My Favorite Winter MTB Destinations
As someone who spends 12 months a year traveling the world coaching mountain biking, mountain biking, and racing, I have my favorite spots! When 90% of the US is freezing there are a few spots I love to ride in.
1. Garden Route, South Africa
Photo from the Harkerville forest trail.
Did I mention that if you are coming from anywhere in Europe or the US that it is an incredibly inexpensive country to stay, travel, and dine in? Their infrastructure is surprisingly robust with great cell reception, good roads, nice airports and it is an English-speaking country (as well as 11 other languages but almost everyone speaks English).
There is much to do off the bike too: surfing (one world-class surf break just outside of George and the famous Jeffreys Bay less than two hours away), photo safaris, hiking, shopping (inexpensive!), paddle boarding, bungee jumping, fine dining, sport fishing, and just good old sightseeing.
Sweet flowing Singletrack at the Garden Route Trail Park.
2. Phoenix, Arizona
My number 1 spot in the US is Phoenix, AZ! Phoenix is by far the best big city in the country for mountain biking. In Phoenix (not off in distant suburbs) are two great riding areas and one pretty decent mountain biking area. When you add in the suburbs, Scottsdale, Mesa, Cave Creek, Glendale, and Black Canyon, you could ride for over a month and never repeat a trail – but that would be lame because the trails are so good you will want to repeat them.
Arizona is the furthest West state in the Mountain Time Zone so the sun sets a 5:20 on the shortest days of the year and the winter weather is amazing, warm and sunny. Mid 60’s are the average high temps in January, the coldest month of the year! If it does rain, it just makes for better riding as the rain makes the mountain bike trails tacky and fast.
We will start with South Mountain: At over 16,000 acres (for comparison Vail Resort is the largest single mountain ski resort in the US at 5,289 acres) and over a thousand vertical feet. It has great trails for advanced beginners to pros. South Mountain is my favorite place to ride in Phoenix as it has some of the rockiest, most challenging trails in the country that always keep me on my toes.
They claim 51 miles of trails, but I bet there are double that if you include the super challenging ones like Old Man Trail. Despite being in the city of Phoenix, South Mountain is never that crowded as Phoenix does not seem to be the most outdoorsy city. This mountain would be mobbed if it was in Denver or Salt Lake City. South Mountain also has great views in all directions and cool cacti everywhere.
Next is the Dreamy Draw/Trail 100/Camel Back/Phoenix Mountain Preserve area (locals will use any of those 4 names to describe the area). Although not as big as South Mountain, the terrain is pretty similar with fun, flowy, flatter trails, and very steep and technical trails. A very fun and underrated area to ride.
Right between Phoenix and Tempe is Papago Park which doesn’t have the elevation or size of the other parks, but has some fun flowy trails scattered about as well as a little free-ride jump area.
Mesa, AZ (an Eastern Suburb of Phoenix) just built a great bike park and is home to two great trail areas, Hawes and Usery Pass. Pass Mountain Trail in Usery Pass park is one of my favorite trails in the state! Fun singletrack and gorgeous views!
For great camping and fun advanced beginner/intermediate trails, check out McDowell Park. There is a $6/day usage fee, but the trailhead has a shower. The main mountain bike focus trails are short loops with a lot of fun corners and dips. It’s not as challenging as South Mountain, but very fun if you crank the speed up a bit. They also have trails that can be linked to form epic rides including the punishing Quadruple Bypass ride that some sadistic locals enjoy.
North of Phoenix off of I-17 is the Black Canyon Trail which has several trailheads and will one day go from Flagstaff to Tucson. It has quite a few fun sections all not far from I-17.
3. Tucson and Sedona, Arizona
My next favorite spot for deep winter mountain biking is a tie between Tucson, AZ and Sedona, AZ. Tuscon has warmer weather and better night life while Sedona has a lifetime of great trails and incredible scenery but colder weather (usually about 10 degrees colder than Phoenix or Tucson). Both Tuscon and Sedona are also less than 2 hours from Phoenix making it easy to hit all three in a week.
4. Boulder City, Nevada
My number 4 spot for deep winter mountain biking in the continental US is Boulder City, NV. Boulder City has the famous Bootleg Canyon mountain bike park (known for its challenging downhill trails but it also has some fantastic cross country trails). Visit the most well-stocked bike shop I have ever seen, All Mountain Cyclery for advice on trails to ride and any upgrades you are seeking. It is also 20 miles from the Las Vegas airport and 30-ish miles from the great “Cottonwood Trails” Southwest of Vegas.
Joey Schusler railing a turn at my March 2007 Course at Bootleg Canyon
5. Austin, Texas
In my previous winter riding destinations article I mentioned Austin, TX as a decent place, but it is now a most excellent winter spot! In the four years since my previous article, I have discovered Reveille Peak Ranch and Spider Mountain was built.
RPR and Spider Mountain are a little over an hour from Austin in Burnet and they have greatly improved on the already good riding in the Austin area. RPR has some excellent beginner through expert trails and great camping with showers. Spider Mountain might be tiny (only 350 vertical feet) but it has great trails and is the only lift-serviced bike park in the US that is open in the winter.
Here is a video of me riding Full Commando Trail at Reveille Peak Ranch.
Austin has friendly people, great music, and really good trails. It has no huge elevation gains or losses, but fun flowy trails at Walnut Creek (with a great pump track), one of the most technical trails I have ever ridden at City Park.
There is an excellent and ever-expanding trail system at Brushy Creek, tons of local trails like Cat Mountain, and fun trails you can ride right from downtown in the Green Belt. Best to ask a local to show you the underground trails, as often the best stuff is left off apps like Trail Forks.
6. Albuquerque, NM, Saint George/Hurricane, UT, and most of California
Albuquerque has trail options in many different environments. Check out White Mesa for cool desert canyon singletrack and Sandia Peak for high alpine wooded singletrack.
Saint George/Hurricane, UT is home to the famous Gooseberry Mesa Trail as well as many less famous but very fun trails. Great high desert riding from singletrack to Red Bull Rampage jumps and drops. Say Hi to Quinten and DJ at Over The Edge in Hurricane and they can update you on trail conditions and recommend rides.
Although the late winter can be the rainy season in California, there are good trails from San Diego all the way to Oregon. Do some research online before heading out to California. My favorite areas include inland San Diego (Nobel Canyon area), the Laguna Hills, the Santa Monica Mountains, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Cruz (I haven’t explored much North of there yet).
The Southeast also has fun Fall/Winter/Spring Mountain Bike Destinations but on a less grand scale. There is great riding all over Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana. What they lack in elevation gain, they make up for in fun corners, roots, and rocks.
I have purposely left out a lot of great trails and areas near those above as we live in a big, beautiful world, go out and explore!
Thanks and create your best ride yet,
Gene Hamilton – President and Founder
D.O.B: April 20, 1966
Hometown: Montgomery, AL
Resides: Morrison, CO
Favorite Trail: If I told you they would kill me
iPod: Hank III, Split Lip Rayfield
Gene’s love affair with anything and everything two-wheeled started when he was six and he got his first purple, banana seat bike for Christmas. It has been quite a journey since and he certainly never thought he would make a living on two wheels. Although he started riding bikes when he was quite young he struggled at most sports and was not what anyone would call a natural athlete. He has been teased about his funny walk since he was a kid and never came close to passing the “Presidential Fitness Test” in school. Growing up fast (6 feet tall in the 7th grade) he wasn’t the most graceful kid and his asthma didn’t help. Despite never even winning a “novice” class race he was at the BMX track racing every Sunday for two years in his teens.
In the spring of 1987, just a few months after learning to ride Gene competed in the Snowboard World Championships where he finished 20th in the amateur half-pipe competition. Following that season he moved back to Virginia to finish college but continued competing on the East coast. After graduating from Old Dominion University in 1989 Gene accepted the position of Director of Snowboarding at Wisp Resort in Maryland. While at Wisp he continued to snowboard professionally and was the coach of the race team. During the next five years, Gene chose to move back to Colorado and train with Team Breckenridge and Team Tiehack in Aspen. These were Gene’s first years being coached and it had a profound effect on his future. He learned that coaching is not just about skills but in helping people feel confident and keeping them motivated. In 1993 Gene did his first mountain bike race and was hooked. He raced the following two years as an amateur before turning pro (downhill) in 1995.
In the fall of 1996 he accepted the Head Snowboard Coaching position at the Steamboat Winter Sports Club. This was his dream job and really enjoyed seeing the kids that he coached grow and become more confident. Part of his job was to stay on top of the sport and become the best coach he could be, he got paid to take coaching courses! USA Skiing and Snowboarding had an amazing coaching staff and Gene took full advantage of the courses they offered. The next three years were spent coaching snowboarding in the winter and racing mountain bikes in the summer. After nearly 10 years of spending the winter living in ski towns, Gene tired of the cold and moved to the warmer climes of Boulder, Colorado in the fall of 1998.
BetterRide was founded that fall and it has been quite an adventure over the last 21 years. Gene has coached 1,000s of riders from beginners to top pro racers, filmed a special for the Discovery Channel, written mental training articles for Dirt Rag, been featured in The New York Times, Decline Magazine, Mountain Bike Action and USA Today. Over the years his passion for coaching has continued to grow and he continues to learn and improve his coaching with every session taught. His mountain bike coaching highlights include coaching many top pro racers, top junior experts and over a 1000 riders who just want to get better. He is a pretty good racer too, in 13 seasons as a pro racer he has won a Silver (2002) and two Bronze Medals (2006, 1999) at the UCI World Masters Championships.