More than any place on earth, California is steeped in mountain biking lore. The genesis or the sport on Mount Tam in Marin County at the hands of heroes such as Chris Kelly, Gary Fisher, Tom Ritchey, and others is the stuff of legends. Even all these years later, if the mountain bike industry could be considered to have a headquarters, a hot spot, that center of the mountain bike universe would be Southern California.
Thankfully California, the third largest state in the US, is also geographically gifted and uniquely qualified to be a revered mountain bike destination for much more than the fact that our sport began here. But would mountain biking have been conceived if it wasn’t for these mountains and trails? You’ll have to pose that question to the chicken-or-the-egg philosophers.
Regardless of which came first, the fact remains that California is home to all manner of excellent mountain bike terrain: tall sky-scraping mountains with endless singletrack, arid deserts, massive redwood forests hiding serpentine trails, and a plethora of coastal climate zones offering year-round riding.
California was the original mountain bike mecca, and while Colorado or Utah may now give it a run for its money, it’s still one of the hottest spots to travel to with your mountain bike in 2017. If you do head to California, here are five of the very best trails that you need to ride:
Downieville Downhill (Downieville, CA)
The Downieville Downhill never gets old. Especially if you take the shuttle to the top. Several outfitters in this small old mining town offer rides to Packer Saddle and from there, one can choose to zoom or lollygag through Sunset, Butcher Ranch, and the Divide of one’s choice.
If training or practicing for the legendary Downieville race, one had better pad up and open the throttle, but be ready for that god-awful slap-in-the-face climb right in the middle of your rollicking descent, the one that makes you wish you brought the XC bike (but only for these 11 minutes). With a river running alongside, forming deep crystal pools beneath behemoth boulders, you might be tempted to abandon thoughts of the podium and answer the siren song of the swimming hole. While options abound, the race course is a great choice at 16 miles long with 1,100 feet of climbing (slap!) and 5,500 of descending.
And when you’re done, just behind the pizza parlor, picnic tables and a nicely-kept public restroom you’ll find a great swim spot at the confluence of the Downie and Yuba Rivers, in case you forewent the trailside dip. There are good and varied options for accommodation in Downieville from small rustic hotels, campgrounds near and a little less near, or one can rent a house with their crew.
“This is, hands down, one of the rockin’est trails you’ll ever see. Well worth the 20 clams for a shuttle ride to the top. Well over 4k feet of almost continuous descent ranging from buff to technical, and great scenery to boot. Not for the timid, but other than that, you can’t go wrong with a run down the Downieville Downhill. There are a number of routes, but the classic remains the best: Sunrise, Butcher Ranch, Third Divide, Upper First Divide, and Lower First Divide.” -John Fisch
The Forest of Nisene Marks & Soquel Demonstration Forest (Santa Cruz, CA)
The Singletracks database of trails and its beloved commenters use a lot of exclamation points when writing about the relatively new flow trail at Demo, and those “!”s aren’t in reference to the climb, though that does get a fair number of mentions.
In this October 2016 review, reader larryhogueisson gets all misty-eyed and provides a great snapshot.
“Demo Forrest is absolutely the must-do area in Santa Cruz… Period! Tons of work by the guys from Ibis ensure these trails will be in great shape year-round. There are many different routes, so pick your poison. I am one who never minds the opportunity to mash some pedals in order to earn some DH fun. In Demo Forest there is definitely some work to be done in the earning department. It’s a slow steady climb to get to the Forest, but once you’re there, you’ll forget you just climbed to get there. Amazing flowing DH rides with GREAT natural terrain features, huge banking turns, and even a few spots to create some white-knuckled riding. A day of riding Sawpit, Braille, and Flow will give you PLENTY of fun and remind your legs why carbs are important when you pedal back to the car. You’ll take a puff or two with all the climbing, but EPIC flowing downhills make it every bit worth it.” -larryhogueisson
In addition to the new flow trail which tends to get all the love, the old school freeride-style descents still offer a challenge that harkens back to the renegade days of our sport. Whichever descent you choose, be prepared for a wild ride!
San Juan Trail (Mission Viejo, CA)
Lauded by many as one of the best mountain bike trails in SoCal, the San Juan Trail puts the mountain in “mountain biking” with about 3,500 feet of climbing if you ride it as an out-and-back. Other route combinations in the Singletracks database put the climbing as high as 5,700 feet of gain with a 40-mile route. But the amount of challenge that you bite off here in the Cleveland National Forest, on the southeast side of Orange County, depends solely on your personal appetite.
“Could be the best singletrack in SoCal. Awesome set of switchbacks to start the ride then some rocky sections requiring short bursts of power. There are some exposed sections commanding all your attention. The DG or decomposed granite makes the riding surface very slippery (like marbles on a tile floor) so careful on the way back down. There are a few washed out sections in some turns but overall the trail was in good shape. I used to do night rides here in the mid 90’s. A must do.” -david_darling
Northstar Bike Park (Truckee, CA)
The Singletracks database reports 125 miles of black diamond singletrack at Northstar. While this may be true, it is important to note that the resort does have lift-serviced trails that do not require a full-face, a neck brace, or a chest protector. But just so you know, the last time my partner and I showed up at the lift in our spandex with our XC helmets and 140 mm forks, we might as well have been aardvarks at the Kentucky Derby.
While the bro is strong here and most folks are riding massive rigs and catching serious air, there’s no denying that Northstar is a rip-roaring good time. And when you’re done hurtling down Gypsy, you can enjoy a beverage and lunch at the lodge where you’ll also find a full fleet of rental bikes and gear. The lifts also serve hikers so if your family or friends don’t ride, plan to meet them at the lodge after your respective forays.
“[I’ve been going] to Northstar a couple of times every summer for the last 4 years. Always a blast!!!! I can get some double diamond runs in and my kids love riding the fire roads and easy rider trails. It’s got something for every skill level and is a great place if [you’re] new to lift riding. I would also recommend lessons for the kids. The instructors are great and my kids’ confidence is always sky high after.” -Jnat1998
Tahoe Rim Trail (Lake Tahoe, CA)
Clocking in at 165 miles of intermediate singletrack at varying elevations (6,000 feet generally), the Tahoe Rim Trail or TRT spans six counties and two states. While some portions of the TRT are not open to bikes, and some operate on an even-odd day schedule, plenty of singletrack is available for two-wheeled adventure.
The beauty of this area cannot be overstated. Whether you choose Martis Peak to Tahoe City, Kingsbury to Spooner, be sure your camera battery is charged, you’ve got food, water, and a whole day to take in whichever segment you’ve chosen, for this is a truly special experience.
Shuttle services are available for some of the routes, and remember to check which segments operate on day-of-week restrictions–nothing’s worse than saddling up and finding out you’re there on the wrong day.
“I recently rode the TRT from where it intersects with fire road 16N53 down to Highway 89 in Tahoe City. It was spectacular. I have been mountain biking since April 2012 and found this to be the most challenging trail yet. Lots of rock gardens, sweet singletrack, and awesome views. While I was stopped after a challenging climb through some very loose shale three other MTB riders buzzed past me, making [me long to improve] my singletrack technical skills. I had a blast!” -LouD
Picking only five trails in the nation’s third largest state is ridiculously hard, votes or no. Since we couldn’t nearly do justice in this article to all of the best spots to ride in Cali, let us know in the comments below: What’s your favorite trail in California?