While reading Sarah Brown’s (amazing) article about the best MTB descents on the East Coast, a thought crossed my mind. What about the top 10 descents in the Midwest? I’m not going to lie; initially, I laughed a little. But over the following days I thought about it, and after some research, I realized that the Midwest has quite a bit more topography than many mountain bikers give it credit for.
True, the majority of that topography lies on the fringes of the region. Places like the Black Hills and the Ozarks contain big mountain riding reminiscent of the regions they border. However, that doesn’t mean the entire list will be a patchwork quilt of the rest of the nation’s riding. For example, on the Bread Basket’s northern border along the Great Lakes, a distinctly Midwestern style of terrain and trail exists.
Without further ado, here’s a list of the Heartland’s 10 best mountain bike descents.
McLovin, a line in the Harlow Lake trail system north of Marquette, Michigan, can only be described as the Midwest’s version of the Big Rock Trail at Dupont State Forest. After a gut-busting climb/hike-a-bike up Bareback from the parking lot, riders are treated to gorgeous views of the surrounding slickrock balds thanks to the shallow bedrock of the Canadian Shield. Dabbling around on the short, steep, and technical climbs and descents of the summit slickrock, riders make their way over to expansive views of the enormous Lake Superior.
That’s where the fun begins. The trail suddenly points down toward smooth rock rolls of varying sizes and slopes, allowing for a nerve-wrecking amount of speed to be built up. Once bikers find their way to the treeline, the trail’s character completely changes. Masterfully created, dense — but very rideable — rock gardens entangled in webs of roots give way to flowing hero dirt at the bottom. All in all, this trail, which is at least as good as its Southeastern counterpart, is the author’s personal favorite on this list.
Northwest of Marquette is another town that has defined Midwestern mountain biking: Copper Harbor. The Flow, in turn, represents the epitome of mountain biking Copper Harbor. After grabbing a shuttle to the top of Brockway Mountain, riders are immediately immersed. The beginning is a pedally jaunt through a dense stand of trees with a few technical features to get warmed up on.
Once riders make it under Overflow, things pick up. The berms get bigger, the grades get steeper, and the chances for high speeds get greater. Continuing down, bikers can try their luck on Overflow or the jump/pump line on Daisy Dukes if they really want to get rowdy.
At the end, things get tight. Expect a deceptively hard uphill rock garden, really sharp turns, and the most amazing switchback you’ll ever ride. Overall, the Flow is 3 miles and 560 vertical feet of two-wheeled music: perfect rhythm, harmony, and spice.
Duluth, Minnesota has exploded onto the mountain biking scene in recent years. This can be attributed to the building of the Duluth Traverse, great XC trail networks, and world-class lift-serviced downhill trails at Spirit Mountain. Riders camping at Spirit Mountain can ride its premiere downhill trail, Smorgasbord, right out of the campground.
The track starts with a bombing run down some doubletrack before reaching the first trail intersection. Riders can either choose to continue down the high-speed doubletrack or ride Blaster, a steep, baby-head-filled run that is well known for giving careless riders flats if they wander from the established line.
Once riders make it to the woods or back to the main trail, things start to get really interesting. Gap jumps, wooden features, berms, drops, and hip jumps all maximize flight time without making an unexpected landing too costly. After flowing through more jumps and carving a couple more berms, riders will make it to the skills park, where they can session a few jumps and go up for another try.
Far to the south lies the Upper Buffalo Headwaters trail system in the high country of Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains. With the system’s mix of old- and new-school trails, the best way to drop elevation fast is by riding 1,148 vertical feet from the Fire Tower Loop Trail to Knuckles Creek. Riding the Fire Tower Loop Trail, riders are treated to a gentle ascent to the highest point in the Ozarks, the Buffalo Fire Tower, before flowing down a couple of switchbacks toward the Fire Tower Trail. Speed is easy to come by on this leg of the descent because the trail lacks any serious technical obstacles.
Next up is the Fire Tower Trail and Knuckles Trail West, which continue the trend set by the Fire Tower Loop Trail. Just don’t forget to stop along the way; great views of the surrounding mountains accompany riders on this machine-built adventure through the wilderness. The last portion of the ride, Knuckles Creek Trail, is a refreshing change of pace from the rest of the route. Primitive, rocky, old-school trail winds along the clear and picturesque Knuckles Creek, allowing riders to take a dip after a long day in the saddle.
Rising high above the Great Plains in South Dakota are the Black Hills, an island of mountain pleasure in a sea of rolling farmland. For an epic bikepacking journey across this wonderful landscape, the Centennial Trail is the trail of choice. On a journey through ridges and valleys, it serves up some of the best views in the Midwest.
But not everyone has days on end to spend riding the whole trail. That said, the descent out of the Black Hills from Elk Creek to Alkali is a great option for a quick ride. Riders will be treated to 1,100 feet of climbing and 2,200 feet of descending in 11 miles on trail that rolls past massive pine and aspen stands, impressive views, and fields of wild flowers. On the trail, after an initial climb with the odd rock garden or two, an awesome, flowing descent will be on tap all the way down to Bulldog Gulch. From there, riders only have to tame one more punchy climb before flying back down picturesque trail to Alkali Creek.
On the other side of the Black Hills, the terrain, filled with more pronounced peaks and deeper valleys, is even more ripe for downhill ripping. Accordingly, Crow Peak, located just east of the Wyoming border, features a trail utilizing every foot of the mountain’s profile. In 1,600 feet of straight descending, riders will be confronted with two trail styles: the technical, precipitous character of the upper peak, and the fast, relatively evenly-graded lower section. The views won’t disappoint, either.
Whether riders are rocketing through pines or maneuvering along a narrow ridge, they’ll be hard pressed to keep their eyes on the trail. What’s the price for this gem of a descent? Shuttling is unavailable, making for one of the most strenuous out-and-backs around.
In South Dakota’s northern sibling, the rugged terrain of the badlands between two units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park has been utilized to create another fantastic long-distance trail: the Maah Daah Hey Trail. One of the best ways to test the area’s potential for descending is by making a loop with an old cattle trail called Long X and the last section of the Maah Daah Hey Trail.
From the spot where the Maah Daah Hey intersects the Long X, 2.5 miles of undulating ridge-top trail will provide riders big views of the surrounding canyons and gullies. Mach speed is attainable here even without the assistance of gravity. The ridge’s wide top allows riders to effortlessly glide through wide turns and smooth trail.
But no ridge can go on forever. Plummeting off the ridge, the trail crosses through eccentric, gently stratified steeps. Riders carve a couple switchbacks before settling into the more mellow — but no less scenic — second half of the 500-foot descent. To top it off, a river crossing at the end serves as a great place to cool off before climbing the next ridge to get to the CCC campground.
When I passed through the small town of Athens, Ohio on my way to West Virginia, I was completely unaware that I was actually driving by one of the best places to bike in the state! The crown jewel of descending in nearby Strouds Run State Park (and maybe the state) is Finger Rock Trail.
In the course of 1 mile, riders descend more than 300 feet through gnarly terrain. Massive rock rolls, tight switchbacks, and exposed trail featuring rock gardens and wooden features are the bread and butter of this exhilarating ride. At the end, riders will meet up with the Trace Trail. Here they can head back to Athens or toward Strouds Run State Park and the twisty Dow Lake Loop.
Coming east out of the dull and seemingly endless cornfield that is Southern Illinois on I-70 can be rough. Brown County State Park, a sanctuary of mountain biking bliss southwest of Indianapolis, awaits weary travelers too restless for driving.
Hesitation Point Trail blurs the line between natural and flow tracks while dropping down from its namesake to the tune of 350 feet of descending. As riders make their way down, logs, rock gardens, drops, and switchbacks will try their hardest to slow down the progress of bikers going fast and hard.
If a technical descent doesn’t sound like fun, the choose-your-own-adventure nature of Hesitation Point has you covered. Every feature has a ride-around that is just as fun as the obstacle, so riders don’t even have to miss the fun. After zipping down into a valley, a stream crossing and a short climb will round out the trip.
The last trail on the list, which resides along I-43 in the hills north of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, is a loose, raucous ride down the full vertical of the Alpine Valley Resort. Starting at the summit of the ski hill, riders are immediately thrown into the unpredictable terrain of a blown-out access road. Next comes a few slippery grass switchbacks before riders meet a medium-sized jump.
As a break in the action, the trail flattens out before leading up to the biggest feature on the trail: a massive, man-eating double. If riders manage to live to see the other side, they enter the woods where one very ledgy rock garden and a series of drops keep them on their feet. Sending (or rolling) the ladder out of the woods, riders should promptly change into the granny gear to face a very intimidating wall ride-esque feature. After more straight sprinting down the mountain, the last couple of switchbacks are the only obstacles left.
Your Turn: What are your favorite descents in the Midwest? Share your thoughts in the comments below!