Water & Lava
5 Star Route / Published May 2014
This is a 5 Star Route, meaning that it is a highly curated, premier riding route.
Pinch me! This … really … is … our … hometown ride? A path along a river, a tremendous waterfall, a view from the top of a butte, lava fields …. gravel roads, paved roads, double track, single track and bike paths. Plus it’s close to town … and it rides great most of the year. Not toooooooo sandy during the summer and not too snowy during the winter (yea, it can hold a bit of snow when it snows in town.)
It’s the signature ride we send people to when they are debating on converting to gravel from road riding. They always come back smiling.
Adventure / Gravel Route
– Lollipop: 31 miles / 1400 ft gain
– Surface: ~ 45% gravel, 20% single-track, 15% paved bike path, 20% paved road
– Technical Difficulty: Easier+
– Tire Size (recommended minimum): 40mm
– eBike Friendly: No
– Location: ~ 10 min southwest of Bend, Oregon
When we like to ride this …
The exceptional times are spring when the flowers bloom and the river runs full and fast and fall when the leaves are changing color. But, do not forego this ride if you visit in the summer. Some of the paths will be a bit busier, but it is still very worthwhile, especially for a family.
The Cascade Lakes Welcome center on Cascade Lakes Highway. Water & toilets.
Lat / Long: 43.998223, -121.405697
For help with GPS files, the RideWithGPs mapping app and to learn how to download our routes for free, see the “Using Our Rides” page.
Terrain & Riding: What to expect …
The River / Double-track & Single-track / ~miles 0 to 8
Start at the Cascade Lakes Welcome Center, then head towards the Deschutes River by crossing underneath the highway via the bike tunnel followed by a bit of single track and a bit of gravel road. Cross around a green gate, onto the double track path and the river is to your left and below you.
Zip along a short bit of easy single track and ride past the Ryan Ranch meadow restoration project then into an obstacle course of fallen, but cleared trees. At one time, this was a straight double-track trail. Now, it feels like a bit of a mix between double track and single track with a winding pathway amongst the fallen trees. We have seen owls, elk, deer and coyotes in this area. When the double-track ends, at another green gate, make a left onto the gravel road bringing you to Benham Falls. Be sure to stop and go down to the overlook. From here continue south on a wide, popular, well used gravel / dirt trail that brings you to the wooden bridge over the river.
Lava Lands Bike Path / Paved / ~ miles 8 to 15
After the wooden footbridge stay left and catch the paved bike path to Lava Butte and Lava Lands Visitor Center. It has a slight uphill grade, maybe 2 to 3%. Stop in at the Visitor Center, or continue past it … and climb to the top of the butte. It is short and steep, but worth the effort. A continuous pitch of 8% for 1 mile.
NF 9702 and Sunriver Bike Path / Paved / ~ miles 15 to 20
After leaving Lava Butte, ride the road, not the paved path, back towards Benham Falls. Your speed will be in excess of 20 mph and this is just too fast to be on the bike path. And bonus! The road has great views of the mountains. Near the railroad tracks, veer off left onto a gravel road and then quickly make a sharp left onto a paved bike path that brings you to the northern tip of Sunriver.
Deschutes River Trail / Single-Track / ~ miles 20 to 23
Look carefully, and identify the single-track trail just in front of you. Take it! It is rated mountain bike easy, but it has a few rocky sections that you can easily walk over. This is the most difficult section of single-track for the day. The trail parallels the Deschutes river and we love this section for the green and blue hues of the river.
The Return on the Stick / Gravel and Single-Track / ~ miles 23 to 30
Drop into the dirt parking lot (this is not the parking lot you started from), make your way back to the wooden bridge crossing the river, and then retrace your route along the Deschutes river back to the Welcome Center.
Highlights & Anchor Points
Old Haul Road / ~ miles 1.3 to 5.4
The old / historic railroad haul route that was used to transport logged trees to the Brooks-Scanlon and Shevlin-Hixon mills along the Deschutes River near the Old Mill shopping area today. The rail lines were used in place of the river on this segment due to the number of cascades and falls.
Deschutes River (Lava Island Falls to Benham Falls) / ~ miles 1.3 to 7
Untamed whitewater and dangerous cataracts begin at Benham Falls and continue past Dillon Falls to Lava Island Falls (listed in the downstream direction) 5 miles south of Bend. This section accurately reflects the river’s name, Deschutes, “River of the Falls.”
“The Deschutes River is a major tributary of the Columbia River. The river provides much of the drainage on the eastern side of the Cascade Range in Oregon, gathering many of the tributaries that descend from the drier, eastern flank of the mountains. The Deschutes provided an important route to and from the Columbia for Native Americans for thousands of years, and then in the 19th century for pioneers on the Oregon Trail. The river flows mostly through rugged and arid country, and its valley provides a cultural heart for central Oregon.”[Wikipedia]
Ryan Ranch Meadow / ~ mile 4.1
A test wetlands restoration project. Between 1915 and 1931 the meadow was isolated from the river by a wall of earth, or berm, to allow for the grazing of cattle. This project is to restore the meadow back to its natural state, a wetlands.[Bend Bulletin]
Benham Falls / ~ mile 7
“Benham Falls are rapids of the Deschutes River located between Sunriver and Bend, Oregon. With a pitch of 22.5°, they are rated Class 5 for watercraft and are the largest falls on the upper Deschutes.
The falls were created by the eruption of nearby Lava Butte approximately 6,000 years ago, as the lava flow dammed the Deschutes, forming a lake known as Lake Benham. The river eventually flowed over the dam, draining the lake and thus forming Benham Falls. Around 1885, J. R. Benham attempted and failed to file a land claim near the falls, though they were later named for him.”[Visit Bend]
Lava Butt / ~ mile 13.3
Lava Butte is a cinder cone in central Oregon, between the towns of Bend and Sunriver. It is part of a system of small cinder cones on the northwest flank of Newberry Volcano, a massive shield volcano that rises to the southeast. The cinder cone is capped by a crater that extends about 60 feet deep beneath its south rim, and 160 feet deep from the 5,020-foot summit on its north side.
Deschutes River Viewpoint / ~ mile 23.3
Below Sunriver, the vegetation changes to old-growth ponderosa and aspen, and shorelines vary from marshy meadows to basalt bedrock. Flows fluctuate less because of tributaries, and the river features many deep pools, a more stable bank, and a rocky in-stream structure.[US Forest Service]
Technical Difficulty[what this means]
- Riding Difficulty: Easier+
There are three sections of single-track along the route. The first two sections (both before mile 3) are flowy and easy riding with just a tad bit of technical. All easy to walk. The single-track section from mile 20 to 23, is more technical, rated moderate– for mountain bikes. The paved climb to the top of Lava Butte is a consistent grade of 8%.
- Navigation Challenge: Moderate+
The course is turn intensive, thus it will test your navigation skills. But, if and when off course it is easy to recover. We often recommend this ride as a way to “test / evaluate” your navigation skills.
- Locale Risk: Low
Not so much. Along the ride you will most likely encounter walkers, hikers, bikes and few cars on the paved sections.
Food & Water
Lava Lands Visitor center, approximately half way. Water, food, & toilets. Open seasonally.
For a family friendly version of the ride, start at the Aspen Day Use area. From here, ride out to the Lava Lands Visitor Center and then retrace your way back to the start. This will give a ride of just over 15 miles, with 600 feet of total elevation gain. You will need a Forest Service parking permit for the Aspen Day Use area which can be purchased at the Cascade Lakes Welcome Center at the intersection of the Cascade Lakes Highway and Conklin Road (FS 41).
– Aspen Day Use area Lat / Long: 43.969807, -121.415205
– Cascade Lakes Welcome center Lat / Long: 43.998223, -121.405697
For a longer version of the route, start at the Loge on Century Drive. Take the paved bike path from the Loge to the Cascade Lakes Welcome center. This adds 6.4 miles and 250 feet of gain (in total). The Loge has an excellent cafe for pre-ride coffee and a pastry and it also has a taproom for that after ride beer!
All of the single track on this route can be avoided.
- Miles 0 to 0.6: Use Conklin Rd / NF-41 and then go left on the gravel road towards Lava Island Day use area to intersect the route at mile 0.6.
- Miles 2.1 to 3.0. At mile 2.1 go left on the gravel road. At the very next intersection go left again to intersect the route at mile 3.0.
- Miles 18.3 to 22.8. Delete this section of the course. Instead, at mile 18.3, continue straight and back across the wooden bridge over the Deschutes river.
If you want more single-track, we recommend the Black Rock Trail. It parallels the paved path from miles 8.3 to 11.5. (Change to the RWGPS view in the upper right of the map to see this alternative.) Some like to ride up this trail in lieu of the paved bike path, others like to ride down it instead of the paved road. (That is Captain O’s preference.)
When you reach the northern edge of Sunriver, there is an option to get a coffee (we recommend Brewed Awakenings) or to get lunch (we recommend Cafe Sintra). This adds an additional 11.5 miles with 250 feet of gain. Good luck navigating the roundabouts to the main plaza, but we have put together a map for you. (GPX File / TCX File) The route we have chosen loops you through Sunriver on the most scenic bike paths. We have not included turn by turn directions as there are a zillion turns and roundabouts in Sunriver. Also, stay on the bike paths and control your speeds. Do not ride the roads, and if you do, risk that infamous ticket.
- March 2022 / Updated for Gravel Adventure Field Guide.
- July 2021 / Put route guide into new tabbed / multi-media format.
- January 2020 / Added pictures, added to route description.
- May 2014 / Original Post as 5 Star route.
Love Where You Ride!
This route really highlights the upper Deschutes River, a natural jewel in the heart of the Central Oregon community. But many of us are unaware that the river upstream of Bend is in big trouble. Its ecology is at a tipping point and showing steep declines in fish, wildlife and vegetation. We must act now before it is too late.
Take a moment to learn more on the Deschutes River Conservancy website.
Act Now to Save the Deschutes River
Who has the right of way? Single-track trail etiquette.
Ryan Ranch Meadows