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At the bottom of Oregon and the southern end of the Rouge Valley is a small town called Ashland. It sits just off Interstate 5, fifteen miles North of the California-Oregon border, on top of a rolling hill-top in the flat-bottom of a long, narrow half-pipe-shaped mountain valley. Surrounded by orchards and forests. Ashland is host to a large annual Shakespeare festival.
Lakes loop is a 98-mile figure-eight with 6,000ft of climbing. The first and most difficult climb, Green Springs, comes fifteen miles into the ride and doles out three thousand feet, turn by turn, in a steady, eight-mile sitting. Over the top, the ride trundles through a massive mountain-top basin covered in small rippled hills, manzanita blooms, pine forests, cow pasture, wetlands and lakes. All of it connected by a network of charming roads, ascending and descending, from one feature to the next. It’s a near-magical alpine universe monitored, from a distance, by several proud, looming snow-white peaks.
The ride ends with a 12-mile plummet, delivered in pitches and banks and straights that leap and plunge respectively, back down the mountain and into town.
The ride starts in earnest beyond the valley and orchards to the east of town, past several miles of foothills which flex and posture impressively with several long-ish grinds and quick heartspikes. Past Emigrant Lake, quiet and still, and the bridge over Emigrant Creek. Green Springs Highway climbs, a continuous series of exaggerated, long-reaching lefts and rights, up an impressive mountain wall.
From the road. Your left alternates between near-vertical cliffs spilling rocks into the odd turn-out where short breaks in the steep allow flat to form. And banked hills riddled with ‘valleyettes’ ending in green, cool, crooks populated by trees and brush. To the right, in the direction of town, impossibly green and lush, vertiginous and ripe. Old and Middle-Earth-ish, much like Scotland, speckled with cows and rocky groves, littered with bright red barns and laced with white wooden fences. Just out of reach, the foothills chase the mountain into the weather above. On more precarious corners featuring precipitous drops, chain-link nets forty feet high, like baseball backdrops, edge the pavement to catch rocks, motorcycles and the occasional errant automobile. At the top, 4,875ft above sea level in the gravel headwaters of Soda Mountain Road, the temperature drops.
After a brief descent and a quick enough skirt of Hyatt Reservoir, 20 miles in, the ride continues, simultaneously rolling and stepping along Hyatt Lake Road. Dense pine forest crowds-in eagerly and the air is decidedly alpine, biting and unpasteurized. The road itself is a narrow, chip-seal path. The mood is volcanic, a convergence of east slope and west slope attitudes regarding water and color, a deep-green loamy-red amalgamation. The drop into Howard Prairie Recreation Area feels like riding a bike down a big hill into the garden of Eden. It’s like a massive white sheet covering a brand new world has only just been removed to reveal– ‘ta-da’ – the archetypal mountain scene inhabited by Plato’s peaks, lakes and rivers. The reservoir is large and blue. Empty wooden docks punctuate the periodic gravel turnouts-cum-parking lots which appear in irregular intervals along the road.
Thirty-three miles in, Rouge River National Forest Road, abandoned and expertly paved, travels a quiet nether world, organically shifting between forests, pastures and highland wetlands. Dead Indian Memorial Road, steep and scenic, is literally and figuratively, breath taking. Like riding through a postcard or summer snow-globe. Round hills, French speaking cows, an old timey wooden fence, all of it framed by Mt McLaughlin, a perfect white triangle, peering over the trees.
The route continues to climb and roll through dense woods past large piles of volcanic rock extruded and frozen like troll-sized cairns. A quick grind on Highway 140 is hot but necessary. It’s slow, steady and constant ending with a turn at Lake of the Wood Road 10-miles later. This skinny little state park road lies, where the road is lowest and most level, with its head barely above water. On either side, high altitude lakes flush with snow-melt and recent rains, reach out to each other from across the road. Lake of the Wood Resort, 57 miles in, is a deep glassy navy-black. A general store and restaurant-bar mingle with several hundred campsites.
The trip back through the valley begins wooded, cool and tricky with a few short but sincere climbs. Eventually, a long ramp-like descent arrives, steady and straight, falling with a big-ring assist, past a glorious arrangement of iconic Cascadia. At mile 67, Dead Indian Memorial Road, now in reverse, is once again postcard perfect.
The climb out is a stalwart, five-mile march up the backside of the front range to the crest and a lengthy descent. The promise of near-completion, pushes like a tailwind up the last steady hill before the end.
The road pauses at the summit for four hundred or so yards before giving way to a 12-mile downhill romp. Rarely straight, often slight, and regularly head first into a headwind that feels like a force field, hot and practically impenetrable. The finish is a stomping, jamming, and pedaling affair.