Oregon’s Horse Butte attracts winter mountain bikers

BEND, Ore. — To the west, the Cascade Range was obscured by a shroud of clouds. To the northeast, the Ochoco Mountains were specked with snow.

Somewhere in between, I soaked in the afternoon sunshine as I cruised along the singletrack trails near Horse Butte.

Nothing cures the shoulder-season blues of early December like a rejuvenating mountain bike ride.

I was still waiting for more snow to accumulate before snowboarding at Mt. Bachelor or Hoodoo ski areas. And heavy November snowfall had made mountain biking difficult in recent weeks.

So it had been a while since I had engaged in one of my favorite outdoor pursuits. And when I saw my window of opportunity, I took advantage.

Thanks to drier areas east and north of Bend, mountain biking is a year-round pursuit in Central Oregon.

Recently at Horse Butte, just southeast of Bend, the trails were in perfect shape. The snow had melted away to leave firm, tacky soil that is pure pleasure to ride on a mountain bike.

However, riders should avoid the trails when warmer winter days can thaw the ground to create a muddy mess. And when the mud dries, ruts from bike tires can be left behind in the singletrack, making for rough riding.

I rode a relatively short loop and encountered three or four other mountain bikers enjoying the trails.

The Coyote Loop Trail and Arnold Ice Cave Trail (Trail 63) form a loop of about 10 to 12 miles that can be ridden in either direction. I started out on the Arnold Ice Cave Trail to ride the loop clockwise.

The trails traverse the burn where the 1996 Skeleton Fire scorched 17,000 acres, opening up sprawling views in every direction and leaving behind sagebrush and bare juniper trees. The area is pretty exposed, so when heavy wind, rain and/or snow move in, bikers might be wise to find a more protected area to ride, if possible.

The wind was fairly intense during my outing, but it was manageable over the 12-mile ride.

The trails near Horse Butte include a relative dearth of climbing or elevation change, and they are not especially technical, making them ridable for all skill levels. But riders should be wary of rocks and thick brush along the trail, which can smack their pedals and surprise them.

Bikers should also always yield to horseback riders — and let them know they are there so as not to spook the horses. Cyclists should always yield to runners and hikers as well.

As the late-afternoon rays cast long shadows on the sagebrush, I continued riding along the singletrack, grateful for a December day on my bike.

But many more winter rides are possible, as Central Oregon has numerous locations for mountain bikers to enjoy throughout the winter, conditions permitting.

Here are a few more:

This trail, accessible off China Hat Road near Bessie Butte, is located near Horse Butte but cuts through a ponderosa pine forest, offering more protection from winter weather.

The ride from Bessie Butte to Kelsey Butte and back is about a two-hour commitment, offering rolling singletrack and sprawling views, as the trail leads riders about halfway up Kelsey Butte.

Swamp Wells leads all the way south to Newberry National Volcanic Monument, but riders are likely to eventually encounter snow as the elevation rises toward the monument.

Not to be confused with Horse Butte, Horse Ridge is a little farther drive southeast of Bend off U.S. Highway 20. An official trailhead is now in place across the highway from the Badlands.

Horse Ridge offers fun hillside climbs and descents with views of the Badlands and beyond. The singletrack trails include several areas of extremely technical lava rock, so Horse Ridge is not a place for novice mountain bikers.

Located off Cline Falls Highway between Tumalo and Eagle Crest Resort, Maston offers some of the best wintertime mountain biking in Central Oregon.

The area is mostly flat, making the singletrack trails ideal for all skill levels. One trail skirts the edge of the Deschutes River canyon, offering nice views of the river far below.

Two trailheads for Maston are accessible from Cline Falls Highway, including the south trailhead off Newcomb Road, and the north trailhead, called Juniper.

This rock climbing destination is also a good spot to ride a bike in the winter. Bikers can climb the challenging Burma Road to reach the Gray Butte singletrack, which includes some thrilling side-hill trails high above Smith Rock State Park. The climbers’ trail, which follows the Crooked River around the park, is also open to bikes.

This relatively new area in Redmond features mostly flat, technical rock riding, with several loop options. The trailhead is located in northeast Redmond at the High Desert Sports Complex, near the Smith Rock BMX track.

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