June 28, 2017
From Oakridge, Oregon
By John Rezell
Despite forecasts of relentless rain for the weekend, blue skies glow through a long sun break as I roll to a stop along the Middle Fork Trail amid the roar of early-spring runoff rushing down the hillside at the aptly named Spring Butte Creek.
While rugged, hand-built wooden bridges traverse the major creek crossings along this inviting trail that follows the Middle Fork Willamette River, this creek offers a pleasant little cooling splash in the summer and autumn as you ride straight through a few inches of trickling water. Today it appears nearly two feet deep.
Just a few minutes into my ride on one of the northern sections of this 35-mile hidden gem, I’m not thrilled about the prospect of getting my cleats soaked.
I grab my mountain bike and tightrope over a fallen log across the creek — not the easiest task wearing bicycle cleats, but I survive.
The joyful challenges of the Middle Fork Trail (#3609) offer some of the best mountain biking in the Northwest as it winds through a lush mix of trees including Douglas fir, hemlock, Western red cedar, bigleaf maple and cottonwood. Bright white Western trilliums pop out against the sea of green moss and sword ferns.
Oakridge, Oregon humbly calls itself the mountain-biking capital of the Northwest. I say humbly because no grandiose sign at the city limits boasts its claim. If you didn’t know its reputation for stellar trails, little evidence appears when you roll through town.
Unlike other mountain-bike havens that walk the talk, there aren’t packs of mountain bikers rolling around town or loud colorful billboards touting touristy businesses.
If you aren’t paying attention as you drive south on Highway 58, about a 45-minute drive from Eugene, you might miss the old west wooden storefront of the Willamette Mountain Mercantile and its herd of dual-suspension mountain bikes lined up out front.
If the Oregon Adventures Shuttle or Cogwild vans aren’t around, well, Oakridge feels like any other inviting mountain town that makes everyone feel at home whether you are there to hit the trails or just stopping for lunch or a beer.
I’ve been riding the trails around Oakridge for more than 11 years, and while the town’s reputation has slowly spread, its cozy, friendly ambience hasn’t changed a bit — not in 2011 when the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) designated it a Silver Level Ride Center, nor in 2015 when it attained Gold Level status.
What the Gold Level means is that Oakridge has something for every level of mountain biker.
The shuttle services will take you to the top of a number of thrilling trails, including the Middle Fork, the Alpine Trail and the Dead Mountain Trail and pick you up at the bottom.
Call me old school, but I prefer to savor mountain biking in smaller, bite-size slices.
The many creeks flowing into the Middle Fork Willamette River create one photo op after another. The Willamette pops in and out of view with plenty of places to stop and soak hot feet in the summer, but the peace and quiet provide the biggest lure for me.
Even during Oakridge’s busiest season from June to August you won’t find yourself endlessly dodging others as you do in other mountain-bike meccas.
The Middle Fork Willamette flows into Hill Creek Reservoir. There are plenty of camping spots all along Forest Road 21, as well as other trails for hiking and biking. Oakridge trails cater to any level rider, and off Forest Road 21 the Larison Creek Trail is one of those.
Closer to town, Salmon Creek Trail is great for beginning mountain bikers — my first taste of it came with a Trip for Kids ride with many youngsters hitting a trail for the first time, with few problems.
Oakridge is just big enough to have its own brewery, Brewers Union Local 180, as well as numerous dining and overnight options.
On the way home, most folks return from Oakridge boasting about discovering a secret hideaway unscathed by the modern march to make every getaway indistinguishable from the next.
John “Raz” Rezell is editor of OutdoorsNW and has spent countless hours mountain biking around Oakridge. Visit our ONWard blog at OutdoorsNW.com throughout the month of July for Raz’s videos and slideshows of Oakridge and its mountain biking trails.