BEND, Ore. — Sometimes, during our crisp, clear autumn days here in Central Oregon, it is better to seek out the open desert to soak up the warm sunshine rather than be tucked deep in the shade of ponderosa pines.
The Horse Butte area is the perfect place to ditch the pines — which line most of our region’s single-track west of Bend — and ride through open sagebrush country. Located just southeast of Bend, the Horse Butte Trailhead gives mountain bikers access to trails that can remain ridable throughout most of the winter.
The area is to be avoided during the summer, though, when the trails are choked with dust.
Last week, the Horse Butte trails, tinged with the frost of the High Desert fall, were in tiptop shape. And the sun shined on me for nearly all 12 miles of a memorable loop ride.
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The Coyote Loop Trail and Arnold Ice Cave Trail (Trail 63) form a loop of about 10 miles that can be ridden in either direction. I started out on the Arnold Ice Cave Trail to ride the loop clockwise.
The trails traverse the burn where the 1996 Skeleton Fire scorched 17,000 acres, opening up sprawling views in every direction and leaving behind sagebrush and bare juniper trees.
To the west, I could see nearly all the prominent Cascade peaks of Oregon: Mount Bachelor, the Three Sisters, Broken Top, Mount Washington, Mount Jefferson — even Mount Hood to the far north on the extremely clear day.
The trails near Horse Butte include a relative dearth of climbing or elevation change, and they are not especially technical, making them ridable for all skill levels. But riders should be wary of rocks and thick brush along the trail that can smack their pedals and surprise them.
I was caught off guard and sent sprawling over the handlebars by one such rock. I was uninjured, but I certainly felt it the next morning.
Several years ago, I would ride by myself on the Horse Butte trails and not see another soul. This time around, I came across five or six other mountain bikers.
The word is out, and more and more fat-tire enthusiasts are realizing that their sport is year-round in Central Oregon.
Aside from Horse Butte, other locations such as Horse Ridge (southeast of Bend off U.S. Highway 20), Maston (southwest of Redmond off Cline Falls Highway), the Radlands in Redmond and Smith Rock State Park/Gray Butte in Terrebonne offer perfect mountain biking conditions throughout much of the fall and winter.
It is extremely important that all user groups cooperate in areas like Horse Butte, where frequent users include hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers and equestrians. I came across one horseback rider last week and made my presence known, so as not to startle her horse. She thanked me, let me pass, and I continued on my way.
While the trails at Horse Butte are prime for biking this time of year, they also allow for access to lava caves. Sure, you can drive down China Hat Road to find some of these caves, but getting there via mountain bike seems to add a sense of adventure.
I followed the signs on the trail to Boyd Cave, located about a quarter of a mile north from the Coyote Loop Trail along Forest Road 560.
Boyd Cave is one of three lava caves in the Deschutes National Forest that are open and accessible to the public, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The others are the Arnold Ice Cave and the South Lava Ice Cave.
I walked down the access stairs and stepped into the dark cave — eerily dark. Unfortunately, I failed to plan ahead and bring a headlamp or flashlight, but that did not affect the sense of wonder I felt while stepping down into the lava tube.
The lava caves were formed thousands of years ago from crusts of solidified lava that grew over the top of flowing lava, according to the U.S. Forest Service. When the eruption that produced the lava stopped, the lava drained out of most of the lava tube, forming the cave.
Boyd Cave is a well-preserved lava tube with little collapse and a total length of about 1,880 feet, according to the Forest Service.
I headed back up the steps, into the bright sunlight, and back on my way.
On the ride back to the trailhead I stopped a couple of times, just to take in the quiet of the desert and the warmth of the sun.
Before long, the bitter cold of winter will arrive.
But hearty mountain bikers can count on places to ride in Central Oregon.