BEND, Ore. — It is hard to determine the most memorable aspect of the North Fork Trail — the spectacular scenery or the grueling climb.
You can’t have one without the other when mountain biking the popular trail near Tumalo Falls.
On a recent Sunday, Beau Eastes and I decided to ride the North Fork-Farewell Loop. Eastes is also a longtime Bend mountain biker, and apparently it had been just long enough for us both to forget the butt-kicking 2,000 feet of vertical that goes into the 15-mile loop. From Tumalo Falls, the North Fork Trail starts at 4,900 feet in elevation and climbs nearly 1,000 feet to Happy Valley over about 4 miles.
From Happy Valley, bikers can connect to the Metolius-Windigo, Mrazek and Farewell trails for a harrowing descent back to Tumalo Falls.
We started from Skyliner Sno-park, about 10 miles west of Bend, and rode the Tumalo Creek Trail to Tumalo Falls. Vehicles filled the parking area at Tumalo Falls, and hikers clogged the start of the North Fork Trail. We expected the crowds, as it was late Sunday morning in the middle of summer. But most hikers were friendly as we passed them, and as we climbed higher, we saw fewer of them.
The main reason the North Fork Trail is so popular is the seven waterfalls that hikers and bikers pass on their way up to Happy Valley along the North Fork of Tumalo Creek.
While lacking in alpine vistas, the North Fork Trail (uphill only for mountain bikers) might be one of the most scenic stretches of singletrack in Central Oregon, featuring high-alpine forest and meadows and, of course, the stunning waterfalls.
As we pedaled up the shady path, we dismounted our bikes several times to take in the beauty of the falls.
At one particularly scenic falls, we hiked down a steep bank to a swimming hole at its base. The mist was refreshing on the hot day. But it was not enough for Beau, who removed his shirt, socks and shoes and promptly jumped into the frigid creek.
When we finally reached Happy Valley — a green meadow area where the North Fork, Mrazek and Metolius-Windigo trails meet — we gazed at pink wildflowers sprouting up along the banks of crystal-clear Tumalo Creek.
We turned right, crossed a small bridge over the creek and made our way onto the Mrazek Trail. One of the most entertaining sections of trail on the North Fork-Farewell Loop is on Mrazek. The trail cuts downhill through numerous splashy creek crossings and more grassy meadows. Views of Mount Bachelor and Tumalo Mountain are available in certain spots where the forest opens up.
Mrazek connects to another section of the Metolius-Windigo Trail a little more than a mile from Happy Valley. That trail leads north toward Three Creek Lake and eventually to the town of Sisters.
We continued along the Mrazek Trail until reaching the intersection of the Farewell Trail, where we made a right turn.
Farewell is well known for its steep, rocky descent through a large exposed area that was burned in the 1979 Bridge Creek Fire. But the eastern half of the trail is relatively smooth and fast, with no precipitous drops.
Eventually, though, we emerged along the edge of an exposed cliff, the vast green forest of the Tumalo Falls area extending for miles below. We could even see the main falls viewpoint far below us.
The steeply descending and dusty trail included several switchbacks down the side of the cliff. Mountain bikers should ride with caution down that section of the Farewell Trail, as steep switchbacks, sand and technical rock sections can make for a dangerous combination while braking down the hill. Close to the end of the trail, the hillside drop is nearly vertical.
The North Fork-Farewell Loop offers mountain bikers a wide variety of riding — a challenging climb, scenic waterfalls and a crazy-steep descent. We finished the 15-mile loop in about three hours, opting to ride the gravel road from Tumalo Falls back to Skyliner Sno-park.
From Happy Valley, mountain bikers can also ride the Metolius-Windigo Trail and connect to other singletrack trails for the 21-mile North Fork-Flagline Loop (although they must wait until after Aug. 15, as Flagline is closed until then for elk calving).
I am planning on late August for that ride.