Having ridden over 400 distinct trail systems from coast to coast in 25 states and 3 Canadian provinces, I’ve developed a pretty broad base upon which I draw when I assess trails. Like everyone, I have my personal quirks and biases, but having ridden with so many people of all ages, genders, personalities, and preferences, I can generally see trails through others’ eyes as well. Even so, I remain surprised at the lack of esteem you bestow on some most worthy trails. By “you,” I mean Singletracks readers in particular, or the mountain bike community at large. I’m not talking about trails which remain unknown due to remoteness or underground status, but established trails which are still ignored or underappreciated. Here’s a collection of 10 trails spanning the continent which I think are worth another look.
50 Year Trail, Tucson, AZ
To be fair, this is a popular trail, earning an average rating of 4.5 stars on Singletracks. My beef is its relative ranking: it sits all the way down at #51—and that’s just in the state of Arizona! This is easily a top 10 trail in any state not named “Utah” or “Colorado.” You get superb accessibility, dynamite singletrack, wonderful views of the Santa Catalina Mountains, and unmatched variety. Then there’s the attached loop on The Chutes, a veritable bobsled run for bikes that somehow seems to provide more down than up, giving this area the highest possible fun-to-work ratio without a shuttle. While experienced riders bemoan the “dumbing down” of trails and others decry a lack of user-friendly terrain, many have noted the utility of alternate lines. This area abounds with alternate lines, making it the perfect place for riders of mixed abilities to ride together.
Hole in the Ground, Truckee, CA
I have touted this trail before and I will tout it again. This trail has everything. Many seem to ignore this trail given the few miles of pavement necessary to complete the loop. Trust me, I dislike pavement as much as the next dirt freak, but the dirt here is so special, I’m happy to do whatever it takes to access it. This trail quite literally has it all: a long stiff climb, fantastic ridge top riding with unobstructed views of the gorgeous High Sierras, unique and highly-entertaining rock gardens with tight, techy lines, and big rollers (or drops, if you choose those lines), a blazing-fast, extended descent, and yes, a little pavement. For this one to sit at #93 in the state of California is incomprehensible.
Heil Valley Ranch, Lyons, CO
Colorado’s Front Range is so full of worthy trails it would be impossible to complain about any of them not sitting at the top. What gets me about Heil is that it is so ignored relative to Hall Ranch, which sits next door. Hall has its moments, but Heil welcomes the rider through a beautiful valley, and gives the rider challenging but doable climbs, all the while throwing open meadows, fields of wildflowers, and very unspoiled woods at him. Not only does Heil get ignored, riders who go there complain of a “lack of flow,” which I found interesting as I thought the trail flowed beautifully from one rock garden to the next, from one dip to the next climb, from one curve to the next one banking the opposite direction. Of course, that lack of attention means it gets less traffic than other front range trails, making the experience even better.
Frederick Watershed, Frederick, MD
Everyone in the Greater DC and Northern Maryland areas has heard of this area, but few have gone. Of those who have gone, even fewer return. But the Watershed is a ride like nothing else in the area and should be at the top of any adventurous mid-Atlantic rider’s list. Sure, there are no official maps and the trails are all unmarked, many disappearing into very Blair Witch Project terrain. Sure, you could get lost in there and never be found. Sure, it’s all craggy rocks, much of which are unrideable for the average cyclist. But all this is what makes this such a gem in an otherwise overpopulated, overdeveloped, adventure-free area. You think you’re good because you can ride the tougher trails at Patapsco? Ha! Head for the Watershed!
Landahl Preserve, Blue Springs, MO
Like the Frederick Watershed, this is another tech-laden gem. What makes it so amazing is that it sits in the middle of America’s prairie lands, just east of Kansas City. For a few square miles, the prairies give way to a dense forest. Within this forest lie lots of ledgy rocks. The trails which inhabit the area take you up and down more ledges than you can count, some of which require near trials-like skills. Others just let you bob and weave through forest so dark you may wish you brought night riding lights, even at high noon in June. Missouri isn’t known as a mountain biking destination, so for this one to be anything other than #1 in the state, or #2 at worst, is perplexing.
Otero Canyon, Tijeras, NM
Like the 50 Year Trail, this is something of a local’s favorite, but still deserves much wider recognition. The full complex of trails in the Manzanita Mountains southeast of Albuquerque, which is anchored by the Otero Canyon trail, and often referred to as such, is an incredible collection of climbs, descents, rocks, trials moves, and flow, all sitting in classic southwestern pinion and juniper forest. The fact that it’s a mere 10-minute drive from Albuquerque just adds to its appeal. Were this trail system attached to a true mountain bike destination rather than Albuquerque, NM, it would no doubt sit in the pantheon of the continent’s greatest rides.
Ceasar Creek, Waynesville, OH
Central Ohio is another area not necessarily known for great mountain biking, but the Ceasar Creek trail serves up about a dozen miles of sweet singletrack in the woods 45 minutes east of Dayton/south of Columbus/north of Cincinatti. The trail provides flowy flying through the woods as well as a few challenges without being too vicious. While it’s not far from population centers, the route to the trailhead is anything but direct, and I suspect that difficult access deters a few riders, relative to other area trails. But that little bit of extra effort is so worth it relative to other area trails.
Thunder Mountain, Panguitch, UT
I remember this trail receiving raves from the mountain bike community in the past, but it seems to have fallen by the wayside. I wish I had the opportunity to ride it so much more often; I’m confident I’d never lose my love for this trail no matter how many times I rode it. Like Hole in the Ground, it has a little bit of everything, including a little pavement. Fortunately, that pavement isn’t the highway, but a paved bike path. Then comes some dirt road. Then comes very attractive singletrack climbing through classic Ponderosa Pine forest. Then comes the grand finale: riding through some of the Bryce area’s most unique and visually-appealing hoodoos. The combination of very cool singletrack and crazy scenery is unmatched anywhere outside of Sedona, AZ.
Laurel Hill, Lorton, VA
If you listen to people in the south suburban DC part of northern Virginia, you’d think Fountainhead and Wakefield were the only places to ride. Quietly sitting on the grounds of the old Lorton Prison is this fairly-modest, but still-worthy trail system. There are stacked loops allowing you to customize your distance. Sure, most of them are somewhat wide and not altogether unique, but most have their charms. There is a small skills park at the base of the Slaughterhouse Loop, which itself throws you a few technical moves with tight switchbacks and a couple big step ups, the Power Station Loop has some nice tabletops, and the Giles Run trail is genuinely narrow, tight and twisty singletrack with some log obstacles thrown in for good measure. What’s best is that this trail network drains far better than other area trails and is often the only thing rideable after wet weather.
Rock Creek, Arlington, WY
To be fair, this trail isn’t exactly well known, but I include it because of the negative comments I hear and read from a good portion of the few who have ridden it. I understand the drawbacks:
- You either have to shuttle it or ride up sixteen miles of forest road to get to the upper trailhead
- There are extended fields of large scree—jagged, pointing rocks, which are unrideable or just waiting to give you a pinch flat or a bent rim, and to roll your ankle when you try to shoulder your rig over them.
- Exposure. Lots of it. In places, the trail is washed out completely and you must gingerly carry your bike around the washouts on the very steep side slope.
But all that pales in comparison to the 12 miles of nearly-continuous downhill you get. Despite the lower trailhead being less than a mile from I-80, most of the canyon you ride through is fantastically remote and you feel like you’re in your own little wilderness. I have ridden the trail three times on perfect weather weekends and seen a grand total of one other human being: a forest ranger on horseback. You’re more likely to see elk than humans here. Sure, if you go down, the magpies will eat your carcass long before another human can find you, but that, and all those drawbacks listed above, just adds to the adventure.
Your turn: Which trails surprise you by their lack of attention or appreciation? Share with us in the comments section below.