Although much has been made of the almost non-existent mountain bike singletrack in Portland, Oregon, there are still opportunities to venture off the beaten path looking for adventure. You don’t need a car, just your bike, strong legs and a willingness to pedal from your front door. The bulk of the journey takes place on paved multi-use bike paths with a few gravel stretches in the mix, but it’s punctuated with singletrack treasures that make the day.
Gresham > Portland
Living in East Portland, the bulk of our favorite gravel-slash-adventure XC riding destinations are actually located to the east, in the nearby suburb of Gresham. The area is packed with green spaces filled with trees and creeks, as well as a fair amount of elevation, thanks to a number of extinct volcanoes that make up what is known as the East Buttes. *also known as the Boring Lava Field
Although there is a long term plan to transform much of this green space into a recreation destination akin to Portland’s Forest Park (hopefully not like Forest Park though, with cyclists featured as one of the user groups and keeping the singletrack narrow) there is a master plan in place that has Metro and the City of Gresham partnering to implement it. (as you’d expect, the NIMBYs are already working to discriminate against cyclists) That said, we’ve been enjoying the experience of exploring these spaces as-is — once they’ve been developed, they will no doubt be littered with paved multi-use paths, dog walkers and massive parking lots, not unlike the green spaces we used to enjoy in the East Bay Area Regional Park District.
We’re a bit concerned about how things could pan out once things are developed — natural surface trails, and a dedicated mountain biking and off-road cycling trail experience seem low on the priority list on any of the master plans we’ve managed to dig up to date. We’re also wary of what a multi-use trail on the plans we’ve located is defined as; unless a trail is defined as a natural surface narrow trail it’s likely to be a paved route. But for now, the lower population density means less users on the green spaces we’ve been exploring.
As we’re currently under shelter in place orders, limiting our bike rides to pedaling from our front door hasn’t been so bad. I’ve taken this opportunity to explore these green spaces bit by bit, seeking out new routes as well as looking for secret bits of narrow, natural surface trails. My goal: to put together an epic route that connects every piece of less utilized single track, double track and natural surface path.
Getting started: visit the Buttes — all of them
Powell Butte, Rocky Butte, Mt. Tabor, Mt. Talbert, Scouter Mountain Nature Park, Mt. Scott Nature Park. Kelly Butte. Grant Butte, Jenne Butte, Clatsop Butte, Gresham Butte, Gabbert Butte, Towle Butte, West Bliss Butte, East Bliss Butte, Sunshine Butte, Hogan Butte Nature Park. There seems to be a lot of buttes up in here; the longer I research the area, the more I seem to add to this list.
Hell, any park or green space you can pedal to with the word Mountain or Butte is a worthy destination for a gravel or adventure ride. Though we often find that many of these spaces lack cycling-friendly routes, most will at least have a paved multi-use path you can access, and for me, the experience of exploring our urban landscape or simply visiting in a new green space or park is part of it all.
That said, if you’re looking to ride an already established route, the folks at OMTM have a number of routes that would be a great starting point.
For the moment, my focus has been on discovering and connecting more dirt-centric experiences together. Many of the green spaces I’ve explored are less used, trailing off until progress is halted by overgrown blackberry bushes that have reclaimed what once was a logging road, narrowed to a trail. I’ve hiked-a-biked through the bush more than a few times, attempting to connect pieces of social trails together, and I’ve since learned that my new favorite riding accessory is my pruning shears.
More than a few of the spaces I’ve explored are littered with unsanctioned campsites. As the general public tends to avoid these, they’ve become go-to starting points. Although many a game trail has ended at a tent or campsite, sometimes you find more.
Many of the Butte sites feature intriguing histories, such as Kelly Butte. Like the green space now known as Gateway Green, it once housed a prison on the site, before transitioning into a Military Bunker, and then a refuge for the houseless. (see this article on Willamette Week for more)
Gresham Butte has some interesting features as well.
Gresham Butte is the site of my most recent efforts into exploring the area. Though we’ve been through some of the area in the past, until recently the Gresham Butte Saddle Trail remained unknown to us, having skipped over the steep grade on previous outings. Located on the southside of Gresham Butte, I finally decided to head up the steep grade that makes up the old logging road, and discovered the site of the Gabbert Butte Truck for the first time.
The remnants of the truck lie near the summit and apparently was used during the planning process of the Mount Hood Freeway. The old logging road is littered with unmarked social trails, definitely worth exploring, though they just seem to meander about and going up some steep grades without actually going anywhere… that I know of yet. Much more exploration is needed in this area…
Gabbert Butte is currently the subject of a major master plan that we are watching very closely, with the hope of increased off-road single track cycling opportunities. (click here for the direct link to the master plan PDF) According to the master plan there is about a mile and a half of existing trails.. on the maps.
Johnson Creek Trail to Butler Creek Greenway Trail
This section of natural surface trail has been a favorite for connecting to Gabbert Butte. Every time we ride this route we find it ironic how Portland’s suburb Gresham has more natural surface trails than the “bike-friendly city”.
It connects to the Springwater Corridor, and quickly goes from a wide, gravel road, to a much narrower gravel route alongside the creek.
As you can see from this screengrab of the East Buttes area, there is a lot of green space, much of which is still on my to-do list. With the current status of the shelter in place protocols still active, it looks like I’ll still have time to explore. If you’re looking to log a full day of riding while technically obeying Oregon Shelter in Place orders, just know the paved multi-use paths and the more popular trails are filled with users not wearing masks or attempting to respect social distancing.
When it comes to exploring lesser-known or unmarked natural surface roads and trails, unless we see a sign saying bikes are otherwise prohibited, we consider it fair game. We’ve encountered no bike signs as well as no trespassing signs, and at that point we simply to turn around and continue on our way.
On more than a few rides, we’ve ended up in residential areas and ridden past dead-end signs only to find a public access gate leading a natural area we’ve yet to ride through. If in doubt, research your route online first. To me, the spirit of adventure is more getting on my bike, looking to a point in the distance, and saying, “I’m going to ride there.” Some of my favorite rides start that way, and considering the current situation, I primarily am exploring solo, or with my partner. In addition — though it should be common sense — being polite to other trail users encountered and giving them ample distance is also prudent.