Mountain Biking: Full-Blown Fat-Tire Tours

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1992

Mountain Biking: Full-Blown Fat-Tire Tours
By Bob Howells

Mountain bikers and other "user groups" might still be duking it out in certain congested recreational areas, but there are other places where bikers aren't just accepted--they're embraced. It's taken years of being real neighborly on the trail to convince bureaucrats that mountain bikers will behave on public lands. But at long last the sport has won the trappings of legitimacy: difficulty ratings on maps and trails, guided tours, skills clinics, and ski resorts that cater to the wheel in the warm-weather months.

So why not make the most of your newfound respect? The following destinations provide more than a map and a trailhead; they offer accommodations ranging from rustic base camps to luxury lodges, plus all the essentials for a full-blown, fully sanctioned mountain-biking holiday.

Monongahela National Forest, Slatyfork, West Virginia. The Potomac Highlands plateau has been called the Crested Butte of the East, but who needs analogies when you've got 500 miles of marked trails in the world's largest hardwood forest? The whole region is covered with red oaks, walnuts, and sugar maples at 2,500 feet, red spruces at 5,000 feet. And there's no user-group clamor here--the turn-of-the-century logging roads and narrow-gauge railroad beds rarely see hikers or equestrians.

Using the Elk River Touring Center in Slatyfork as home base, you can wander the 75 miles of single-track and 35 bridges of the Greenbrier River Trail. Ride inn-to-inn or choose paths that loop off the trail, stopping to swim or fish along the way. If you're ambitious, head for the massive ridge just west of Slatyfork and tackle the Gauley Divide/Sharps Knob trail system, 85 miles of single-track and forest roads with some technical stretches and long climbs. Cranberry Glades Backcountry, 23 miles from the Center, offers another 125 miles of single-track. All of this bounty has spawned skills clinics, guided rides, and a six-day inn-to-inn tour from Cranberry to Canaan, not to mention a Fat Tire Week held annually in June.

Slatyfork is on Highway 219 in southeastern West Virginia, 16 miles north of Marlinton. Elk River Touring Center (304-572-3771) offers a bike shop, rentals, skills clinics, maps, tour and camping information, and rooms ($45-$65 for a double, including breakfast). Pick up additional camping information from the Forest Service office in Marlinton (304-799-4334).

Carson National Forest, Taos, New Mexico. From the air, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains south of Taos look like pine trees laced with spaghetti. An extensive forest-road network--mostly the handiwork of log-grubbing timber barons--has turned the region into a vast mountain-bike playground almost entirely closed to four-wheelers.

The classic ride is the 25-mile South Boundary Trail from Taos to Angelfire, half single-track and half forest road, which climbs to 10,000 feet through groves of aspens and ponderosa pines. Hairball types favor the "double black" six-mile Devisadero Loop, with its rocky terrain and grades steep enough to make you get off your bike. The Pot Creek Trail is easier; it gently follows washed-out Forest Road 438 along the creek for 20 miles out, then back. Trailheads for South Boundary and Devisadero are at El Nogal picnic area, just east of Taos on Highway 64; Pot Creek Trail starts about ten miles south of Taos on Highway 518.

Taos is 75 miles north of Santa Fe on Highway 68. The Carson National Forest visitor center in town (505-758-6200) carries mountain-biking and camping information. Trail maps, guided tours, bike rentals, and repairs are available at Native Sons Adventures (505-758-9342). If you'd rather bed down than camp, try Holiday Inn Don Fernando ($89 for a double; 505-758-4444) or the Casa Europa B&B ($70-$95 for a double with breakfast; 505-758-9798).

Pontiac Lake State Recreation Area, Pontiac, Michigan. Pinckney State Park's 17-mile Potawatomi Trail is by far the most popular in southeastern Michigan, the state's mountain-biking hotbed, but its scenic woods have suffered from overenthusiasm. Instead, head for the 13-mile loop through the pine-and-hardwood forest in Pontiac Lake State Recreation Area, an hour northwest of Detroit. Though the climbs are short and compact, the terrain is downright capricious: Glaciers ground all the rocks to roundness, providing some traction challenges (or problems, depending on your point of view) on the steep sections. Mostly single-track, the trail varies from tricky, rocky stuff to very loose sand to firm clay, and it's never straight for more than 50 feet. The 15-minute climb to the top of Campground Hill, about a mile into the trail, will reward your grunts with a 360-degree view of Pontiac Lake and the park that belies the rise's dowdy name. If your adrenaline is still flowing when you finish the loop, truck the bike over to Proud Lake State Recreation Area, about 20 minutes farther west on Highway 59, for another seven rolling miles on unmaintained horse trails.

To get to Pontiac Lake, take Highway 1 from Detroit to Pontiac; then head west ten miles on Highway 59. Route maps and campsite reservations are available at the park office (313-666-1020) and at Proud Lake (313-685-2433). Nell Bicycles in Pontiac (313-682-5456) rents bikes, provides maps, and guides a ten-mile ride every Sunday during the summer.

Methow Valley, Winthrop, Washington. You'll need sunglasses, not mud tires, on the east side of the Cascades. But sunshine isn't the only draw to the Methow Valley: Sun Mountain Lodge, on a hill overlooking the valley, maintains 30 miles of bikable trails through the pines and aspens of Okanogan National Forest; another 200 miles of trails, some of them climbing to 6,000 feet, run through Okanogan County. Warm up on the easy, three-mile Sun Mountain Trail, then take on the Buck Mountain Loop, a 13-mile intermediate run linking single-track cow paths with logging roads. You'll find the trailhead eight miles north of Winthrop on West Chewuch River Road. Lightning Creek Trail is a fabled expert-level 17-miler that includes a nine-mile haul up 3,000 vertical feet and some hairy descents better suited to hooves than wheels. The trailhead is about 14 miles southeast of Winthrop; head south for seven miles on County Road 9129, then east for another seven miles on Beaver Creek Road.

Winthrop is on the North Cascades Highway (Highway 20) in north-central Washington, three hours northwest of Spokane. Pick up camping information and the Forest Service's mountain-bike guidebook to the area ($3) at the district office in Winthrop (509-996-2266) or at Sun Mountain Lodge (509-996-2211), where you can also rent bikes. If you're not up for camping in the national forest or splurging at Sun Mountain Lodge (doubles start at $85 before June 19, $95 after), try one of the inns in Winthrop (doubles start at $45; call 800-445-1822 or 800-457-8878 for reservations).

Holyoke Range State Park, Amherst, Massachusetts. The curious and sudden upthrust of the brief Holyoke Range guarantees spectacular views of the Connecticut River Valley, not to mention some very fine off-road riding through hemlock, pine, beech, birch, and hickory forests. There are more than 45 miles of trails and horse paths to explore here; start inside Holyoke Range State Park, where an 18-mile double loop traces wide carriage paths that are frequently steep and rocky. Shorter options are possible by returning to the start on paved roads. Pick up the trailhead at the park visitor center and follow the Robert Frost, Southside, and Trolley Bed trails to Highway 116. Then take the Lithia Springs and Dry Brook trails to the 935-foot summit of mighty Mount Holyoke.

For a more moderate ride, try the nine-mile Metacomet-Monadnock Trail, which runs along hilly dirt paths and gravel roads north of Amherst from North Leverett through the Wendell State Forest.

From Amherst, just off I-91 in central Massachusetts, take Highway 116 south five miles to Holyoke Range State Park. You can pick up maps and camping information at the park visitor center (413-253-2883) and rent bikes from Valley Bicycle (413-256-0880) in Amherst. North Leverett, the trailhead for the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail, is ten miles north of Amherst and two miles east of Highway 63 on North Leverett Road. Berkshire Bed and Breakfast Homes (413-268-7244) can book you at a number of B&Bs in the area; doubles start at $45. Twenty-five Mountain Bike Tours in Massachusetts ($10, from Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vermont; 802-457-1049) offers route details for these and other rides in Massachusetts.

See also:

Breakdowns and Bonks:A Pre-Ride Prevention Kit

Filed To: Snow Sports

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