A big gravel climb and a raw descent, with grand views of The Sisters and Broken Top
For the majority of people, off-road cycling in Sisters consists of the easily accessible Peterson Ridge trail system. And that’s just fine for the rest of us, because it delivers an uncrowded atmosphere for the many backcountry trails here that are overlooked by other cyclists. This is a great example: a challenging, beautiful ride that starts and ends just a few miles from a town full of food, drink, quilt and T-shirt options.
Park at the Wychus (wy-choos) Creek Overlook Trailhead, a few miles outside town on Three Creeks Lake Road. The Three Sisters and Broken Top dominate the horizon in much of Central Oregon, and you’ll be heading into the heart of their empire. Tam McArthur Rim drops 1,300 feet from the Broken Top plateau into the popular Three Creeks Lake, where heavy snowpack feeds the Wychus Creek drainage you’ve entered.
Hop on your two-wheeled steed and begin a fairly arduous 12-mile climb to Three Creek Lake. The ascent starts out pretty gently for the first 2 miles or so, then ratchets up in spurts. While it’s long, the climb is almost entirely on little-used dirt roads, and you’ll make steady progress. An hour (or maybe closer to two hours) later, you’ll arrive at the lakeshore, possibly sweaty and very likely ready for a snack. In season, you can grab some refreshments from the tiny store and plop down on the boat dock for a bit of relaxation – celebrating the climb and the fact that it’s all (sort of) downhill from here.
Once the lake-lounging break is over, get ready for an epic downhill adventure that will take you all the way back down to where you began. As you leave Three Creeks Lake, expect a bit of technical climbing and meadow-scrambling before you get on Trail 99. Once you hit the trail, begin the descent through meadows and burn areas, riding next to flower-lined streams punctuated by several wet crossings. Due to the 2012 Pole Creek fire, the upper part of this trail is loose, sandy and rocky, and it takes a bit of finesse to ride it properly. Stark black trunks line the trail, creating an almost eerie atmosphere. Bunny-hop practice opportunities abound – every few hundred feet you may need to pop your front wheel over small blowdown and drainage logs. You certainly won’t be bored.
The upside of riding through this burn area is that the views of North and South Sister, as well as Broken Top, are fantastic; the vibe here is dramatic and visually stunning. About halfway down, exit the burn and enter a more wooded zone interspersed with dense manzanita. The sustained descent continues doling out technical rock, steep turns and fast riding, punctuated by short, punchy climbs. For an area with a reputation for mellow, groomed trails, Trail 99 delivers the unique and raw backcountry experience you may be seeking.
The last three miles feature some nice drifty turns, and you’ll be back to the parking spot sooner than you’ll probably want to. Job well done – this is a big and challenging ride.
A few notes… first of all, these trails are still primitive and haven’t seen a lot of tires yet, so be patient and enjoy the wildness of it all. Because of this, some trail junctures are confusing, but pay close attention to the route map and you’ll be fine. Enjoy the loose sandy terrain and keep an eye out for downed logs. Long sleeves and gloves will help protect you through the overgrown manzanita section.
This dry and dusty descent may leave you craving a milkshake; if so, head to the popular Sno-Cap Drive In. They’ll remind you that they’re not fast food, and that they’ve been making classic drive-in burgers and ice cream to order since 1954, so be patient. If it’s a cold pint you’re after, head down to Three Creeks Brewing Company. They’re known for their excellent IPAs and their heady chocolate porter.