SANDY, Ore. — At the halfway point of Hide & Seek, the central intermediate trail of the Sandy Ridge mountain biking system, bikers tend to congregate and analyze the first leg of their descent.
Two guys come down grinning and whooping, followed by two looking stricken from the log jumps they weren't expecting, during an unseasonably warm October Saturday. Pickups and hatchbacks fill the parking lot, but the park is so spread out, bikers rarely encounter each other.
Even a month later, a 40-degree sunny Wednesday in mid-November enticed Derek Pettie and Bryant Leman to the trail at 2:30 p.m. Pettie, 41, quickly regretted wearing shorts once he felt the at least 10-degree change in temperature from Portland to Sandy.
Pettie is returning to mountain biking after a five-year hiatus, so he first experienced Sandy Ridge last year, and it rose to one of his favorite trails.
"They're built to be for biking so it's different than going and biking on hiking trails," Pettie said.
"The only place I've seen better than this is Whistler," Leman, 32, said.
Sandy Ridge is the largest trail built specifically for mountain bikes on federal land in the United States, said Adam Milnor, who oversees the trail for the Bureau of Land Management. It's one of a handful of projects like it in the U.S.
The trail, in its fourth year, routinely fills the parking lot all day, including weekdays, during the bikeable months. In August, 4,590 people were counted at the trailhead, the peak of a steadily increasing month-over-month count.
For many Portlanders, Sandy Ridge is the go-to mountain bike trail, and is drawing bikers from across the country and internationally.
That's exactly what the Bureau of Land Management hoped when the agency bought the land where the park is built.
The BLM owns one-eighth of the country, with the vast majority in the west. The agency acquired most of that land at the Louisiana Purchase, and seldom since then. So in 2001, when 3,000 acres of old timber land owned by Portland General Electric went up for sale after the removal of the Marmot Dam, bureau officials wanted to use it for something special.
"Having a lot of land near a big city is pretty rare for our agency," said Milnor, who has worked on the project since its inception. "This was a pretty golden opportunity to see what's big out there."
Milnor and his colleagues conducted surveys and studies and public meetings to hear what Oregonians wanted as a new recreation option.
As the extensive public input process wound down, a mountain bike trail became a clear winner. There are few mountain biking trails in the Portland area, so as the sport increases in popularity, people have to drive far out of their way to try it out.
"Trails not just open for mountain biking, but built for mountain biking, are in huge, huge demand," Milnor said.
Usually, projects are driven by necessity, such as new campgrounds along the Molalla River. Campers consistently littered the area, so the BLM allocated money to build facilities with toilets and trash bins.
Clackamas County also pitched in $10,000 to help build the about $1.5 million system. Several youth and mountain biking organizations, such as Northwest Youth Corps, Northwest Trail Alliance and the International Mountain Biking Association, have also pitched in labor or money, along with businesses, such as Fat Tire Farm.
It opened in 2010, with only one 3.5-mile stretch of intermediate trail, Hide & Seek, which is still the main artery of the Sandy Ridge system.
"And immediately it was popular. Just that one little thing," Milnor said.
The first year, counters on the trail clocked 10,110 riders, and visitation has grown steadily since then. Last year, 31,350 people rode the trail. Milnor estimates that number will jump to 59,420 by the end of 2013, based on ridership so far.
The trail system now includes 15 miles of trails, with a range of difficulties.
In 2012, they built a trailhead.
"We built the rollercoaster and then figured out how big the parking lot should be," Milnor said.
It's not big enough, by the way. Milnor said the first weekend the trailhead opened, it was apparent more parking was needed.
He used to be excited to see trail counters clock 180 people on a single day. Now, the trail can see 450 people on a high-use weekend day.
Once spring hits, trail use skyrockets. March 2013 saw 1,200 riders, which more than tripled by June before peaking in August at 4,590.
The scope of Sandy Ridge's reputation really sunk in when Milnor met someone who decided to settle in Sandy, instead of Hood River, to be close to the trail.
"There's not that many tourism draws that you can create out of thin air," Milnor said. "You can't just create another Mount Hood."
You can create a new trail, though, which is what jurisdictions around the country are trying to do now, taking notes from Sandy Ridge.
While the trail is free, it is an economic driver for nearby Sandy, which created a mountain bike rental program to capitalize on the trail's success. The program is bringing more business to a local ski shop that rents the bikes, to hotels and restaurants in the city.
Sandy Assistant City Manager David Snider said that more than half of those people live farther than 15 miles from Sandy, and a large chunk come from other countries.