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The Ride: Exploring the ‘dark’ side of Larch Mountain

Posted by on May 16th, 2017 at 12:59 pm

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Few things make me happier than a narrow dirt trail that meanders beyond a “road closed” gate. (Oh, and there was a roaring creek just to the right.)
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

The Ride is brought to you by River City Bicycles.

Larch Mountain stands 4,061 feet above the Columbia River in east Multnomah County. The 14-mile climb up the paved road that leads to the summit of this extinct volcano is a thing of magic and/or misery for local bicycle riders.

But there’s another side of this majestic mountain. A side that was revealed to many people for the first time via The Dark Larch ride on Saturday.

The ride was the latest product of two of Portland’s most creative and enthusiastic bike adventure ambassadors: Our Mother the Mountain and Unpaved. Both of these entities are loosely organized online guides. They connect people with a passion for dirt and gravel roads with advice on routes, a calendar of group rides, an email list and other resources. It’s the same crew that brought us the Timber Logjam ride back in February.

The Dark Larch was a perfect example of their work. The route was in an area many people know well; but the trails and tracks were hidden. I smiled when my GPS computer reaad: “In 500 feet, turn left on ‘unknown trail'”. By sheer force of will, Ryan Francesconi (Unpaved), Ron Lewis (OMTM) and their team stitched together a tantalizing network of forgotten backroads, overgrown logging roads, and thin singletrack through thick forests. “How did I not know this was here!” I kept thinking to myself.

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Saturday’s route of 50-miles and 5,400 feet of climbing was made all the more interesting due to incessant rain and near-freezing temps up on the high point of Larch.

From Dabney we headed east on the Historic Highway all the way to Latourell Falls on the well-worn Gorge tourist path. Then it was straight up for two miles on the wet dirt and rocks of Alex Barr Road. We then connected to Palmer Mill Road (which was “closed”) and a few secret trails through the forest before coming out at the Larch Mountain Road gate (at mile marker 8, the top section of the road is still closed for winter).

It was nearly freezing at the highest point of our route. And by then most of us were pretty soaked through (I rode from north Portland and had about 40 miles of wet riding already). With domestic commitments and mechanicals looming, I opted to roll just before the second half of the route.

Yes, I know I missed some of the best sections of the ride. I also know I’ll be back very soon.

Download the route and learn more at The Dark Larch on Ride With GPS.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Stephen Keller
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Stephen Keller

Looks like a glorious ride. Too bad my beloved would never consent to such a route (she is a pavementarian and rides gravel and hard pack only under protest).

Dan A
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Dan A

I took my cross bike for a small warmup ride on a rogue trail in Washington County park a couple of weeks ago. I got no more than 100 yards when I ran over a stick and it went up into my chain, wrapped around the pulleys on my derailleur, and snapped the derailleur off the bike. Broken derailleur and hanger. Had to walk back to the car. How do you prepare for this possibility when you are 20 miles or more away from help? Do you bring a spare derailleur and hanger with you when you ride?

Zack Ham
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Hey Jonathan – looks like you caught us in one of your pictures up there. We didn’t realize it was you until after you had passed. The trails and logging roads on the latter half of the route were great, you’ll have to get out there for the rest of the route sometime.

I’ve managed to get out for three of the OMTM rides so far this year, and they have all been fantastic. If you enjoy riding on unpaved roads/trails you’ve got to check their stuff out. Get out on one of their many published routes, or better yet, join in on one of their upcoming rides. Seems like about 50 people (more or less) have been showing up, and everyone is super friendly. Here’s my recorded ride for the Dark Larch with some additional photos: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/14553947

I wear many hats
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I wear many hats

I’ve done that palmer mill to milepost 8 road on a road bike in the summer. Its deep. This route looks fantastic.

Free Market Economist
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Free Market Economist

Larch Mountain is also good on foot. Start at Multnomah Falls. About 4k gain and 7 miles one way. Awesome walk along the creek for at least the first half. I think you could also start at Oneonta Gorge or Horsetail Falls – can’t remember how those are for distance.

Doug
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Doug

50 miles with extreme potential of getting lost in driving rain and freezing temperatures. You need your heads examined.

Bobcycle
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Bobcycle

Hats off to OMTM and Unpaved. Not only did they come up with this great route, they obviously invested hours scouting and clearing sections to make them rideable. These kind of rides add an element of adventure that I have come to love. While there is the possibility of getting lost or stranded, I feel so much safer out there without cars then on any road in Portland. I carry a small survival kit and bring enough tools and parts for emergency roadside repair. While not for the faint of heart these routes can be enjoyed by many, including at least 2 of us out there who were over 60. Last month I flatted while riding Japanese Hollow, 2 middle aged woman in an SUV stopped and chatted with us for 15 minutes offering us help or a ride into the Dalles if needed. How often does that happen on Portland?

Steve Scarich
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Steve Scarich

I thought one of the basic tenets of ethical off-road riding was staying off trails when they are muddy.

Rando
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Rando

Would someone clarify the legality of riding off road in this area? I though it was not allowed, especially when it’s wet and muddy.
Thanks

Mark
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Mark

Cyclists doing these sorts of rides need to learn (or think in terms of) other outdoor disciplines that are well-versed in how to survive in the outdoors. Mountaineers, climbing, backpacking all focus on always carrying at least the “10 Essentials” and planning for the weather and elevation you’ll be at. In weather like this, at altitudes on Larch, from which you’ll be descending at speed, you’re gonna get cold.

In this kind of ride, you need to be prepared which means carrying more stuff which is counter to how cyclists usually think (in terms of lowering weight and carrying as little as possible). The good news is that we all probably own a backpack, and there are endless more-comfortable options for carrying stuff like baskets, frame bags, and big-ass handlebar bags. Bring the 10 essentials, extra clothes, extra food, a space blanket (I’ve hauled along an ultralite bivvy on a couple solo rides), etc.

Steve Scarich
Guest
Steve Scarich

I am an avid hiker, as well as cyclist. Hikers are much more adverse to hiking in slop than cyclists. It slows you down dramatically, gets you covered with muck, and is just no fun. Cycling on muddy trails is still a blast, though. Not to say that some hikers do not head out into slop, but most avoid it. They will sometimes do the same damage as bikes, though, starting a new drier track next to the slop. That is the real harm. I think hikers who stay in the slop do a lot less damage than bikes, because they don’t dig down very deeply and their weight is distributed over a much larger area than the tiny footprint of a tire (especially a cross tire).

Bobcycle
Guest
Bobcycle

Then there’s the matter of riding on privately owned timberlands which in recent times have required permits for access. We left Larch Mountain Rd. on a single track trail that dumped us onto a dirt road. As I entered back onto paved public roads, going around a gated access point, I saw a sign stating no access without a permit. This is similar to the experience we had on the Timber Logjam. Jonathan, I know you cut your route short and may have missed this part but the “permit required ” kind of makes me uncomfortable. What are your thoughts on this?

Scooter
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Scooter

I rode this yesterday. I started at the Troutlets. What a great route!!! Oxbow was a bit overgrown and had many downed trees otherwise it was great. I did it on 2.1″ tires and it was great. Made the single track very doable. It will be even better when the road to the top of Larch is open. Going to the viewpoint at the top will be a great addition. I will be doing this one again. Great job coming up with an amazing diverse ride!