My bike map tells me this is Surprise Falls, and a surprise it is — tucked into a tight corner of the North Umpqua Trail, Southern Oregon’s mountain-biking paradise. I tip my head back to look up at the compact but magnificent cascade plunging down a moss-covered rock wall. Leaning my mountain bike against a tree, I move closer, and with arms outstretched, feel a blast of cool air bathe me. The forest canopy above me strains the sunlight to a golden green, and all I can hear is the music of rushing water. Next to me, Cris has her arms out too — both of us giddy at this beautiful treasure unearthed on the second day of our four-day ride. We get back on our bikes poised to discover more waterfalls and other surprises hidden in the shaggy forests of the North Umpqua Trail (aka NUT, as many pros like to call it).
79 Scenic Miles
Since I first heard of it, I’ve wanted to explore this 79-mile trail winding through the Umpqua National Forest between Diamond Lake and Roseburg. Completed in 1997, the trail follows the high ridgeline above the river, snakes through towering forests of hemlock, fir and pine, and skirts multiple waterfalls as it follows the shining rapids of the river. I finally just picked a week and decided to make it happen, inviting two strong, independent friends I knew would make the best trail companions.
Cris and Tina knew this was no gals’ getaway — the kind of shopping, spa and wine-sipping trip you often read about. Our shopping was confined to a pit stop for poison-oak soap. No spa mud mask, unless you count our mud-splattered faces. As for the wine — well, there’d be wine and beer, too.
Tina has sea-kayaked solo in New Zealand and grinds up the gravel back roads of her Oregon home alone. She’s comfortable windsurfing in 10-foot swells and 30-mile-an-hour winds. Cris, who lives in New Mexico, once moved to Costa Rica for a year just for the challenge of learning Spanish and traveling by herself. She has mountain biked solo across the West because her wife prefers trail running. These two friends are game for anything, and I knew they would embrace whatever the trip brought us.
Women With a Plan
With its somewhat remote location, the North Umpqua Trail requires planning, because you can’t run back to town for a spare tube or a bag of ice. But the payoff is well worth the effort.
Before heading out, we asked ourselves lots of questions: How far could we ride each day? Where would we camp? What about drinking water? Who would ride and who would drive the support van to the next trailhead? Answers: 6 to 18 miles; Poole Creek, Toketee Lake, Eagle Rock and Bogus Creek; 5-gallon jugs; and the tried-and-true rock, paper, scissors.
The trail can be ridden in either direction, and we chose to travel from east to west, gradually losing elevation (though it should be noted that it is by no means a downhill trail; the day we lost the most elevation, 5,900 feet, we also climbed 4,500 feet). The ride is divided into five distinct sections: Lemolo (6.3 miles); Dread and Terror and Hot Springs (16.5 miles); Deer Leap and Jessie Wright (13.7 miles); Marsters, Calf, Panther and Mott (17.8 miles); and Tioga (15.7 miles). The 9 easternmost miles, the Maidu segment, fall within the Mount Thielsen Wilderness and are closed to mountain biking.
After weeks of list-making, shopping and food prep, my attention returned to the main goal within the first crank of the pedals on the Lemolo section — namely the pleasure of being in the woods with my friends. Our short ride on day one was a rolling, shady warm-up, perfect after our long drive from Hood River and landing us on the shores of Lemolo Lake, where we swam in the cool water and watched the moon come up through a stand of tall pines.
The next day, the Dread and Terror segment delivered its antonyms of joy and happiness with loamy downhill single-track, slippery rock gardens, and giant hewn trunks and trail-blocking root balls we had to climb over. We paused to gaze at the beauty of Lemolo Falls, and farther on, a wall of dewy maiden ferns showered me as I sped past. I could hear the glug and rush of the river far below the exposed ridgeline, and we finished fast along the Hot Springs segment, named for natural hot springs that can be accessed from a short spur trail.
Deer Leap started with a climb and zoomed into an impossibly fun downhill that had us whooping through the woods like children. The narrow track fell through the big dark forest dotted with cinnamon-colored madrone trees and huge mossy boulders to end at Soda Springs Dam, where we ate our lunch contemplating the brilliant yellow lichen running up the columnar basalt wall. In the Jessie Wright segment, we slowed to pick our way through the loose shale left by a recent fire and dropped out onto OR-138 at the trail’s end.
Our fourth day started with a tough climb through Marsters, which was hit hard by fire the year before, leaving charred old-growth Douglas fir and eroded trail. We look forward to returning next year to see how the forest recovers. Calf was full of fast descents and punchy climbs, and showed what a recovered forest can look like, having survived its own fire in 2002. In Panther we swooped through a big fern forest ending at the historic Mott Bridge, and the final miles on Mott rolled along at river level with the sunlight flashing on gravel bars and grassy banks over our right shoulders. On day five, we left the Tioga section for another trip, opting instead to hike to various waterfalls along the return route home.
Some of the joys of mountain biking in Oregon come from the physical experience — the speed, the climbs and the technical puzzle of navigating an unfamiliar trail. There’s also the flow that settles when the ride is all I can think about and other cares drop away. Another draw is the ever-varying Oregon woods: old-growth groves, oak forests, river canyons and waterfall corridors full of birds, ferns and wildflowers. But something I love most of all is sharing a trip like this with friends.
Mornings dawned cool with quiet conversation around the picnic table, and evenings found us in camp chairs near the river talking until night fell around us. I felt tremendous gratitude for small gestures from the hands of friends: a hot cup of coffee, lunch packed for the trail, the shared last cookie and a cold drink from the cooler. I’ve been around longer than the North Umpqua Trail, but it will certainly outlast me. And that made the chance to share it with friends all the more precious.
If you go:
- The North Umpqua Trail is best ridden in spring, summer and fall. During summer and early fall, riders should check for wildfire activity before hitting the road, and be aware the season brings high temperature and wasps.
- The trail has 13 trailheads and many campgrounds to choose from, which should be booked in advance. Most campgrounds have vault toilets and no showers, and some do not have drinking water.
- Trailheads are located along OR-138. The east end of the trail can be accessed from US-97 and the west end from I-5. Always check your route on TripCheck.com before hitting the road.
- Carry tools, spare tires, and extra food and water, and be prepared for ticks and poison oak along the trail (e.g., some folks wear long sleeves and others wash every day with a special poison-oak soap).
- Pick up a paper copy of the North Umpqua Trail at a Southern Oregon visitor center, and bring an Oregon road map as cell service is spotty.
- When riding, bikers should always yield to hikers and equestrians.
- For those who prefer a supported trip, Cog Wild Mountain Bike Tours offers a package with ride shuttles, meals and lodging.