Back when mountain bikes came without suspension, an annual fall group ride down the McKenzie River Trail was a big deal for the three dozen or so fat tire riders who lived in Central Oregon. The trail was one of the few long ones open to riding. It was firm, fast and with leaves starting to turn red and gold, riding alongside the crystal clear waters of the river was a magical experience.
Then mountain biking became popular and riding the McKenzie River Trail became commonplace. Soon the trail made just about every bike and outdoor magazine's "top ten" trails to ride list. People came from all over to ride.
Some came for the shear pleasure of making a day tour along a great trail. But more came in the spirit of merit badge collecting. Riding the McKenzie River Trail was just another ride in a long list of "must-rides" to be done at top speed with little regard for the surroundings.
As a result, the upper part of the trail in particular has seen a lot of wear, more erosion, and much misuse. And, there are times when the crowds are so thick that you feel like you're in a traffic jam.
What made the McKenzie River Trail so special from the first time it was ridden by a mountain biker was always the lack of traffic, the solitude and how the trail flowed easily through the terrain. Serpentine is places, the trail was built for hiking and thus had a gentler more terrain/contour line-friendly (if you will) feel to it.
Attempting to recapture the feel of what the trail used to be before the crowds, I've taken to riding up from the trail's terminus as far as I feel like riding and then doubling back.
That means an early start from the Ranger Station near McKenzie Bridge. An early start that's worth it as this past Saturday I was passed by one rider going up to beyond Belknap Hot Springs and saw about a half dozen hikers after doubling back. That made it one stress-free ride and a pleasant journey back in time.
The lower portion of the McKenzie River Trail is still in wonderful shape as the terrain lends itself to less "rad" riding. Yes, you can go fast but the terrain allows this without the creation of lots of stutter bumps from excessive braking on corners.
Chances are, if you ride early and upstream that won't have to contend with groups of armor wearing weekend warriors or budding racing stars coming downstream and fast.
The McKenzie River Trail remains a marvel. Only now, it's a marvel to be taken in early in the day and out and back before the hordes descend.