In recent years, gravel riding has become big business across the United States—a trend that shows few signs of slowing. According to the NPD Group, an industry analyst, revenues from the sale of gravel bikes increased 109% between 2019 and 2021. And while gravel cycling is growing in popularity across the United States, the sport is uniquely positioned to become your next favorite activity in Central Oregon.
So here’s a look at what exactly gravel riding is, why Central Oregon is such a great place to try this rapidly growing activity, and where to ride for some of the region’s best views and experiences.
The Benefits of Gravel Cycling in Central Oregon
Gravel cycling is pretty much what it sounds like—with a few caveats. Yes, a typical gravel ride revolves around cycling largely on unpaved roads, but you will likely encounter at least some pavement or dirt paths along the way. Trails tend to be less trafficked than road cycling lanes and less technical than Central Oregon mountain biking paths, with gravel-specific bikes available to offer a more comfortable, efficient experience. So if you’re curious about gravel riding in Central Oregon, here’s why the region is such a hotbed for cyclists.
Variety of scenic routes: Linda English, executive director of Dirty Freehub (a nonprofit that promotes and advocates for gravel riding) says the variety of scenic routes around Central Oregon is tough to beat: Cyclists heading east can enjoy a bit of Wild West flair (English herself once rode through a cattle drive near the community of Brothers), while the likes of Smith Rock State Park (with its geological features), Madras (with century-old farms), and Sunriver (boasting environments rich with lava rock) all offer different experiences to riders of all skill levels.
U.S. Forest Service roads: All around Central Oregon, high in the hillsides above the likes of Bend and Sisters, you’ll find countless miles of gravel U.S. Forest Service roads ripe for riding. “Those are absolutely tremendously great places for us to be,” English says. “I can go out on some of our bike routes, and I don’t see another person the whole time I’m out there. It’s really amazing.”
Social fun: English also says that riders appreciate the social aspect that comes from being able to ride side-by-side on lightly trafficked gravel roads. “You can ride next to each other and talk the whole time,” she says.
Epic views: Granted, this applies to almost all outdoor activities in Central Oregon—but it’s especially true while gravel riding: The views are outstanding. “You’ll pop up over a ridge, and all of a sudden, you’ll just stop because the views are so incredible,” English says. She says the Camp Sherman and Metolius River areas offer especially sweeping mountain vistas. Other routes pass waterfalls and scenic spots throughout Central Oregon.
How to Get Started Gravel Cycling in Central Oregon
If the solitude, sociability, and sweeping views have you excited to get on a gravel bike, here are a few tips for getting started.
Navigation: English says the most common mistake new riders make is navigation. Rural gravel roads typically feature fewer signs than mountain bike trails or road biking lanes, which can pose a challenge to riders unfamiliar with the terrain. “You can’t just look at a map and go, ‘I think I’m going to ride my bike here,’” she says. “Sometimes, the roads are really, really rough, and they’re not good for gravel—or they don’t even exist.” She suggests downloading your desired route to a mobile app to get started.
Expectations: English says that many road cyclists come to gravel riding with the expectation that they’ll put up similar numbers—riding 14 to 20 miles per hour, with outings of up to 30, 40, or even 50 miles in a day. But English says it all depends on the surfaces along a particular route—gravel tends to ride slower than pavement or hard-packed dirt, for instance—and suggests starting out with shorter rides to get a feel for the experience.
Rentals: You don’t technically need a bike for gravel riding, but you’ll be glad to have one. A growing number of shops around Central Oregon offer gravel bike rentals—including The HUB Cyclery and Hutch’s Bicycles, both in Bend.
Popular Gravel Riding Routes in Central Oregon
No matter what you’re looking for in a gravel ride, you’ll find plenty to love about the less-traveled roads around Central Oregon. With some help from English, we’ve highlighted a few favorites—along with what makes each so special.
Before we get to some of Central Oregon’s best rides, however, a quick disclaimer: Gravel routes change frequently, whether due to wildfires, U.S. Forest Service closures, or other factors. Before setting out, check with Dirty Freehub for the latest updates on your desired route.
Water & Lava: English cites Dirty Freehub’s 31-mile Water & Lava route as a beginner-friendly ride that helps cyclists understand navigation and gets them comfortable riding on different terrain; the trip, after all, features gravel, single-track, pavement, and bike lanes. Along the way, the ride heads past the Deschutes River, through a ponderosa pine forest, and to the roaring Benham Falls. (Not just that, but the path typically remains snow-free in winter, making it an excellent year-round outing.)
Over the Rainbow: The 42-mile Over the Rainbow ride, which begins and ends in Madras, is a personal favorite for English. While riding a mix of gravel roads, double-track trails, single-track paths, and paved roads, cyclists pass century-old farms, enjoy wide-open views of Cascade peaks, follow the Deschutes River, and even hug the shores of Lake Simtustus. “Madras is a really special place to ride,” English says.
Metolius Preserve: Ride through a bucolic forest along the 14-mile Metolius Preserve route, which boasts a mix of gravel, double-track, and single-track trails just outside Sisters. Along the way, cyclists head through forests of fir, pine, and larch (the needles of which turn a brilliant shade of yellow every autumn) and arrive at the sun-kissed shores of Suttle Lake. Mountain views abound, as do wildlife sightings; river otters, elk, deer, and even badgers all call the forest home. After your ride, kick back with a filling meal at one of the top restaurants in Sisters.
Explore Nature’s Beauty
From the sagebrush-covered plains of the high desert to the towering pines and majestic mountain peaks, discover the diverse landscape Central Oregon has to offer.