Aerobically intermediate and technically advanced.
Trail features: Technical rocky sections as well as smooth, side-hill singletrack along the ridge. Sweeping views of the Cascades, Smith Rock, the Badlands and Dry Canyon.
Season: Fall, winter, spring.
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