Mongo up, Cannonball Down: Shepherd Mountain Bike Park is a Midwest Treasure

Photos by Bob Robinson unless otherwise noted.

Opening day, yahoo! April 3rd, 2021, Ironton, Missouri, officially declared Shepherd Mountain Bike Park (SMBP) “Open for business.” 

Cyclists from a five-state area rolled their bikes onto Mongo’s cargo bed for an adventurous shuttle up the mountainside, giddy with excitement at being the first to leave knobby tracks on the toughest, baddest gravity trails in the region.

Five challenging, purpose-built, downhill-only trails on the scale of singletrack normally found in the continent’s northwestern regions can now be experienced right here in the “Show Me State.”

Every success story has its “eureka” moment, and SMBP’s came June of 2019, on the patio of the Fort Davidson Café. Klinton Silvey was having lunch with members of Ironton’s Chamber of Commerce. He happened to glance up at a wooded mountain and casually contemplated aloud how nice it would be to build downhill mountain bike trails on the steep hillside. A commerce member asked if he knew anything about what it would take to construct them? Silvey replied he might be able to help them out.   

Might be able to help them out, was a gross understatement. Silvey is a member of Gateway Off-Road Cyclists (GORC) Gravity, a 501c3 non-profit organization, dedicated to developing gravity-fed mountain bike trails and family-friendly bicycle skills parks across Missouri. He shared the lunch conversation with fellow GORC Gravity members Dave Schulz and Steve Friedman. Together they presented a formal proposal for constructing Shepherd Mountain Bike Park to the Iron County Economic Partnership, and as they say, “the rest is history.”

Digging in

Photo courtesy of Jagged Axe / Kevin Simpers

SMBP would be a great role model to other communities that might consider creating a mountain bike park. Mayor Bob Lourwood, Chuck Correll (Arcadia Valley Tourism Committee chairman), and other community leaders recognized the park’s potential to stimulate the area economy and dedicated themselves to making the project a success. Even before the gates opened, their efforts were paying dividends. Property values near the bike park were already on the rise, according to town officials.

With the community leaders successfully soliciting funds, Silvey and Schulz continuing in volunteer advisory roles, all that was lacking to initiate the project was locating the right construction crew to implement the plan. Enter Jagged Axe Trail Design.

In an exercise to select the appropriate company to build the trail system, GORC Gravity members listed their favorite downhill trails. When the tabulations were completed, it turned out Jagged Axe had constructed the majority of the group’s “fab five” trails. 

Silvey explained that everyone appreciated how Jagged Axe’s owner, Alex Scott, found a way down hillsides that made riders feel like they are experiencing the true mountain, without extensive bench cutting and alteration of the environment. The group believed Jagged Axe could create the raw, natural, technical, steep downhills that area cyclists currently had to journey hundreds of miles to experience. It also helped that within the mountain biking world, Jagged Axe was already known for giving each trail a unique flavor.

With the mountain’s six hundred feet of elevation, Silvey was also not interested in extending the mileage just to construct flow trails. The Ozark Trail is only thirty minutes away, and with the one-hundred-plus miles of cross-country trails in the nearby St. Louis area, there is plenty of that style of trail available. 

With all the pieces now in place, Jagged Axe set to work. 

There is a common phrase used when constructing mountain bike trails that “it takes a village.” The product of this village’s effort was so successful that when the crew from North America’s premier enduro series, Big Mountain Enduro (BME), visited the site in the fall of 2020, they were impressed enough to make SMBP the opening race for the 2021 series on May 2. Pretty awesome, eh?

If you dig it, they will ride

Online shuttle passes for SMBP’s opening weekend sold out within the first sixty seconds. Those unable to snag a pass to hitch a ride in the back of the 6-wheel-drive former Missouri National Guard Medium Tactical Vehicle, affectionately named Mongo, or on one of the Humvee-pulled trailers, got to stretch their legs on a “warmup ride” climbing the two-plus mile Coolio’s Climb. 

On opening day, Coolio was still a work in progress and a little chunky in spots. It did get easier after my first ride up, as I became familiar with the rough spots; however, by my fifth trip up, it began to wear on me.

(Note: I’m not complaining. I appreciate the mega volunteer hours Schulz put into building the return route. He lived on the mountain in a camper for eight months laboring daily to build the two-plus-mile trail. “Clap, clap, clap,” I applaud your commitment.) 

No matter if you paid in cash or sweat, all riders land atop the mountain at The Hub, an elevated dirt launch pad for all trails. Congregating at this perch with your cycling buds while straddling the saddle of your trusty ride, it is decision time. Which line to take? 

Will it be Trolley Track?

Don’t let the green rating fool you. As with life in general, all things are relative. Yes, compared to the other four trails, this is easier. However, this is not the green trail your dad rode.

All riders will enjoy the sweet flow on this 1.7-mile run, and the naturally integrated rock armory isn’t techie enough to cause problems. However, the crux, for some, could be the high-banked, earthen berms. The turns are wide and smooth, but the accumulated speed from the steep descent could be a challenge for a true beginner.

Or Element 26?

This 1.1-mile ride bumps the skill level requirements up a notch. The berms are a little tighter, and the speeds ramp up with the steeper grades. There are also added technical demands like tabletops and wooden features. But all in all, it’s a smooth progression from Trolley Track.

Maybe Mineshaft?

The 0.7-mile route was a crowd favorite on opening day. Following the trend, it is even steeper and faster than the previously listed, lesser-rated, trails. There are more rocky technical features, but the gaps between remain pedally. It resembles the black diamond trails; however, Mineshaft is still somewhat groomed, and does not have the big jumps. Riders will find this trail welcome training for the black diamonds because even mere mortals should be able to handle this trail.

Or should it be Powder Keg?

The 0.8-mile trail earns its black diamond rating. This and Cannon Ball demonstrate Jagged Axe’s ability to “keep it natural,” allowing riders an up close and personal experience with the true mountain. The ride between features is representative of the rake and ride paths we rode in the early years of mountain biking, letting the rocks lay where they lie. This trail also has a rad wooden corkscrew. Heads up for the off-camber rock gardens and drops near the bottom. Some riders were caught off guard on opening day.  

And then there is Cannon Ball.

You would think a double black diamond rating would prepare riders for a run. But no, this 0.6-mile trail is super steep, top to bottom. Riders will lose count of the number of rock features, mandatory rock rolls, big rock drops, and just crazy crazy rock gardens. This trail is bare-bones au naturel.  

As you near the end of this adrenaline rockfest thrill ride, don’t make the boo boo one rider did on opening day. Mistaking The Cannon for a teeter-totter feature, she slowly rolled to, and then off, the end of the ramp. I’m happy to report, she did not suffer serious injuries. 

The Cannon.

More to come

Construction of two more trails down the backside of the mountain were near completion on opening day. These trails will be open in time to be part of the May 2 BME race. Their addition bumps total mileage at the park to about ten miles, making it well worth the drive.

“Knock, knock!” that is opportunity knocking on the door for some entrepreneur reading this piece who is looking for a location to open a new bicycle shop.

Mayor Lourwood and the community of Ironton is actively soliciting funding for SMBP Phase II. The Mayor explained how the overall SMBP project is comparable to building an amusement park. Their team decided to construct the downhill trails in Phase I, like an amusement park would build a roller coaster first, to get everyone’s attention and then follow up with the more family-oriented rides.

Phase II will include true green trails and progressively challenging blue routes the entire family can enjoy. It will also include features tailored to the needs of cyclists wanting to improve their bike handling skills. 

A campground will be constructed for visitors seeking a true outdoor experience. There are trails planned to connect park areas and Ironton’s downtown.

Visitors should begin their visit at The Wheelhouse, located in downtown Ironton, at the corner of Russell Street and Highway 21. This is home base for shuttle tickets, bike rentals, and other information associated with the bike park and surrounding area. Currently, shuttle service is limited to weekends, but they plan to operate daily during the summer months.

Beyond the bike park

If you are looking for a break from the rough ‘n’ tumble trails at SMBP, take a day or two off to check out other MTB attractions in the area. 

A short eighteen-mile drive through the scenic Ozark Mountains will take you to St. Joe State Park, near Farmington. The park offers eleven miles of old-school singletrack that is a flashback to trails of the past: just a sweet narrow pathway weaving in and around the trees, nothing technical, and with only six hundred feet of elevation. 

Or travel on equally scenic country roads, twenty-five miles northwest to reach another old-school MTB trail at Council Bluff Lake. This twelve-mile trail circles the lake, offering pristine views of fishing enthusiasts plying their skills to lure in a stringer of largemouth bass stocked in the lake.

Cyclists can set up home base at the lake’s campground and venture out for more extended cycling on the connecting Ozark Trail. The Ozark Trail will eventually link up with the Ozark Highland Trail to offer seven hundred miles of continuous hiking (the OHT does not allow bicycles at this time), from Arkansas’ Lake Fort Smith State Park all the way to St. Louis, Missouri.

The addition of the Shepherd Mountain Bike Park makes the Ironton area a vacation destination for the entire family. 

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