If you’ve never ridden the Metolius-Windigo Trail in Central Oregon, you’re missing out on one of the most iconic horse trails in the state. This 150-mile trail was developed in the 1980s to give horseback riders a lower-elevation alternative to the Pacific Crest Trail. It runs along the east side of the Cascades, from the southern edge of the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness to Windigo Pass near Crescent Lake.
The Met-Win Trail, as locals call it, is open to all non-motorized users. But its horse-trail heritage is clearly evident, since all but two of the 11 trailheads along its length are also designated horse camps.
You can experience the northern-most stretch of the Met-Win by riding out from Sheep Springs Horse Camp, located in the beautiful Metolius Basin northwest of Sisters. This 10-mile out-and-back ride runs in and out of the area burned by the B&B Fire in 2003. The contrast between the shady, unburned forest and the sunny, brushy, burned areas is remarkable, plus the burned areas now offer views of the surrounding mountains. It’s also nice to see evidence that the forest regenerating – young ponderosa pines are finally getting taller than the snowbrush that has been providing needed shade for them since the fire.
From Sheep Springs Horse Camp, ride out to the entrance to the campground, cross the road, and pick up the connector trail on the other side. In about 200 feet you’ll reach the junction with the Metolius-Windigo Trail. Turn right on it.
The trail runs for a time along the bank of Roaring Creek, then over a low ridge with nice views of Black Butte and the Three Sisters. It travels through dense forest, open meadows, and brushy burned areas. For the last 2 miles before you reach the Bear Valley Trailhead you’ll be following an old forest road that traverses a ridge above Bear Valley Creek. About 0.5 mile before you reach the Bear Valley Trailhead parking area, the Rockpile Lake Trail #4005 goes off to the right, heading to its namesake lake and the Pacific Crest Trail in 5.8 miles. The Bear Valley Trailhead itself is a bit of an anti-climax, because there are no facilities there and it offers nothing to see that you didn’t already see from the trail. But the ride to the trailhead is enjoyable, scenic, and well worth it.
Ride Statistics: 10 miles round trip, with elevations from 3,100 to 4,200 feet. The only stock water on the trail is a seasonal creek that usually dries up by mid-June. The best map is the Sisters Ranger District (Deschutes National Forest) Map.
Getting to Sheep Springs Horse Camp: From Sisters, drive northwest on Hwy. 20 for 12 miles. Turn right on Jack Lake Road (Road 12) and continue for 6.8 miles, then turn left on Road 1260. Drive about 1.0 mile, veer right on Road 200, and continue another 1.4 miles to the horse camp. The route is well signed.
The Facilities at Sheep Springs Horse Camp: 11 sites with 4-horse corrals. All sites have fire rings and picnic tables. Vault toilets, manure bins, potable water from a pump. Camping fee. Day riders can park for free at an unsigned turnout area along Road 200, on the left about 0.3 mile before the horse camp.
Reservations: Reservations are strongly recommended. Call 877-444-6777 or go to www.recreation.gov.
More Information: The ride to Bear Valley on the Metolius-Windigo Trail is covered in the Metolius Basin chapter of Riding Central Oregon Horse Trails, by Kim McCarrel, (Ponderosa Press, 2012).