The 7 Best Climbs in Mountain Biking

Few riders, even dedicated ones, plan rides with the climb in mind. The climb is a means to the end—the downhill!  Fighting gravity is a necessary evil to be endured as the price we pay for gravity at the other end. Yet we all know that climbing provides benefits, most notably fitness, but It’s more than that. For climbs that turn technical, there’s the challenge of different kinds of obstacles and hopefully the satisfaction that comes with conquering them. For less technical ascents, one can find a rhythm, settle in, and clear the mind in a unique way.

The list below represents my top climbs. As usual, it is western-biased as that’s where most of my experience lies. Also, what I think makes a great climb might not be the same as the reader; that is, if the reader even thinks there is such a thing as a great climb in the first place! While each ride has different reasons for inclusion, I see them all as worthy for the climb itself, even if no descent was waiting on the other side.

Altitude adjustment on the Southern Skyline Trail (Singletracks photo by ricknorman)

Southern Skyline Trail, Ogden, UT

This one is a spinner’s dream, climbing 3,000 vertical feet in just over 8 miles on smooth trail with switchbacks and fantastic views of Mt. Ogden. Once you attain the crest, opportunities abound. You can:

1. Go back down the way you came up
2. Hit a nice out-and-back up Lewis Peak
3. Ride the steep, challenging plummet to the North Ogden Divide and use roads back to the start
4. Drop to the divide and climb the Northern Skyline Trail for another 2,700 feet of climbing in just six miles on rockier tread then
a. Descend the long steep Ben Lomond trail before looping more roads back to the start or,
b. If you’re a real masochist, ride (hike) the last 1,000 feet to the summit of Ben Lomond Peak before completing the mega-epic.

The view from Atayala Peak (Singletracks photo by ckdake)

Atayala Mountain, Santa Fe, NM

This one climbs a harsh 1,600 vertical feet in three miles, but the Northern New Mexico Pinion forest seems to welcome every pedal stroke. Unlike Skyline, the climb here isn’t consistent; there are some breathers, but that just means the steep parts are even steeper. A break will be necessary for all but the strongest riders, but it’s so worth it—the downhill is an absolute riot! Just beware, this is also a popular hiking trail.

Get ready for lots of this on the Bergen Peak climb (Singletracks photo by BFD)

Bergen Peak, Evergreen, CO

Relentlessly ascending 2,000 verts in just over four miles on variable surface with tight switchbacks, this is rated as one of the toughest climbs in Colorado’s Front Range, an area known for tough climbs. My experience was to find this climb difficult, but somehow less painful than other area climbs with similar stats. The 360-degree view from the top is a fantastic place to take it all in, then you get to complete the loop on a more technical downhill sporting more rocks and tighter switchbacks. This is a favorite among Front Range bikers who don’t mind a climb.

Beautiful woods guide you up to Lost Cabin Lake

Lost Cabin Lake, Whitehall, MT

At 1,550 feet of climbing over 4.3 miles, this is one of the easier climbs on the list, but also the most beautiful. The Treasure State is full of stunning mountain ranges, but the Tobacco Roots south of the interstate between Bozeman and Butte are some of the best. The constantly stunning vistas will keep your mind off the pain and, in no time, you’ll find yourself at the top enjoying a gorgeous high alpine cirque complete with a lake full of the clearest water you’ve ever seen. After enjoying a super flowy downhill, if you’re ready for more, double your pleasure by adding on a spin up the Louise Lake Trail which starts from the same parking area.

Start of the gravelly climb up the Buckhorn Trail

The Chutes/Buckhorn, Colorado Springs, CO
As usual, I have to include my favorite local ride in this category. This ride combines a few trails and some road for 2,100 feet of climbing, starting right in town. The gentle but attractive climb on the Ridge Trail in Stratton makes a nice warm up to The Chutes, an area downhill favorite, but makes a great aerobic climb. Once topping out the chutes, it’s a mile of pavement and a couple miles of dirt road up a consistent, slight grade to the start of the Buckhorn Trail. Buckhorn climbs steeply, often on loose gravel, throwing in roots, rocks, and switchbacks for good measure. It’s possible to continue the climb on Upper Captain Jack’s, but that will involve some hike-a-bike. Most prefer to descend lower Captain Jack’s and finish the downhill leg with one of the other great trails in the area.

Part of the tough, rooty climb to Reddish Knob on the Lynn Trail

Reddish Knob, Harrisonburg, VA

During my time in the DC area, this is the one climb I found that I could compare to those out west. It’s long, rutted, rooty and eschews switchbacks. Adding to the challenge is the typically dense eastern foliage, obscuring any views along the way so it’s hard to spot landmarks to keep track of your progress. On your first ride, there will be plenty of “are we there yet?”moments. At 4,397’, Reddish knob is high by eastern standards and one of the few places you can climb 2,000 verts. Once on top, there is an unobstructed 360-degree view that rivals the best of the east.

Your invitation to a great climb up Tunnel Canyon

Tunnel Canyon/West Ridge, Tijeras, NM

The downhill leg, Otero Canyon, is a favorite among Albuquerque riders, but any of the climbs to get there are great of their own accord. My favorite route starts at the base of Tunnel Canyon, climbs a nice drainage, traverses some Manzanita Mountains all at a reasonably quad-friendly grade, then hooks up with the West Ridge trail for some slightly steeper and much rockier climbing to reach the top. Between the joy of Tunnel and the challenge of West Ridge, you get a nice, varied climb before ripping down the Manzanita’s signature ride.

Where do you go to “build character?”

Related posts:

  1. Mountain Biking Harrisonburg, Virginia with Shenandoah Mountain Touring: the Enduro Supremo Pre-Ride
  2. Mountain Biking Breckenridge, Colorado
  3. Mountain biking Macon
  4. Mountain Biking Durango: Overend Mountain Park + Log Chutes
  5. Mountain Biking Flagstaff, Arizona

21 thoughts on “The 7 Best Climbs in Mountain Biking

  1. Great write-up, I too enjoy the long climbs almost as much as the ride back down. Can also ride to the top of Reddish Knob on pavement, even that way it’s a tough climb. The view’s from there this fall were awesome.

  2. I’m adding Reddish Knob to my wishlist. It is a haul to get there, and definitely will end up being a weekend trip, but it sounds like the trails are awesome.

    Nice write-up. And as much as I hate straining, panting, tired legs, and sweat dripping into my eyes, climbs can provide a great sense of accomplishment upon reaching the summit.

  3. When I first saw the title of the blog, I totally didn’t expect to have ridden any of these but I have braved Reddish Knob! The first time by bike and the second time via Ford Raptor (because I vowed NEVER to amke that climb again). I highly reccommend camping in the GW National Forest and riding up to the top of the Knob and then riding the Wolf Ridge trail back down. That was the most fun mtb trip I’ve ever taken.

  4. 2 climbs come to mind here in AZ. Picketpost section of the AZ trail starting in Superior will test any climber.
    Then there’s the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff where you climb to 10000′+ from 7000 or 8000′ depending on where you start. (peaks are wilderness, 12633′)
    You can climb Mt Lemmon here, 3000′-9100′ or Mt Graham 4000′-10720′. But the climbs are more popular with roadies as 2 of the USA best.

  5. I too enjoy a good climb, though I’ve only done the Chutes/Buckhorn trail listed here. I hate to admit this but some days after work I used to park at the bottom of High Drive (Bear Creek side) and climb up Captain Jack’s that way. Sometimes I didn’t even ride down the singletrack on the other side–I did it just for the steep climb on the gravel road!

    There’s something so satisfying about completing a big climb without stopping on the way up…

  6. @AJ–If you make a weekend trip out of it, consider also doing Elizabeth Furnace and/or Kennedy Peak while you’re there. A bit less climbing and a lot more tech.
    http://www.singletracks.com/bike-trails/elizabeth-furnace.html
    http://www.singletracks.com/bike-trails/kennedy-peak.html

    @mtbikerchick
    Yeah, the Butte is still on my wish list. Kinda’ unforgivable since I only live about 4 1/2 hrs away–too many trips to Fruita, I guess!

    @chukt
    Warm Springs was one of many rides on my wish list I just didn’t get to when I lived in Montana–thanks for pouring lemon juice on that paper cut! Red Lodge is awesome–I recently did the Line Creek Plateau and Silver Run/Basin Lakes while passing through. Winter Park is next on my hit list for next summer here in Colorado.

    @Jeff
    The full climb up High Drive will definitely provide a good workout–the grade is very consistent (and steep) over it’s length. I usually just go up as far as the turnoff to Palmer/Section 16 (which makes an appearance in my upcoming blog).

  7. I Love/Hate the climb. I’m putting Reddish Knob on my list, and Ogden might be doable for me. I’m not sure what I can handle physically or technically.

    • The Ogden ride is a good one if you’re unsure of yourself. Although long, the grade is moderate and you can turn around any time you want. It’s also not very technical–mostly smooth. The top part if not the whole thing is probably already snowed in for the year. Depending on how big a snow year it is, it won’t be rideable all the way up until mid-late June.

  8. Great write-up! I do like climbing too, mostly because of satisfaction i get after chalenging workout. And as tougher the climb as more fun gotta be on downhill. This rule doesn’t work for 401 trail since climb there is the steepest and longest I’ve ever done and downhill is not that fun as I expected to be. Good scenery is the only reward on that straight singletrack.
    As Skibum said everyone have their own list. My best climbing list begin with Slickrock.

  9. Great writeup. I have a love-hate relationship with the climbs while climbing, but always love them after they’re done! As a NM rider it was cool to see two local rides make your list. There are tons of great climbs in Tijeras and oddly enough I was already planning to ride Tunnel-West Ridge-Otero tomorrow!

  10. My first few years of riding a discussion about which climb is better would been like talking about which prostrate exam I enjoyed the most. Now I kind of like a good climb. Wish I could travel as much as Skibum and try some of his favorites. Most of mine are close to home. My favorite is probably Stoney Run in Douthat State Park. Start on Blue Suck Falls trail, left on Locust Gap for a couple of contour miles, right on Stoney Run – stopping by Tuscarora overlook for a break.. It is around 1800 feet vertical, making it pretty big by East Coast standards. Plus it is all ride-able, unlike most other climbs in the area which require some hike-a-bike.

    • Ah, Douthat–another on my “shoulda’ done that when I was there” list. It was quite a haul from DC, so I never made it, but it was within striking distance.

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