Thursday, June 26, 2014

Alsea Falls Trail System, OR (Opening Day, 6.22.2014)

Oregon certainly has a lot of mountain biking areas to choose from, and you can now add another high quality series of trails to the list – Alsea Falls! I first heard about this area during its early stages, from one of my good buddies and key figures in its development, Eric Emerson. Eric, along with the rest of the Alsea Falls Trail Builders (Team Dirt - IMBA chapter) were hard at work establishing the first phase – currently, 6 miles of trail (of a planned 20+). Although there were a few existing mixed-use trails that would be revitalized, they were mostly working from scratch, drawing on their previous trail building experience and vision to guide them. The work started in late 2013 ( in coordination with the BLM), and between then and now there have been many trail build days, all of which I unfortunately missed. For the record, I blame my absence on one of my other great passions, whitewater kayaking, which was in prime season.

Fast forward a few months, when I received a Facebook invite from Eric to attend the opening day for the Alsea Falls MTB trail system (phase 1). The event would have shuttle support as well as food and Team Dirt merchandise for sale, with the proceeds from this fundraiser going right back into trail building/advocacy! Feeling a little guilty about not getting my hands dirty building trails, I paid for my shuttle pass (which was a bargain) and volunteered my photography services for the event. With the opening day scheduled for June 22nd, a Sunday, I decided to get in a road ride at Crater Lake on Saturday, which was also having an event – a vehicle free day on East Rim Drive! If you own a bike and are in the area during this event, drop everything and do it, you won’t be disappointed. Here is a trip report I did from the vehicle free day in 2013.

Still a little tired from my Crater Lake road ride, I didn’t get as early of a start as I would have liked, so I wouldn’t be catching the first shuttle ride of the day. By the time I got to Alsea Falls (about an hour drive from Eugene) it was around 10:30am, and by the time I was ready to ride it was nearly 11am. At the check-in table I was greeted by Amanda, Eric’s fiancée, who is also a friend of mine. After signing the waiver and putting on my name tag, I found Eric and gave him a big bro-hug, before loading up in the back of the box truck, which would be taking me and my bike to the top of the hill. After we had stuffed 15 to 20 of us in the back, the driver fired up the engine and we rolled out. Luckily the road is paved so it wasn’t too unpleasant, even with the few bumps along the way. As we made our way up the hill, I studied the trail map that I had grabbed from the check-in table. At this point in the trail area's life, it appeared that we would have two main avenues to get back down to the bottom; 1) “High Baller” into “Springboard”, or 2) “Bailout” into “Dutchman”. Since the former was the new / mountain bike specific trails, I wanted to hit those first!

One by one we unloaded from the back of the truck and made any final adjustments before dropping into High Baller. Since I was planning to take photos, I tried to jump out ahead and set up before the others came through. I had brought plenty of lenses to play with and the weight in my pack certainly reflected that. The first part of the trail was quite narrow with lots of twists and turns, and even a few roots to deal with. Before long I pulled over at what I thought would be a good spot and broke out the camera gear. By the time I was setup most of the riders had ridden past, but I did get a few of the riders near the back, which included a tandem --- how cool is that?!

A typical root crossing near the start of High Baller

Givin' chase

Jim Collins on the top part of High Baller

Jon Robson settles into a groove


After everyone had cruised by, I loaded back up and headed down the trail, which continued its narrow/techie character for a bit. Eventually the trail widened and entered a flowy section, complete with high banked turns to rail around. Of course I had to stop at a few of these to set up for more photos, and luckily I had some time before the next truckload of riders started coming down. Knowing that it would be a little bit, I decided to try some off-camera flash, which I had never done before, at least for action photography. Although flash only adds a fourth element to exposure (the others being shutter speed, aperture, and ISO), it adds a great deal more of control and complexity -- getting your light’s location and intensity dialed in is a real challenge but can also make for some amazing shots!
Just about the time I had my light & camera set, and taken a couple of test shots, I heard the next pack of bikers off in the distance and headed towards me. As they came through, I fired off a shot for each rider, since the flash really doesn't allow you to shoot in burst mode. I actually spent more than an hour in this section of the trail, trying different lighting setups (i.e. angle, location, exposure, flash power), which gave me many photos that were pretty bad but also some that I rather liked. Here are a few of the better ones from the bermed section of upper High Baller.

In the middle of the berm section of upper High Baller

Lovin' the burms

Terry Tiessen gets high on the turn

Another rider, another shot

Finishing up the turn

Jon Gustavson leans into it

Tim Maddux on yet another banked turn

Michelle Emmons and Shawn Litson, enjoying the flow on Upper High Baller

After spending more than enough time on upper High Baller, I once again packed everything up and headed down the trail to find another good spot. Not far below the trail dropped onto a road, before immediately heading into lower High Baller. The lower section continues the flow while also kicking it up a notch, offering more banked turns, some high speed sections, and some nice kickers to get some air, if you so choose. Even though there is potential to 'go big', it's certainly not mandatory -- this is what makes this trail so cool, it can be enjoyed by just about anyone with a dirt friendly bike. While taking photos in this section I saw folks of all ages and abilities, and the two were not necessarily linked; in fact a couple of the younger kids were really throwin' it out there! One thing that was universal was that everyone seemed to be having an amazing time and really enjoying the trail.

A youngster going big!

Followed by another. "Hey, what are you lookin' at?!"

Another rider on lower High Baller

A great trail for everyone!

Diggin' into one of the great turns on lower High Baller

Finishing the turn with speed

One of the faster sections on High Baller

Look, more berms

All too soon, lower High Baller ended at a road crossing, but the fun did not, as "Springboard" started immediately on the other side. Although it is only rated as a green (High Baller is rated as a blue), it was still thoroughly entertaining. Basically it felt like one long pump-track, with a few tight switchbacks thrown in for good measure. There are also some nice straight shots to speed through, but be careful, because at least one of the turns can really sneak up on you. I must say, I was really impressed with how well this trail pumped, and once you got into a rhythm, you could build up some nice speed without pedaling and rarely braking -- now that's flow! The way this trail is routed also gives you an impressive length of downhill, for a fairly minimal amount of elevation loss. This really gives you some bang for your buck, especially when you don't have shuttle assistance. Another thing to note about this trail is that although it's mainly downhill, there is a mild amount of climbing and even the pumping can tire you out a bit; all in all it makes for a pretty good workout. Eventually, Springboard intersected with another trail (Dutchman), where the gradient tapered off and the trails led back to the bottom trailhead. There were still some fun bits in there, but nothing like the stuff above.

Somewhere on Springboard

Watch out for this turn

Exiting the turn

Larry Desaulniers finds some sun

Trevor Griesmeyer in a speed section

A great pump section on Springboard

In the zone

More great terrain

Michelle Kinser finds some flow

One of the young guns gets ready for some jumps

Gettin' a boost

Finishing up a fun series of jumps

Now back at the bottom, I went up to my car to eat lunch, before heading back up in the shuttle truck for another round. This time I didn't take as many photos and spent more time just enjoying the trail. On my third time down the mountain, I decided to ride upper High Baller and then head south to take Bailout and Dutchman down. It is my understanding that in the future both of these trails will be designated as climbing only, which from what I saw would make a lot of sense. They certainly aren't flow trails and are more similar to the type of riding you would find in Oakridge -- hiking trails that are used by mountain bikers and other users, as opposed to MTB specific trails. That said, they're still super fun, just more of an XC style affair. Since I was trying to get down to the bottom before the last shuttle left, I didn't get any photos of these trails. Although, since I didn't see anyone else on them, the photos would have been pretty boring anyways. For the record, I didn't make it to the bottom in time to catch the shuttle... =(

After hanging out at the bottom parking area for a bit, I biked the short distance up the road to my car, where I changed back into my street clothes and loaded up my bike before leaving. I did make one more stop at Alsea Falls before heading back to Eugene, since I had never seen it before. Of course I'm always looking at creeks and waterfalls through the lens of a kayaker -- Unfortunately, some wood buildup near the bottom of the falls has rendered it unrunnable, at least for more reserved boaters like myself.

If you read the above, it will come as no surprise that I really loved the new Alsea Falls trail system, even if it is a bit limited for the time being. I think that Team Dirt did a fantastic job both designing and building trails that are/will be enjoyable to riders of all skill levels, which was especially important to do for the first phase. The flow of both lower High Roller and all of Springboard are probably the best I've ever experienced -- this includes all of my riding in BC, as well as nearby Blackrock. Speaking of Blackrock, it would be hard not to compare these trails to Bonsai Downhill, its flagship flow trail. Probably the most notable difference between the two is that the trails at Alsea are formed entirely from dirt; in other words, you won't find any wood stunts/sections on these trails. Another nice feature is that the trailheads are very well marked, with signage at every trailhead, and a few boards with an easy to read trail map (.pdf can be found here).

Typical trail signage

A huge shout out to Team Dirt, the BLM, and any other volunteers/donors that helped make this new ride area possible. The first phase is amazing, and based on turnout/feedback from opening day, it's going to be very popular. I'm already looking forward to my next visit to the area and can't wait to get Emily and other friends out there to experience it for themselves. I'm also excited about the next phase, which is already being planned; maybe this time I'll actually go out and get my hands dirty to help make it happen!

A typical lap at Alsea Falls (riding up the road and down High Baller & Springboard:


  1. Great write-up!

    Note: I heard that Eric asked if it would be OK for us to (re)post this on the website, and he said you gave approval. If this is in error, please contact me and I'll take the post down. It is here:

    Note: I made one edit - in the last paragraph I changed "shootout" to "shout out".

    1. No problem at all, I'd be stoked to have you share it!
      BTW, thanks for the heads-up on the typo, it's now been changed on my write-up as well.

  2. It's a good start. They need to take advantage of the steep terrain and build some expert trails to make it worth the drive. My volunteer time is taken up working on my local trails. I hope some Eugene guys give there labor and input into the system.