By Kim McCarrel - Kim is the author of five guidebooks about the horse trails of Oregon and southwest Washington. Her book, Riding Central Oregon Horse Trails, is a must-have for local trail riders. Learn more at NWHorseTrails.com.
Central Oregon certainly deserves its reputation as a mecca for equestrian trail riders. With its abundant sunshine, horse-friendly terrain, and spectacular views, it’s hard to imagine a better place to trail ride in the spring.
In Central Oregon, you have plenty of choices for spring trail rides.
Located near Sisters off Hwy. 20, Peterson Ridge features over 20 miles of easy trails through open, park-like ponderosa pine forest. The trails offer dramatic views of the Cascades, and in spring the snow-capped peaks stand out sharply against the blue sky.
You can follow the 7.5-mile Lazy Z Loop or ride a 12-mile round trip on the Peterson Ridge Trail. Both routes feature breathtaking mountain views from scenic overlooks. Or you can do a splendid 10-mile ride to Whychus Creek or a fun 4.5-mile loop near the Rodeo Grounds Trailhead.
Peterson Ridge is a popular destination for mountain bike riders, but the bike trails are entirely separate from the equestrian trails. You’ll see mountain bikes whizzing past on the bike trails, but you don’t have to worry encountering a cyclist on the horse trails.
Getting There: You’ll start at the Rodeo Grounds Trailhead, behind the Sisters Rodeo Grounds. To reach the trailhead from Sisters, take Hwy. 20 southeast for 4.5 miles and turn right on Peterson Ridge Road. From Bend, take Hwy. 20 northwest for 16.5 miles and turn left on Peterson Ridge Road. Continue 0.5 mile to the parking area on the right, just past the southwest corner of the Sisters Rodeo Grounds.
Oregon Badlands Wilderness
It may seem remarkable to have an honest-to-goodness Wilderness Area only 15 miles from Bend. But this special 50 square-mile area, with its dramatic basalt outcroppings and gnarled juniper trees that are hundreds of years old, deserves its Wilderness designation.
The Badlands were created by an ancient shield volcano that oozed lava out of fissures in the ground, creating what are called pressure ridges. The lava hardened as it cooled, then fractured dramatically as more lava oozed beneath it and pushed it up. Badlands Rock, Castle Rock, and Flatiron Rock, three of the largest formations in the Badlands, are dramatic examples of pressure ridges. You’ll see these three basalt outcroppings, and hundreds more, along the trails in the Badlands.
The riding in the Badlands is easy, the routes are well signed, and the footing is sandy and well drained. Elevation changes are minimal, and a variety of loops are possible. Because it’s a Wilderness Area, bikes are not allowed in the Badlands.
Getting There: Four trailheads around the perimeter of the Badlands offer trailer parking. The easiest to reach is the Badlands Rock Trailhead. To get to it from Bend, take Hwy. 20 east. Just before the 18-mile marker, turn left on a paved road marked by an Oregon Badlands sign. Follow the road for one mile, then turn left into the trailhead.
Skull Hollow Trailhead, 14 miles northeast of Redmond, is the gateway to many miles of delightful spring riding. The 25-mile Cole Loop endurance trail runs past the trailhead, and by connecting segments of it with the area’s dirt roads, you can create two shorter scenic loops.
The Skull Hollow Loop is a moderate 9-mile ride that circles Gray Butte, and the Pine Ridge Loop makes an 8-mile loop around its namesake butte. The Skull Hollow Loop offers an impressive view of the Three Sisters, and both trails have panoramic views of Mt. Jefferson and the low juniper-covered hills to the north.
Both rides also take you past the historic McCoin Orchard, where Julius and Sarah McCoin homesteaded in 1886. The house and barn are long gone, but the apple orchard and the poplars that once provided a wind-break for the McCoin home are still there. The apple trees still bloom in spring and bear gnarled fruit each summer.
The trails near Skull Hollow feature delightful displays of spring wildflowers. Depending on when you ride, you may see blooming lupine, yellow bells, grass widow, Indian paintbrush, dwarf waterleaf, yarrow, locoweed, desert parsley, and more.
Getting There: To reach Skull Hollow Trailhead from Redmond, drive north on Hwy. 97 for 5.5 miles. In Terrebonne, turn right on Smith Rock Way. Drive 4.9 miles and turn left on Lone Pine Road. In 4.2 miles, turn left on Road 5710 at the sign for Skull Hollow Campground. Park in the dirt parking area just east of the campground.