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Your Guide to Mountain Bike Trails in Oregon’s Old Cascade Crest

By Matt Wastradowski

Just east of the Willamette Valley, where the region’s farms and vineyards give way to the forested foothills of the Cascade Range, sits a mountain range that hides in plain sight: the Old Cascades.

The Old Cascades, also known as the Western Cascades, is a mountain range that predates the more famous Cascade Range (home to Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, the Three Sisters, and other iconic peaks) by millions of years. The Old Cascade peaks don’t rise quite as high—but still offer views from wide-open summits, meadows covered in colorful wildflowers, old-growth forests of Douglas fir, and more. Nearby, the basalt-clad Santiam Canyon surrounds the crystal-clear Santiam River and its tributaries—showcasing a changing ecosystem with every bend in the river.

In recent years, volunteers have worked to make this region more accessible by restoring a century-old trail network and turning the Old Cascades and Santiam Canyon into premier mountain biking destinations. Read on for more insight on this fascinating region, trail recommendations for avid riders, and tips for staying safe and having fun.

The Old Cascades, the traditional home of the Santiam, Molalla and Kalapuya people, comprises a mix of extinct volcanoes and lava flows that may be up to 40 million years old. Erosion has worn down the highest summits in the Old Cascades. (The range’s tallest peaks are about 5,800 feet tall—less than half the height of Mount Hood, Mount Rainier, and other mountains in the younger Cascade Range.) Nevertheless, the Old Cascades are still home to thriving forests of mountain hemlock and Douglas fir, breezy meadows, jagged rock formations, and scenic vistas. Those landscapes provide the perfect backdrop for the Old Cascade Crest Trail Area—a network of mixed-use trails that head to the crest of the ancient mountain range.

A network of century-old trails are currently being restored by a group of advocates and volunteer trail builders who are eager for riders to experience the forested Santiam Canyon and the Old Cascade Crest’s exposed ridges, forested slopes and sweeping viewpoints. Here are a few popular trails for beginner and experienced riders alike. (For additional ideas and inspiration, check out the Oregon Timber Trail’s 10 Memorable Mountain Bike Rides in Oregon’s Old Cascade Crest.)

The Scar Mountain Traverse is a 6.2-mile (round-trip) ride that gains about 1,200 feet and is considered a moderate route. Along the way, cyclists pass exposed ridgelines that afford views of Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson, navigate compact switchbacks, and ascend to the summit of Scar Mountain—one of the region’s best-loved peaks. This ride can be done as a loop—or a one-way outing with a shuttle. If doing all 6.2 miles, give yourself about two hours on the trail.

No matter your skill level, you’ll find plenty to love about Trappers Butte. New to the sport? The Trappers Butte climb is gentle and gradual, while the descent that follows is fast and flowy. Looking for more of a challenge? The trail’s tight switchbacks cut through groves of colorful rhododendron bushes and forests of mountain hemlock.

In all, the moderate Trappers Butte ride measures about 10.4 miles, with 1,600 feet of well-graded elevation gain. The ride typically takes about three hours.

Near the southeastern edge of the Old Cascade Crest sits the Old Santiam Wagon Road—a 10.3-mile (one-way) route that follows the path of a historic road that once ascended through the Cascade Range and into Central Oregon. Today, the path gains about 363 feet while following bubbling creek beds and cutting through towering stands of Douglas fir. This easy ride takes most riders about 2-3 hours, though cyclists will want a vehicle at both trailheads. 

Trail Note: that signage is infrequent and poorly marked along the Old Santiam Wagon Road and throughout the Old Cascades, so cyclists should download Ride with GPS routes of the Old Cascade Crest rides to their phone for help with navigation and wayfinding.

For more inspiration, check out 10 exciting mountain bike rides in the Santiam Canyon and Old Cascade Crest. And if you’d rather let an expert lead the way, consult with one of the area’s outfitters—such as Trans Cascadia Excursions and Horse Creek Lodge & Outfitters—to see whether a guided trip might be right for you.

Before you strap on your helmet and hit the trail, you’ll want to keep a few tips in mind for having a safe, fun outing.

Plan to ride trails in the Santiam Canyon and across the Old Cascade Crest between early July and October; otherwise, chances are good the trails will be covered in snow and inaccessible. Downed logs and swarms of mosquitoes may impede travel in July and early August.

Wide swaths of the Santiam Canyon burned in a massive wildfire in 2020—and remain at risk for wildfires today. Before heading out, check with the Sweet Home Ranger District of the Willamette National Forest to see if there are any closures or recommendations to avoid certain areas. And while you’re on the trail, take care to start campfires only in established campfire rings—and please put a fire out (ensuring it’s cool to the touch) when finished.

Mountain bike users should generally yield to horseback riders and hikers on the trail; try to stop, dismount on the downhill side of the path, and greet other trail-goers so they know that it’s okay to pass.

Pack along a helmet, bike repair kit, first-aid kit, plenty of water, and anything else you might need while riding; services are non-existent, the nearest communities may be 45-60 minutes away, and cell service is inconsistent at best. In addition, some of those nearby communities (such as Detroit and Idanha) continue to rebuild after wildfires in 2020—and may have limited eateries, grocery stores, and overnight stays.

Curious to learn more? The trails covered here are all part of the broader Oregon Timber Trail—a collection of mountain biking routes and experiences in rural communities and backcountry forests. So if you’re excited to see where else you can explore around the Old Cascade Crest and across the broader Oregon Timber Trail, check out our in-depth guide to mountain bike rides in the Santiam Canyon and Old Cascade Crest.

This article was produced with support from the Oregon Timber Trail Alliance and Travel Salem. Photos by Gabriel Amadeus. 

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