Thursday, October 16, 2014

Heckletooth Trail, OR (9.27.14)


Starting to feel strong after finally getting in some time on my mountain bike for a few months, I was hoping to jump on the Oakridge epic, “Bunchgrass”. I had done it many years back and remembered it being a spectacular but exhausting adventure ride, complete with amazing views, technical riding, and of course some hike-a-bike (both up & down). Unfortunately, Derrick (at Willamette Mercantile) informed me that the top half of Bunchgrass had an excessive amount of downed trees and that it probably wasn’t worth the effort, unless of course you’re into that type of thing. As much as I enjoy putting myself into situations that often turn into misadventures, I don’t get overly enthusiastic about jumping into something I already know is going to turn into one. Although Bunchgrass, as a whole, had lots of blow-down, he also said that from Lower Bunchgrass down was in decent shape and definitely worth doing. With this beta and a new plan in mind, I went to work, trying to find anyone else that might be interested.

With about half of the normal crew heading to Bend for the weekend and most of the others unavailable due to other plans, there were only 3 of us that would be doing the ride – Emily (my wife), my buddy Scott, and of course myself. The plan was to shuttle to the bottom of “Derrick’s Deadly Switchbacks” and ride from there back into Oakridge. The reason we weren’t planning to shuttle to the top of the switchbacks was due to the additional driving that would required to get there. This would give us about 5 miles worth of trail, before we transitioned onto the standard Heckletooth section of trail, which is much more commonly ridden.

Even though we cut out some of the shuttle by starting at the lower trailhead, it still took quite a while to get there, after we had dropped off Scott’s car, near the Salmon Creek fish hatchery in Oakridge. Furthermore, the trailhead was fairly obscure, and it took us some effort (with help from our GPS) to actually find it. Once we had geared up, we rode the small spur trail that connected the road to the main trail, directly at the bottom of the Deadly Switchbacks.

I think the trailhead is around here somewhere...

Once we reached the bottom of the switchbacks, Emily suggested that we hike our bikes up to the first downed log(s), and then ride down from there. Before I had time to even respond to this wacky idea, she began pushing her bike up the steep/winding trail – of course, I had no other option but to follow… At first the trail started climbing at a reasonable pitch and we continued on and around a few switchbacks, with no signs of blow-down. As the trail started to steepen, our pace slowed, and I found myself huddled over my bike more and more, in an effort to catch my breath. About halfway up, we reached the first series of logs, where we had a decision to make. Since, apparently, we had not tortured ourselves enough, we decided to push on. Eventually we did make it to where the gradient let up at the top of the ridge, although we still had about a ½ mile before we could truly say that we had reached Little Bunchgrass. Not wanting to stop our mission at 90%, we rode up the remainder of trail, until we reached the large Beargrass meadow, which ended up being well worth the additional effort.

Startin' off the ride

Scott, somewhere on the short section of trail between the road and Deadly Switchbacks

You actually have to take another spur trail from the ridge onto the meadow, which may or may not be worth taking your bike, since it’s pretty short -- Scott had decided to ride while both Em and I decided to walk it. Just a little ways down the trail we found a knoll off to our right, where we left the trail and hiked the short distance to the top, hoping to get a nice view over the trees. Although partially obstructed, it was still a great view, especially with the low clouds that had moved in. Once were done taking it in, we headed back to our bikes and prepared to descend the Deadly Switchbacks.

Scott riding the spur trail at Little Bunchgrass

Emily, taking in the view, while the clouds roll in.

Leaving the meadow

After a 1/2 mile or so of uneventful downhill, we reached the switchbacks. I had jumped out ahead so I could setup for some photos in strategic locations. I actually took a pretty good header around one of the lefthanders, which provided both a wakeup call and a convenient opportunity to pull out my camera and wait for the others. Before long Emily came down and setup for the tight lefty, making it about 90% around before having to drop a foot. As we continued down, we attempted and cleaned more than a few of the switchbacks, but there were a few that were just a tad too steep/tight for me to wrap my wheel around. I can certainly imagine cleaning them, but you'll really need to be on your game and warmed up -- Having the nose wheelie and/or pogo method in your arsenal would also be helpful. Even though we weren't able to make them all, we certainly had a great time and a few laughs attempting them!

Emily attempts a tough lefty

And makes a righty

One of the stepper/tighter ones. I actually went up and over
the rock that's blocking the exit, which worked well.

Emily, enjoying the ride!

Rounding one of the last ones

Now at the bottom of the switchbacks, we started the ride that we had originally planned on. The trail headed off in a northwesterly direction as it gradually climbed up toward the top of the ridge. Apparently my memory isn't very good, since I hadn't remembered this section as being much of a climb. It soon became apparent that pushing my bike up 1,200' earlier in the day was going to hamper my pace. It ended up climbing about 500' in a little less than 2 miles, and although it did put a little bit of a hurtin' on me, the old-growth forest that it cut through helped dull the pain -- it was really cool to see large trees like this that had somehow stayed hidden from the logging operations that this area of the country was known for.

Starting off the planned ride

Scott finds his way through the brilliant foliage 


Emily enters one of the more beautiful sections of the trail

Some bigger trees in this area

A 500 year old tree that had been cleared from the trail, after it had fallen.

"500 years old"

Sea of green

more climbing...

Eventually the trail flattened out for a short bit, before dropping into a much anticipated descent. This section of the trail was awesome, with some great technical pitches, including one that dropped down a few rocky switchbacks. Before giving it a go, I scouted out my line, which went about as good as I could have planned for. All too soon we reached the road crossing (NF 5871), which also happened to be the start of the Heckletooth section, where most people choose to begin this ride.

The author inches his way around a fun series of technical switchbacks
(photo by Emily Pfeifer)

Once we had regrouped and downed a snack, we dropped on the Heckletooth Trail, which started with a nice short descent, before starting to climb once again. The climb itself was broken into two parts, with the second being a little tougher as it led to the summit of Heckletooth Mountain. The last pitch to the top is super steep and will force all but the most hardy to dismount and push their bikes up the trail -- of course, I found myself pushing. The view from the top was well worth the effort, especially knowing that we had a great descent ahead of us, which would last all the way back into Oakridge, ~7 miles away (including the road).

What the hell happened to that tree!

Emily finds one of the rare bridges on this trail

More beautiful forest 

Scott, climbing toward Heckletooth Mountain

Great views straight off the trail, thanks to a fire that ripped through here

Scott, with one eye on the view and one on the trail

The view from Heckletooth Mountain makes it a worthy pit stop, and also allows you to catch your breath. If it hadn't taken so long to get to this point, I would have liked to relax for a while and eat a snack, but daylight was burnin' and we needed to continue on.

Looking southeast from Heckletooth Mountain

Looking west, toward Oadridge

From the summit, the trail descends in a hurry, zig-zagging down the hill through a series of tight and loose switchbacks, which all of us walked. Once past the initial pitch, the trail continued down and finally reached some much more manageable switchbacks. Although not as steep as some of the Deadly Switchbacks, there were a few that provided a nice challenge, including one lefthander that dropped down a rocky pitch with a narrow exit -- great stuff! Along with the great riding, there were also some spectacular views in this section, especially with the sun low on the horizon, which draped the hillside in a blanket of warm light. By this time, both Em and Scott were getting tired of being my photography subjects, but I just couldn't help myself. The trail did flatten out for a mile or so before making its final plunge down towards Oakridge, which provided some more great downhill.

Emily starts the descent down from Heckletooth

Scott, in hot pursuit

Typical scenery on the Heckletooth descent

The author on one of the tougher switchbacks on the Heckletooth descent
(photo by Emily Pfeifer) 

Roundin' another one

The author drops another fun techie pitch

Emily, between descents

More exposed side-hill

Emily starts up a short climb

Follow the light

Great lighting and views!

Heading back into the forest

All too soon, the trail turned to double-track and traveled a short distance too the paved road, bringing an end to the awesome singletrack descent. Before riding the remaining two miles of pavement back to the car, we were treated to a small herd of elk, who were hanging out in the yard of a nearby house. We watched them for a few minutes and then rode past, sending them off into the woods and out of sight. By the time we got back to the car, the sun had almost set, and did so by the time we had driven up to retrieve my car. Usually we would have stopped somewhere in Oakridge to grab a bite to eat, but we had been on the trail longer than anticipated and needed to get back home.


Parting thoughts:
I can't believe I don't ride Heckletooth more often, it's such a great trail and offers a technical challenge that most of the rides in this area lack. Combined with some amazing views, this one is really a gem! I think the reason that I don't ride it more often is that I typcially switch over to mountain biking (from kayaking) a little later in the season than most people want to ride it, since it tends to get blown-out/dusty once it dries out. Luckily for us, the trail was in great shape, which I'm sure was due to the recent rain event.

As for the section between the Deadly Switchbacks and typical starting point for Heckletooth, I would say that the trail quality isn't nearly as good, but it really depends on what you're looking for. It does cut through a beautiful section of old growth forest, which was worth the price of admission by itself. Even though we shuttled to the start of it, it still provided plenty of climbing, making it so we didn't feel too guilty.

Putting it all together, it was a great day on the trail with Scott and Emily -- part adventure riding and part classic trail shreddin'. just how I like it!

Tracks from our ride: