Mountain biking was already on the rise pre-pandemic, but COVID-19 has boosted the sport’s popularity to the point shops can’t stock bikes fast enough. With never-before riders turning dirt warriors seemingly overnight, trails suddenly seem busier than ever. Mountain bike trail counts across America showed increases of up to 500 percent last year compared with 2019. Many newbies are eyeing the most-touted singletrack spots like Crested Butte and Moab. Luckily, there are plenty of up-and-coming meccas with equally epic terrain. They also have biker-friendly hotels and communities packed with great restaurants and breweries. Here are five lesser-known mountain biking destinations where you’ll find brag-worthy riding without the crowds.
Set between Grand Junction and the Grand Mesa National Forest on Colorado’s Western Slope, the small town of Palisade is more famous for its peaches and wine than its biking. But that’s set to change this summer when the much-hyped Palisade Plunge debuts. Nearly 10 years in the making and a $3.2 million investment, it’s being billed as the longest singletrack downhill mountain bike trail in the U.S. starting at the top of Colorado’s Grand Mesa and descending 32 miles and 6,000 feet down to town.
That’s far from the only riding available. The Palisade Rim Trailhead delivers steep climbs rewarded with views of petroglyphs. And you’ll find vast networks of trails nearby like the Tabeguache (locally known as Lunch Loops) in the south end of Grand Junction and the diverse Kokopelli Trail system in Loma.
Where to Stay: A 1950s motor lodge turned 17-room adventure base, Spoke + Vine Motel has a prime location near trailheads and restaurants. The food- and bike-obsessed owners happily dish on their favorite trails, wineries, and restaurants.
Overshadowed by its dirt mecca neighbor, Bend, the small town of Sisters quietly holds its own when it comes to singletrack. The Peterson Ridge Trail system, a mix of singletrack and forest service roads, is a local favorite for pre- and post-work laps. Located minutes from the center of town, the 25-mile network delivers some of the best views of the Cascade Mountain Range and has routes mellow enough for first-time riders.
Experienced riders looking to test their mettle can tackle the McKenzie River Trail. It’s a challenging 25-mile descent with terrain that changes from lava beds to mossy forest. For gnarly scree descents with jaw-dropping rock spire views, hit the experienced-only trails of Smith Rock State Park just 20 miles away.
Where to Stay: Spread across 1,800 acres, Black Butte Ranch has an 18-mile network of mountain bike trails on property. FivePine Lodge has 36 craftsman-style cabins and is biking distance to the Peterson Ridge Trailhead. After a day of dirt riding, take advantage of the on-site spa and brewery.
In-the-know pros decamp to Tucson each winter to train on the area’s monster climbs and crazy-technical trails. With more than 1,000 miles of singletrack and Insta-worthy Sonoran Desert scenery, it won’t stay a secret for long. If you have a penchant for pain, La Milagrosa is one of the most aggressive rides in the Southwest. The brutal hike-a-bike up to the start is rewarded with a pure adrenaline rush on the rocky, technical descent. There’s plenty of tamer riding to be had, as well.
The 50 Year Trail System just northwest of town will challenge intermediate riders with steep berms and fast lines. Meanwhile, newbies can avoid the stress of cholla nips on the wide-open loops of the Fantasy Island trail system in east-central Tucson.
Where to stay: The hip 112-room Tuxon has a bike shed to stash your wheels and prime location just two blocks from “the Loop,” the city’s 131-mile bike path. Opening next year, Bike Ranch will cater to riding diehards with in-room trainers and bike stalls, a bike barn with a training center, spa and testing lab, plus an on-site retail store with bike fit and interactive repair.
Carrabassett Valley, ME
Home to Sugarloaf Mountain, the Carrabassett Valley has long been home to a hardcore group of local mountain bikers. In the last decade, the community has set out to turn their tiny town into a bucket-list biking destination. Major trail development has transformed old logging roads and ATV trails into a nearly 80-mile network of mountain bike-specific trails. Nearly a quarter of these are new or completely rebuilt.
Revenue from the annual Carrabassett Backcountry Cycle Challenge, a 100K race that’s part of the National Ultra Endurance Series, funds much of the trail upkeep and development. The Oak Knoll Trail, a super flowy and scenic three-mile singletrack is a local favorite. Beginners can warm up on the Moose Bog Loop. The easy, mostly gravel loop begins at the Carrabassett Valley Outdoor Center and circles the pond. It has killer views of Sugarloaf Mountain and the Crockers.
Where to stay: Part of the Maine Huts and Trails network, the Stratton Brook and Poplar huts are located in the heart of the trail system. The former provides easy access to over 50 miles of singletrack. The latter is set atop the legendary Oak Knoll Trail and in easy reach of Carrabasset Valley side-trails. Comfy bunkrooms have bike racks and breakfast, a bag lunch and family-style dinner are part of the nightly rate.
Riding in the Cuyuna Lakes area of Minnesota
Cuyuna Lakes, MN
Don’t let Minnesota’s lack of rugged mountains fool you. The state is home to some seriously legit dirt riding. The scarred red dirt landscape once home to the iron mining companies that supported the town of Crosby’s economy is now laced with destination singletrack trails.
Two hours from Minneapolis, this former mine area in central Minnesota’s Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area has a new life. It’s now a silver-level International Mountain Bicycling Association ride center with trails for every skill level. Rides across four trail units, each named after abandoned mines, range from slalom-like descents to daunting technical descents. One of the area’s biggest attractions is its all-levels, 2,000-foot-long pump track. The design for the track came from bike pump-track designer Lee McCormack.
Where to stay: The bike-in lakefront cabins at True North Base Camp replicate 19th-century mining shacks. The adventure base also has wooded campsites and furnished cabin tents, all with direct-access to the trail system.