As the snow continues to melt across Central Oregon, outdoors enthusiasts of all types are getting increasingly eager to venture out onto dirt trails.
Hikers, runners, mountain bikers and horseback riders are all ready to enjoy spring on the area's seemingly endless network of paths.
But before they do so, perhaps a refresher on trail etiquette is in order. Yes, the Bend, Ore., area is growing and the trails are getting more use. But knowing how to react when you encounter another trail user – and knowing the rules regarding dog-leash restrictions and muddy trails – can greatly add to everybody's enjoyment of our renowned trail system.
Right of way
The yellow upside-down triangle sign that is affixed to trees on certain trails where there might be conflict among users offers perhaps the simplest explanation for who yields to whom: Mountain bikers yield to both pedestrians and equestrians; all user groups yield to equestrians.
This is mostly for safety reasons, as some horses can spook easily and knock their riders off if a mountain biker or runner comes whizzing by without yielding or warning.
"It's always good to communicate with a person on horseback and get some feedback," says Jana Johnson, dispersed recreation team leader for the Deschutes National Forest. "And to be ready to dismount if you can or to get off the trail. Yeah, some horses get spooked if someone comes around a corner quickly. But they all react in different ways depending on the horse. There's some hazards associated with that."
At areas such at Horse Butte, just east of Bend, encounters between mountain bikers and horseback riders are fairly common. Other high-use areas, such as the Phil's Trail network west of Bend, do not have as much equestrian use.
At some popular areas, such as Peterson Ridge near Sisters and Maston near Tumalo, separate trails have been built for mountain bikers and horseback riders.
"Most of our trails are multiple use, so it's always a good idea to follow the yield sign, but also a friendly gesture to say hello to other user groups," Johnson says. "I find that can just send a message, that hey, we're all out here enjoying the same thing and we can all enjoy it together by being respectful to each other. The trails are starting to dry out now and become snow-free. People are definitely starting to get out now."
Woody Keen, trails program director for the Central Oregon Trail Alliance (COTA) and a retired professional trail contractor, says mountain bikers ride different trails accordingly. If they are riding a one-way trail in the Phil's system they are unlikely to encounter a horseback rider, hiker, or other mountain biker. But if they are riding, for instance, the Metolius-Windigo Trail or the Deschutes River Trail, they know they are likely to come across hikers or horseback riders.
"When I'm out riding the Deschutes River Trail, which is predominantly a hiking trail, my reactions need to be different than in the same situation on Phil's Trail," Keen says.
He adds that trail users should also be cognizant of the predominant user group and which user group was responsible for designing and building the trail they are on.
"Understand who's actually taking care of the trails," Keen says. "I think that goes a long way, giving that respect. Understand how these trails came to be. I think that would go a long way toward helping to reduce potential conflict. We need to figure out how to get along and reduce conflict through better education and more signage, and better camaraderie on working on that common trail."
As mountain biking continues to grow in popularity in Central Oregon, encounters among bikers are increasingly common. The main rule is that the rider traveling uphill has the right of way.
That can be confusing for several reasons. For starters, many of our trails in Central Oregon are relatively flat. Also, does that mean uphill in general, as in riding west of Bend toward the Cascade Range? No, says Keen. It means any uphill section.
"If you're going west, you're generally going uphill, but there are places where you're going downhill," Keen says. "Coming back toward town (Bend), you generally are descending. The key is just looking ahead and expecting other users and respecting other users. It's situation specific."
Keen says that one of the most prevalent types of user conflicts recently has been off-leash dogs versus on-leash dogs.
The vast majority of the Deschutes National Forest allows off-leash dogs. According to the U.S. Forest Service, from Nov. 1 to May 1, dogs are allowed on all but 1 percent of the Deschutes National Forest. The area where dogs are not allowed is located north of the Cascade Lakes Highway (west of Bend) and includes areas accessed by the Virginia Meissner, Swampy Lakes, Vista Butte and Dutchman sno-parks.
During the summer, about 54 miles of the 1,200 miles of trails on the forest have an on-leash requirement, according to the Forest Service. These trails include the Three Sisters Wilderness Area between the South Sisters Climbers Trail and Todd Lake from July 15 to Sept. 15. Also, dogs must be leashed on a portion of the Deschutes River Trail (between Benham Falls and Meadow Camp) from May 15 to Sept. 15, except when entering or exiting water sources to swim and play.
Many trails remain covered in snow and ice, and some are muddy from a combination of snowmelt and rainfall. Trail users are advised by both the Forest Service and COTA to stay off muddy trails, because using them can leave ruts from footprints, tire marks, or horse hooves that dry and harden later in the spring.
"Wait until they drain and firm up a little more, and dry out," Johnson says. "Those ruts can last for a long time."
Mountain bikers can check bendtrails.org for information on conditions of area trails.
"It was a pretty long winter – it still is," Keen says. "I get that people want to go recreate on dirt trails. I understand that. But we ask people to use good judgment and if you observe that you are leaving tread damage because the trail is too soft, turn around and go somewhere else."
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