Many years ago I was perusing the MTBR Oregon forums and came across a brief write-up and photos of a so-called “Sawtooth Struggle”, which was a combination of both mountain biking and hiking (to a couple of cascade peaks). I knew almost instantly that I wanted to do the ride, but it would be another few years before I actually got on it, and I remember loving every minute of it; Therefore, when another opportunity came around to do the ride again, a few weeks ago, I jumped on without hesitation.
Since Emily and I wouldn’t be camping out the night before, we would need to leave Eugene early to make the meet time at Timpanogas Lake, which is about a two hour drive from Eugene. Although it’s a fairly long drive, it’s plenty scenic, as you essentially drive up the entirety of the MF Willamette drainage – pretty cool in its own right! We reached Timpanogas CG right on time at 10am, but what we hadn’t expected was that everyone would already be geared up and ready to shred. With that being the case, we scrambled to get into our gear quickly so we wouldn’t hold up the ride too much – trust me, with the amount of gear I bring (camera, etc.) this is no easy feat. With barely enough time to apply a coat of Chamois Butt’r, we headed off, rounding the west end of the lake until we found the “Start O' Willamette” trail (TR 3642) , which headed north-east , up and away from the lake. After a ~1 mile grunt, we tee’d into the Windy Pass trail (TR 3643), where we regrouped before continuing on.
|Tim "Mudflaps" Kaiser, startin' it off|
|Perry and Amanda powering up Start O' Willamette|
|Regathering at the top of the first climb|
The trail was now traversing in a southeasterly direction, as we continued to climb, albeit at a lighter grade. At a couple of the tree breaks, you could catch a glimpse of Sawtooth Mountain, which loomed in the distance. Since I had been taking photos on the way up, I found myself near the back of the pack, but soon reached a spot where our group's bikes had been parked, apparently for a quick hike and snack at a view point. Sure enough I became reunited with the crew, who were nestled on a rock pile looking out onto an unobstructed view of Sawtooth.
|Emily, still smiling early on|
|Bridget Hildreth gives chase|
|A glimpse of Sawtooth through the trees|
|Bridget takes in the view at an overlook|
|Paul Timm, doing the same|
After about 10 minutes I decided I'd jump ahead and setup for some shots near the junction with the trail that headed up to Cowhorn Mountain, which would be our first hike of the day. It didn’t take long for the crew to show up, and I snapped some pics as they grunted up the ~1/4 mile long section of trail to where it tee’d into the PCT. Since you can’t mountain bike on the PCT, we ditched our bikes and started our hike up to the summit of Cowhorn. It should be noted that after hiking south on the PCT for about ¼ mile, you’ll hang a sharp left, which is the spur trail that actually takes you to the summit.
|Climbing the spur trail up toward Cowhorn Mountain|
|Dog friendly ride!|
|Kim McGovern heads toward Cowhorn|
|Emily, working second gear (aka standing) on her SS|
About half of our group had brought hiking shoes, which they switched out with their biking shoes for this part of the adventure. The rest of us who either forgot or didn’t bother to bring some, were a bit jealous, as doing technical scrambles in plastic soled shoes can be a little difficult and sketchy; furthermore, by bringing separate hiking shoes, you’ll save your biking ones from a lot of unnecessary wear & tear. The hike itself is about as easy as it gets for one of the Cascade peaks, a short approach and no rope work required, although my lungs were definitely feeling the altitude. As we hiked up the ridge on the south flank of the mountain, we were treated to amazing views all around us, which helped build some motivation to get to the summit. The last pitch to the summit required some work with all four limbs, but we eventually all made it up to the small perch, with an amazing 360 degree panoramic view. With everyone up there it was a little hard to find a comfortable spot to sit without being precariously close to a sheer drop-off. Once we had all gotten our fill of studying the surrounding landscape we started the descent back to where we had parked our bikes.
|Destination Cowhorn (in the distance)|
|Heading up the cinder ridge|
|Looking south, toward Mt Thielsen|
|Looking west, down the ridge toward Sawtooth|
|Paul giving a geography lesson|
|Not the best footwear for rocky scrambles|
|Person space was a commodity at the summit|
|Headed back down|
|Finding the tree line|
Back at our bikes, we saddled up once again and rode back down to the Windy Pass Trail, where we turned left, heading toward Sawtooth Mountain. The section just after the trail junction was a super fun downhill traverse, on the north side of the ridge connecting Cowhorn and Sawtooth. The fun lasted about a mile and a half before we were forced to climb up and over the ridge to the south side, where more downhill goodness continued. After passing the Indigo Lake Trail on our right, the trail headed down further and through a beautiful meadow, which marked the start of the brutal climb up to Sawtooth.
|Back at Windy Pass Trail|
|Roland Vilett leads the crew down a sweet traverse|
|Up and over the ridge line|
The climb up to Sawtooth starts off innocently enough, but it gradually tilts more and more upward until eventually we were all off walking (or carrying) our bikes. At this point we were less than 10 miles into the ride/hike, but I was really feeling it, forcing me to take a few breaks as I continued up the steep benched-in trail, where I quickly found myself at the back of the pack. The section does contain some pretty cool “J” shaped trees, where they grew horizontally for a short bit before turning upwards and into the direction of the sun. The higher we climbed, the steeper it got, until it eventually crested at the top of yet another ridge, where a spur trail headed off to the right toward the summit of Sawtooth.
|The "J "trees on the climb up to Sawtooth|
|Paul reaches the start of the hike-a-bike|
|More "J" trees|
|A ways to go...|
|Nearing the end of the hike-a-bike climb|
The climb up Sawtooth was similar to Cowhorn, some technical scrambling, but nothing overly difficult/dangerous. There is one point in the climb that you have to get across a small saddle, but as long as you follow the most worn path, it’s good to go. On the other side of the saddle, we made our way up the path of loose shale to the north side of the mountain, where we ascended to the summit up a short/steep rocky bit. As with Cowhorn, the view was amazing, with Indigo Lake, Timpanogas Lake, and Diamond Peak lining up nicely in front of us. From our perch, we took some time to recharge and eat a quick snack, while taking in the grandeur of our surroundings. You could actually see where we had started the ride, near a little cabin on the northwest corner of Timpanogas Lake – it always gives me a huge sense of accomplishment when I get to see where we started from, at the summit of one of our rides!
|Time for another foot hike|
|Cool rock formations|
|Ascending toward the first trail obstacle|
|Which way do we go?!|
|More cool rock formations|
|Diamond, from the Sawtooth summit|
|Timpanogas Lake - where we started!|
|Cowhorn -- where we once were!|
|Headed back down|
|Up & over|
|This section proved harder going down|
Back at our bikes, we continued east on the Windy Pass Trail for about a mile, where we reached the start of the descent down the Sawtooth Trail (TR 3634). The Sawtooth Trail, which would take us back to Timpanogas Lake, started off in earnest, descending down a series of steep/slightly technical pitches – really great stuff if you can stay on the pedals! After the first bit, it quickly mellowed out to a more reasonable gradient, but also mixed in some rocky bits for good measure. Unless you’re really on your game, you’ll probably walk at least a few short stretches in here. Then, as if out of nowhere, the trail seemed to be climbing again in front of us. Since I assumed we’d be heading down the Indigo Lake Trail (as we had the last time I did the Struggle), I didn't anticipate the climb or save a reserve for the obstacle that lay in front of me. Although short, it climbed nearly 300’ in just over a ¼ mile, which was enough to draw out a primal scream, from deep within my lungs. I pretty much had to push my bike for most of it, and even did some shouldering to get up the last section.
|Back on our bikes!|
|Perry, in hot pursuit|
|Emily, looking relaxed|
|Kim closes in on the Sawtooth descent|
|Headed down, in a hurry|
|One last climb... Ugh|
On the other side of the ridge we had another fun descent, which eventually tee’d into the Indigo Lake Trail (TR 3649), just a short distance above Timpanogas Lake. It was here that Emily and I parted ways with our fellow riding companions, who were planning to extend the ride by doing a quick out-n-back up to Indigo Lake – Unfortunately, we had to get back to the dogs, who we’d left at home. The short section of trail that remained between us and our car was wide, flowy, and buffed, which allowed you to gather some serious speed. Back at the car, we were greeted by some folks that had started the ride with us, but had opted for a different route on the second half. We had a beer and some snacks, while changing, before headed back to Eugene, still two hours away.
The Sawtooth Struggle is an awesome biking/hiking adventure! It also seems to draw a great group of folks that just want to go out and have a good time. The vistas from both Cowhorn and Sawtooth are wonderful, giving you a slightly different perspectives of the surrounding landmarks. As for riding surface, the trails are plenty fun, but by no means a classic – of course that’s not why you do this ride, instead you’re doing it for the adventure, which it certainly provides. I must say that physically it’s one of the hardest 15 mile rides I’ve done, and there is definitely a sense of accomplishment when you’re finished. This is a ride I’ll look forward to and hopefully be able to join each year.
The tracks from our ride: