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Blazing a New Oregon Trail Oregon/Washington BLM



Blazing a New Oregon Trail

How the BLM and a group of mountain biking enthusiasts joined forces to create the first sustainable mountain bike path near Portland, Oregon.

story by Zach Jarrett
photos by Anna Laxague, International Mountain Biking Association

Then: Traversing a vast swath of the North American continent from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, the Oregon Trail has provided a vital overland route for nearly half a century. Settlers, ranchers, miners, and business folks began using the trail all the way back in 1841 to reach new opportunities in the Pacific Northwest. These explorers traveled by foot, over wagon trails, on horseback, and by boat, often taking up to six months to travel the grueling terrain.

Now: Fast forward to 2010, and the formidable route of yesteryear has been replaced by a whole new type of "Oregon Trail." A ribbon of dirt featuring bermed corners, roots, rocks, and other technical features. The transportation of the past? A 1,300-pound prairie schooner loaded down with everything imaginable including your children. Transportation of the present? A 25-pound, 27-speed carbon fiber mountain bike capable of covering 80 miles a day and transforming a simple trail into a roller coaster through the woods.

Lewis and Clark never imagined a trail quite like this.

Transportation of the Present?

A 25-pound, 27-speed carbon fiber mountain bike capable of covering 80 miles a day and transforming a simple trail into a roller coaster through the woods.

In 2009, the Bureau of Land Management's Salem District finished a planning effort that covered approximately 15,000 acres of land within the Sandy River Basin located between Portland and Mt. Hood. A key piece of this plan was to address the growing demand for outdoor recreation. With the urban center of Portland sitting just over 30 minutes from the Sandy River Basin, the BLM saw the opportunity to improve recreational opportunities for a large population. Hundreds of public comments were received during a three-year planning process indicating that there is a general lack of mountain bike opportunities on the Western slopes of Mount Hood and virtually no trails for mountain bikers that are less than a 45-minute drive from the Portland metro area. A series of open houses, public meetingsand design sessions yielded concrete recommendations: New non-motorized trails are needed along the Mount Hood Scenic Byway and improved river access is needed along the Sandy River.

As the West was settled and metro areas became increasingly more populated, residents have looked to escape the hustle and bustle of city living for recreational activities close to home. People want to get outside, clear their mind from unwanted stress, and, most importantly, have a little fun. No doubt about it, we've become settled. Isn't it time we reversed this process?With final approval of the Sandy River Basin Integrated Management Plan in May 2009, the way was cleared to implement these recommendations. Last year, five miles of new non-motorized trails were completed within the Sandy Ridge Trail System. The system is part of a larger recreation area being developed in cooperation with Clackamas County that will provide river access, historic interpretation and high-quality mountain biking from a centralized location. More is on the way in 2010, with five to six additional miles scheduled for completion. Once completed, this project will offer mountain biking opportunities for all ability levels and riding styles. "Bring your 9-inch travel bike or your rigid single speed. Just be ready for a ripping good time," said Anna Laxague, Pacific Northwest Regional Director for the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA).

Filling a Niche

The Sandy Ridge project has been strategically developed to proactively provide recreation opportunities that are appropriately located, built according to sustainable standards, and encompassing of progressive mountain bike trail design techniques. High visitor use numbers at the Sandy Ridge trails speak volumes about its popularity to bikers in the area and the high quality trail experience it provides. Laxague describes the riding experience in glowing terms. "A tasty ribbon of dirt flowing through an old-growth forest. The constant twists, trees, and booters hold the rider's attention. Short climbs can be blasted like on a pump track – maintain your speed and you'll find minimal need to pedal. I'm not sure I've ever been on a trail quite like this one. It's half resort area descending, half back-country single-track. Somebody pinch me."

Laxague isn't the only fan of this new opportunity. Over 1,400 visitors per month use the Hide and Seek trail, the first phase of trail construction completed within the Sandy Ridge project. The BLM estimates that approximately 2,200 visitors each month will utilize this system after the next phase of trail development is completed by the fall of 2010. Local businesses have already seen an increase in travel and tourism-related spending as recreationists flock to the communities of Sandy, Brightwood, Welches, and Wemme.

Sharing the Land

The BLM is challenged with managing this area into the future. How can the agency provide a high quality experience that does not degrade the natural resources that these very experiences are dependent upon? Enter the BLM's partners. To create and maintain this trail system, the BLM has worked with a number of stakeholders and youth crews to alleviate the long term operations and maintenance costs by creating a trail-based community outreach that has fostered a grass roots approach to its management.

The Northwest Trail Alliance (NWTA) is the largest mountain bike trail advocacy group in the State of Oregon and an IMBA affiliated chapter. With over 250 active members, NWTA has signed an Adopt a Trail Agreement with the BLM to organize volunteer trail work parties, to provide oversight and recommendations on necessary trail maintenance projects, and to distribute visitor use information. At this time, the NWTA has provided over 2,000 hours of volunteer support on the project. While volunteer user groups and NWTA have been busy maintaining trails within the project area, a number of youth groups have been instrumental in new trail construction. In 2009 and 2010, over 10,000 hours of youth labor invested on the project. Members from Columbia River Environmental Youth Corps, Northwest Youth Corps (see more on page 26 of this issue - Ed.), Portland Youth Explorers, and the Urban League of Portland have participated in non-native invasive species removal, new trail construction, trail maintenance, and the installation of visitor signage.

Exploring the Future

As rain drops give way to sunshine, Portlanders are primed and ready to explore some of the most innovative trails in the state. There's a buzz surrounding the Sandy Ridge Trail System that has reverberated throughout the cycling community. Thanks to strong partnerships, creative trail design, and a successful management plan, this area will delight future riders at every level of ability. So maybe it's time you grabbed a bike, embraced your inner explorer, and set out on a two-wheeled expedition of your own!

Hey! Ho! Let's Go!

To get there, drive from the direction of Sandy, Oregon, and head east on U.S. 26 for 11.4 miles. Turn left on the second turnoff for Sleepy Hollow Drive – right across from Windells Camp. Then take the second right onto East Barlow Trail Road. After one mile, look for a locked gate on your left and park. This is Homestead Road. Bike trails intersect with Homestead Road at about three miles up the paved road.

Or visit us online!