A neat thing about learning the best mountain bike skills you can learn is that you can take those skills with you wherever you go. When I’m asked what my favorite trails are, I think about answering in terms of my favorite trail environments. Experiencing all four environments is a great bucket list.
1. High Mountains:
Lake Tahoe, California
If you are primarily a cross country rider, you simply can’t go wrong with “The Tahoe Rim Trail,” including of course, “The Flume Trail.” The scenery is so spectacular from every angle. Overlooking beautiful Lake Tahoe is a majestic, surreal, experience.
I used Flume Trail Bikes for the shuttle. Even with a shuttle, you have to be in good shape to finish this trail. The day I rode it we had to take care of some riders who were not fit enough to tackle it. It was not pleasant for any of us.
Since you are so close, you have to ride Northstar Bike Park. Even if you are primarily an XC rider, you still have to give it a chance. There are plenty of easy beginner and intermediate downhill trails at Northstar, as well expert trails that will humble most all of us. I truly believe that if a rider has honed some core skills, then renting a big bike and riding for a couple days will skyrocket that rider's abilities once he or she gets back on his or her XC bike. I've seen this happen for several of my students.
I call Northstar “Little Whistler” because it has excellent lift-serve, and nearby there is spell-binding XC.
Best time to go is the summer when the snow is melted on the high altitude trails. It's not a bad idea to invest in some inexpensive goggles if you plan to ride in the bike park because I've found this park to get dustier than other lift-serve parks.
If you have time, it is definitely worth the time to drive from Northstar to Downieville to enjoy the classic trails there as well as experience the town. It is quite possibly the neatest town I've ever been to in the US. It is like something Disney created, but it is real!! The drive isn't bad on the eyes either.
Whistler, British Columbia
If one of your goals is to see the most difficult XC and DH trails on the planet, as well as the best riders, then Whistler is a must. My favorite jump-line trails in the world is in Whistler Bike Park. The black diamond level “Top of the World Trail” will make your jaw drop because of its 360 degree snow-capped beauty.
The double black diamond designation of trails in most states in no way compares to the double black diamond designation for all the trails in Whistler. While I have ridden many of the double black trails in the Southeast and felt that I was at home, in Whistler I was doing well just to survive a single black, much less a double. I've told many people that I'm only an intermediate rider on my best days in Whistler. I stay off the double blacks in Whistler because I will only get in the way of the riders who have earned the right to be there. I say all this to say it is common for people to travel to Whistler and assume they are the same level there as they are back home, and it often times ends in serious injury. This place is like when I took a 44 magnum pistol target practicing as a teenager--enjoy it, but respect it--because it is no 22 caliber!!
Outside of the bike park, there are all-mountain trails with uber technical ups and downs. There are also beginner level XC trails in the beautiful Lost Lakes trail area as well as beginner level DH trails in Whistler Bike Park.
My favorite time to go to Whistler is early September when the prices are lower and the crowds are fewer. However, there is less chance of rain in the summer. The locals have some of their best rides in the rain, but you may not. The roots are slippery in the rain; but the rocks are not nearly as slippery in the wet as they are in Alabama and Missouri. However, I think to have the authentic Pacific Northwest experience, you have to ride at least one day in the rain.
If the American dollar is really strong in Canada, then I would go for Whistler. If not, and the total cost of a Whistler trip gets too expensive, then I would go for Lake Tahoe instead. I’d also say Whistler is more of a must after you have already experienced some of the great stuff we have in the States and/or you really want to push your technical limits. Otherwise, you will probably have just as much fun at Northstar/Lake Tahoe.
Another reason you might want to consider the Tahoe area over Whistler is I've been told that most USA health insurance companies will not work in Canada. This is an important fact that I've never read when I read articles on the best places to go mountain bike riding. The first time I went to Whistler I purchased an additional insurance policy, but it probably would only cover stitches and some other minor stuff. Would be worth looking into if you plan on challenging yourself with the difficult trails there.
While Whistler is number one on my personal bucket list, I put it down as number two on this list because, for most people, the reasons described in the previous paragraphs may knock it out of the number one slot.
About an hour south of Whistler is Squamish, B.C. Beware if you choose to ride the XC/All-Mountain trails there; you may run into some steep, long rock rolls that have no by-pass lines. I would advice hiring a guide for Squamish, should you choose to incorporate it into your trip.
My amateur POV of first Whistler trip.
Yes you guessed it; if I mentioned Whistler, I had to mention Moab. Everyone always mentions these two.
Of course the iconic ride in Moab is “The Whole Enchilada.” Don’t believe it if someone tells you this ride is not physically demanding. Even with a shuttle, this ride demands an incredible amount of fitness and attention. A rider must have solid mtb skills also; because if you get hurt, you are way far away—well, let’s just say you or your buddies better not get hurt bad out there. I almost went over the bars at a high speed simply because I was mentally exhausted on the chunky fire road. Exposure where you can die is frequent. Don’t be afraid of it; just respect it and ride in control, and don’t be a hero. Do what I did, and don’t attempt any lines if they end in death—even if you are pretty sure you can ride them.
I've heard some say that it's not the whole enchilada unless you don't take the shuttle and instead pedal all the way from town as well. That is fair enough; but if that is the case, then it is also not the whole enchilada unless one rides "The Notch" without putting a foot down. Take a gander at "The Notch," and it will become evident that few riders on the planet could climb from town AND ride "The Notch" as well as all other technical features on this ride. This trail humbles 99.9% of us. That's one of the reasons it is a classic!
Views at Upper and Lower Porcupine Singletrack are incredible. The chunky fire road that connects LPS to Porcupine Rim gets kind of boring after a while. Maybe I would have had more fun on that section if I weren’t riding by myself.
Best time to go is early October before the snow shuts down Burro Pass and when the leaves are still vibrant. Best part of the Whole Enchilada is “Porcupine Rim,” which is the very last part of the ride. So if you are there in the spring and the upper part is not open, try to get shuttled as close to Hazard County as you can. Another option is to do an out and back from town on Porcupine Rim. Technically it is a two way trail, but I would advise giving the downhill rider the right of way since that is the direction most people ride it.
There are other trail systems near Moab equally as beautiful that do not have as much exposure and don’t require as much fitness and tech skills. Since you are so close, you also have to hit the trails in Fruita and Grand Junction. My friends at Treeline Expeditions not only can guide you in Moab, but in Fruita as well. They are good at what they do.
I haven’t ridden in Sedona, Arizona; I’ve only visited the town and ridden a trail system in nearby Phoenix. That whole area of Arizona has more cacti than Moab. I’m not a fan of much cacti along the trail. Although it is pretty hair-raising to think about how much damage it could do if you over-cook a corner. I also like the town of Moab better because of all the outdoor toys-- 4x4s, motos, 4 wheelers--everywhere. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to ride Sedona.
3. Old Growth Forest:
This is equally as mesmerizing as “The Tahoe Rim Trail,” “The Top of The World Trail,” or “The Whole Enchilada.” It is simply mesmerizing in a different way. You are surrounded by massive trees. Some of them have fallen across the trail, and the forest service has cut out a place for you to continue to ride the trail. When you ride through these fallen giants they are still taller than you are on your bike! There is a beautiful river of clear rapids running right next to you for a good portion of the trail, with waterfalls and all. An aqua pool in another part with cliffs surrounding it looks like something the elves made. I’m not making this stuff up. I kept wondering if I was going to see a unicorn run on the trail in front of me or Frodo Baggins and the other hobbits cross the trail somewhere… You ride around one of the deepest volcanic lakes in the world—divers love it because of the clear water.
It is mainly a cross country trail, although there are some sections that only a very skilled all-mountain rider could clean without putting a foot down. And by the way, don’t try those sections near that volcanic lake because the rock there is like a cheese grater. Trust me…
Even if you shuttle this ride, it is still physically demanding, although not as much as “The Whole Enchilada.” Best time to go is in the fall when the leaves are in full color, but spring and summer would be great also. It will most likely be wet on this trail. If it ever just starts storming and raining way too much you can always head over to Bend, Oregon for a day. It is much dryer there.
Google images of this trail if you don't believe me how beautiful it is, even though as we all know, photos can't do it justice.
My friends over at McKenzie River Mountain Resort did a good job hosting me and shuttling me both days I rode the MRT.
My POV footage.
Wilder Ranch State Park, California
Just outside Santa Cruz, Wilder Ranch is amazing. What makes it so unique is there are 500 foot cliffs on one side of the park dropping off into the ocean, and the trail runs along the cliffs (not too close). On the other side of the park, the trail runs beside massive redwoods that are thousands of years old. The redwoods are much larger than the trees along the McKenzie River Trail. That, in and of itself, is spectacular. However, I would have to say if I had to choose between the two, I would choose the McKenzie River Trail because it is more of a mountain biking destination. But if you are ever near Santa Cruz, you have to ride Wilder Ranch. Just make sure you keep your valuables out of site in your car because I have heard of break-ins there.
Alafia River State Park, Florida
Yes, Florida!!! This park is not very big, and it does not have a ton of miles, but boy are the trails fun and unique. It is supper cool going right beside the swamps and right over them via well maintained bridges. I even saw a bobcat in the middle of the trail on my first trip there. I finally had to meow at him to get him to scurry off. Are there gators in them there swamps?? Heck yes; on my third trip there I saw one right off the side of the trail; and that is part of the thrill of riding here. Like any wildlife, yield to it and back away from it. Remove the temptation of J-hopping it from your mind!! It is a good idea to have some good cornering skills here so that you don't overcook a turn and end up in the swamps. The locals say that has happened more than once.
Don’t ride there when I did on my second trip, in the heat of the summer—too dangerous for heat exhaustion. The other seasons would be fine. I saw a gator on the "Buzzard Bay" trail, and the locals say the gators like to hang out near that trail, so if you don't want to see one, you might want to avoid that trail. Also that trail does not smell very good during the winter months because of the bird droppings. But that is only one short trail. There are a ton more!
My POV footage of Alafia from my first trip there.
If you have time, hit Balm Boyette, which is not far away. "Ridgeline Trail" was my favorite trail there. Nearby is Loyce Harpe Park (Carter Rd.) "The Fingers" were my favorite sections there. If you are limited on time, and can't do all three places, then definitely spend all your time at Alafia.
AJ's Bikes and Boards in Brandon, FL was a good place to rent a bike from.
Well Santos doesn’t really have swamps and no gators that I know of, but you do get the neat Florida feeling of the large oak trees with the Spanish moss. There are a lot of miles of trails at Santos. This is an XC rider’s dream. Only the free ride area called the “Vortex” is really difficult, and some of the features there are pro level features not to be attempted by mere mortals. Floridians seem to be very fit. I think this is partially because their terrain lends itself to natural interval training. There are constant short, punchy ups and downs--no long ups and no long downs.
There was a super long skinny in one area that was a blast. Another one in that same area had an arc to it, and I was never able to keep my rear tire on it. Good luck...
Spring, winter, and fall are the best seasons to ride here.
The folks at Greenway Bicycles right across the street were super friendly.
My friends at Treeline Expeditions can guide you in all of these locations in Florida that I've described and make sure you are on the best trails for your riding ability and what you want to experience. They are also experts in where and how to camp, etc.
Ok, so I’m suggesting a solid bucket list could be one destination from each of the four types of mountain biking ecosystems: The High Mountains, The Desert, The Old Growth Forest, and The Swamp. And I would probably try them in that order; although it is a toss-up between “The Whole Enchilada” and “The McKenzie River Trail”—it just depends on what type of ecosystem you would like better.
Don't get me wrong; there is excellent riding in Missouri, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina and many other states, but much of the riding I've done in these states has a similar feel as what I've described in the High Mountains or Old Growth Forest categories. Whereas, the Desert and the Swamp are uniquely different compared to the other categories. For some information on trails in these Midwestern and Southern states go here.
My riding has tended to favor the high mountains. This is partially because all year I get to pedal up hill. I love that part of mountain biking. But it is a real treat when I have the opportunity to go to a place that has lift-serve. There is no better place to practice the skills I’ve been taught than a place where I can hit the same jumps, corners, and features over and over without getting as fatigued as I would if I had to pedal back up.
Since I’m drawn to the lift-serve because it is so good for practice and sooooo much fun, I have more experience riding in the high mountains than I do the other three ecosystems. I would like to mention a few other destinations that would fall under the high mountains category.
A. Trestle Bike Park in Winter Park, Colorado is a hoot. It is the place I would recommend for someone who wants to try DH for the first time. Plus the jumps there are smooth and flowy. This is a perfect place to learn to jump (only after taking a solid jumping lesson). Incredibly Beautiful scenery…. I just love turning around and looking off the back of the lift as I’m resting while going up to make another run!
B. Deer Valley Bike Park in Park City, Utah is also a lift-serve park that leans towards cross country. Don’t get me wrong; there are some gnarly downhill trails there, but there are also some beginner-intermediate trails that are a blast. The scenery is superb. I didn't even realize until I rode the lift back up that I had ridden down the trail right beside two massive elk. I don't need to tell you that I didn't take that trail again! Downtown Park City is super cool. I would stay at the Treasure Mountain Inn right in downtown Park City, if I were you.
If you are in Park City, chances are you will have to travel through Salt Lake City. If you do, then you will want to hit the Wasatch Crest Trail. This is an unbelievable XC trail! I would recommend a shuttle as well as a guide. It would be worth it to enjoy it to its fullest. If you plan it right, you might even be able to get two runs in one day.
C. The Monarch Crest Trail near Salida, Colorado is also an XC and enduro rider’s haven. You are surrounded by some of the tallest mountains in States (14000 feet). Shuttling Fooses, Greens Creek, Starvation, and Silver Creek off of Monarch Crest is the way to go if you like more of an all-mountain experience. We were able to get two wild shuttle runs in a day. Some of these trails run on the Colorado Trail for a while. I would recommend a guide on these. This is another place where you are really out there, so no time to be a fool and get hurt bad!!
D. Keystone Bike Park and Grandby Ranch Bike Parks in Colorado both have terrain every bit as difficult as some areas of Whistler Bike Park, although not as much of it as Whistler. Both of these parks are for the seasoned downhill mountain biker who is looking to push his or her riding to the limit. Grandby Ranch is much smaller and is close to Winter Park. Snowshoe Bike Park in West Virginia would be the equivalent to Keystone and Grandby in terms of old school downhill trails. Even though Snowshoe does not have that high mountain feel, it has some terrain that is equally difficult as Keystone and Grandby. Angel Fire in New Mexico is one that I still hope to check out. I've been told it has terrain like Keystone, but the trails are longer and steeper. I've also been told by a buddy who has been to Whistler that if Whistler is a 10, then Angel Fire is a 7.
E. What about Crested Butte? Everyone always mentions it. I hope I will be able to ride it someday! I’ve been told by a friend who lives in Colorado that the best time to hit it is mid July when the wildflowers are in peak season. Don’t go too early; otherwise the snow will not have melted up on the high trails. I've also been told by a buddy who has ridden there that you better be in unbelievable XC shape if you are going to enjoy it.
I sure hope this information helps. If you have any questions or comments about any of the destinations I described above, please contact me. I would love to learn from your experiences as well!!