Snow scarcity: Global warming or just a weather trend? Either way, the severe lack of snow—we're inching further toward record lows—has shut down traditional winter.
But, if Mother Nature won't give us white stuff, she's kindly offering the next best thing—warm days, clear skies and cold nights. The desert trails have rarely been more inviting. Nightly freezing temps solidify a formerly dusty trail into fast and firm singletrack. It's a phenomenon we've been enjoying for more than two weeks and one we experience most winters, though rarely to this degree. While the shady, forested trails west of Bend, like the Phil's Trail complex, are still pocked with snow and ice, the sunny singletrack east of Bend is in near-perfect shape. Continue doing that snow dance, but when you're finished, pack up the bike or trail runners and head east.
Pilot Butte State Park
This 500-foot-tall, centrally located cinder cone butte is as obvious as a thumb in the eye, but it is also an underrated gem. With more than 100 acres of juniper- and sage-filled terrain, Pilot Butte is a smart spot for a lunchtime jog or Sunday morning walk with the family. And, BREAKING NEWS!, there are more trails than the main one that wraps around the butte's eastern flanks (I lived in Bend for nearly eight years before I discovered the perimeter trail around the base and the trails on the butte's northern aspect). Next time you go, run around the base and take a new trail to the top. As always, the stunning summit views are worth it. Directions: Just east of Juniper Swim & Fitness Center on NE Greenwood Ave/HWY 20.
Not to be confused with Horse Ridge, a more expansive, more popular winter riding destination further east, Horse Butte offers trails that range from 10 to 30-mile loops. Swamp Wells, Coyote Loop and Arnold Cave trail are all in great condition. Unlike some east-Bend riding destinations, which trend toward pure desert, Horse Butte has wide-open grasslands as well as thick forests with relief that ranges from 3,800 to 5,500 feet. If you hear gunfire, don't worry (much). It's just a handful of (mostly) harmless rednecks firing off rounds at a nearby quarry. Bonus tip: It is possible to ride trails from Horse Butte to Horse Ridge. Directions: South of the landfill, turn left onto Rickard Rd., then right onto Billadeau Rd. Follow until Billadeau turns to Horse Butte Rd. About a half mile after the road turns to dirt, turn right to Horse Butte Trailhead.
Smith Rock State Park
This Central Oregon landmark and world-class rock climbing destination is also home to a few of the best winter trails in the region. Come summer, the sandy Smith trails are often too soft to ride and, woe be unto him who tries to ride there after a rain or snowmelt, the peanut butter mud at Smith is so thick it can make pushing your bike nearly impossible. But this time of year, the climbing-intensive, technical and rip-roaring rocky trails at Smith Rock and around Grey Butte (the tallest peak in the area) are prime. A good ride option involves crossing the main footbridge from the parking lot, wrapping around Smith's frontside, past Monkey Face and up to a low saddle that was previously on private land. A new, machine-built side hill trail, riddled with very rideable switchbacks, awaits. The new trail leads riders to the saddle at the top of Burma road (a steep jeep road). From there, follow the Gray Butte Trail clockwise around the butte to McCoin Orchard. Ride double track down to Skull Hollow campground before taking the Cole Loop singletrack back to the main saddle. Riders can opt to ride out the same way they came in, or descend Burma road back to the main parking lot. Directions: Smith Rock State Park, Terrebonne. Park at the main lot.
Perhaps the most popular Central Oregon winter riding destination, the trails at Horse Ridge, are currently as fast and firm as they are fun. The two most popular loop options are Sand Canyon and Escape from Moscow—both start with moderate climbs and end with fast-as-you're-willing-to-go downhills. The larger outer loop (download a free trail map at cotamtb.com) takes you up singletrack to Old Highway 20 and across the top of Horse Ridge. After crossing two fences, descend Sand Canyon back to the main trailhead. For a shorter loop (or second loop) start with the same opening climb and take the first right hand turn halfway up the ridge. This traversing trail will lead riders to the swooping, rocky and outstanding Escape from Moscow downhill and back to the main trailhead. Directions: 15 miles east of town on Highway 20, turn right onto Horse Ridge Frontage Road. The trailhead and parking area is one-half mile ahead on the left.