Info:Mountain Bike Trails

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Mountain Bike Trails

See Trails page for trail listing.

There is plenty of room for argument in trying to define what is and is not a mountain bike trail. In an attempt to keep things simple, I'll define a mountain bike trail as an off-road, natural surfaced trail where the use of a fat tire bicycle has a substantial advantage over the use of a skinny tire bicycle. This isn't to say that you couldn't ride a skinny tire bike on a mountain bike trail, only that it would be far more difficult. Some characteristics of mountain bike trails would include hardpacked dirt, loose dirt, mud, sandy, or gravelly surfaces, protruding rocks and roots, uneven surfaces, steep hills, ledges, downed trees, water crossings, and narrow sections of trail. Because there is such a diversity of mountain bike trails, it may be simpler to state what is not a mountain bike trail. Paved bike paths such as asphalt trails or crushed stone surfaced trails (like rails-to-trails conversions) are generally not considered to be mountain bike trails since they are usually easily ridden with a skinny tire road or touring bike. Also, trails that fit the description of mountain bike trails, but do not allow bikes are obviously not mountain bike trails.

In the early days of mountain biking, there were no trails made specifically for mountain bikes so mountain bikers rode existing trails. These trails included forest roads, jeep trails, hiking trails, cross-country ski trails, and anything else that presented an opportunity to ride. Eventually, trails were created specifically for mountain bikes. Today, all the above contribute to what we call mountain bike trails, but each has different characteristics.

Forest Road
Example of double-track
Cross-Country Ski Trail used for Mountain biking
Hiking Trail used by mountain bikers
Singletrack trail built for mountain bikes
Singletrack trail built for mountain bikes
  • Forest Roads: Sometimes referred to as "Fire Roads", forest roads are access roads made to provide access for logging, land management, fire control, or other uses. Some forest roads get a fair amount of automobile traffic and have somewhat well-maintained very wide (enough for two-way auto traffic)gravel/crushed stone surfaces. It's arguable whether these are mountain bike trails or not. But then there are the narrower (wide enough for one truck) natural surfaced or gravel/crushed stone roads that get little to no auto traffic and may even be permanently closed off to automobile use. These lesser used roads are often what is known as double-track which gets its name from the two distinct narrow parallel trails created by the wheels of the motorized vehicles driven on them. Seldom used or abandoned forest roads often become somewhat overgrown, eroded and potholed. Forest roads may also have steep sections (far steeper than standard roads used for automobile traffic) and sharp turns.
  • Jeep Trails: The definition of jeep trails varies depending on which part of the country you are in. In some places, jeep trail is used interchangeably with forest roads. In other places it is similar to a forest road, but not in a forest (access roads in the desert or mountains). Or, it's just a natural surfaced or gravel/crushed stone road that is difficult to ride without the use of a higher ground clearance (and possibly 4-wheel drive) vehicle. And then there are trails designed specifically for recreational use for 4-wheel drive vehicles (jeeps). Jeep trails share many of the characteristics of forest roads in that they are wide enough for at least one motor vehicle, may have steep sections, tight turns, eroded and potholed sections. Many also fall into the category of double-track.
  • Cross-Country Ski Trails: When I started riding a mountain bike, most of the trails I rode were cross-country ski trails. Living in the upper Midwest, there are a lot of ski trails around and it was pretty easy for area parks to open up the ski trails to mountain bikers in the summer since they didn't otherwise get much use. It was also an easy way for them to prohibit mountain biking on the hiking trails since they could just direct you to the ski trails to ride. I'm sure they also just thought that ski trails would naturally make for good mountain bike trails. And to some extent, they were right. Ski trails certainly provide the outdoor experience mountain bikers were looking for and had plenty of hills to challenge mountain bikers. The problem is that ski trails tend to be rather wide and have somewhat manicured surfaces (at least the ones around here do) which even though they were physically challenging (there are some big steep hills on ski trails) and had fun fast downhills, they were not very technically challenging (in that they didn't really challenge your skills as a rider). In addition, some of those steep hills very quickly started getting really eroded from mountain bike use, which did start to make them technically challenging, but also started impacting the quality of the skiing in areas that don't get significant snow to cover the ruts, roots, and rocks exposed by the erosion. Subsequently, many of the more heavily used trails became closed to mountain bikers. Today, there are still a lot of ski trails that allow mountain biking, but many of these parks have been creating mountain bike trails to move the bike traffic off the ski trails. See the Cross Country Ski Trails Page for more info on ski trails.
  • Hiking Trails: The most desirable trails for serious mountain bikers were usually pre-existing hiking trails. The narrow rugged hiking trails with their protruding roots and rocks, steep hills, and tight switchbacks certainly tested the technical riding skills that were not challenged on the forest roads and ski trails. These types of trails are known as technical singletrack to mountain bikers and as bike technology and the sport of mountain biking progressed, mountain bikers were frequenting more and more of these hiking trails. And, well, hikers didn't exactly like that. As a hiker and a mountain biker, I can see both sides of the issue. Hiking is a somewhat solitary become-one-with-nature experience and having a to share that narrow trail with mountain bikers constantly trying to get past you can be somewhat annoying. Not to mention the pack of brightly colored spandex wearing weekend warriors damn near running you over. Then again, from a mountain biker's standpoint, hiking trails are near perfect for mountain biking and to be honest, many of these trails don't even get a lot of hiker use. But because of the trail use conflicts, many hiking trails are closed to mountain biking. This is especially true of many of the most popular and scenic hiking trails (where it makes sense to restrict use) but is also true of many lightly used hiking trails. In addition, some hiking trails are so rugged that they are closed to mountain bikers for safety reasons. There was a time when I would hike some really rugged trails and think that no one could possibly ride these trails, but mountain biking as progressed so much that I'm not sure there is anything that can't be ridden. I may not be capable of riding it, but someone is. See Hiking Trails Page for more info on hiking trails.
  • Trails made specifically for mountain biking: Then trails started being built specifically for mountain bikes. These were often cooperative efforts with local or regional mountain bikers and land managers of public lands. Early mountain bike trails suffered from poor design which often led to deterioration of trails. Then "sustainable trails" started being built. Sustainable trails focused on building trails that were not as susceptible to erosion from bikes and water by using gentler grades. Unfortunately, many attempts at sustainable trails resulted in boring trails. Recently, trail builders have started finding ways of making sustainable mountain bike trails that were also challenging. Instead of big steep hills, we may get some occasional smaller steep sections but mostly we get really tight (as in your handebars barely fit between the trees) trail with frequent tight switchbacks and obstacles such as ledges, logs, and rock gardens. Trails made specifically for mountain biking are almost always narrow singletrack trails, though heavy use in some systems can sometimes widen these singletrack trails into something that is more of a cross between singletrack and a forest road. Trails designed specifically for mountain biking are often a series of interconnected loops which in most cases have designated one-way traffic on most trails.
  • Downhill Mountain Bike Trails: Some downhill ski operations now offer the mountain biking equivalent of downhill skiing. Courses down the mountain are created with mountain biking in mind and downhill mountain bikes are created with the mountain in mind. Just grab your long-travel full-suspension rig, purchase your lift ticket and put on your full-face helmet and body armor and you're ready to ride. I did take my bike on a chairlift once many years ago, but the trail was mainly on old access road that ran down the back side of the mountain and was not near as extreme as the downhill stuff they have today. Taking downhill a step further, Freeride mountain biking is downhill with some big ol jumps and other crazy stuff included on the way down. The basic concept of freeriding (which comes from skiing) implies that you are not really riding a trail, but rather just riding the natural terrain. From what I know about it (which isn't all that much) freeride mountain biking does involve trails and actually involves built stunts (such as those described below in North Shore).
  • North Shore Style Trails: Having not read a mountain bike magazine for over a decade it's hard for me to keep up with all the new stuff, but as best I can make out, Northshore is both a style of riding and a special type of trail that involves a lot of narrow rickety wooden roller-coaster like constructions built up above the forest floor with various jumps and drops and narrow log crossings and other stunts intended to make riders like me fell completely inadequate. So if you find yourself riding ladders, skinnies, teeters, and hucks, you are probably doing a northshore-style trails. Northshore and Freeride trails share many similarities but I'm sure there are those out there that would vehemently argue the distinct differences so I will refrain from starting that fight.
  • Illegal trails: Well this is the part where I tell you not to ride illegal trails. Unfortunately, the legality of some trails is not always black-and-white. There are trails where mountain bikes are explicitly permitted (Legal Trails), then there are trails where mountain bikes are explicitly prohibited (Illegal Trails). Then there are trails where mountain bikes are not explicitly permitted but seem to be tolerated. And to take things even further, there are areas where mountain bikers make new trails without permission, which certainly sounds illegal and probably is, but in some of these places the activity seems to be tolerated. Now I know some folks will get unhinged at my justification for these trails but there are actually many legal trails that started out as illegal trails and there are also many tolerated illegally built trails. I think a big part of the reason for this is the bureaucracy of land use. Getting the required approvals for building a new mountain bike trail where none previously existed can be a near insurmountable task in some places. By the time all interested parties and safety concerns are voiced, the best you get is a boring bike path. So what happens is, someone just starts building and riding trails and if the land manager or community explicitly close them down, they go away, but if the trails are tolerated, they become mountain bike trails. I'm not saying this is the best system, but it does seem to work in some areas. I personally do not ride any trails that are explicitly illegal and have not built any trails, but I do ride quite a few trails that I suspect were created without permission but seem to be tolerated. I guess to better explain this, these are similar to many of the hiking trails in city and county parks and on other public lands where people just started walking through the woods to get to a lake or river or whatever and gradually trails form. This is how many of our hiking trails came to be. Like I said, it may not be right, but it may not be all that wrong either.

Taking care of the trails

There area some do's and don'ts of trail riding that you should follow to help protect the trails. I'm not going to go through a full list, but I want to point out a couple important ones.

  • Don't ride really wet trails. I would define a really wet trail as one that has significant sections that are muddy (not just an occasional mudhole). When I first started mtn biking, I'll admit I thought it was kind of cool to occasionally ride through mud and come off the trail with an extra ten pounds of mud on me and the bike. But on many trails, this can cause some serious damage. Also, once you spend all your time getting everything working flawlessly on your bike, it kind of sucks to gunk everything up with mud. There are some exceptions to this in that there are trails that are not really muddy when it is wet (like lots of pine needles) or trails that easily mend themselves (such as some of the prairie trails we have in the Midwest). There are also some areas (such as the Pacific Northwest) where the trails are always wet and therefore you have no choice but to ride them that way.
  • Stay on the trail. I'm talking about not riding to or past the edge of the trail to avoid obstacles. If there is a mudhole running across the trail, you can either ride through it, hop your bike over it, or get off and carry your bike through it, but you should not ride around it. The same thing goes for other obstacles such as rock gardens, water dams or other erosion control stuff you encounter on the trail. You have a mountain bike that is designed to handle rough terrain, so learn to ride over these obstacles. You do have to train your brain to do this since you will naturally try to go for the cleanest (easiest) line, but if you really wanted to ride clean smooth lines, you could just ride on the road.
  • Consider volunteering to do trail maintenance. It's a little hypocritical for me to go too far with this one since I'm not exactly out there volunteering myself, but that's because I don't play well with others. A significant portion of trail maintenance is performed by volunteers, so check out the trails you ride to see if there are opportunities to help out.

Related Links:

See Trails page for trail listing.

This page is authored and maintained by Dave Piasecki