Early Season Mountain Biking at Horse Butte

With Central Oregon’s high elevation trails still under snow, Horse Butte has miles of trails for mountain bikers willing to brave a little weather to get back in the saddle.

Despite stormy weather, trails drain quickly and are rideable early in the season.

Located southeast of Bend, the Horse Butte trail system sits at a lower elevation than many of Bend’s west-side trails. This means less snow and sandy soil that drains quickly, making trails rideable early in the season.

Much of the trail is open and exposed, winding through sage and bunch grass, offering spectacular views of the Cascade Range and nearby buttes — when the weather cooperates.

When the wind is howling, the same lack of cover is a drawback. As it was on the day we went out. As we drove to the trailhead, low clouds obscured all but the closest hills. Those same clouds kept temperatures chilly and threatened rain. … which meant I was the one grumbling en route to the ride start. “If it’s raining, I’m going out for coffee,” I complained.

It was, in fact, so cold that I kept my puffy coat (generally used for skiing) on over my cycling gear — something that just doesn’t happen. I was glad to have it and advise all riders to carry an extra layer for early season riding, when temperatures can tumble at a moment’s notice.

On this day the the energy of the group was the only thing that motivated me to quit grumbling and get out of the car. Once we were moving, my body warmed up and I began to enjoy myself.

On the way up this rocky slope, Al broke a chain. Fortunately, he had the tools to fix it & was quickly on his way.

Fortunately, my friends knew the route and started us on the Arnold Ice Cave Trail, which bumps and winds through high desert terrain. While the trailhead is well marked, there’s not a lot of signage at Horse Butte. Study your map before starting, go with someone who knows the area, or plan to do an out and back. You’ll wind through bunch grass and sage, climb up through rocky outcrops, and occasional stands of Ponderosa pines.

There are several underground caves in the area with well-marked entry points. Make a special trip to explore the caves with proper gear. While Arnold Ice Cave and Boyd Cave are open to the public, Skeleton Cave requires a special permit and all caves are closed from November through mid-April 15 to protect bat populations.

Joe checks out a cave opening.

The trails of Horse Butte have only a few really technical sections. However, the trails are less-traveled than Bend’s west-side trails, so tend to be narrow. Sneaker rocks hiding in the grass will snag the pedal of the unwary rider, so despite the friendly nature of the trails, don’t get careless.

You can pick a 10 mile loop or join several trails together to increase your ride to 30 miles or more. Note that some of the trails are shared for use with equestrians. If a horse seems alarmed by your presence, slow down and call out in a friendly voice. Inexperienced horses see a bike and rider as an alarming single entity.

Speaking of scary, there are areas of Horse Butte where you’re likely to hear gunfire from nearby quarries. While the noise is annoying, it’s intermittent and the shooters are a safe distance away.

Our group had a great day despite a brief bout of hail (the weather changes quickly in Central Oregon) and we ended the ride with sunshine and smiles. We’ll be back when the clouds lift for more riding and to take in the mountain views.

Check out maps and more at bendtrails.org

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