Monday, May 11, 2015

Smith Rock / Gray Butte Trail (OR)

Day two of Spring Barbie Camp brought sunny skies and cold morning temps, in the high 20s. Neither Jason Snook nor I had brought stuff for breakfast, so we ended up driving into Sisters for some much needed food and coffee – I must say, I wasn’t too heartbroken about this. I can only guess that I wasn’t the best company at the diner, since I was still in a haze from the festivities the night before. I ended up devouring an excessive amount of biscuits & gravy and topping it off with 2 eggs and a few sausage links. With my belly still expanding from the biscuits, we headed back to camp to meet up with the others and get ready for our ride at Smith Rock, which I’d never done before.

We quickly broke camp and said our goodbyes to the folks who were either heading back home or doing a different ride than us. The drive from Sisters to the Skull Hollow trailhead took about 45 minutes to an hour, traveling through Redmond and Terrebonne before the jagged peaks of Smith Rock came into view. Driving over the Crooked River brought back memories of my last time through the park, only then it was in my kayak, during the rare opportunity when they are releasing heavy flows from the dam. It’s actually been 5 years since the last significant release (trip report, here).

Pulling into the Skull Hollow Campground we found ourselves in the minority to the many horse trailers that were parked there. Although I’m in favor of shared trail use and believe that no form of recreation is more important than another, I was really hoping that we wouldn’t be dealing with too much horse traffic (or shit) on the trail. Even though the temps were supposed to be relatively cool, Emily and I drove around the lot for a bit, trying to find a place with shade for the dog. We eventually found a nice little nook between some trees that would provide adequate coverage, regardless of where the sun was at in the sky. We then unloaded our bikes, got geared up and met the others at the start of the trail, ready for the climb that would have us ascending around 700’ in 2 ½ miles.

We started the ride on the Cole Loop Trail (#854), heading in a northerly direction toward Gray Butte and paralleling Skull Hollow Rd (FS 7510). The climb made its ascent at a very manageable grade and through an open pine forest setting with good sight lines – All I could think about along the way was how fun of a descent it was going to be on the way back! We did have to pass through a few fence gates, which we needed to make sure were properly latched, before continuing on. Soon, the trail swooped around to our left and up another draw, where it eventually transitioned onto the Gray Butte Trail (#852), as it headed toward Smith Rock. This section of the trail led us up Sherwood Canyon, traveling high up on its rim and providing expansive views of the Cascades since the hillside covering was mainly dry grass, with sparse trees and shrubs dotting its landscape. Unfortunately, the cloud layer had fallen too low to see the tops of the main volcanic peaks.

Randy, somewhere along Gray Butte Trail

Emily takes in the views to the west

Long sightlines along the ridge

Near the boundary of Smith Rock State Park, the trail crossed over Burma Rd, where it started a steep descent down a series of switchbacks and traverses. This was also the point where we discovered that the Spring Sting adventure race was going on. Unfortunately for us, the participants happened to be climbing up the trail at the same time we were trying to get down. We did have the option of following the same route as the racers by descending Burma Rd, but instead, we decided to continue with our original plan and just yield to the uphill traffic as we made our way down the hill. We ended up crossing paths with lots of race participants, which broke up what would have been a pretty sweet descent. However, even if the race wasn’t going on, we still would have needed to control our speed and be on our best behavior, since there was also plenty of day hikers, who were also using this popular stretch of trail.

Jason enters the park

The top of Burma Rd was a popular spot on this day

Arthur and Roland lead the charge on the descent

More expansive views

Jason, between switchbacks.

Sarah rides past a nice viewpoint along the way

Arthur drops into the last pitch down to the river

Roland, givin' chase.

Sarah gets her first glimpse of Monkey Face

All too soon, the trail had dropped all the way down to the Crooked River, where it followed along its bank and past the many climbing routes engraved into the cliff walls to our left. We also passed by the famous landmark Monkey Face, a large rock spire with a formation on top that looks eerily like the head of a primate. This is probably the most popular trail in the park, so we kept a slow pace and gave friendly greetings to those we passed by. After passing by a footbridge over the Crooked, we followed the path around a large bend in the river for about a mile, where we reached a spur trail that led up to Burma Rd, at a very steep grade.

Emily, lovin' the ride!

Sarah nears the river 

Jason plays catch up after taking some photos

More great views of Monkey Face

Emily starts the river path

In the heart of Smith Rock State Park

Taking it easy during this stretch 

Jason, leaving the heavily populated section

We relaxed for a bit and had a snack before starting what would end up being a pretty brutal ascent, which included the climb on Burma Rd. About the only redeeming quality of the climb was the panorama, which once you were up high enough, you could see the entirety of the park with the Cascade as the backdrop. I can’t even imagine climbing up Burma in the middle of summertime, since it has absolutely no shade and ascends ~1,000’ in one mile. I’ve always considered myself a pretty slow climber, but after finding myself alone with no one from our crew in sight, I was feeling pretty defeated.

Rounding a corner during the ultra steep ascent out of the canyon

One of the more rideable parts of this section 

The start of the slog up Burma Rd.

Plenty of climbing routes on those walls

The view from Burma Rd.

Still a ways to go, but a light at the end of the tunnel...

I finally made it to the top of the road after what felt like an eternity and found the rest of the group patiently waiting for me. We were now back at the intersection where we had run into all the adventure racers. Without delay, we headed back on the stick of the lollipop, traveling northeast on the hillside above Sherwood Canyon. We regrouped one last time before the start of the descent back to the car, which may not have been necessary since the dust being kicked up by our tires encouraged a bit of spacing between us. In fact, at one point I pulled over and waited a few minutes before continuing on, just to let the dust settle. As I had assumed during the climb up the same trail, it was a sweet descent -- With long sight lines and no uphill traffic, it was time to open her up!

Heading back

Lost in a field of sage

Sarah, takin' in the descent

Nice sightlines here as well! 

Getting back to the car happened way too soon, and I was a bit surprised how short the downhill felt. With some remaining energy (at least for more descending), I convinced Emily to shuttle me to the top of Cline Butte so that I could get in a little more riding, explaining to her that it could double as exercise for our dog Grace. I’m not sure she completely bought my argument, but nonetheless, she happily agreed to give me a ride to the top. If you’re curious how that ride went, my ride report for Cline Butte can be found here.

The Gray Butte / Smith Rock ride that we did was fantastic! It’s not that the riding terrain was all that memorable, but it was good enough and the views of the surrounding landscape more than made up for it. It was also cool to experience Smith Rock from my bike saddle, since I had already done so from my kayak and with my hiking boots. Each method has provided its own unique experience and I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed any one over the other. I would actually compare this ride experience to road biking the Old McKenzie Highway and Crater Lake, or mountain biking Mount Saint Helens; although, I would say it’s not nearly as good as the last example – that one is an ultra-classic!

In the end, Smith Rock State Park is a very popular recreational area, so expect to have a shared use experience and just make the best of it – there’s a reason it’s so popular, it’s truly an amazing place to experience. If you decide to head there when the weather isn’t as nice (to avoid the crowds), make sure you don’t go if the trails are too wet, as I hear the mud will stop you dead in your tracks. Apparently, they don’t call it “Grey Butte Gumbo” for nothing…

The tracks from our ride:

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Trail 99 (Sisters, OR)

Every spring and fall, the Disciples of Dirt mountain biking club (based out of Eugene, OR) hosts a weekend ride event near Sisters (OR), with the motto being “Bikes-Brews-Bonfires”. I won’t get into how the event got its name (mostly since I don’t know), but it does have a mascot in the form of a ~3' tall Barbie Doll as well as a grand prize of the infamous Barbie Bike which is given away to one lucky winner to hold onto until the next event. Surprisingly, I had never been to Barbie Camp myself, which was usually due to schedule conflicts with the kayaking season as well as the notoriously bad weather the event seems to bring. Of course this did not mean that I wasn’t interested, in fact, I’d not ridden any of the trails in the Sisters area and was really itching to check them out. With the kayaking season in the shitter (due to the lack of precipitation) and a decent weather outlook for the weekend, it appeared that I actually might find myself attending one of these grand events.

The weather forecast kept changing back and forth from good to bad as the weekend approached, but it finally settled on a chance of showers for Saturday and clear on Sunday. Since I figured that this was probably my best opportunity, I sacked up and started the packing process. Emily (my wife), who had been to a few Barbie Camps in the past, would also be coming and we decided to forgo the festivities on Friday night and instead head out on Saturday morning. With plans to meet up with a small crew around 9:30am at the camp near Peterson Ridge, we knew we needed to get an early start, which surprisingly, we were able to pull off. As we drove up the McKenzie toward Sisters, we were met with wet weather conditions that eventually turned to snow as we climbed up to and over Santiam Pass. At the summit, I would estimate that there was probably 3 or 4 inches of fresh snow on the sides of the road. Luckily, the further we dropped down from the summit the weather started improving and eventually turned to partly cloudy skies by the time we reached Sisters – it was at this point that I was feeling pretty happy about my decision to go and felt bad for the suckers in the Willamette Valley who would most likely be socked in for the weekend.

We passed by many bike laden vehicles as we pulled into the camp. We eventually located the crew that we’d planned to ride with, who were still eating breakfast and wiping the sleep out of their eyes. I was actually glad to see that the rest of the group was in a relaxed state, since I’d hoped to set up our site and change into our biking gear without being rushed. By around 10:30am most of the crew had been rallied and the ride agenda had been set. A few (including Emily) were planning to do an out-in-back on Trail 99, in hopes of putting down some serious miles. The other part of the crew (including myself) were planning to do the same trail, only we’d be shuttling up to the high point of the ride. From the upper trail at Park Meadow (near Three Creeks Lake), we’d have a 20+ mile ride back to camp.

Welcome to Barbie Camp!

Once we had loaded up the bikes and riders, we headed out of camp and up Three Creeks Lake Road, traveling in a southerly direction toward Broken Top. When we reached the parking area we found a few other cars with bike racks, presumably some Barbie Camp folks that had gotten an earlier start than us and were already on the trail. At about 3000’ higher in elevation than where we were camped, the temps were quite a bit colder and hovering in the high 30s. There were also some clouds moving in which I was sure would drop on us in one form or another, at least at one point in the ride.

Headed toward the upper trailhead

The upper trailhead, at Park Meadow

Within 50 yards of jumping onto the trail we reached a series of blow-down that was blocking the trail – not a good sign right out of the gate… We hiked around 3 or 4 of them before the trail cleared up and we were soon making decent time down the trail. For the first half of the ride, we’d be traveling through an area that was torched by the Pole Creek fire in 2012, which was started by lightning and decimated nearly 26,000 acres. The burned area created a very surreal setting, littered with the charred remains of fallen and standing trees, set against the otherwise barren landscape. The trail was relatively clear, although there was certainly lots of tree bark, trunks and limbs scattered across it in places, which provided a unique and technical challenge. The charred forest also allowed for the occasional views of the Sisters, although they were mostly obstructed by the building cloud cover.

A photo I took back in 2012 of the Pole Creek fire,
during a trip to Bend, while it was burning.

Another shot from the same trip

Roland, starting off on Trail 99

Navigating through the charred remains 

Kim, trying to stay warm during the first bit of the ride.

Catching a few glimpses of South Sister -- not available before the burn

The clouds eventually engulfed us and we were faced with near whiteout conditions once the snow started to fall. It was coming down so heavily that I was having a hard time keeping my eyes clear of the individual flakes that were flying into them. I gave a brief thought to putting on my riding glasses but figured that would also be a lost cause. The whole event did create a rather uncomfortable experience, but at the same time it also provided some really cool photo opportunities, which I couldn't help taking advantage of. The snow was fairly wet, so it wasn’t sticking to the ground, but it certainly made it challenging to keep my camera dry while trying to capture my fellow riders as they rode by.

Arthur finds a nice meadow, as the snow starts to fall.

Started to fall a little harder...

...and, whiteout

Sarah and Kim stay positive, despite the conditions.

Paul enjoying one of the more technical sections on Trail 99.

The snow eventually started to let up as we reached a crossing at a dirt road. By the time we had found the trail on the other side and started to climb, the sun broke through and the clouds started to disperse. The next notable section of trail had us riding along a ridge adorned with the silver skeletons of Manzanita shrubs, which had their skin burned off by the Pole Creek fire. There is obviously a lot of destruction that is caused by a wildfire, but whenever I ride through a burn area, I’m always taken aback by the beauty that eventually rises from its ashes. With an expansive view of the Cascade peaks, the blanket of white manzanita, the bright blue skies and puffy white clouds, this section of the trail was certainly one of the most spectacular burns that I had ever come across.

The sun returns!

The start of the ridge descent 

Manzanita Ridge -- Quite a sight to behold!

Since I had been taking photos further up the trail, I had fallen behind the group a bit. I was a little bummed out when I didn’t find them taking in the views from Manzanita Ridge. It wasn’t until I started dropping down from the ridge that I ran into them. In fact, some in the crew hadn’t stopped at all and we wouldn’t end up seeing them for the remainder of the ride – obviously we had different ride agendas, even within our own group. Those of us that had stopped had a quick snack before continuing on, which also allowed me to grab a couple of snaps of people riding down the remainder of the ridge.

Paul, somewhere along the ridge.

Ken trying his best to keep his eyes on the trail and not the amazing views

Justin, in the heart of Manzanita Ridge.

The trail transitioned to double-track and eventually out of the burn area and into a pine forest setting. At one point we ran into Brad & Michelle, who were part of the group that had chosen to do an out-n-back. Since we had met at their turnaround point, we decided to join forces and head back together. We were now about halfway through our 20+ mile ride and the second half would have us following along a series of trails that are very similar to what you would find in the Phil’s trail network – relatively flat, smooth, and flowy singletrack. We eventually found ourselves at a paved road crossing, which happened to be Three Creeks Lake Rd, the one we had used to drive to the top.

Is this Phil's?

Sarah practices her finish line pose

Michelle takes advantage of the high-speed nature of this section of trail

Paul, in his element.

On the other side of the road, we entered the Peterson Ridge trail network, which like the previous section was reminiscent of the Phil’s area. As soon as we jumped onto Peterson Ridge we were immediately presented with a fork in the trail. A quick group decision sent us off to the east and circling the boundary of the network in a counterclockwise direction. I must admit, I’m not the biggest fan of this type of trail riding, so I was pretty happy when Randy led me through a small detour loop, where the terrain was a little more technical. Unfortunately, it was pretty short and we quickly found ourselves pedaling through some more miles of repetitive singletrack.

Randy takes me on a short detour, seeking out some techie stuff.

We soon found the rest of our group (or what was left of it), who were taking a quick snack break. I used this opportunity to jump out ahead so I could snap some photos of the crew. Just up the trail I came across a small rock garden, which I figured would provide some good photo ops. One by one they rode through, while I did my best to stay out of their way and line of sight.

Justin gets back after it, post snack break.

Ken, taking the Maverick for a ride. 

Michelle navigates a small rock garden, somewhere on Peterson Ridge.

I packed up my gear and saddled back up once the last person had passed. It wasn’t long before I reunited with them at a trail intersection, where they pointed out a small log ride to me, knowing that I was a sucker for them. I was actually a bit surprised that there were a few others that were interested in a quick skinny session. Those of us that decided to play around on the log ride bade a quick farewell to the others before making the short detour to where the log ride was located. It was a pretty straightforward log – fairly low to the ground, with a well-built entrance/exit and wide enough to accommodate a little bit of swerve. Each of us took a couple runs before growing bored and heading back to the main trail.

Randy enters the log ride

The author takes his turn
(photo by Kim McGovern)

The remaining trail between the log ride and camp was fairly uneventful. Within a mile or so we reached a dirt utility road, where we jumped onto a double-track trail that headed southwest toward our camp. The double-track actually deposited us directly across Three Creeks Lake Rd from our camp – quite convenient! Back at camp, we ate some snacks and drank a beer or two, before Jason Snook and I determined that we wanted to get in a few more miles. We quickly decided on Cline Butte, which neither of us had ridden but were quite interested in, being both a descent and technical in nature. After that ride we settled into camp, with amazing food, 2 kegs of beer and a giant bonfire – I would certainly consider my first day at Barbie Camp a burning success!

Sarah  rides the last bit of rocky stuff, near the end of our ride.


Gettin' her started!

Chow time

Typical Barbie Camp affair

A great ending to day one of Barbie Camp

The tracks from our ride: