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

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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