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Mountain Bike Safari: A two-wheeled Corvallis adventure

Guest Author | 04/15/2015 | Biking, Itineraries, Outdoor Recreation

My husband and I stopped to take a long swig from our sweaty water bottles, surveying the sun-drenched red rock and dusty mountain-bike trail ahead. “When was the last time we rode through forests?” he said.

In the harsh desert glare of the day, the memories were faint, but slowly they began to emerge: the sun beams cutting diagonally through tall, stately ponderosa pines; gently undulating hard-packed single trails; moss-covered rocks; clear, cool mornings and overlooks with visions of vast valleys, mountain ranges and the ocean.

And just like that, our trip was sealed.

We picked Corvallis, Oregon — one of the best places to mountain bike anywhere. Situated in the heart of the beautiful Willamette Valley, the city has more than 60 miles of unique and diverse off-road trails and more than 45 parks and recreational areas nearby.

As seasoned mountain bikers, we’ve learned that no matter where you are, your first stop for any successful mountain bike safari is the local bike shop. There, you will get the full download: best trails, maps, closures, trail maintenance updates and weather reports that could save you from a muddy afternoon.

Peak Sports in downtown Corvallis was the call. We weren’t the only bikers who decided to get the inside scoop. Corvallis has been attracting outdoor enthusiasts for decades, and it’s now a mountain-bike destination that brings in seasoned riders from all over the world.

We met a group of mountain bikers who had ventured from New Zealand and California. They had come for the expert terrain found at Black Rock, 45 minutes north of Corvallis, as well as the trails at Alsea Falls, 45 miles south.

Having just opened in June of 2014, Alsea Falls saw 5,000 visits in the first six months. It was the trail to ride, IF you were a seasoned pro like the Kiwi we met.

Johnny was young, bearded and enthusiastic. His soft-spoken demeanor belied the beast of an athlete that he was. He had completed the World Solo 24 a few years ago — that’s right, 24 hours alone on a single track.

“You are in a league of your own,” my husband said, shaking his head in disbelief.

“No, you can do it,” Johnny said. “It’s just a matter of how fast you want to ride it.”

Feeling our age as we listened to the group of young biking enthusiasts describe the varied terrain (Dips. Spikes. Flow. Rollers.) and multitude of technical possibilities open to us, we inquired about the more beginner “green” or intermediate “blue” trails nearby.

“One of my favorite trails is the North Ridge Trail off Mary’s Peak,” said local Dan Coyle. “It’s about 25 minutes out of town. It has a technical uphill track to a great view and then a fast downhill through big roots, rocks and virgin old growth.”

“I like getting my Qwimple before work,” chimed the only female in the group.

Qwimple, we learned, referred to Dimple Hill, one of the best and easiest trails to access from downtown. Locals, who want to grab a quick ride before or after work, routinely do the Qwimple. It’s a relatively quick ride to the summit, which offers great views of town.

Back and forth they told their mountain-bike stories, some more hardcore than others.

Between Corvallis’ city parks and access to some of the available trails through Oregon State University’s Research Forest, referred to as Mac Dunn Forest, we were getting excited.

Day 1

City from Campus
Bald Hill: Beginner
Open mid-April–October 31

We decided to take it easy our first time out. Just a twenty-minute spin from Peak Sports we took off on a hard packed and well-established dirt road that leads straight from the parking lot to the top of Bald Hill.

Several miles of dirt and gravel trails circle and climb to the summit. The trails also connect to the 308-acre Fitton Green Natural Area, where we came across a family of deer while we sat and refueled.

We were feeling better than we thought. Our next stop on our mountain bike safari would be the more challenging ride to Mary’s Peak, the highest point in the Coastal Range at an elevation of 4,097 feet (that means 2,500 feet of climbing). We made it and were lucky to have clear skies — we could see all the way to the ocean.  

Day 2

Mac-Dunn Forest – Blue Day

Mac-Dunn was difficult — 30 miles — but I was prepared. I had my spare tube, pump, multi-tool, food and water.

With its looping trail system of dirt berms and smooth dirt mountains called “rollers” for pumping, we were flying along like a one-person roller coaster. We had our momentum going, or “mo” as they say, which helped to make the climb ahead toward Mac Forest seem palatable — well, almost.

“That was some of the best terrain I have ever biked,” my husband said about the day’s ride.

“The perfect combination of berms and rollers,” I added, drinking a microbrew, still clad in my dirt-stained biking attire. The mountain biking jargon came easily, like true veterans. We laughed, especially as I admitted my lower back wasn’t feeling the ebullience.

But Mac-Dunn was thrilling. Better yet, there is such support for mountain bikers in Corvallis that the advocacy group Team Dirt is working to place more trails in the Mac-Dunn in coming years.

Day 3

Alsea Falls Recreation Area

We saved our epic ride for the final day of our trip.

Just 25 miles south of Corvallis is one of Oregon’s newest mountain-bike trail systems.

From the trailhead, we rode a paved road 3.5 miles and about 1,000 vertical feet up and came to Highballer, an intermediate trail full of roots, small drops and tight weaves through trees.

For nearly two miles, the trail twists and turns through the vibrant secondary-growth Douglas fir forest, rolling up and down, offering one tabletop jump after another, but with nothing too steep or technical.

The reward of the descent is well worth the climb.

Alsea Falls has ideal downhill trails, full of berms; these friendly banked turns helped me maintain my speed.

With trails like these, it’s no wonder more than 7,000 riders visited last year and 15,000 riders are expected this year.

With 30 or more miles of trails scheduled to be built in the next five years at Alsea and the Mac, riders can get their fix of all varieties: enduro, flow, downhill and cross-country.

Corvallis is proud of their mountain biking. They have partnerships that are working to make more and better trails.

The Team Dirt/OSU Trail Partnership, with the help of 170 or more Team Dirt and community volunteers, have built eight miles of new, good beginner and intermediate flow and X-country trails. They have agreed to build the first ever purpose-built mountain bike trail in Mac-Dunn forest.

We packed our bags and returned our bikes to Peak Sports. Our mountain bike safari was complete. Corvallis embodied the essence of the northwest — outdoorsy people, a great climate, friendly, laid back yet gung-ho. The atmosphere was infectious.

We never felt any younger than on that trip, whooping in delight as we careened around trees and over the undulating packed trails, even if our bodies ached like never before.

Article by Hilary Stunda

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