Kate Courtney’s Guide to Mountain Biking in NorCal
From trails to post-ride tacos, the decorated Mountain Bike World Cup champ shares her favorite Northern California spots
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At press time, the trails and restaurants listed here were open, the latter for to-go orders. To check for safety protocols and news about openings and closings, visit the websites linked below.
Kate Courtney and mountain biking were born in the same place: Marin County, California. Courtney grew up riding the trails around Mount Tamalpais, where the sport literally got its start. In the 1970s, Gary Fisher, Otis Guy, Charlie Kelly, and Joe Breeze started the scene there. Courtney, 24, now lives near Palo Alto, but the trails around the North Bay are still some of her favorite places to train. Here, she can ride year-round on endless miles of purpose-built trails with ample variety of ups, downs, and cross-country routes. All that variability helped Courtney nab the 2019 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup overall title in cross-country and secured her a spot on the U.S. Olympic mountain bike team. We asked for her favorite places to ride in her home state—plus, intel on another passion of hers: where to pick up post-ride tacos to-go.
Emma McCrary Trail
Santa Cruz, California
Why Go: Courtney likes Santa Cruz’s Emma McCrary Trail because it’s an ideal spot to work on skills. The trail can be challenging if you’re pushing the pace, but it’s also mellow enough for newbie riders. “Plus, there’s a great mountain bike community here,” she says.
Need to Know: Thanks to shade from the forest, it’s never too hot in this area, even in midsummer. “I usually combine riding this trail with time at the beach. There’s an iconic surf spot at Steamer Lane, and it’s always fun to watch the surfers,” Courtney says.
What to Ride: The trail is a short, mellow out-and-back route, but you can connect to other trails to make it a longer ride. It’s part of the multiuse Pogonip trail system off Santa Cruz’s Golf Club Drive. The trail system is a good spot if you’re just getting into mountain biking and want something a little tamer than some of the area’s more technical rides.
After the Ride: “I go to Los Pericos in Santa Cruz for tacos,” Courtney says. “It’s close to the trailhead, then you can ride right to the ocean. Get your burrito and go eat it on the beach.”
Why Go: “This is one of the most fun and iconic trail networks in Northern California,” Courtney says. The 14-mile descent from the Pacific Crest Trail drops nearly 5,000 feet into the old gold-mining town of Downieville, but this remote area also has plenty of other rides, stellar camping, and stunning lakes and rivers.
Need to Know: This is the High Sierra, with deep midwinter snowfall that doesn’t melt out until July some years. Visit in mid- to late summer or early fall. “If you go in the summer, a river jump in the North Fork of the Yuba is absolutely necessary afterward,” Courtney says.
What to Ride: In Downieville, it’s all about the Downieville Classic. The trail, a long descent with a few technical sections, requires a shuttle to get to. (If you can’t set one up yourself, book one at Yuba Expeditions.) For a nearby day trip, head to Quincy, where the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship has done an incredible job building trails. “The Mount Hough Trail is a long, flowing singletrack that’s relatively smooth, scenic, and so much fun,” Courtney says.
After the Ride: Downieville doesn’t have a ton in the way of food offerings, but it does have tacos. Courtney’s pick? La Cocina de Oro, which is currently offering takeout and is cash only.
Why Go: Camp Tamarancho is a well-maintained bike park with looping singletrack for nearly all abilities. You’ll find mellow, wide trails for newbies and, according to Courtney, one of the Bay Area’s finest downhill flow trails, the Endor Trail. “It’s really well built and super fun,” Courtney says. “A lot of trails that used to be challenging when I was younger are now really fun for me to return to.”
Need to Know: The year-round bike park is located on private property operated by the Marin Council of the Boy Scouts of America. You’ll need a $5 day pass, or grab an annual pass for $45—either can be purchased online or at Sunshine Bicycles in downtown Fairfax.
What to Ride: The main route here is an 11-mile loop, the majority of which is on singletrack, with a few connecting fire roads and about 1,400 feet of climbing. “The main loop is about an hour-long ride, but there are a lot of options to extend,” Courtney says. “For me, it’s usually the start or end of my ride.” There’s no parking at the trailhead, so ride to it from downtown Fairfax, about a mile and a half away.
After the Ride: Courtney likes the tacos at Grilly’s Restaurant or Más Masa, both in Fairfax and currently takeout only. In normal times, she’ll grab a post-ride beer from the Gestalt Haus, a biker-friendly beer hall in Fairfax with racks to hang your bike on the interior walls, and stop by the Marin Museum of Bicycling, located in town. “My bike and jersey from Worlds are there,” she says.
Why Go: There are a few different loop trails in El Corte de Madera Creek Preserve, also known as Skeggs Point, a 2,906-acre open space outside the small town of Woodside, just 30 miles south of San Francisco. Come for the 35 miles of multiuse trails, panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, and old-growth redwoods. “There are good options for technical descending and climbing,” Courtney says. “It’s somewhere I train a good amount.”
Need to Know: Private property borders the park, and the only way to legally access this zone is via the parking areas off Skyline Boulevard. You can ride here year-round.
What to Ride: Courtney loves the Manzanita Trail, which you can link with Giant Salamander for a nearly nine-mile loop. For a longer option, ride Skeggs-N-Eggs, an 18-mile loop with a lot of climbing and long, flowy downhills.
After the Ride: “Alice’s Restaurant is a great place for breakfast,” Courtney says. The eatery is currently open with limited outdoor seating. “It’s a cool old moto place.”
Tahoe Rim Trail
North Lake Tahoe, California
Why Go: “The Tahoe Rim Trail is one of the most beautiful places to ride and can be made into a very epic adventure on a bike,” says Courtney, who has done some altitude training in the Tahoe area during a few of her racing seasons.
Need to Know: Not all sections of the 165-mile trail are open to mountain bikers, so be sure to read the policy for the part you’re interested in before you go. The trail leading from the top of Mount Rose, for example, is only open to bikers on even-numbered calendar days.
What to Ride: One of the area’s most classic rides is the 25-mile route from the Tahoe Meadows trailhead on Mount Rose to the Flume Trail, which has outstanding views of Lake Tahoe. But there are plenty of other great runs, including the 20-mile route from Brockway Summit to Tahoe City or, for newer riders, the Page Meadows Loop.
After the Ride: Tacos Jalisco looks like a hole-in-the-wall behind a 7-Eleven in nearby Truckee, but the place has the best tacos around—and it’s Courtney’s favorite in the area.