Fat Biking Around Portland: What To Know, Where To Go

Fat biking is a rapidly-growing sport that allows cyclists to explore snowy backcountry terrain.
Fat biking is a rapidly-growing sport that allows cyclists to explore snowy backcountry terrain. Dustin Gaffke
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Whether in the midst of a chilling winter or at the height of summer, Oregonians throughout the state love exploring the outdoors. And, over the past few years, a new sport has jockeyed for space on the trails with cross-country skiers and snowshoers: Fat biking has given outdoor aficionados a whole new way to explore remote terrain.

Fat biking, for the uninitiated, allows cyclists to ride what are essentially bulked-up mountain bikes with wide (or fat) tires through rugged backcountry terrain—especially in the snowy conditions that blanket much of Oregon every winter. Fat bikes can weigh 30 or more pounds, and their heavier frames and wider tires enable them to better grip slippery surfaces and provide a more stable riding experience, even in difficult conditions.

T.J. Jordan, co-owner of the Hub Cyclery in Bend, Ore., has been cycling for 20 years but just got into fat bike riding three years ago. As a relative newcomer to Bend, he wanted to stay active and enjoy the outdoors, even as snow blanketed the city and the surrounding region. He found that option in fat biking, which allows him to see areas of the high desert otherwise inaccessible to cyclists for several months each year.

And with repeated snowstorms blanketing much of the Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon Cascades, and high desert region, there's never been a better time to try fat biking around Portland. Here's what you need to know to get started.

1. It's a whole new sensory experience.

Fat bike cycling provides allows riders to enjoy snow-packed terrain in a whole new way.
Fat bike cycling provides allows riders to enjoy snow-packed terrain in a whole new way. Dustin Gaffke

Spring and summertime rides mean ideal conditions and spectacular views that, let's face it, most of us are pretty familiar with after a few trips. But the snowfall means new terrain and views you might not see again for another year, if ever—and that's a large part of how Jordan became a fat biking evangelist.

"It’s so peaceful," he says. "You’re not out there trying to get your fastest time. You’re taking in your surroundings. The mountains are covered, the trees are covered, and it’s so pretty."

Jordan also appreciates that cyclists can explore terrain otherwise off-limits to mountain bikes. Trails blazed by snowshoes and snowmobiles pack the snow tightly and firm up the base on which cyclists ride, enabling fat bike riders to enjoy backcountry terrain and isolated trails.

2. You'll need the right gear.

Fat biking cyclists should ensure they have the right gear—including gloves and a reliable bike—before hitting the trails.
Fat biking cyclists should ensure they have the right gear—including gloves and a reliable bike—before hitting the trails. T.J. Jordan

By its very nature, fat bike riding in packed snow entails freezing temperatures and sometimes dangerous conditions. Therefore, it's essential that riders gear up properly to stay warm throughout the ride, including thermal-lined tights, which boost warmth and protect from the occasionally biting winds; thick, wool socks and winter or cycling boots; thermal layers for warmth; a water-resistant jacket; and cold-weather gloves.

And if the idea of dropping a few months' rent on a fat bike doesn't sound appealing (a good one will cost you upwards of $1,000) take heart: Several outlets now rent the bulky bikes throughout Oregon.

While choosing a rental, Jordan advises would-be cyclists to ensure a bike fits correctly; any shop worth its chain lubricant will offer bikes that accommodate a range of riders, from small children to adult men. He also says that that tires should be properly inflated; whereas road bikes are ideal at 90-110 PSI, and mountain bikes are best suited for 30-35 PSI, fat bikes should only have 4-6 PSI. An over-inflated tire reduces grip on the surface, creating a shakier ride.

3. You gotta know where to go.

The trail leading to snowy Tumalo Falls is a prime fat biking route near Bend.
The trail leading to snowy Tumalo Falls is a prime fat biking route near Bend. Andrew Warren

Given its proximity to Mount Bachelor, regular snowfall, and no shortage of backcountry terrain, it's unsurprising that Bend is a hotbed for fat biking in Oregon.

Jordan says that Tumalo Falls, one of the most popular hikes in the state every spring and summer, is an ideal fat biking destination. It's just a few miles from downtown Bend and offers breathtaking views of the majestic falls, making it perfect for newbies. “You can ride out and see the falls in wintertime, which isn’t too accessible unless you’re snowshoeing or cross-country skiing,” Jordan says.

He also shouts out the Phil's Trail Complex near Bend. Popular with mountain bikers in the spring, summer, and fall, the established, pre-cut single track trails make it easy to navigate, even in several inches of snow.

Jordan also recommends Dutchman Flat, not far from Mount Bachelor and the town of Sunriver. The trail, popular with cross-country skiers, delivers up-close views of several nearby peaks. Given that it's popular with snowmobiles, the packed snow and established trails are easy to follow and navigate.

Two trails closer to Portland deliver some of the best fat biking experiences this side of the Oregon Cascades.

Opal Creek is, for most of the year, a jewel of a hike through old-growth forest, along a crystal clear lake, and into Jawbone Flats, an old mining town. Between the trailhead and Jawbone Flats, the trail is a wide, old road ideal for leisurely fat biking. Along the moderately graded trail, you'll see abandoned mines, some of the oldest trees in the region, and old steam-powered equipment—all relics of a bygone era in Oregon history.

And while it's a popular spring and summer destination with hikers and backpackers, Mirror Lake offers a whole new experience each winter. Time your trip right, and you'll pedal through snow-covered evergreen trees in the shadow of Mount Hood, up several switchbacks, and around the small lake. The steady climb adds to challenge, but Mirror Lake rewards cyclists with mountain views unmatched anywhere else in the Mt. Hood National Forest.

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