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Riverside ride

The North Umpqua Trail is so long and challenging that I could never ride the entire 79 miles in one day — and I would not want to.

The renowned trail runs from its east end near Miller Lake in the Southern Oregon Cascades to its west end at Swiftwater Park, 22 miles east of Roseburg. The path follows the North Umpqua River as it roars through the lush Umpqua National Forest of southwest Oregon.

I've been traveling there once a year for the past three years to conquer different segments each time. The trail is divided into 11 segments, varying from 3.5 to 15.7 miles in length. This year I took on the Marsters, Calf and Panther segments of the trail, which cover about 12 miles of the middle to western portion of the North Umpqua Trail.

My original plan was to ride the Jessie Wright section (just west of the Marsters segment) to the Calf section, but because of construction on the Soda Springs Dam and the Soda Springs Trailhead, most of the Jessie Wright segment is closed through Nov. 25, 2012. Fortunately for me, that part of the trail constitutes just four of the 79 miles.

When I was there Tuesday, a cloudy day in Douglas County, I merely shifted my starting point west a few miles and drove to the Marsters Trailhead.

After surviving the Dread and Terror segment of the North Umpqua last year, I was eager to ride a more tame portion of the trail. The Dread and Terror is one of the most technically challenging sections of trail I have ever ridden, featuring endless rocky sections, steep climbs and frightening drop-offs.

The three segments I rode Tuesday included much of the same type of trail, but not as extreme. I was expecting a smooth ribbon of wet dirt along the river, and while that adequately describes some of the trail, much of it was steep and rock-strewn. A full-suspension mountain bike to absorb the rough trail is highly recommended.

The Marsters Trailhead of the North Umpqua Trail is located near the Weeping Rocks Spawning Beds. From September through November each year, adult chinook salmon return to that spot from the Pacific Ocean to spawn.

After observing the dark salmon in the blue river, I hopped on my mountain bike and was soon riding through a grove of old-growth Douglas fir. According to signs at the trailhead, some massive trees in the grove are more than 800 years old and measure 5 to 7 feet in diameter.

I climbed above the river, past moss-covered rocks and along hairpin turns on the cliffside. Soon, the river was hundreds of feet below me as I pedaled through the fern-dotted forest.

Because the North Umpqua Trail continuously runs up and down through creek drainages, the amount of flat trail is minimal. I was constantly chugging up steep climbs, followed immediately by equally steep descents.

The short, precipitous climbs are particularly challenging because of their frequency, and because the trail is often covered with rocks in those sections.

After about 40 minutes, I made it to the Calf Trailhead. That section of trail begins with a fast descent, sending me into the burn area of the 17,000-acre Apple Fire of 2002. The river stopped the fire from spreading farther north, according to trailhead signs.

Giant, blackened tree stumps rose from the ground near the rushing river as I continued to negotiate the tricky trail.

Soon thereafter, I found myself at the Panther Trailhead. By then I had ridden for an hour and a half, and I was already beginning to feel exhausted. I decided to ride just a portion of the Panther segment, which cuts through lush, green vegetation.

The first part of the path was a long climb, but the makeup of the trail was a welcome sight: mostly dirt with few rocks. At the end of the climb, I decided to turn around and head back to the car the way I had come.

I flew back down the Panther section, then maneuvered my way back along the rocks and short climbs of the Calf and Marsters segments. The out-and-back ride of about 18 miles took me 3 hours, 40 minutes.

Construction on the North Umpqua Trail began in 1978 and was completed in 1997 through the cooperative efforts of volunteers, the Umpqua National Forest, the Roseburg District Bureau of Land Management and the Douglas County Parks Department.

The trail is a well-maintained jewel of the Cascades and a testament to what government agencies can accomplish when they work together.

I plan to return as soon as next summer. I have five more sections — 37 miles — of the North Umpqua Trail yet to ride.

Bend Bulletin outdoors writer Mark Morical can be reached at 541-383-0318 or at mmorical@bendbulletin.com.

Several tricky turns with sidehill exposure mark the Marsters segment of the North Umpqua Trail. - Photo by Mark Morical