Resources for Discovering Hidden and Forgotten Mountain Bike Trails

Mountain biking is full of the joy of discovery; you discover new techniques, friends, places and trails. Of course, these are just new to you at the moment–it’s unlikely that you are the first and only person to encounter any of the above. But there are many trails which have not been traditionally used as biking routes, despite being excellent as such.  Some trails fall out of favor and eventually become unknown.  Some trails were started as government work programs when there was no demand, but now that you’ve got a bike, there’s a demand!  While I love hitting those “must ride” trails like the Porcupine Rim or Buffalo Creek, It can be equally satisfying to pioneer or rediscover a route like the Davis Meadow or the Highwood Ridge. What? You’ve never heard of the last two? That’s exactly what I mean.

Those who explore the trails less traveled rather than just making another run on the same’ ol’ same’ ol’ have a number of resources at their disposal.

Trails Illustrated Maps: Even though these are modern maps showing mostly established routes, they sometimes retain forgotten trails. You can look at a TI map and spy dashed lines with unfamiliar names or numbers. With some thought and creativity, you can create rides nobody else has done by hitting traditional non-biking trails. This is how I discovered the Davis Meadow and Platte River routes within a few miles of Colorado classics like Monarch Crest and Kenosha Pass. Of course, even TI maps can become outdated as I found out when I connected a number of trails near Steamboat Springs into an epic and encountered an unmarked fork. I took the fork that looked like it headed the direction indicated on the map and it turned out to be wrong. It was a foggy day and there was no way to use the map and compass. I ended up in Steamboat Springs after dark, a dozen miles from my trailhead, a couple thousand verts below where I started, after close to 50 miles of high altitude riding.  Ouch!

Spotting this little dashed line led me to a fantastic bit of remote singletrack with awesome scenery and an old homestead that looked like it hadn't been visited since about 1860.

USGS Quads: USGS quads cover less area than TI maps, but are more detailed. Most of them are out of date, which is both a positive and a negative for finding new routes. Many trails shown on USGS quads no longer exist and you may find yourself searching fruitlessly for a trailhead. You may find a trailhead only to see the trail disappear, leaving you to either backtrack, or forge ahead in a harsh bushwhack.

Since these maps are so detailed, they don’t cover much area, and you may need to link a few together to cover your whole route. On the other hand, some of those dashed black lines will be trails which are forgotten but still exist and you’re just the person to rediscover them. It may not be the National Treasure or the Lost Ark of the Covenant, but it may well be some sweet singletrack. The more detailed scale in the topo lines will also give you a better idea of the topography you’ll face.

This old Forest Service map shows many possible routes which may be forgotten, but could still provide excellent singletracking.

USFS Maps: Each USFS map is designed to cover an entire National Forest, so the scale lacks detail. These maps are not topographic, so you won’t see the terrain you’ll face. They do, however, show many possible off road routes. USFS maps sometimes fail to distinguish between doubletrack and singletrack, so there’s no guarantee you’ll find what you like just from a USFS map. It’s best to use these maps an overview. Once you find a potential route, you can look to the specific USGS quad(s) necessary to refine your research.  This is how I took on the excellent Kennedy Peak route in Virginia’s rugged George Washington National Forest.

This barely visible dashed line led me to an outstanding,unused route in the North Dakota Badlands

The USFS map of the Little Missouri National Grassland led me to the Longs X Loop, a route that can be combined with the far Northern part of the Maah Daah Hey trail, which is never ridden since it’s cut off from the rest of the trail by the North Unit of the Teddy Roosevelt National Park.

BLM  Maps:  These are like USFS Forest maps, just covering BLM lands vice USFS lands.

Local maps: Many places have local maps that can assist in spotting singletrack. On a trip to Canmore, Alberta, Canada, I picked up a couple surprisingly detailed topo maps of the local area, which displayed more trails than you could ride in a full season.

Aerial photography: Sometimes, completely unmarked and unnamed trails make themselves known when seen from a bird’s eye view. Today, with the likes of Google Maps, you don’t need your own Cessna to use this search strategy.

GPS sites: Just as we share GPS tracks on Singletracks, folks will upload GPS tracks on sites like GarminConnect which is also a good way to find routes.  You don’t need to limit your search to tracks of bike rides–uploads of hikes, trail runs, and motorcycle and ATV rides can also show intriguing routes.

Non-mountain biking guidebooks: Some guidebooks for hiking, cross-country skiing, or just about any other land-based activity, may point you to great biking routes.

Descriptions of other, nearby routes: In studying a documented route, you may find a connection to other trails. While studying the USGS quad covering the Windy Mountain trail in Montana’s Highwoods Mountains, I spotted a fork that led to another potential loop which I rode and posted here as the Highwoods Ridge, another excellent route.

Locals: Many times there’s no substitute for local knowledge. Getting to know the locals can yield positive results. Of course, most locals want to keep their secret stash … well, secret. You might have an easier time infiltrating a society of ninja warriors. But becoming a part of the local riding scene ups your chances. If you don’t live in the area, mining the right chat rooms may provide insight; things may not be discussed in the open, but a sharp eye can pick up enough clues. This is how I found a secret stash of well constructed freeride stunts in the Pike National Forest near Colorado Springs. In some cases, the local bike shop or USFS Ranger will be willing to share the lesser-known goods if you present yourself appropriately. This is how I came across the wonderful Little Spearfish and Rimrock Trail rides in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Just wandering: Lastly, just go have a look around. When you’re driving, keep your eyes peeled for evidence of trails. When riding, go ahead and explore that faint fork you caught out of the corner of your eye. Just being observant can also yield opportunities.  The first time I noticed the trailhead for the Platte River Trail mentioned above, I was tubing down the Platte River and saw a strip of dirt in the trees. I then got the appropriate map and found the trail.

This map does nothing to indicate how excellent this trail is. Note that the bike symbol appears on the road paralleling the trail but not on the trail itself. It looks like this trail was built to provide anglers access to the upper part of the river without having to travel through private property, but it made for an excellent, challenging and scenic singletrack ride!

Of course, mining forgotten trails entails risk. At the low end of the risk scale, you may travel only to find your new dream ride nonexistent, off-limits, or unrideable. The more severe end of the risk scale includes the potentially life-threatening hazards like unstable trail above exposure or getting lost in the wilderness with nightfall and extreme weather approaching. Know your limits, prepare adequately, and don’t be too proud to turn back. Most importantly, don’t be too disappointed if a ride doesn’t pan out; remember, this is about the journey, not the destination.  Keep all this in mind and you can lay claim to experiences nobody else (or at least nobody you know) has had.

16 thoughts on “Resources for Discovering Hidden and Forgotten Mountain Bike Trails

  1. Awesome article! I love exploring new areas or random unmarked singletrack and jeep roads. There’s a surprising wealth of them even in my local area that I still haven’t explored. Just a week and a half ago a friend and I put together an 18 mile loop that consisted of pavement, gated doubletrack, a bushwack through the forest and across a raging mountain stream, and some sweet singletrack!

    Exploratory rides such as these always make the best stories, but I find that sometimes I get lazy and would rather just hit my known routes so I don’t have to worry about route finding, getting lost or stranded, etc. But when I get tired of riding, one of these adventurous rides is just what the doctor ordered to reignite my passion!

  2. I’m not sure where our map provider gets their data (multiple sources from what I understand) but I’ve found some interesting things on the Singletracks topo maps. For example, the area around FATS shows some trails that no one seems to know about anymore.

    Greg and I did a bit of this after hearing about a future project to connect two large trail systems here in GA. Using Google maps at home and on our phones once were were “on the trail,” we successfully made the link. Always fun!

    • I really enjoy “exploring” new places, great post! Most of what is shown around FATS, at least on the USGS Quads, are either currently maintained FS roads, or old logging roads that are on private land and are technically off-limits. Of course, there are plenty of old logging roads that are left over from the last time the public land that FATS now sits on was harvested. I’m still finding old logging roads, and while they’re pretty useless as far as making epic rides, they typically lead to a close by FS road and are useful for getting off the trail when a storm pops up or you have a mechanical that can’t be fixed on the trail.

  3. Excellent article Skibum! I have been using Google maps a lot lately to confirm or deny whether that faint offshoot trail I’ve had my eye on goes somewhere or dead ends. I have discovered plenty of trails that are at least new to me and had a ball doing it! Thanks for the ideas!

      • They do look good. Is there an easy way to blow them up so as to be able to print a standard 8×11 sheet covering a specific area of interest?

    • IDK about a full 8×11, but Jeff recently integrated the background maps into the printer-friendly map version. The background is scrollable, so you can just scroll and zoom to the spot you want, but I believe it automatically puts in elevation data and stuff from the .GPX file.

      You could also try filling your screen with the map, taking a screenshot, and printing that out.

      Just my 0.02! Jeff may have some better ideas.

  4. Looks like it is time to start collecting different maps of the areas around me! I knew of some older trails around the house I grew up in but sadly they have been bulldozed and are now new neighborhoods.

  5. When I first started riding I had six USGS maps of north central MA and south western NH. Pieced together abandoned roads, jeep trails,, abandoned rail roads, power line right of ways and miles of logging roads for miles of fun. Closes I got to singletracks was a few dirt mile trails and a few game trails. Really need to explore more where I live now.

    On the hiking side, I used historic writings and outdated maps to locate and hike some abandoned trails on Mount Mondnock in NH and a few lesser peaks in the area. One of the peaks I found remains of an old private ski tow. Really cool.

    • Historic writings? Now, that’s really doing your research! I loved hiking Mt Monadnock when I was Masshole–unfortunately, no bike yet then–need to go back now and check out NE on knobbies!

      • Most of the trails in New England were devasted by the Hurricane of 38 and many never came back because of WWII. A lot of the trails in the Whites actually use old logging rail road lines. The loggers would place train lines up valleys to pull the logs out and then after move the rail to the next valley. To bad the Pemi is a Wilderness Area.

        I did more so called research about Monadnock since it was only 8 miles from my house. A lot of it I gathered from talking to other local and most of the time quite older hikers. There is also miles upon miles of abandoned rail road lines through out New England. Many of them maintened by snowmobile clubs and would make for some great and long rides.

  6. Great article Skibum. I’m really heading in this direction with my riding interest, and I have the George Washington National Forest just a couple of hours away. That ought to keep me busy for a while. I’ve been picking up TI maps and got some trails software. Thanks for the additional ideas and resources.

    • Thanks, Fleetwood!

      Had I lived in VA another year, I would have had the opportunity do do a lot more exploring in the GW. That area is a classic example of forgotten and unknown trails.

    • If you want to check out the Highwoods Ridge, get the same USGS topo that shows the Windy Creek route–Knickerbiker or the backpacking shop downtown (I forgot the name) should be able to tell you which one it is. I think it might be “Thain Creek,” but I’m not sure since when I left Great Falls, I bequeathed all my maps to folks who were staying in the area. Also be sure to check out the Little Belts, where there is tons of exploring to do. There are a good number of routes in the Rocky Mountain Front, West of Choteau and Augusta, but I understand much of this was under threat of closure to bikes under the new USFS travel plan. You can find a few good routes, including Riordan Gulch, in the book “Discover the Rocky Mountain Front–A Hiking Guide” by Tom Kotynski. When I lived there, you could get it at any outdoorsy kind of place in town.

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