The Ring of Fire’s adventure epicenter erupts with seismic pleasures.
By Rob Story | Photographs by Lee Cohen
The hipsters of Bend (full sleeve tatts, square beards) appear to smile with greater frequency than big city hipsters (full sleeve tatts, square beards, tight pants). Beyond the looser trousers, Benders are beaming for a multitude of reasons: the sunny, dry climate in the rain shadow of the Cascades; tasty dining options like Peruvian-Tuscan fusion; downtown’s shimmering Mirror Pond, as lovely as it sounds; and the Bend Ale Trail, a mapped tour of 14 craft breweries honoring Oregon’s infatuation with fermented barley.
But mostly the residents of Bend are happy because the landscape is conducive to funhogging. From white-domed Mount Bachelor to the west drains the riparian ecosystem that is the Deschutes River, and its smaller twin, Tumalo Creek (a full-on river that no one but Oregonians would call “creek”). Rapids and waterfalls churn and thunder down toward Bend between striking buttes, alongside rambling networks of buttery dirt trails. Short jaunts lead to famed rock climbs. In winter, Bachelor and the higher elevation terrain offers much vertical drop to gravity skiers and many a rolling kilometer to the Nordic set.
My buddy Lee and I learned all this while milling about in the immaculate garage of one such tattooed and thickly bearded resident. A few years back, Josh Harvey moved from his chairlift engineer job in Alta, Utah, to a new gig fixing Central Oregon’s Pepsi trucks. Josh’s beard hackles forth, obscuring facial expressions. Still, there’s no hiding his delight in trading bustling Salt Lake City for a ranch house at the end of a Bend cul-de-sac with room in the driveway for a full-size camper trailer.
Sipping a beer on a summery night, Josh traced his finger along the variety of Bend maps in the garage. “Killer waterfall here,” he said. “…and this volcanic caldera has a couple really blue lakes…a sweet place to park the camper a few days…great singletrack here…and here…in fact, I’d call this whole network a ‘must-do.’”
By “network” Josh means bike trails, lots of them. After a day in Bend, you notice tire smudges and chain grease on everyone’s legs. The town embraces cycling. Mountain bikers knife through juniper clusters, doctors bike commute to the hospital, and BMX kids session kickers. Even Bend’s bachelorette parties rely on human-powered locomotion. Witness the Cycle Pub: a bike/trolley/rolling bacchanal on which as many as 16 tipplers sit around a bar and pedal while another (ostensibly sober) person steers.
We first tasted the two-wheeled mania on the Deschutes River Trail. We lit out from a pine-shaded parking lot and commenced upriver, dipping and cornering merrily past random kayakers and fly fishermen on the water. We rode a bridge to the other side and engaged a steep hill. We’d just crested when a chain snag violently slapped my rear derailer. I wrenched the mechanism back into position, away from the spokes it had attacked, but it was blown.
Luckily, we were scant minutes from one of Bend’s 12 bike shops. Half an hour later, my 29er was whole again. Hustling back to the river trail, we passed an intriguing billboard for Sleep Factory. It accompanied a close-up of a highly engaged mountain biker with the tag: THIS IS NO PLACE TO BE TIRED. One assumes mattresses are not marketed this way in Chicago.
If you think of the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire as an American freeway belt route—and, hey, who doesn’t?—adrenaline-hopped Bend would occupy the Oregon suburbs, near the Mt. Bachelor on-ramp. Enter the northbound lanes for Mounts Hood, Rainier, and Baker; or head south toward Shasta, Lassen, and Popocatépetl.
Bend’s 81,236 inhabitants enjoy gazing out their backyards at the Ring of Fire’s distinct cones. Many days, however, find the white-capped summits cloaked by lazy clouds. With all water vapor trapped to the west, Bend bathes in glorious sunshine. Whereas the western part of the state seems all beavers and moss, Central Oregon is jackrabbits and sagebrush.
The semi-arid climate of this high desert (elevation: 3,623 feet) amounts to hot sunny days followed by nights that are frequently 35 degrees colder. Humidity is virtually unknown. As a result, Bend—which sprang to life in the early 1900s as a logging town—is now famed as a gateway for all manner of outdoor sports, including—in addition to the standards—stand up paddleboarding, paragliding, and, of course, Cycle Pubbing.
Enter, if you will, another garage—this one belongs to Five Ten athlete and native Bender Greg Garretson, who ditched high school to climb the renowned basalt cliffs at Smith Rock State Park in Redmond, just a few miles northeast of his truant officer. Garretson, 37, credits Smith Rock for “developing fingers fatter than my ankles.” Not that climbing alone keeps him in his hometown: “Everything here is relatively insane,” he declares, further raving about “Oregon pinot noir, microbrew, music, and Wild & Scenic Rivers.”
Garretson’s garage doesn’t have room for a car. Instead, it holds free weights, a mountain bike, snowmobile, and something odd: an indoor climbing wall on an infinite loop. A variety of holds and problems adhere to a garage door’s belted aluminum slats: Turn the contraption on, and the whole thing spins around gears, allowing Garretson to train in place, but with perpetually new challenges. The machine is a metaphor for Bend, which, incidentally, is named for a curve in the Deschutes River. Set yourself down here and fun just circles your way.
Mirror Pond (the inspiration for Deschutes Brewery’s ale of the same name) sparkles dead center in the city. Flanked by seven verdant parks, it’s where joggers, cyclists, and Frisbee dogs come to play. Moving outward in progressively larger orbits, we come to a gleeful abundance of bike paths, including the curvy ribbons off Skyliners Road where aggressive mountain bikers get their berm on. The tracks range from buttery-soft dirt to technical rock gardens and screaming downhills.
Circumscribe Bend’s outer perimeter to discover the renowned climbing that is Smith Rock or join sightseers that marvel at Tumalo Falls pummeling over an 89-foot sheer drop, accessed via an easy 2.5-mile riverside trail. To the west is Mt. Bachelor, the highest elevation ski resort in the Pacific Northwest with its loooong season and gentle pitches. Southeast lies Newberry National Volcanic Monument, occupying the caldera of the Cascades’ largest volcano.
Lee suspected old snow would dash our late-May plan to mountain bike around Newberry’s Crater Rim Trail, which peaks at 7,600 feet. Turns out, he was right. In a field of unridable, ankle-deep slush, he screamed: “I told you so, stench-cuddler!”
“Who cares about the damn snow, crimper!” I yelled back, desperately scanning the monument pamphlet. “We’re…in a dome that collapsed 500,000 years ago, fer chrissakes! Why don’t…you…appreciate…that this ocean of lava was used by NASA astronauts in the 1960s to train for the surface of the moon.”
My salient points failed to calm the enraged Utahan. He whipped his bike around and pedaled furiously back to the trailhead. An hour later—mellowed by a rare cribbage victory and a sun-splashed beer alongside Newberry’s deep blue Paulina Lake (at 250 feet, one of Oregon’s deepest) Lee regained his bonhomie. That’s how it goes in Bend: Once folks peel off the spandex, grab a brew, and scope a pleasant body of water, even tightly strung Beehive State victims chill.
Some of Central Oregon’s finest riding takes place 20-odd miles northwest of Bend near the manicured, conifer-charmed municipality of Sisters. (Interestingly, 50 miles east of sweet, pretty Sisters is a lazy, barren, shiftless town called, you guessed it, Brothers.)
We arrived in the usual way: Lee’s bike standing tall atop the roof rack, mine lying sickly on its side in what was left of his rooftop cargo box. It was as if my beloved bike was in need of a bedpan.
Oh, we’d departed Salt Lake City with the rocket box intact. Shortly after crossing the Idaho line, however, a horrific noise rattled the car. Next: the screeching roar of hard plastic shearing. We watched in the sideview mirrors as our possessions and cargo box shrapneled Interstate 84.
A terrifying game of human Frogger retrieved the gear. The topless cargo box, though, had been rendered into a cargo casserole dish. No room left in the car, it now held my seemingly incontinent bike. We traveled hundreds of miles in this manner, with the other gear stuffed to the ceiling of Lee’s Jetta.
Anyway: Sisters. The place sounds like a nunnery, but is in fact named after Three Sisters, a triple-headed “complex volcano” on the east edge of the Cascades that contains three of Oregon’s five highest peaks. South Sister, the tallest at 10,358 feet, remains active. Like my ex-wife, it could blow its top at any time. [Editor’s note: budump bump. Who are you, Henny Youngman?]
We never got all the way to the Three Sisters, which are known for their climbing, scrambling, and peak bagging. Instead, we blindly followed an outdated guidebook’s directions to a Sisters trailhead.
Published in 1998, the cover of Mountain Biking Bend shows a scared, purple-clad rider in roadie Lycra stiffly piloting a fully rigid abomination with skinny tires and bar-ends. Could we trust it? The book obviously came out long before the trail network took its current name, Peterson Ridge. While Mountain Biking Bend promised 9.4 miles of singletrack, Peterson Ridge actually boasts nearly 25 miles of flowy, smooth trail—a huge loop that branches off onto 14 connectors in a spectacular orgy of tacky dirt.
Peterson Ridge is one of those magical mountain bike destinations where you can exhilarate for one hour or five. A setting sun nudged us off after three, so we loaded up the bedpan and tore up a Forest Service road, scouring the woods for a campsite.
The map implied two campgrounds lay shortly ahead. The map failed to mention the road being closed at a trailhead parking lot. Fortunately, sturdy restrooms anchored the lot, because Lee’s digestive tract had suddenly morphed into a Ring of Fire of its own.
Lee emerged expressing thanks for taxpayer-funded TP. Damn, I thought, we’re gonna have to camp right here. And that’s when I saw the warming hut.
The plywood refuge for backcountry skiers and snowmobilers was closed for the season and locked. But I located the key in seconds; it appeared intentionally findable. Figuring the hut’s outdoorsy Oregon operators would take pity on poor, volcanic Lee (a comrade in mountain sports), we stepped in and unfurled sleeping bags.
A billion stars dotted the high-desert sky that night. While Lee spun laps to the loo, I gazed out the hut and envied the tattooed hipsters, REI co-op members, and buzzed Cycle Pubbers lucky enough to live in Bend. I gave my own back a pat for discovering a fantastic, new (to me anyway) hotspot of the American West.
See, I’ve been everywhere, man, I’ve been everywhere. For a quarter century, my career has involved travel and adventure. In the process, I’ve trodden all these United States; Oregon was, oddly, No. 50. Don’t make the same mistake. Circumambulate to Bend right away. Dawdling could put you behind a guy with Utah plates launching cargo-box ordnance at your windshield.
From the Early Summer 2015 issue.