As a 17- or 18-year-old in your senior year of high school, you’re now faced with one of the toughest decisions that you’ve ever encountered: “where should I go to college?” Maybe you’re a high school senior reading this article and are stuck in that place right now, or maybe you’re asking yourself an even bigger question: “SHOULD I go to college?”
When I was 18, I found myself in that exact same boat. Despite being an honors student and getting straight A’s all the way through high school, I was pretty hell-bent on not pursuing higher education. Instead, I was more concerned with uprooting from my home in the Midwest and moving to the mountains, to take classes in bottomless powder and endless singletrack.
My decision to start off at a small (tiny!) school in the mountains of Montana was a pivotal decision in my life, and at the time I had no idea how significantly it would affect the course of my life. That one decision led to a string of choices and moves that have brought me to where I am today, sitting in my home office, staring at a 14,000-foot mountain peak, writing for one of the most widely-read mountain biking websites in the world.
Here’s the good news: your decision about whether or not you should attend college, and where you want to go if you do, doesn’t have to be an either/or. You don’t have to choose between moving somewhere to find access to world-class mountain biking or pursuing higher education. If you choose properly, you can do both at the same time!
To help make your decision easier, I decided to make the cheat sheet I wish I had as a high school senior: a list of the best colleges and universities in the United States where you can get your bachelor’s degree and at the same time, get your degree in DIRT by riding fantastic singletrack!
As we compiled this list, we considered a wide number of variables, including the proximity of on-campus or close-to-campus singletrack for students without a car, the quantity of high quality singletrack in the general area for students with transportation, the quality of the collegiate racing team, the quality of the academics (all of these are four-year institutions where you can earn a variety of bachelor’s degrees), and more.
In the following list we also do our best to not only give an overview of the trail access in each area, but the most highly developed degree tracks at each institution. So if you’re hoping to pursue a degree in engineering, or marketing, or nursing, choose the school that best applies to you!
Here are our top 10 colleges and universities in the US (in alphabetical order) where you can get a four-year degree… in dirt:
Boise State University, Idaho
Boise State University is located less than two miles of pedaling from the foothills on the edge of town, which are home “to the Ridge to Rivers trail system that boasts nearly 200 miles of singletrack,” according to Roger Phillips, our Idaho-based correspondent. “The area has a long riding season that can be nearly year-round depending on snow level. Boise sits at 2,800ft elevation, and you can climb to 7,300ft in about 16 miles to Bogus Basin, the local ski area.”
Boise State is known for its undergrad engineering program, “internationally-accredited business school, Idaho’s largest undergraduate nursing program,” and an acclaimed creative writing program. They also boast “the nation’s only master’s degree in raptor biology” and “one-of-a-kind programs in Basque Studies.” (Source)
Colorado Mesa University, Grand Junction
Photo from Nate Hills’s Lunch Loops video.
Closest Singletrack: Lunch Loops / Tabeguache Trail System, 3.9mi
Of all the schools on this list, Colorado Mesa University (CMU) may have the best access to year-round mountain biking, thanks to the incredible low-desert riding found in the greater Grand Valley, including Grand Junction, Fruita, and Loma, as well as Moab just an hour and a half away. In fact, the mountain biking in the Grand Valley is so good that it recently made our list as one of the top 10 mountain bike destinations in the United States, period!
If you’re looking to make a name as a collegiate mountain bike racer, CMU is the perfect place to do it. In 2016 they ranked fourth overall in USA Cycling’s (USAC) Collegiate Division I (including all cycling disciplines). The other top-ranked collegiate racing teams on this list interestingly all come from extremely tiny schools, so if having a broader social pool to draw from is important to you, then Mesa’s 11,000 students will sound much more attractive than the likes of Fort Lewis and Lees-Mcrae. To help you afford tuition, cycling scholarships are available on a case-by-case basis.
You can pursue a wide range of studies at CMU, from business to art and everything in between. Check out their catalog of academic programs for more information.
Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado
No other college town in existence offers the same level of mountain bike history and culture that Durango, Colorado boasts, or so our Colorado-based correspondent John Fisch claims. As the home to some of the oldest races in mountain biking, world champions like Ned Overend, olympians like Todd Wells, mountain bike shops that predate the sport of mountain biking, and somewhere north of 500 miles of superb singletrack, it’s pretty tough to argue with his reasoning.
Durango is surrounded on all sides by singletrack, and has long stretches of singletrack extending deep into the mountains north of town. You might not be able to ride all of these trails in a lifetime, much less during a four-year college stint! But if you aren’t planning to take a car with you to college, you still have ridiculously easy access to trails, with the Chapman Hill / Fort Lewis College Loop beginning right from–you guessed it–the college, as well as trails like Raider’s Ridge in the Telegraph Trail System that has hosted enduro races in years past.
When it comes to collegiate mountain bike racing, Fort Lewis consistently reigns supreme year after year. Despite only having about 4,000 students (3,856 as of 2011), Fort Lewis consistently dominates USAC mountain bike racing, topping the charts for Division I in 2016. Considering their multi-discipline cycling team as a whole, Fort Lewis took second place in 2016. If you’re hoping to attend college on a cycling scholarship, Fort Lewis is a great place to do it, with $30,000 a year being funneled into their Cycling Scholarship Fund.
Fort Lewis’s Liberal Arts programs are highly-acclaimed, as is its engineering track. While you can pursue standard degrees here like business and psychology, they also offer some less common tracks like adventure education, communication design, sport administration, writing, and more. (Source)
Lees-McRae College, Banner Elk, North Carolina
Closest Singletrack: Lees-Mcrae College, 0mi
With just over 1,000 students (in 2015), Lees-McRae (LMC) easily has the smallest student body of any institution on our list. Yet despite its diminutive size, LMC has had a major impact on the sport of mountain biking over the years. For one, LMC has managed to consistently rank as one of the best USAC Division I mountain biking schools, capturing the #4 MTB spot in the 2016 rankings and the #8 spot overall. Lees-McRae has also produced industry employees and personalities, such as Phil Kmetz of the “Skills with Phil” Youtube channel. Check out some of his work, here:
To help their athletes train, LMC has singletrack right on campus, as well as a short track and dual slalom course. Need to train for DH? Head to Beech Mountain, just five miles down the road, which has hosted the Gravity National Championships several times! LMC may also help with tuition for cyclists, as they provide an average ~$6,000 athletic scholarship per year. (Source)
Despite being such a small school, LMC still offers “traditional majors like Biology, English, and Psychology, as well as pre-professional majors like Nursing, Business, and Education.” But they also offer some specialized programs that are tough to come by, such as Wildlife Rehabilitation, Cycling, Creative Marketing, and Performing Arts Studies. (Source)
Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff
- Arizona Trail, 0mi driving, 1.6+/-mi gravel bike path to access singletrack
- Buffalo Park (and connected trails, including the AZT in the other direction) 1.8mi
We’ve raved on Singletracks about the quality of the Arizona Trail, how superb the riding is, how varied the climate zones are–this fantastic singletrack trail spanning the length of the state is one of the best trails anywhere. And when I tell you that the AZT route runs right along the edge of Northern Arizona University’s (NAU) campus as it passes through the town of Flagstaff, that should be all you need to know to start filling out your application.
But despite being in Arizona, at 6,900ft elevation, Flagstaff can get some serious snow in the winter, so if the singletrack does get buried, just hop in the car and head south 30 miles to Sedona. At about 4,300ft elevation, Sedona is rideable all year long, and is home to some of the best MTB trails in the world. That’s why we ranked it as one of the top 10 mountain bike destinations in the US.
“In the fall of 2010, the top undergraduate degrees by enrollment were elementary education, biology, hotel and restaurant management, nursing, and criminology and criminal justice,” according to NAU. While those may be the most popular programs, with 29,000 students they have a wide variety of degrees to choose from, including tracks in Forestry and Natural Sciences, which may be especially appealing to mountain bikers. Check out their full academic catalog, here.
University of California, Santa Cruz
Closest Singletrack: UCSC Trails, 0mi
The University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) is the only NCAA Division III school on our list. So if you’re coming here to mountain bike, expect to embrace the renegade spirit of the mountain bike pioneers and shirk traditional athletics in every form! But if you’re willing to be counter cultural, you’ll be rewarded with the best on-campus trails anywhere in the nation, if not the world.
While some of the other colleges on this list offer short trails on campus, or the campus proper directly abuts a massive trail system, the UCSC campus is an enormous, sprawling complex that covers a great deal of land. As a result, the closest trails to ride–and the best trails in all of Santa Cruz–are actually located on UCSC property. Having a singletrack commute from your dorm to your classroom is not only possible, but extremely likely. While the legality of some of the on-campus trails is questionable, conflicts are rare because, let’s face it: mountain biking just isn’t counter-cultural anymore. Bike brands like Santa Cruz Bicycles, Ibis Cycles, and Bell Helmets (and more) that are located in Santa Cruz, evidence that mountain biking has become thoroughly mainstream in this coastal college town. Alright, and of course UCSC does have a pretty well-developed cycling team, the Banana Slugs.
UCSC is ranked #79 academically out of all universities in the United States, according to this list. Among the colleges and universities we chose, it ranks the second highest academically, behind Virginia Tech. If you’re focused on both academics and getting your shred time in, you can’t go wrong with UCSC. While they offer 65 undergraduate degrees (as well as 41 graduate degrees), the most popular majors include Art, Business Management, Economics, Molecular and Cell Biology, and Psychology, according to The Princeton Review. UCSC is known for providing unique programs that you can’t get anywhere else, such as “Feminist Studies, American Studies, Environmental Studies, Visual Studies, Digital Arts and New Media, and the unique History of Consciousness Department,” according to Wikipedia. Click here for a full academic catalog.
University of Montana, Missoula
Closest Singletrack: Pattee Canyon Trails, 0mi to 1mi, depending on how you access the network
The Pattee Canyon trail system begins right from the town of Missoula, spreading out into a massive network of singletrack that criss crosses the mountains above campus. Also known as University Mountain or Mount Sentinel, these trails served as some of the training grounds for Olympian Sam Schultz, who calls Missoula home. If the snow hasn’t fallen yet, climb higher and access superb alpine singletrack at the Montana Snowbowl ski resort.
On top of claiming Sam Schultz, Missoula has a highly developed racing pedigree. They’ve played host to the NORBA Nationals, and “will be hosting both the 2017 and 2018 Collegiate MTB National Championships,” according to our writer Jenny Herbold. Earning the honor to host these races is due in part to “an International Cycling Union-sanctioned, World Cup-style course that has brought Olympic hopefuls to races minutes from UM,” according to Justin Grigg, of Missoula. And when the snow falls, there’s plenty of fat biking to be had.
While the University of Montana has 11 distinct colleges and schools, the College of Forestry and Conservation and the School of Journalism may be particularly appealing to mountain bikers. Click here for the full academic catalog.
University of New Mexico, Albuquerque
Closest Singletrack: Foothills Trails, 10mi
Located 10 miles from campus, the Foothills Trails require the most driving to access the “closest singletrack” among our top 10 selections. However, we assign big points to Albuquerque (ABQ) as a place to go to school due to the massive amount of singletrack in the greater region, such as Tijeras to the east, and Santa Fe to the north. ABQ also offers year-round riding thanks to its location in the New Mexico desert, in addition to classic alpine routes (like the 10k Trail) higher in the mountains that do get buried in snow mid-winter. Thanks to this massive amount of singletrack, we chose ABQ as one of the top 10 mountain bike cities in North America.
University of Utah, Salt Lake City
I have long claimed that Salt Lake City provides the best access to the mountains for both mountain biking and skiing of any major city in the United States. Anyone who’s ridden there tends to agree with me, which is why it joined Albuquerque on the list of the top 10 MTB cities in the nation.
As I was researching this list of schools, the University of Utah was recommended by numerous people. Only when I began to dig into the trail access from campus did I realize how superb the University of Utah’s location is. The Bonneville Shoreline Trail (BST), which runs along the base of the mountains near Salt Lake City for over 100 miles, is directly accessible from campus. From the BST you can connect into an entire network of trails spreading up into the mountains, anchored by the popular Bobsled descent.
And don’t get me started on all of the other trails in the area: Park City is just 40 minutes up the canyon, while Moab and the rest of the Utah desert are located just 3-4 hours to the south… the list could go on and on.
The University of Utah offers more than 80 undergraduate majors, and “dozens of our academic programs – from computer science to psychology to physics to dance (to name a few) – rank in the top 100 by U.S. News & World Report,” according to the University. More info is available here. As an added bonus, according to Singletracks member Nick Hepler, “it’s affordable and allows out of state students to pay the in-state tuition rate after one year.”
Virginia Tech, Blacksburg
Closest Singletrack: Pandapas Pond / Poverty Creek, 2.7mi
If you look at the main trailhead for Pandapas Pond on the map, it might seem a long way away from Virginia Tech (VT). But if you dive into a detailed trail map, you’ll spot a route with the unimaginative moniker “Gateway Trail” that climbs up and over the mountain ridge from the Blacksburg side to access Pandapas Pond proper. And that singletrack trail is only a 2.7-mile pedal from campus. While Pandapas is really the only trail system accessible directly from campus, with over 34 miles of trail in this network, it’s a pretty excellent resource to have right out your back door!
The trail access really starts looking good when you broaden your gaze to incorporate the surrounding mountains, and the excellent trail systems like Carvin’s Cove near Roanoke.
While VT isn’t the most dominant among schools in collegiate cycling, they generally put together a respectable team, and VT jerseys are a common sight on the local trails. In 2016 they took 13th place overall in Division I, though their road team scored much higher than the mountain bike team.
Virginia Tech is the highest-ranked school academically on our list, at #74 in the nation according to U.S. News. With about 31,000 students (as of 2015), it’s also one of the largest institutions on this list. Thanks to its size and status, you can choose from one of 70 undergraduate degrees, or add Virginia Tech on as your second (or third) school with 160 master’s and doctoral programs. An accomplished Engineering school and a college dedicated to Natural Resources and Environment could both be particularly appealing to mountain bikers. For more information, check out the full catalog. (Source 1, Source 2)
Even More Choices
With so many universities spread all across the nation, there’s no end of options for high quality schools that also offer top-notch mountain biking. While the 10 colleges and universities mentioned above are definitely 10 of the best, here’s a short list of runners-up that are definitely worth looking into.
Adams State University, Alamosa, Colorado
Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina
Closest Singletrack: Rocky Knob Park, 3.4mi
Barnett Bicycle Institute, Colorado Springs, Colorado
Closest Singletrack: Red Rock Canyon Open Space via Red Rock Rim Trail, 0.5mi
Brevard College, North Carolina
Colorado School of Mines, Golden
Michigan Technical University, Houghton, Michigan
Closest Singletrack: Michigan Tech Trails, 0mi
Southern Utah University, Cedar City
United Bicycle Institute, Ashland, Oregon
Closest Singletrack: Grizzly Peak Trail and connected trail system, 2.3mi
University of Arizona, Tucson
Closest Singletrack: Tucson Mountain Park, 6.7mi
University of Colorado, Boulder
Closest Singletrack: Stringer’s Ridge, 2.3mi
University of Vermont, Burlington
Western State Colorado University, Gunnison
Closest Singletrack: Signal Peak Trail System, 0mi
Your Turn: Know of any other great mountain biking colleges that we haven’t discussed yet? Tell us about them in the comments section below!