Construction could begin soon on a proposed 20+ mile trail system on the Oregon Coast

A proposed trail system is in the final stages of the approval process near Oregon's dairy capital: Tillamook.
TORTA trail flagging tour. Photo courtesy TORTA

You are likely inadvertently familiar with the small town of Tillamook, Oregon. Yes, that name does ring a bell, and if you open your refrigerator or freezer, there is a chance you will find cheese or ice cream with the “Tillamook” brand on it. Tillamook County is Oregon’s dairy capital, with over a million visitors touring the “Tillamook Cheese Factory” every year.

Folks in the Tillamook area are now hoping to attract dairy enthusiasts and mountain bikers alike. A proposed trail system for the Sand Lake area of Tillamook County, just south of the town of Tillamook, is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. If all goes as planned, 20-some miles of trails will be added to the forested hills that separate Sand Lake from Highway 101

New mountain bike trails proposed at Sand Lake near Tillamook, OR

The proposed Sand Lake trails would be a welcome addition to the region for mountain bikers living in Tillamook, Oregon, and the surrounding smaller communities. The area is currently a bit of a dead spot for mountain bike trails, with Tillamook State Forest being the closest option.

“From here, that is about an hour away,” Meg Stech, President of the Tillamook Off-Road Trail Alliance (TORTA), told us, referring to riding the Tillamook State Forest. “The trails we’re proposing are more like 15 to 20 minutes [away].”

Despite what many say is perhaps perfect mountain biking terrain in the coastal mountains, the Oregon Coast remains relatively undeveloped. Stech told us that besides the hour commute to Tillamook State Forest, locals will often opt for the multi-hour road trip down to places like the Whiskey Run trails or Blackrock. Regardless of where they go, the result is several hours round-trip in the car.

In hopes of creating more local riding options, TORTA has been pushing for the Sand Lake proposal for about eight years now. “We’ve been working with the Forest Service [on the Sand Lake proposal] since I joined TORTA in 2018 or 2019,” Stech said. In fact, Stech believed that the Sand Lake proposal predated her by a few years, with its origins taking root sometime around 2016.

The Sand Lake proposal faced some of the same struggles that many trail proposals face, and TORTA has had to jump quite a few hurdles. Stech shared that the initial Siuslaw National Forest Ranger they worked with was very much on board with the idea of trails. When that Ranger retired, the Ranger replacing them wasn’t as enthusiastic about the proposal. 

Then COVID hit. “That put us back multiple steps,” Stech said. But, they continued to chip away, getting the ball rolling again on the Sand Lake project. “And then we got another new Ranger. It took us a little bit just to, again, get him up to speed with what we’ve been trying to do. He’s very much [for the trails] and has been very helpful.”

TORTA is eagerly awaiting the green light to start building the trails. Stech shared that the project’s first phase would be adding five to eight miles of beginner to intermediate trails. From there, TORTA would continue to add more mileage and more trails, including more difficult black diamond trails. The eventual goal is to have singletrack trails that suit every riding style, from machine-sculpted flow to techy, hand-dug trails resembling something you’d find on a backcountry pedal. Despite the relatively small mountains, the crew will have roughly 1,000 feet of elevation to work with.

As far as total mileage, Stech said that is in flux right now as they are waiting for the Forest Service’s objection period to conclude. A different article touching on the Sand Lake proposal stated 23 miles, which Stech said was in the mileage range but couldn’t confirm that number. Areas have been flagged, but things change as the results from environmental assessments come in. So, TORTA makes those adjustments accordingly but is ultimately waiting for the green light from the Forest Service.

Controversy, or just one lone NIMBY?

Stech is frustrated with the article mentioned above — specifically with its headline claiming this trail proposal “sparks tension in Oregon’s dairy capital.” According to Stech, the “tension” has just come from one individual. 

“The person that was interviewed is the only one that had any form of negative comment on our NEPA process with Forest Service,” Stech said. “So it was frustrating to see [the article] titled that way, making it sound like there’s this whole big group of people when — it’s my understanding — I’ve only heard [an objection] from this one person.”

The article also states that residents of the area are concerned with the potential toll more recreation could have on the area. Two popular state parks are located to the north and south, and Sand Lake itself is a popular place for dune riding on ATVs. 

Stech also felt the article didn’t do a good job of distinguishing that the proposed trails are not near where the current ATV recreation happens. Plus, she feels the two user groups are reasonably different, not making a good comparison.

Tillamook County Commissioner Doug Olson said the apparent controversy depends on who you talk to. “There are people who’ve been here for many years and are not too interested in seeing a lot of people come this way,” Olson explained. “On the other hand, there are others who [think] this is a good thing.”

The addition of trails could bring more tourism dollars to the area — an important industry for the Oregon Coast. Olson stated that dollars accompany mountain bikers, as they will likely spend money at local restaurants and stores. But, more people do equal a more significant impact on resources we may not always consider, such as roads and law enforcement.

Ultimately, Olson expects the Sand Lake proposal to be pushed through, with trails coming soon. “That’s your privilege. If people want to come and enjoy the Oregon coast, it’s all public land.”

As far as when Oregonians might enjoy those new mountain bike trails near Tillamook, the timeframe is still up in the air. “We’re not giving dates anymore,” Stech joked. “Every time we’ve provided a date, it has been pushed back.” 

For Stech and TORTA, the only date they care about is when the Forest Service makes its final approval.