Swamp Wells Trail near Bend a secret cycling gem
Spring trail biking offers scenery without crowds in Central Oregon.
BEND, Ore. — The plan was to head to the Horse Butte Trailhead for yet another ride around the increasingly crowded Coyote Loop and Arnold Ice Cave trails.
The trailhead is just 6 miles from my house in southeast Bend, and I had been frequenting the area as other trails around Bend were still muddy or covered with snow.
When I picked up my friend Dave on the way to the trailhead, he offered a different plan, and I was game.
“Have you ever ridden Swamp Wells?” he asked.
“Uh, no,” I responded, picturing in my mind a dusty mess of a trail pockmarked by horse hoofs.
“Let’s go to Bessie Butte,” Dave said.
I drove southeast down China Hat Road about 4½ miles, and we parked at the Bessie Butte Trailhead, eyeing some hikers ascending the 4,768-foot butte. A few cars were parked at the trailhead, but none of them had bike racks.
We started out on the Bessie Butte Trail, and after riding about a quarter of a mile east we made a right on the Swamp Wells Trail headed south. (A left there would have taken us north to Horse Butte.)
The first thing I noticed about the trail was how similar it was to the Phil’s Trail area west of Bend. Pine needles covered the trail as it meandered through a ponderosa forest.
The second thing I noticed was the solitude, which is markedly different from the oft-crowded Phil’s. We encountered no one for several miles. Eventually, we came across a few friendly horseback riders, to whom we readily yielded per proper trail etiquette.
All of the mountain bikers in the area were no doubt on the Coyote Loop and Arnold Ice Cave trails near Horse Butte on that sunny first Saturday of spring. That area is better known as a winter/spring destination for fat-tire enthusiasts. Swamp Wells, which runs all the way to Newberry Crater more than 20 miles to the south, seems to be sort of an ignored trail among Central Oregon mountain bikers.
But I was pleasantly surprised. Save for a few muddy stretches, the single-track was in ideal shape. From Bessie, the Swamp Wells Trail was a gradual climb toward Kelsey Butte, about 5 miles to the south. Such a moderate climb is good for early-season biking legs.
We continued through the forest, and as we got closer to Kelsey Butte the trail became steeper and steeper. Eventually it turned into a challenging climb, but one well worth the payoff.
The trail, with a couple of switchbacks, took us to a viewpoint maybe halfway up Kelsey Butte. From that perch, we could see a significant number of glowing white peaks in the Cascade Range: Mount Bachelor, Broken Top, the Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson, Mount Hood. And even way, way out on the horizon to the north, a tiny speck of white that I am pretty sure was Washington state’s Mount Adams.
Closer to us were the myriad buttes dotting the area off China Hat Road: Coyote Butte, Horse Butte and Cabin Butte. We looked back at Bessie Butte and down at the forest through which we had just ridden.
After wrapping around the base of 5,372-foot Kelsey Butte, the Swamp Wells Trail continues south past many other buttes all the way to the Newberry Crater Rim Trail. But we decided to turn around and head back to Bessie to make for a 10½-mile out-and-back ride.
The downhill return was fast and flowing as we wove through the forest along the mostly pristine single-track. We made it back to the Bessie Butte Trailhead in maybe half the time it took riding out to Kelsey Butte.
Returning to the trailhead after 2½ hours of riding, we had still yet to see any other mountain bikers.
While the Swamp Wells Trail can become extremely sandy in the summer, this time of year bikers should be wary of muddy conditions after long periods of rain, or overnight freeze followed by daytime thaw.
Much longer loops are available via the Swamp Wells Trail, which connects with both the Coyote Loop and Arnold Ice Cave trails southeast of Kelsey Butte. But we were content with our ride. And we will no doubt return to our newfound single-track close to home.