10 of the Best MTB Trails You’ve Never Heard Of

Chuckwagon Trail, Sedona, Arizona. Photo: Michael Paul
Chuckwagon Trail, Sedona, Arizona. Photo: Michael Paul

Usually the most famous trails deserve their renown and respect, as they provide those features most mountain bikers seek for maximum entertainment value. However, for a variety of reasons, some trails remain under the radar despite having excellent qualities. For those of us who like to seek out the trail less travelled and still have an outstanding ride, here’s a list of 10 great options.

Don’t worry, I’m not revealing the existence of any underground trails here.  Each of these has been publicized in some way, but if you take the time to seek them out, you will likely feel like you’re raiding someone’s secret stash.

Chuck Wagon Trail, Sedona, AZ

Sedona-Rkmtb (1)

By now, everyone knows all about the marvels of Sedona as a mountain bike destination.  Names like Hangover, Highline, Llama, and Chicken Point are all classics of modern mountain biking lore.  Yet, the large trail complex on the northwest side of town languishes in relative obscurity.  It can be a little more difficult to reach from town (depending on point of origin), somewhat more difficult to navigate, and it does include some less than spectacular trail segments, but this northwest network also has some trails which are every bit as unique and scenic as anything else in Sedona. First among these is the Chuck Wagon trail.

Two things make this loop unique in Sedona. First is the local pinions are thicker and tighter here, making this more of a legitimate forest ride than a desert ride, and the juxtaposition of the greater proportion of green among the red rock and blue sky strikes a beautiful balance.  Second, the trail is suitable for most riders down to lower level intermediates.  In truth, the likes of Hangover and Highline are too much for the average rider, and Chuck Wagon provides a legitimate Sedona experience accessible to almost anyone.  And while the trail lacks the heart-in-your-throat element of Hangover, an advanced rider will have a most joyful time hammering out this loop.  For those with a penchant to go farther, Chuck Wagon links to a multitude of other excellent trails, allowing for an all-day ride if desired.

Idyllwild Park, Idyllwild-Pine Cove, CA

Just one small corner of the highly varied goodness of the Idyllwild Park trails.
Just one small corner of the highly varied goodness of the Idyllwild Park trails.

As the crow flies, the hamlets of Idyllwild and Pine Cove are less than 50 miles from San Diego or Los Angeles, and far closer to the urban sprawl of the outlying suburbs, but culturally and environmentally, the difference is extreme. The San Jacinto Mountains shoot up rapidly above the Southern California valley floor, creating marvelous terrain upon which the locals have built a fantastic network of trails which truly have something for everyone, from mellow cruises through giant pines to huge gap jumps and extreme drops.

One could ride for days on this seemingly ever-growing Idyllwild Park network and never tire of the options.  Whatever you’re in the mood for, it’s in there somewhere.  Want a little bit of everything in one ride?  Easily done.  Want to escape the heat of the valley floor without making a cross country trip?  Here’s your ticket.  Despite being a tiny town, Idyllwild has a fully-stocked bike shop with quality rentals and locals who truly love their trails and are willing to share.

Red Hill, Carbondale, CO

Red Hill
Miniskibum begins the descent off of Carbondale, Colorado’s inexplicably unknown Red Hill.

Amazingly, some great, unknown mountain bike areas still exist in the most mountainous, most biked state in the union.  Among these is the incredibly-entertaining Red Hill trail network. What makes this trail’s anonymity so perplexing is its location adjacent to the pleasant town of Carbondale, which sits at the midpoint between the major tourist meccas of Glenwood Springs on I-70 and Aspen, 40 miles to the south.

Easily accessible from the highway that connects America’s most famous hot springs pool and its glitziest ski resort, Red Hill serves up a long, moderately-technical climb, delivering the rider to a roller coaster network, with a myriad of options to customize loops based on your desire for distance and challenge.  The Blue Ribbon trail is aptly named, not just hyperbole, and makes for a superb, rockin’ return to the trailhead.  Think of it as a mini-Porcupine Rim under your knobbies but through the most pleasing forest rather than over the exposure of a great canyon.  The red dirt that makes up the bulk of the network is ideal for riding—it sheds moisture fairly well, but doesn’t get too powdery during dry spells.  It always seems to be perfectly tacky.

Davis Meadow, Buena Vista, CO

Fun rocky jumbles on the trail above Davis Meadow with the Collegiate Peaks in the background. (photo: Greg Heil)
Fun rocky jumbles on the trail above Davis Meadow with the Collegiate Peaks in the background.
(photo: Greg Heil)

Unlike Red Hill, it’s easy to see why the Davis Meadow route remains under the radar.  It’s anything but easy to get to. The dirt roads that lead to the main loop can be rough for anyone not in a high clearance vehicle; either that or it’s a long bike slog on those roads to get to said loop.

Once at the trail proper, it’s still something of an adventure as the trail is not altogether well marked–some route finding may be necessary. The low usage means that the singletrack can become overgrown in places, and you may find yourself getting scraped by bushes on both sides as you ride—if you can even ride the narrowest stretches in the first place.  But all this is soooooo worth it for the rider more concerned with a little exploration than having perfect conditions under the knobbies.

And don’t get me wrong, most of the singletrack, which ranges from moist, smooth black dirt in the lowlands to dry, rocky tread on the hills, is quite spectacular.  But the best thing about this route is the feeling of total isolation you get, as if you’re the only one who’s been there for years. Other than the trail itself and the ruins of an old homesteaders cabin mid-route, you’d think you’re the only one to ever traverse these slopes.  Along the way, there are fantastic views across the Arkansas Valley and to Colorado’s 14er-dotted Collegiate Peaks beyond.  The last big descent is on a rock staircase that will test both your suspension and your nerve.

Harlow Lake, Marquette, MI

Marquette has vaulted into the upper echelons of Midwest mountain biking destinations on the strength of its excellent South Marquette trail network.  With slightly more mileage and being far more accessible than Copper Harbor, Marquette is a popular stop along the way, or even an end unto itself. But as lengthy and varied as the South Marquette system is, it is but one system. To truly make Marquette a multi-day destination in its own right, it needs more trails. The still primitive Harlow Lake trail system may someday fit the bill.  For now, it remains a little-known gem.

Ungroomed and largely unmarked, the trail system can be tricky to navigate and it’s not a great place to get caught after dark, but for those who poke around, one of the nation’s most unique experiences await. Those who can find their way to the mountain top will find amazing open rock riding amongst the beautiful pines, as well as unobstructed views of the deep, deep blue and most massive Lake Superior.

Big Snowy Loop, Lewistown, MT

View of Crystal Lake on from Grandview Point in the Big Snowy Mountains.
View of Crystal Lake on from Grandview Point in the Big Snowy Mountains.

Montana is the 4th largest state by area, but ranks all the way down at #44 in population.  It is huge and, quite frankly, not conveniently on the way to or from anywhere else in America.  So while this northernmost of our Rocky Mountain states is chock full of awesome singletrack, just about all of its trails are unknown on a national scale. While those Rocky Mountains provide miles and miles of tight and twisty, even more unknown are the so-called “Island Ranges.”  These lesser mountain ranges poke up out of the prairie west of the great Rockies at seemingly random intervals and, while they are not part of a the great continental chain, they are sometimes every bit as dramatic, and offer unparalleled opportunities for isolated but outstanding recreation.

Big Snowy 2
A Big Snowy Loop Haiku:                                                                                                                                               Broad-shouldered mountains                                                                                                                                      harbor Ice Caves in August                                                                                                                                        before final plunge

South of the agricultural prairie community of Livingston lies the Big Snowy Mountains which, from a distance, look like little more than a gentle, pine-covered mound interrupting the prairie grasses and wheat fields that blanket the eastern two thirds of the state. But as you approach, they grow and grow, both in height and breadth, and as you enter via the one road that penetrates their interior, you realize this is serious terrain.  Right smack in the middle of all that serious terrain is the very serious 12-mile Big Snowy loop–a singletrack lover’s dream.  Starting at stunning Crystal Lake, It climbs at a steep but rideable grade on slightly rocky singletrack through a gorgeous forest, delivers some brief, but serious exposure, runs the ridge at the top of the great massif and, finally, plummets over 2,000 vertical feet back to the start.  As a rare and unique bonus, near the top there is a ¼ mile (best hiked) detour to an ice cave which maintains its natural refrigeration year-round.

Devisadaro Peak Trail, Taos, NM

Negotiatina a switchback on the challenging Devisadaro Peak trail (photo: AlienTrees)
Negotiating a switchback on the challenging Devisadaro Peak trail
(photo: AlienTrees)

It’s easy to see why Devisadaro remains somewhat unknown, as it sits directly across the endpoint of the much more famous South Boundary Trail, often rated as the best in New Mexico. It’s also easy to see why many people who do give it a go don’t bother to rave about it to their friends. This is one relentlessly steep trail! It is mostly a loop with a small lollipop stem to start and while opinions vary as to the best direction to ride the loop portion of the trail (most cite CCW but I prefer CW), whichever way you choose will have you facing constant grades that often exceed 15% for extended stretches. While it’s generally rideable for a technically-skilled climber, it’s an absolute lung buster, and most will stop a few times to regain their breath.

This trail is an excellent choice if you’re into “character building.”  It’s also a good way to get unobstructed views of the Taos Valley, and an even better way to earn some positively screaming downhill turn.  The one truly unique feature of this trail is the “chair” at the summit.  Someone has built a lounge chair out of the flat local rocks that populate the mountain.  It’s far more comfortable than you’d think and makes for a very nice respite after the vicious climb.

Red Fleet Trails, Vernal, UT

Both the variety and the scenery of the Red Fleet trails are hard to beat.
Both the variety and the scenery of the Red Fleet trails are hard to beat.

Moab, Salt Lake, St. George… Vernal?  Yep, Vernal, Utah, deserves to be mentioned along with the state’s other great mountain bike destinations.  While the town of Vernal may not offer much in the way of amenities you’d expect from other destinations, the singletrack is truly outstanding–and there’s nobody else on it!

As unknown as Vernal is as a riding destination, those who do go there generally head straight for the McCoy Flats trail system south of town, but much better riding is to be had at the Red Fleet trail system north of town. The singletrack is sweeter, the terrain far more varied, and the scenery positively stunning.  The perfect Red Fleet Loop, which links together the Jass Chrome-Molly, J-Boy, and Handsome Cabin Boy trails, will give you a good dose of everything that makes mountain biking wonderful in the ultimate variety pack: fast and swoopy, tight and twisty, rugged and rocky, big ups and downs that will demand your full attention, and all while surveying a unique and magnificent landscape.

Kennedy Peak, Edinburg, VA

Cruising down the Kennedy Peak trail in Virginia's George Washington National Forest. (photo: jhicks35)
Cruising down the Kennedy Peak trail in Virginia’s George Washington National Forest.
(photo: jhicks35)

Little over an hour west of the nation’s overpopulated, overcrowded, overpriced capital lie the rugged mountain ranges of the George Washington National Forest.  A few well-known trails populate this area, but the Kennedy Peak loop isn’t one which receives much attention. It bears a strong resemblance to the more famous Elizabeth Furnace area, but actually makes for a better mountain bike ride.  The climbing side of the loop is a little less heinous, and then once attaining the ridge, most of Kennedy Peak remains rideable, while the Elizabeth Furnace ridge has some extended hike-a-bikes.  I find it to be the ultimate junction of challenging but doable.  It may be Elizabeth Furnace-lite, but in this case, less is definitely more.

East Tensleep Lake, Ten Sleep, WY

Nobody grooms the East Tensleep trail, and that's a good thing.
Nobody grooms the East Tensleep trail, and that’s a good thing.

Just west of the northern end of Interstate 25 sits Wyoming’s unheralded Bighorn Mountains.  Prized by big game hunters, this magnificent range remains virtually unknown to everyone else. The range’s highest peaks lie within the Could Peak Wilderness and are therefore off limits to bikes.  But around the fringes remain some superb mountain biking routes, chief among them being the path to East Tensleep Lake.

This is a perfect example of old school trail.  It wasn’t built with bikes in mind.  There are no berms; switchbacks do not “flow,” no effort was made to go around fields of babyheads, and grades alternate between mellow and vicious.  It is a genuine outdoor experience which is ideal for the cyclist not seeking concessions to his/her mode of travel.  Sometimes that’s a good thing.  It all takes place in a remote, beautiful forest, and on any given day (outside of hunting season), you’re likely to count more moose and elk on your ride than humans.

Your turn: What’s your favorite unknown trail you would like the world to know about?  Spill the beans in the comments section below.  

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