Written by Park Baker (June 2017)
So you want to go downhill mountain biking? Nowadays, it’s easier than ever, with a wealth of options whether you’re a novice or long-time enthusiast.
With more contiguous public land in Western North Carolina than anywhere else on the East Coast, it’s no wonder that these green hills have become so popular for mountain biking. In the recent past, the sport has been a fringe pursuit, the terrain often more inviting to adrenaline junkies, and access sometimes requiring all day commitments.
That’s not the case anymore. Each year, more access for riding opens up, and with it, easier options for new riders. Public land like DuPont State Recreational Forest, in particular, has allowed casual mountain bikers and first-timers to hit world-class trails right out of the parking lot, and they don’t require hours of climbing like the infamous Pisgah National Forest.
Some cities and towns have their own public riding areas, too. Boone and Brevard city planners have seen the influx of riders to their towns and have taken steps to draw in more riders, and diversify the types of riding. Rocky Knob Park in Boone, for example, has dedicated jump lines (which are exactly what they sound like—paths punctuated with ridges and mounds for jumping) for little guys and big kids alike, and fun, flowy stuff for new riders. Bracken Mountain Preserve in Brevard has 12 miles of multi-use single-track tucked inside the city limits, and some of the trails are featured in the annual Pisgah Stage Race. Oskar Blues Brewery has committed to funding a jump line on the property, which will firmly plant Brevard amongst the great mountain bike destinations.
Technology has certainly played a role in the rise of mountain biking, too. The modern mountain bike is designed for maximizing the fun factor for everyone, from pros to newbies. Better suspension, powerful brakes, and ride qualities focusing on rider control rather than sketchy speed are moving bikes out of shops at record rates. Many bike brands now offer women-specific models that aren’t just pink. These bikes often have shorter reaches for the ladies and companies now offer lots of gear that is tailored to fit female riders. Kids’ mountain bikes these days have every dedicated rider wishing they had something similar growing up. Lightweight, full suspension rigs that fit a ten-year-old’s frame are easy to find now, and each year, these young riders push the limits of mountain biking to new heights.
Developments in trail-building techniques have evolved along with the bikes. Fall line skid trails were once commonplace, but now some trail builders and volunteers have figured out how to design trails to maximize the aforementioned fun factor, while at the same time keeping them from eroding. That’s a win-win in the temperate rainforest of Western North Carolina. New-school trails can often be the best use of elevation, allowing some riders to play more and not drag on the brakes. These techniques have introduced thousands of new riders to the sport. Those old fall line trails are fun to let loose on, but a trail that doesn’t require braking or pedaling to hold speed is what we’re after here. Grabbing handfuls of brake the entire way down a trail is discouraging for new riders, and it’s just not all that entertaining.
So where can you test the dirt, so to speak? We have put together a broad glimpse of the scene here in the mountains. You’ll be able to find trails that are tame but fun, where to go for lift access and backcountry epics, and what you need to take with you when hitting the trails. Maybe you’ll learn to love it, too.
The Best Riding Zones
– Bike Parks –
Trails and playing outside are big business in Western North Carolina, and that’s part of the reason places like Bailey Mountain Bike Park and Beech Mountain Resort are investing heavily in their infrastructure.
Bailey Mountain Bike Park
Just outside of Asheville, is a privately owned bike park with 15 trails to choose from. Riders are shuttled to the top in a Unimog (a retired flatbed army vehicle), and from the peak of the mountain, riders can choose from beginner level descents to the high-difficulty black diamond runs. Beginner and intermediate trails with names like Skywalker, Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, Salvador’s Slalom, and Tunnel of Love will give riders a warmup before they’re ready to tackle more challenging blue runs like Jumanji and Welcome 2 The Jungle. Bailey has hosted a number of downhill races, including some collegiate level events. Some of the harder trails, like Olde Gregg and Black Mamba, are reserved for experienced downhill riders with the right equipment. The mountain has over 1,000 feet of vertical, which is how most resorts are measured. The more vertical, the more fun.
Bailey Mountain is more than just a bike park, though. Its owners, Guy and Jennifer Miller, bought the property with a vision to turn the mountain into a bike community with lots available for purchase. The mountain has 18 homesites currently on the market, with properties at least an acre in size. The Millers say they want the mountain to resemble ski villas, where riders can “ride in and ride out.”
Bailey is just three years old, and each year it grows. New lines develop, a little more trail gets built, and more stories are shared. The mountain has everything from women-only skill clinics, food trucks, and races, to paths that can provide easy laps with your buddies.
More info: www.baileymountainwnc.com.
Beech Mountain Ski resort outside of Boone has hosted a number of downhill events over the years, but access to the mountain has been exclusive to racers for some time. That has changed in the last few years, with the mountain investing in trails that are just enjoyable to ride, quite the contrast to the downhill tracks that have carved down the mountain. Racetracks are designed to be hard to ride and to test the athlete, but now, using the same ski lift they run in the winter, beginner and intermediate trails are popping up. Elevated Trail Designs, a duo of young rippers (mountain bike pros Peter Mills and Andrew Mueller) who are building trails up and down the East Coast, have been hard at work this past off-season, designing and building a trail network that anyone can enjoy, without having to pedal to the top.
Beech had around 15,000 riders visit the mountain last season, and staff at the resort only anticipate those numbers to grow.
Elevated Trail Designs co-owner Mills indicated that the company signed a two-year contract to reinvent the Beech Mountain trails, and he has been on the mountain working with a hydraulic excavator since the snow melted this spring, sculpting what he hopes will become an essential destination for bike enthusiasts.
Beech is also the practice mountain for both the Appalachian State University and Lees-McRae College cycling teams, as both schools are close to the resort. Beech has hosted collegiate national championship races, drawing university and college cycling teams from all over the country to compete. The mountain has also hosted its fair share of domestic professional races and international riders, too. The USA Cycling National Championships has been held at Beech in the past, and this year, a stop of the Pro GRT tour hits the mountain June 16 – 18. The Pro GRT—Pro Mountain Bike Gravity Tour—is a touring race series with stops all over the country. International talent can be expected to register, and it wouldn’t be racing at Beech without some mud.
Worth noting is that Beech is the only lift-served riding destination in North Carolina. Its high-speed lift can get riders and their rigs to the top of the mountain in less than five minutes. This year, that speed to the top will be welcomed because there are so many new trails. One beginner trail, the Green Mamba, is a smooth and flowy run to the bottom. The mountain will also have four blue trails this year, like the Hell Bender run and Blue Ridge Rocks; the only black trail is the Black Bear racetrack.
In addition, Beech works with Magic Cycles, utilizing an on-site bike shop to get people on downhill rental bikes. Magic has a line of Giant and Santa Cruz bikes to choose from, as well as a full-service bike shop in case you smash a wheel or forget your helmet. A season pass at Beech Mountain also includes a two-day pass at Snowshoe Resort in West Virginia.
Beech Mountain Bike Park opened for the season at the end of May and will remain open through October.
More info: www.beechmountainresort.com.
Sugar Mountain Resort is an immensely popular skiing destination located just south of Banner Elk, but in the non-snowy months it has also become a must-ride destination for mountain bikers. This year, from May 13 though October 22, both bikers and hikers can avail themselves of miles of trails of varying degrees of difficulty that, according to the “Summer at Sugar” section of the resort’s website, “intertwine throughout the Village of Sugar Mountain and are accessible from many points throughout the Village and Sugar Mountain Resort.” Even better: “Daily trail access is free of charge from dawn until dusk.”
Sports enthusiasts can pick up maps at the base of the Flying Mile slope (look for the black, marked mailbox) and they are also available for download at the website, where you can also watch a hair-raising video of a biker barreling down the track—filmed from the biker’s P.O.V. We are advised that “trails are constantly being maintained so please be cautious. Also keep in mind that weather and other variables can change the condition of any trail. While riding a bike within the Village limits helmets are required.”
More info: www.skisugar.com.
Kolo Bike Park
Kolo is a privately owned bike park in the city of Asheville that gives riders that in town place to play on jumps, rollers, a pump track , and even a cyclocross course. The park opened several years ago and hosts skills clinics, cross races, and jump sessions. There is no need for a shuttle or big bikes at this park, but a dirt jumper or regular trail bike is perfect. Rentals are available, too.
Kolo is just part of the bigger Treetop Adventure Park, where there is much more to choose from. Ziplining, treetop adventure courses, rafting, and bungee jumping are all on the menu for birthdays, groups, and clinics.
More info: www.ashevilletreetopsadventure.com.
Rocky Knob Mountain Bike Park
The aforementioned Rocky Knob, located east of Boone just off US 421, comprises 185 acres and was acquired in 2009 through a series of grants, including one to Watauga County for $500,000 from the North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. Professional trail builders and regional volunteers subsequently created a park featuring eight miles of trails of varying terrain and skill level, four dedicated skills areas, a pump track, picnic shelter, bathrooms, and playground.
Complete info and a detailed trail map is at www.rockyknob.wordpress.com
The newest bike park in Western North Carolina officially opened its gates this spring. Located just outside Brevard, and snuggled up next to DuPont State Recreational Forest, is the property owned by Oskar Blues Brewery. The Ranch is the site of the Red Bull Dreamline BMX competition held a few years ago. The bigger jumps the pros used have been scaled back, but much of the course is still there, along with food trucks, kids’ skills areas, a restored air streamer camper for rent, camping, and, of course, beer.
The Ranch is one huge chunk of playground, and the hill above is already home to some unique single-tracks leading to a 40-ft. waterfall. Also featured is a popular pump track and an extra-large flow track. And you can be sure to see more when the Brevard College cycling team starts holding races there. Check their calendar for a summer slalom series put on by the guys at Cane Creek, a Ladies All Ride clinic, and the Pisgah Mountain Bike Fest this fall. The Ranch’s calendar stays busy with music and food truck festivals, clinics, races, and more.
More info www.reebranch.com.
– Public Lands-
DuPont State Forest – Lake Imaging Loop (intermediate)
The 10,473-acre DuPont State Recreational Forest is located between Hendersonville and Brevard (the official “address” as listed on maps is 1300 Staton Road, Cedar Mountain, NC 28718). From the parking lot, go through the gate and ride past the lake on your right:
• Left on Jim Branch.
• Right on Isaac Heath trail.
• Bear right on Locust.
• Straight on to Hilltop trail.
• Bear right, then left before bridge on to Buck Forest Road.
• Left on White Pine trail.
• Left on Hooker Creek trail.
• Left on Ridgeline trail.
DuPont State Forest – Wintergreen Falls (easy)
This ride should only take beginner riders an hour or so to pedal it round trip. The terrain is easy double-track, but wear a helmet anyway. Park at the Guion Farm parking lot:
•Pedal left out of the parking lot in the field on Tarklin Branch Road.
•Left on Wintergreen Falls Road.
•The falls are up the creek.
Pisgah National Forest – Coleman Boundary/Big Ivy Loop
The Pisgah National Forest, comprising over 500,000 acres and including both Mount Mitchell and the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, is just north of Asheville. Take I-26 towards Barnardsville to exit 15, then drive for about 10 minutes, passing through Barnardsville. Towards the east edge of town take a right on to Dillingham Road and continue until the road turns to gravel and you enter Big Ivy district. Continue for a half-mile until the right hand turn over a bridge where you will find the parking lot:
•Pedal to the top of the only road up the mountain.
•Make a left on Laurel Gap.
•Right on Andy Creek Trail.
•Left on Big Ivy Road.
•Straight through the next intersection; stay on the road.
•Left on Bear Pen.
•Straight on Staire Creek to the parking lot.
Pisgah National Forest – Spencer Gap Trail
Spencer Gap Trail is located in Mills River, just south of Asheville. From the Asheville Regional Airport, head south on the Asheville Highway (NC 280) for about fifteen minutes. Make a right on N. Mills River Road. Drive fifteen minutes, make a right on Wash Creek Road (gravel forest service road 5000). Drive another ten minutes and park at the parking lot before the spillway:
•Ride through the gate.
•Pedal the gravel road uphill for about half an hour.
•Left on Spencer Gap trail.
•Right on Fletcher Creek.
•Left on the gravel back to the parking lot.
Editor’s Note: Author Park Baker, along with photographer Tim Koerber and the publishers of www.biketransylvania.com, produce the award-winning Bike Transylvania Magazine, a regional resource for cycling in Transylvania County and surrounding public lands. Baker moved to Brevard from Richmond, Virginia, to hide in the woods. He can usually be found in the middle of nowhere, probably out of water. He has raced up and down the East Coast, done countless hours of trail work, and led people on “three hour tours” more than once.
Before You Hit The Trail…
Anyone new to mountain biking should understand that it is never acceptable to go riding without a helmet. Public land access is contingent on the responsible use of the trails, and wearing a helmet is the first step to safety out here. Some places such as bike parks require full-face helmets.
This form of recreation can get you pretty far out in the woods before you know it. Riders need to make sure they have all the right equipment should their bikes break. A multi-tool, with the correct size Allen wrenches on it, will help you if you wreck and knock your bars sideways. A Camelbak or other hydration pack is the best way to carry enough water, food, tools, and spare tube to enjoy your day in the woods. Several water filters are also on the market; my favorite is the Sawyer mini-filter. Keeping a small first-aid kit with some band-aids, pain reliever, and allergy medicine are a good idea, too. People with severe reactions to insect stings should carry an approved EpiPen.
The most important thing to carry with you is a map. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the route you choose, and make sure someone knows where you are going. It’s always best to have a riding buddy, too. All the area bike shops and outdoor outfitters (see sidebar, p. 68) have maps of Western North Carolina along with specific trail maps. And take your cell phone with you, just in case.
Most importantly, have fun out there!
Flows Like Jagger
What type of trail or trails do you intend to tackle? It will probably help if you first know how bike enthusiasts refer to them…
This is a trail that has a series of jumps down the whole trail. It may or may not start with tabletops (flattening out the bike) and advance to bigger gap jumps.
A trail that cuts straight down the mountain. It’s called fall line because that is the line that water will take, the fastest and easiest way down. We don’t see too many fall line trails anymore.
A small circular track with berms and risers that allow a rider to “pump” through the track, gaining speed by using momentum and downward force on the backside of each roller.
This is a course that riders race in laps, usually, and has obstacles like stairs, steeples, and—preferably —lots of mud. Riders must dismount at some of these obstacles and get back on their bike quickly after running over them while carrying the bike.
A trail designed for maintaining speed with little effort. It is a combined pump track and jump line. The jumps and features should be built so they do not force a rider to slow down or pedal in between. It’s like surfing, without the wave.
A Selected List of Area Bike Shops
Our region is dotted with shops that sell mountain and road bikes, most of them also selling bikes sized for women and children, along with gear, accessories, and apparel. Many of them offer bike rentals as well, and these stores are useful locations for getting maps and information related to trails, events, and even clubs for biking enthusiasts.
Road/mountain bike shop; bike fitting and repairs; bike rentals and coffee bar.
112 New Hendersonville Hwy,
Pisgah Forest NC
Road/mountain bike shop; bike fitting and repairs.
146 3rd Avenue East, Hendersonville, NC
www.sycamorecycles.com (both locations)
The Hub and Pisgah Tavern
Mountain bike and outdoor gear/apparel shop; bike repairs; bike rentals and beer.
11 Mama’s Place, Pisgah Forest, NC
Squatch Bikes & Brews
Mountain bike and apparel shop; bike repairs; bike rentals and beer.
170 King St, Brevard, NC
Motion Makers Bicycle Shop
Road/mountain bike and accessories/apparel shop; bike fitting and repairs.
878 Brevard Rd, Asheville, NC
36 Allen St, Sylva, NC
www.motionmakers.com (both locations)
Bicycle Thrift Shop/ Trips For Kids WNC
Donated bikes are refurbished and used to provide mountain bike outings and environmental education for at-risk children.
89 Thompson St, Unit F, Asheville, NC
Road/mountain shop; bike fitting and repairs; bike maintenance classes; bike rentals.
1378 Hendersonville Rd,
Suite G, Asheville, NC
Find Your Line Bicycle Shop
Road/mountain bike shop; bike repairs and rebuilding.
487 Haywood Rd, Asheville, NC
Full-service mountain bike and accessories shop.
1240 Brevard Rd #2, Asheville, NC
Road/mountain/urban/kids bike shop; bike repairs; bike rentals.
233 Merrimon Ave, Asheville, NC
Billy Goat Bikes
Road/mountain bike and apparel/accessories shop; bike repairs and rebuilding; bike rentals.
1446 Brevard Rd, Asheville, NC
Chainheart Cycling Studio
Road/mountain bike and apparel/accessories shop; bike fitting and repairs.
897 Riverside Dr, Asheville, NC
140 Depot St #2, Boone, NC
Beech Mountain Resort
Road/mountain bike shop; bike repairs; mountain bike rentals; coffee bar.
Boone Bike and Touring
Road/mountain bike and apparel/accessories shop; bike repairs; bike rentals.
774 E King St, Boone, NC
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