Notes from Bend, OR: Leaving for an overnight in the Cascades Lakes
Slowing, I squinted past the posted sign at the trail intersection, at Kent’s Trailhead, just outside of Bend. I followed the line drawn in dirt with my finger, out past my foreground. My gaze blurred, and the recently bloomed sage, dusty earth and juniper bark into one subtle palette—one step beyond pastel towards the shades and values of dust. I closed my eyes, inhaled: spicy warm, mordant, piquant, and bracing. Opening my eyes again, I refocused on the yellowing grasses the same color as the dying sage blooms, fading into the overcast sky. It’s raining and snowing in the mountains, I thought and remounted my bicycle. I kicked up dust from the trail with my toe, and its fine powder concealed the skin on my legs and the leather on my shoes. It began to sprinkle, yes, its definitely raining and snowing in the mountains, too.
It is the end of summer’s dryness, late September, and the temperatures have begun cooling. I rolled ahead, and dust puffed up; I coughed the dry air coating my lungs, and pedaled down the trail winding through the rocks and sage. Two weeks earlier, it had been the perfect climate to bikepack overnights or shorter 2-4 day sections right from my front door in Bend. But late September, the weather can turn, drizzle turning into rain, the cloud cover can mean snow in the mountains, and make overnight camping in the Cascades more difficult. The autumn is a perfect season for mountain biking, usually dry, sunny and warm days, and cool to cold nights. Water sources are usually scarce, however, especially before one starts climbing into the mountains. In autumn, one can expect to go 20 or 30 miles on single track, in the routes leaving from Bend, without water, and fill up at every stream available. Summer, water is more abundant in Central Oregon, the snow melts in spider webs of streams, cascading downward towards the open plains of the high desert, east.
Rolling grassy plains and open sky define the country east of the Cascades. Tapped into the earth are touchstones of gnarled juniper trees, sage, and bunchgrass. We are surrounded by history that unfolds each mile we ride, a history that is wrapped up in our own history, the history of the miners, the settlers, and the ranchers. It feels very familiar, somehow. Fences mark borders between wild grasses, and the sky and land seems to blur into one as clouds cover the mountains to our west in the afternoons.
From Downtown Bend, you can have a cup of coffee then roll out to singletrack at the beginning of your trip. There are several different routes to get you to the Cascade Lakes, (where you can tack on an extra few days of riding if you have food!) or loop back onto singletrack that descends back into Bend the following day. The routes offer beautiful colors, and a wide variety of flora. The trails start off in the high desert sage and juniper of Bend, and transition into pine forests with dark red earth made from decomposed pine needles. The COTA/ IMBA Bend, Oregon Adventure Maps, Inc Trail Map is the perfect companion. Here are a few of my favorite options for overnights:
Bend-Phil's Trailhead: Ben's Trail, Fire Road 310, Skyliner's Trail to Tumalo Creek Trail, which is along Tumalo Creek, and past Tumalo Falls, North Fork Trail to Happy Valley, Metolious/Windego Trail (roughly 30 miles) From there, you are near the lakes, and can choose your own adventure. Note that in the Fall, water is scarce until you get to the lakes. Camp out off the trail, somewhere, there are plenty of flat, hidden areas in the trees. The next day you can go home from two directions. 1. Back track slightly to the Dutchman Sno-Park and take Flagline to Swede Ridge to Upper Whoops and back towards Phil's Trailhead or 2. Head back to Happy Valley, take the 1.1 mile connector north from the North Fork of Tumalo Creek, where you'll find an intersection with Fire Road 370 (which heads North to Three Creek Lake, and is an incredible camping spot for a second night!) and look right to the Mrazek Trail that swoops and flows through higher elevation pine forests and winds its way to rockier, dry, dusty juniper forests on a 14 mile descent back to Bend.
Mrazek to Three Creek Lake Overnight Out-and-Back. Mrazek is fun in both directions, and feels very different each time. The trail is a gradual climb out of Bend until you hit the intersection with Fire Road 370. You can ride FR370 to Three Creek Lake, or you can turn north using the Metolius/Windego trail depending on your brain-fatigue on the single-track. The M/W is more flowy than technical, but it does take concentration. It is also a shared Horse trail, and can be very pitted with horse tracks depending on the time of year. You can't beat the simplicity of this out-and-back route.