After a big, geographically-diverse year in 2015 with tons of new trails explored and an easy task of coming up with a top 15 for 2015, 2016 proved to be far more challenging. A combination of professional and family commitments, along with some health-related struggles, all conspired to limit both my travel and riding time. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a great deal of exploring to be done, just that it was somewhat constrained relative to a typical year. Even more surprising was that I rode a few very highly-touted trails of seemingly universal popularity, which I found to be somewhat lacking. So for this year’s annual roundup of my personal, new-to-me “discoveries,” the list is a simple top 10. Don’t worry though, those other highly touted trails will make an appearance in my next installment of “Trails You Like More than Me.”
No matter how long I live in Colorado and how many trails I ride, I will always be able to find new-to-me trails of the highest quality. Of course, that’s one of the reasons I chose to settle here, and my home state never disappoints. With less distant travel on tap in 2016, three trails from closer to home make it into my top 10 new discoveries.
Game Creek Trail
At just under four miles, the Game Creek Trail doesn’t seem like a good candidate for a best of anything list. However, one does not simply ride those four miles. First, one must get to the top of Vail Mountain, either by riding the gondola or pedaling up one of the mountain’s many trails or fire roads. At the other end lies the ride back to Vail, mostly via a very attractive, paved bike path. But whatever lies on each end, that middle stretch is among the finest four miles of singletrack to be had anywhere.
Lost Lake/Buffehr Creek Loop
Like Game Creek, this epic loop starts and ends in the very posh city of Vail. But much of the 22 miles of the loop covers very un-civilized adventure land. The fire road climb is steep, long, and brutally relentless. Once in the woods, route finding becomes a challenge and there’s nobody out there to help should something go wrong. Near the end, the route plummets from a ridge top down into the Vail valley on the Buffehr Creek Trail at a pitch that will have most getting their brake pads very hot. This route is a hoot at any time, but doing it during aspen season is extra special.
North Fork Trail
While I can always find great new trails in my home state, Colorado is big and the mountains make for little in the way of efficient routes to get from one end to the other. At this point, new discoveries are limited to long drives. That’s why discovering the North Fork Trail was such a pleasant surprise: it’s an easy day trip from home. The North Fork trail, so named because it parallels the north fork of the South Platte river, climbs consistently to a ridge high above the river, providing inspiring views of the canyon and surrounding ranges and rock formations. It can be ridden as an out-and-back, or turned into a lollipop by connecting with the Reynolds Park open space, adding more miles and another huge climb.
It would be easy to think the entry of a Kansas trail on this list would be a product of a down year in the frequency of my travel. That would be a mistake. Anyone who’s seen coverage of the Switchgrass trail system, or my previous praise for the trails at Fancy Creek knows there’s great riding to be had in Kansas.
Even so, Perry lake was very much a pleasant surprise, especially since it doesn’t get the kind of praise in the press that Switchgrass does. Think of Perry Lake as a sort of “Switchgrass-lite.” Like Switchgrass, there’s a lot of miles to be had here, and many of them run adjacent to a large reservoir. What Perry Lake lacks relative to Switchgrass is all those exposed, ledgy rocks. But Perry Lake partly makes up for this in two ways: first, a good chunk of the network has plenty of trees, adding to the natural beauty and providing some shade and second, it’s an easy drive from Kansas City, making it an excellent day trip destination for a large population.
Like Kansas above, Missouri is also somewhat slighted as a mountain bike destination. Although a big fan of my one previous Missouri stop, Landahl preserve, I didn’t realize how slighted The Show-Me State is until my most recent visit. Missouri shows me more each time I go, and Swope Park was the biggest surprise yet. This network of interconnected loops has something for everyone, and even an advanced Rocky Mountain rockhound like me can find hours worth of consistently challenging, rocky fun. What makes this even more amazing is that the entire network lies within Kansas City. With Landahl, Swope, and Blue River on the MO side, and the likes of Shawnee Mission, Kill Creek, and Clinton State Park on the KS side, the Kansas City Metro area is a legit mountain biking destination that can entertain this Colorado boy for at least a full week – and follow it up with a huge upgrade in the after-ride barbecue!
For more information on the riding around Kansas City, be sure to check out this episode of Trail TV:
I find this trail to be misnamed. When I think of the word “alpine,” I think of snowcapped, above treeline terrain. Oregon has some of this on the various high-rising volcanoes that pierce the northwestern sky, but the Alpine Trail, sitting above the tiny hamlet of Oakridge, isn’t among them. Here, the forests of the Pacific Northwest are deep, dense, and dark; no million-mile views to be had. In fact, across the entire 20-mile journey, there’s only one significant clearing that allows for a long-distance vista.
Semantics and their false expectations aside, this is positively killer trail! Even with a shuttle, the ride starts with 1,000 feet of rather stiff climbing and offers up another thousand even after the initial climb reaches its high point. Those woods which block the view are quite beautiful in and of themselves. And then comes the payoff: a huge, rip-roaring descent of 4,000 vertical feet. Despite the density of the forest, most of the trail is wide open and it’s easy to carry speed, even through most of the turns. A few rocks and roots will keep you on your toes, but most of the time, the flowing nature of the trail allows for great freedom as a rider. A more joyful ride would be hard to find.
Oregon’s Mt. Hood is one of those aforementioned northwestern volcanoes. At its base lies the town of Rhododendron. On the mountain lies the Timberline Ski Area, which covers terrain both below and above the treeline. This aptly-named trail begins in the middle of the ski area, right at treeline, and plunges over 4,000 vertical feet courtesy of top quality singletrack punctuated with high speed berms and occasional opportunities for air. The entire 17 miles can be shredded in short order, allowing for multiple runs in a day. Rounding out the awesomeness of this setup is that the town shuttle ferries riders to the top for just $2 per trip or $5 for as many runs as you can get in in a day. This may be the greatest entertainment value for your dollar I’ve ever encountered. For more info, check out Chris Daniels’ article here:
Mount St. Helens
Not far over the Washington border lies another of those great northwestern volcanoes, Mount St. Helens. But Mount St. Helens doesn’t pierce the sky quite as much as it used to. For those from my generation, Mount St. Helens is infamous for blowing its top in 1980 with a force of 24 megatons, blowing volcanic ash up to 16 miles above sea level, and lowering its own peak height by a full 1,300 vertical feet. As a teen living as far away as Colorado, I remember seeing the amazing sunsets spawned by the atmospheric disturbance and contamination.
Today, there’s a great trail network on the mountain where visitors can see the carnage and recovery up close. Much of the mountain is off limits to bikes, but the Ape Canyon/Plains of Abraham route gives mountain bikers an eyeful of the magnificent, if somewhat diminished massif—or so I’ve heard. The day Miniskibum and I hit the trail, the entire area was socked in with dense Pacific fog and it was often hard to see more than 20 meters down the trail, let alone the great mountain to our west. Even with limited visibility, I found this to be a top-shelf trail.
Unlike Mt. Hood, there is no shuttle here, and you’ll earn all 2,500 vertical feet of elevation gain, and it is well-worth it. It’s great exercise, and the beautiful forest helps ease the pain… and the trip back down is wicked good fun. Now, if I can only get the chance to go back on a clear day…
Putting this one on the list is cheating… kind of. I’d certainly ridden Amasa Back before, but this was my first trip to Moab since the opening of new routes in the area. For the first time, I got to make the ascent up Hymasa and the descent on Captain Ahab. In between, I was able to fit in Rockstacker, which became my personal favorite even over the more highly-touted Ahab. One can now ride the Amasa Back area without spending more than a few minutes on the original Amasa Back jeep trail and instead spend all that time on rad and rowdy singletrack, including step ups, drops, rollers, crazy steeps, and monster exposure.
It seems every year Moab adds more singletrack, and more variety across the rider performance spectrum. The Horsethief trail system is a perfect example of how Moab is continually stepping up its game, especially for the less-than-expert rider. Immediately adjacent to the Horsethief campground is two small, family-friendly, green circle loops. But these loops connect to a larger system just across highway 313, which contains miles of positively stellar intermediate to upper intermediate singletrack. These trails make outstanding use of natural features to provide a mix of knobby fun and visual appeal. They, in turn, can be easily connected to the equally new and entertaining Navajo Rocks area or the outstanding Magnificent 7 trails.
Looking Forward to a Better 2017
With my daughter having graduated from Montana State University last May, I’ve lost my built-in excuse to go to Montana. However, she has entered a PhD program at the University of North Carolina. Having never ridden Pisgah, I’m seeing an opportunity to fill a gaping hole in my riding resume here! In a related development, my youngest graduates high school this spring and will be attending college either in Boise or Portland, thus giving me another opportunity to round out my experience in the northwest. With a first-ever family trip planned for the Aloha state, winter weather permitting, I hope also to sample some tropical singletrack.
It’s always nice to have something new to look forward to!