For diehard mountain bikers, winter can be a desolate season. Many of the state’s best trails are either impassable or buried in snow, and avid cyclists have taken to cyclocross racing, fat biking in snow and indoor bike parks to help make life bearable. But if you seek tacky dirt, misty forests and cascading waterfalls, don’t give up. The Willamette Valley is an undiscovered labyrinth of trails and mountain biking culture.
Bordered by the Oregon Coast Range and the Cascade Range, the Willamette Valley’s temperate forests provide some of the most varied and scenic mountain biking terrain for experts and beginners alike. Like most places in the Pacific Northwest, the key to winter mountain biking in the Willamette Valley is knowing where to go.
Just as the rains began, I caught up with Shawn Litson, a fourth-generation Oregonian born and raised in Eugene and a guide for Oregon Adventures, who pointed me in the right direction. A member of Disciples of Dirt mountain biking club, he’s as passionate about building and maintaining trails as he is about finding the perfect line. So he knows which trails drain well, which hold moisture and which are closed in winter. Follow his advice, and you’ll get wet and a little muddy, but you won’t upset the locals by tearing up the trails.
Willamette Valley’s Top Winter Trails
Nearest city: Monroe
Trail difficulty: Intermediate
This network of trails built by the Bureau of Land Managementl (BLM) is halfway between Corvallis and Eugene in the Oregon Coast Range. With berms, rollers and jumps, these flow trails will leave you giddy and exhausted. The trails drain well, but it’s wise to check the BLM website for maps and trail conditions, including closures due to logging. For more information and to help during trail work parties, check out Team Dirt.(Alsea Falls by Leslie Kehmeier)
Nearest city: Mehama
Trail difficulty: Beginner
With the largest stand of old-growth forest in the western Cascades, Opal Creek Wilderness offers magnificent scenery and remnants of the area’s mining past. Because wilderness areas are closed to cyclists, one of the only trails accessible by mountain bikes is the Opal Creek Trail, an easy 6-mile out-and-back route along a gravel road. Start at the gate at the parking area and bike slightly uphill for about 3.5 miles to get to Opal Pool, a brilliant emerald pool beneath Opal Pool Falls. Continue along the road to Jawbone Flats, an abandoned mining town owned by Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center.(Opal Creek by Dennis Frates / Alamy Stock)
Nearest city: Cottage Grove
Trail difficulty: Intermediate to expert
Practice your bike-handling skills on the Brice Creek Trail, a rooty, rocky path that meanders along Brice Creek. This scenic trail winds through old growth forest and past numerous pools and waterfalls. When snow levels are low enough, take the 3.5-mile Upper Trestle Creek Trail to reach Trestle Falls, a 60-foot waterfall nestled in mossy rock grotto surrounded by towering Douglas fir and cedar. Brice Creek is popular with hikers on the weekends, so go midweek if you can.(Brice Creek Trail by Shawn Litson)
Nearest city: Oakridge
Trail difficulty: Intermediate to expert
This is a classic Oakridge ride that follows Larison Cove on the Hills Creek Reservoir and Larison Creek for a total of 6 miles (one-way) and 2,300 feet of elevation gain. While not as challenging as nearby Larison Rock Trail (open in summer only), Larison Creek includes a few small creek crossings, a steady 7 percent grade and some rocky sections, making it an interesting and physically demanding ride through a beautiful, old-growth forest.(Larison Creek Trail by Heron Marychild)
Nearest city: Lorane
Trail difficulty: Beginner to intermediate
Long known as Whypass, this trail network includes 20 miles of interweaving singletrack that’s been built over the last 20 years by local volunteers. The land is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and is the social hub for Eugene trail riders, who meet every Wednesday at 6 p.m. year-round at “The Pile” for a group ride.
If you enjoy gravity flow trails, Whypass has a few that will get your heart pumping. Mama Tried is an intermediate run and Ode to Joy is rated expert. “If the first jump scares you, think twice about continuing,” Litson says. While it’s tough to find an official Whypass trail map, trail signs installed over the last year have improved navigation.
A great way to explore Whypass for the first time is during the annual All Comer’s Meet. Hosted by the Disciples of Dirt, this all-day affair includes guided rides, food, drink and a bonfire.(Carpenter Bypass Trail by Shawn Litson)
Before you go
Bike tires can create ruts, which are not good for the trails or the volunteer trail crews come spring. Try to stick to gravel roads and established dirt trails that drain well. Bike shops are your best source for up-to-date trail conditions. In the Willamette Valley, you can also visit the sites of local mountain biking clubs, Disciples of Dirt (Eugene) and Team Dirt (Corvallis).
Check the weather forecast before you leave and dress appropriately. If you get cold easily, wear or pack arm and leg warmers, waterproof shoe covers, a waterproof rain jacket and gloves, and a skull cap. Always let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return. Bring a trail map, compass or GPS, extra layers, water, food and a headlamp.(Photo by Shawn Litson)