10 Must-Ride Mountain Bike Trails

The future is here. A whole new generation of trails are being built by riders who are incorporating terrain that contains well-built jumps, bridges soggy ground, veers gradually uphill and and is made specifically to be fast, fun, demanding and accessible. The designers of these trails are thinking about flow, both uphill and down. Most of all, they’re thinking about us, about mountain bikers—about building trails for pedaling, not walking or hiking.

Don’t get us wrong: There will always be a place for negotiating log-overs, doing track-stand stalls to ratchet around tight switchbacks, not to mention knowing how to handle slick roots. These skills will continue to be essential as you cruise whatever trails course through your own personal backwoods lair. But they are relics of old trails, built decades or even centuries ago for horses and hikers. The new era of the mountain bike trail, however, is just beginning.

With organizations such as IMBA helping lead the charge, purpose-built trails are popping up worldwide: tracks that simultaneously raise the bar for trail standards while lowering it for new riders; trails built not just with public blessing, but often with public funding. In some cases, lots of public funding.

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Some of these trails, such as Paradise Royal in California, unfurl across remote backcountry; others, like Sandy Ridge, Oregon, combine the best parts of a purpose-built bike park, minus the chairlift. Yet others, such as those at Sprain Ridge Park in Westchester, New York, show that mountain bike-specific trails can be cut wherever riders can secure a slice of land to work with.

We’ve culled the country—and beyond—for standout examples of this singletrack revolution. What you’re about to see, and read, changes everything. Forever.

1.  Half Nelson, Squamish, British Columbia


Combine the steep granite mountains that loom a mile above Squamish, B.C., with the wet, rainforest-like conditions and you have a perfect recipe for burly trails. In Squamish, some common rides feature mossy rock rollers the size of small buildings, and sloppy, rutted fall-line descents laced with roots, ladder bridges, drops, ruts and head-snapping g-outs.

Enter Half Nelson, a 1.5-mile flow trail that is unusually fun and, relative to the standard Squamish mix, less than constantly terrifying. It takes 30 minutes to ride to the top—less time than a shuttle would consume—and uses a sliver of gravity to pull you downhill, so it can be ridden its full length without brakes and without pedaling.

“One of the reasons Half Nelson is so good is that you don’t need a $5,000 all-mountain bike to have fun on it,” says trail builder Ted Tempany. “It’s just as fun, if not more, on a cheap dirt-jump hardtail.”

> Miles: 1.5 > Vertical loss: 900 ft. > Fun factor: 11 > Cost to build: $150,000

2.  Copper Harbor, Copper Harbor, Michigan


Copper Harbor lies a full 11 hours north of Detroit and is not easy to access. But if you make the journey, you’ll likely encounter few other riders on trails like Woopity-Woo, a berm-ridden, 2.7-mile-long joyride that flows and rolls and ricochets like its name indicates.

About half of the 25 miles of trail exude that same playfulness, thoughtfully carved into the contours of these Midwest mountains. And the other half? Just ask Aaron Rogers, founder of the Copper Harbor Trails Club and one of Copper Harbor’s two staff trailbuilders. But you’ll have to wait until he puts down his gas-powered jackhammer.

With three to six inches of topsoil to work with, building most trails here often means bench-cutting basalt. Beyond its XC tracks, legitimate DH runs and budding freeride zones, the most intriguing aspect of Copper Harbor is a future that should see a 30-plus-mile singletrack on the Lake Superior shoreline in the next few years. “And over the next 10 we’re planning on adding 7 to 10 miles of singletrack a year,” Rogers says.

> Miles: 25 > Trail-building weapon of choice: Gas-powered jackhammer with 3-inch chisel blade > Elevation: 620-1,280 ft. > Distance to Canada: 60 miles > Population of Copper Harbor: 82

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3.  Curt Gowdy State Park, Cheyenne, Wyoming


Somewhere up in the great press box in the sky, Curt Gowdy is tongue-tied. The legendary sportscaster defined the art of play-by-play coverage over a 40-year career announcing World Series games, Super Bowls and Final Four tournaments. But thankfully, the Wyoming state park that bears his name has nothing to do with stadium sports.

This 35-mile trail network—every inch of which is bona fide singletrack—is bracketed by high plains on its eastern half that rapidly transition into the appreciably more rugged Laramie Mountains that mark the foot of the Rockies to the west. Accordingly, Gowdy includes everything from flat-out big-ring cross-country cruisers to slow-going rock gardens to drop-offs, and freeride-like wall rides and giant rock roll-downs.

Elevation in the park drops 1,400 feet from one end to the other, and the trail designers took full advantage of that pinball-machine tilt, with rocky, riotous plunges like the highly technical El Alto, and smoother, faster-flow trails like Let ‘R Huck, with its bermed corners and sculpted senders.

Last year Curt Gowdy (the park, not the sportscaster) received IMBA Epic status—a sign of success that is already being parlayed into trail development in three more Wyoming state parks.

> Miles: 35 > Machine-built miles: 10 > Elevation: 6,700-8,100 ft. > Cost to build: $600,000 in grants; 5,000 volunteer hours

4.  Glenwild Trails, Park City, Utah


Park City is a rich destination for mountain biking, and in recent years the proliferation of quality, purpose-built trails has jumped the highway like a brushfire and is now spreading up into the McMansion-studded mountains north of Interstate 80.

Witness the Glenwild system, which boasts 25 miles of trails that range from classic, high-altitude Wasatch singletrack to a four-pack of high-speed dirt bomber runs called Bob’s Basin, which, combined, total three miles of narrow, fun, flowy trail. Ride one trail, ride back up a mile-long self-shuttling connector, and try the next.

There’s plenty of high-climbing XC here, too. Eight-mile-long Flying Dog is a clear favorite, for instance. “There are some classic trails in Park City, but everything on the north side of I-80 has bigger, rounder, bermier corners,” says Troy Duffin, a longtime local trail builder whose company, Alpine Trails, constructed Flying Dog. “We’ve really gotten the rhythms and the ups and downs and twisties just right, so they feel like they’re going downhill both ways.”

> Miles: 25-plus > Miles of singletrack to connect to: 200-plus > Elevation: 6,800-7,500 ft.> Number of full-time staff maintaining trails: 4

5.  Paradise Royal, Shelter Cove, California


In a state that’s teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, improbably publicly funded mountain bike-specific trails—the first of their kind on California state land—are being hewn into the lush, King Range mountains that thrust out of the ocean along the so-called Lost Coast, about 30 miles south of Eureka.

The inaugural 14-mile Paradise Royal loop takes work; an initial descent segues to a sustained, 1,200-foot climb out of the jungle-like drainage that includes a section of 19 switchbacks known as The Prince of Pain. At the top, the knotted trail unravels along Paradise Ridge—from which you can see the Pacific Ocean far below—and on the way down you’re rewarded with a series of whoops, tabletops and beautifully banked turns that run a full 5 miles.

If you’re not up for a repeat course, hit the beginner, intermediate-and expert-rated flow trails of the recently completed $250,000 skills park, conveniently located just a mile from the trailhead and right next to a campground. Phase Three, tentatively ready for spring 2011, is an 8-mile stretch of ocean-view singletrack.

> Miles: 14 > Percent machine-built: 30 > Elevation: 1,200-2,500 ft. > Cost to build: $1.25 million > Surf breaks: 1

6.  Free Lunch, Grand Junction, Colorado


Fifteen miles up I-70 from Fruita’s famous singletrack, the Lunch Loop trails built into the high-desert plateau above Grand Junction offer a worthy destination all their own.

The 30-plus-mile network bench-cut into the rugged terrain is a model of cooperation between land managers and local riders, but the real coup de gras here is Free Lunch, the first sanctioned freeride trail built on federal land.

This landmark trail sheds some 1,000 vertical feet in less than a mile, as riders slice through ledgy sandstone. Most moves that threaten serious consequences have alternate, roll-down lines, but some—like the three-foot-high “squirrel-catcher” drop that kicks off the trail—are mandatory.

Like that rowdy older brother who has broken-in the parents for the other siblings, the success of Free Lunch has already segued into another experts-only trail called Pucker Up, which challenges riders with bigger hits and fewer ride-arounds.

> Miles in network: 35 > Length of Free Lunch approval process: 5 years > Length of time to build: 3 weeks

7.  Sandy Ridge Trail System, Sandy, Oregon


A 40-minute drive east of Portland, six miles outside the small town of Sandy, is a four-mile road climb you want to do. It’s worth it, because it leads to the unconscionably fun Hide and Seek, built with the tender love of IMBA’s Trail Solutions, many volunteers and the BLM, and with lots of input from IMBA maestro Jason Wells.

“It’s all about minimal brakes, maximum pleasure and minimal pedaling on the descents,” Wells says of Hide and Seek. “Once you learn the trail, your tires touch ground only on g-outs—just long enough to set up for the next air.”

Wells has overseen much of the construction here, and last summer added the Three Thirty Eight trail, inspired by Whistler’s A-Line. The trail kicks off with a five-foot rock drop that leads into a long, swooping series of waist-to-head-high berms interspersed with big tabletops and hip jumps.

The quality of these trails is over the top, and with a little pedal power riders can turn out laps at Sandy on par with any bike park. Plus, there’s another eight-mile trail loop in the works, along with a second trailhead under construction, which will come complete with generous parking, covered public space, a bike wash and a pump track.

> Miles: 7 (8 more pending) > Percent machine-built: 80 >Cost to build: $250,000 > Unintended hazards to be watchful of: The mountain beaver, which likes to bore wheel-swallowing holes in these trails

8.  Forks Area Trail System, Clark Hill, South Carolina


The Forks Area Trail System—”FATS ” for short—is a three-hour drive east of Atlanta, just across the Savannah River that separates Georgia from South Carolina. But in contrast to some of the terrain you’ll find in the Smoky Mountains to the north, with 2,700 feet of climbing over the entire 35 miles of trails, FATS is proof that actual mountains aren’t necessary for building Grade-A mountain bike trails.

The existence of all this buttery smooth singletrack proves something else, too: Persistence pays. Just ask Bill Victor, who lobbied the Forest Service for the better part of a decade before he finally got the go-ahead to start building. “Ten years of advocacy, and just seven months to build the first 25 miles,” Victor says.

And these trails, with dips, rolls and banked contours, ride as fast as they were blazed; think of the system as one great big unfurled pump track, the signature of which might be the aptly named Brown Wave, a ribbon of dirt that flows so quickly you can rip along for nearly a half-hour, barely turning a pedal.

> Miles: 35 > Percent machine-built: 100 > Elevation: 190-625 ft. > Year completed: 2007 > Rocks: Practically zero

9.  Dragon’s Back, Wales , U.K.


Located in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park, 100 miles west of Birmingham, England, the Coedy-Brenin Bike Center is home to a tangle of seven directional, purpose-built singletrack loops that have been painstakingly etched into the rocky, sodden Welsh landscape.

The 20-mile-long loop known as Dragon’s Back is one of the oldest and, thanks to its sound design and construction, still one of the best. The fast, narrow singletrack is both consistently challenging and packed with payoffs. Some sections, such as Uncle Fester and Lurch, are gratuitously armored with rock and make for rough, technical yet fast riding. Farther down the same loop a mile-long stretch of silky smooth singletrack called Big Doug delivers an almost serene experience, rolling a contoured grade through towering stands of Douglas fir.

This seminal trail has been a boon for the surrounding rural economy, attracting riders from around the UK and Europe. And together, the state-sanctioned trail networks total 180 miles and more than 100 purpose-built trails in Wales alone—all packed into an area smaller than New Jersey.

> Miles: 20 > Elevation gain: 2,600 ft. > Miles in network: 86 > Facilities: Bike shop, cafe, showers > Cost to ride: $0

10.  Sprain Ridge Park, Yonkers, New York


Tightly sandwiched between the New York State Thruway and the Sprain Brook Parkway, this narrow 278-acre sliver of wooded parkland is defined by the same exposed granite bedrock that anchors Manhattan’s famous skyscrapers 20 miles south. Riders get a taste of that copious rocky goodness the moment they enter the North Brother’s Loop from the main parking lot.

Fast, tight singletrack snakes dizzyingly through hardwood trees and over never-ending rock outcroppings, spitting riders out more than a mile later at the opposite corner of the same parking lot.

Riding here is a full-body effort that requires constantly muscling over rocks and log piles, grunting up short, punchy climbs and rarely achieving an average moving speed much past six miles per hour.

After getting warmed up, follow the Sprain Slickrock trail down to the southern end of the park, where two more stacked loops await, as well as the new “Sandro’s trails,” which navigate some of the biggest rock formations in the park.

> Miles: 15 > Percent machine-built: 0 > Cost to build: $0—built exclusively with volunteer labor > Distance to trailhead from nearest Metro North train station: 2 miles

By Chris Lesser

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