Downhill all day

Ski resorts bring mountain biking full circle

Outdoor Adventure (7/28/2002)

Brion's comments:
'Admittedly, I've got mixed feelings about mountain biking at ski resorts. Chairlifts, to my mind, are simply too easy, and mountain biking requires some work to fully enjoy the rewards. That said, many resorts also feature killer trail systems, and you've got to love those slopeside accommodations. This piece, done for Outdoor Adventure magazine, highlights the best resorts for fat-tire types.'

Feature article:

The Mount Tam gang got it right the first time. More than a quarter century ago, long before off-road purists began to debate the legitimacy of chairlifts and ski resorts, the wild-haired, wild-eyed pedal mashers of Marin County, California, bore witness to the birth of mountain biking as they sped down Mount Tamalpais aboard their fat-tired “clunkers.”

These early-day thrill seekers hit speeds so high that the heat generated by their coaster brakes would vaporize the grease in their wheel hubs, forcing them to “repack” the hubs with a fresh dollop of lubricant before the next run. Hence the name of the legendary race, The Repack.

But it wasn’t their mechanical dexterity that was revolutionary. It was their mode of transportation - both down and up the hill. After their Lord-take-me-now descents, these mountain biking pioneers didn’t start pedaling back to the top. Nope. Instead, they loaded their 40-pound, single-speed rigs onto the back of a big old flatbed and drove.

So where did we go wrong? When did the sport become the private domain of the no-pain, no-gain endorphin demons who delight in pushing their heart rates off the Richter scale? When did we start frowning upon taking “the easy way up?” Was it when they added derailleurs and gears? Or when they started shaving weight off the bikes? Maybe it was the early races that featured “the uphill climb” as one of the new sport’s disciplines.

Whatever the catalyst, the sport has changed, and the prevailing credo seems to be “if you want your downhill jollies, you’ve got to earn them.” So we’re stuck with these aerobic animals, turning their noses up at the idea of taking the chairlift. Funny thing is, how many skiers or snowboarders do you know who hoof it up the mountain for “the purity of the sport,” or for the added physical challenge? Do I see any hands?

For the mountain biker who wants to get back to the roots of the sport, or just isn’t jazzed about the notion of grinding on climbs all the live-long day, ski resorts offer the best of both worlds. All serenity and beautiful views during the chairlift ride up, all havoc and blurred vision on the way down. Plus, many resorts offer a steamy hot tub, a real meal and a nice, comfy bed after your white-knuckle afternoons. Not bad, huh?

Now for the best part - you don’t have to take advantage of all these services, the lifts and the lodging. Rugged individualists can climb to their heart’s content, while the lactic acid-intolerant among us can find refuge in a nice, relaxing chairlift or gondola ride. As an added bonus, ski resorts typically offer more activities out of the saddle, such championship golf courses, hiking, rock climbing, health clubs, horseback riding, tennis, in-line skating, restaurants and concert series. Many also provide licensed day care or day camps for youngsters, giving parents a breather while they catch their breath on the trail.

The resorts we’ve selected come from all points of the compass. Some are better known than others, but all have an abundance of the essential ingredients for an off-road getaway - cozy accommodations, plenty of after-dark diversions and above all, terrific riding. In general, resorts open for weekend riding in May, offer weekday riding from June through early September, and then switch back to a weekend schedule through mid-October.

Two caveats. When booking a vacation, be sure the resort either allows you to keep your bike in your room, or provides secured storage other than the top of your car (sadly, bike theft is a booming business everywhere). Second, if you’re renting, call ahead and reserve a bike in your size, and make sure it’s a quality rig. The bike should have front suspension, at the very least.

Lastly, a suggestion. While you’re on the hill, at least try climbing. It will teach you things about yourself, and mountain biking, that you’ll never learn pointing the handlebars downhill. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the ride.

Mammoth Mountain, California - The very name "Mammoth" conjures up images of fully armored gravity addicts aboard two-wheeled science projects, charging down the infamous Kamikaze Downhill. Mammoth isn't the exclusive domain of the lunatic fringe, though.

Riders at mammoth Mountain Bike Park can enjoy gondola rides to the 11,053-foot summit and more than 60 miles of trails, much above treeline, which provide clear views of the dramatic jagged peaks of the Sierra Mountains. A 14-mile, intermediate-level singletrack called Off the Top winds from Mammoth’s peak into town, where a shuttle provides a convenient lift back. There’s also free orientation rides, special mid-week packages, water stops and mountain bike rangers to assist wayward cyclists.

Rides from nearby Minaret Summit feature striking views of the Minarets and Ansel Adams Wilderness to the west, the peaks of Yosemite to the north and Mono Basin to the northeast.

Mammoth Adventure Connection offers instructional clinics, guided tours, bike rentals (including full-suspension models) and lodging packages at the Mammoth Mountain Inn. Mammoth’s season typically runs from July through mid-October. For resort details and lodging, call 1-800-228-4947 (dial extension 3606 for the Adventure connection). The direct line for the Adventure Connection is 760/934-0606.

Northstar-at-Tahoe, California - Less than 100 miles east of the state capital, on the outskirts of Truckee, you’ll find this two-wheel paradise. Northstar-at-Tahoe’s Mountain Bike Park boasts more than 100 miles of trail over two mountains, Mount Pluto and Lookout mountain, with new singletrack constantly being added. Echo Lift carries riders from Northstar’s base to the resort’s mid-mountain lodge at 7,040 feet. The Vista Express and Lookout lifts then climb above the 7,700-foot mark. There’s even a technical training course and slalom course for more skilled treadheads. But novice riders won’t be bored either.

Northstar enjoys a reputation as a downhiller's mountain with fast, roomy trails, including the grin-inducing 5-mile Backside and 4-mile Fibreboard Freeway. Most of the trails are intermediate level, with a few tricky routes (like Competition and Logger's Loop) added to test your bike-handling skills. There's also a technical training course and slalom course for more skilled treadheads, so there's something for everyone.

The resort also hosts a number of the North Tahoe Mountain Bike Series, races, rodeos, car rallies and the Great Reno Balloon Race. Northstar offers a number of mountain bike packages, clinics and guided tours (one heads out to Tahoe City, with buses bringing riders back at day’s end). For lodging reservations, call 1-800-466-6784; for general information, dial 916/562-1010 (the direct line for Northstar’s Mountain Adventure shop is 916/562-2248).

For guided tours through the exceptional yet little-known trails of the Tahoe National Forest, contact the Coyote Adventure Company at 916/265-9609.

Angel Fire, New Mexico - You'd expect a ski area named Angel Fire to be a hot spot for mountain biking and this resort doesn’t disappoint. To spice things up even more, a high-speed detachable quad -- the Chili Express -- jets riders to the summit.

The climate, conversely, is more mild than expected in New Mexico, due to the resort’s 8,600-foot base. Situated in the southern Rocky Mountains, part of the Sangre De Cristo mountains, Angel Fire offers more than 20 miles of switchback trails descending 2,000 feet from the 10,650-foot summit. Behind the mountain, bikers can explore old mining trails and ghost towns from the area’s heyday of copper, gold and iron ore mining in the late 1800s.

You’ll find all the basic amenities, such as bike shop, rentals, and a great race series. For slopeside accommodations, there’s the 139-room Angel Fire Resort Hotel, in addition to a number of other lodging facilities nearby. There’s also a Music From Angel Fire symphony concert series for the cultured cyclist, and a hot air balloon festival, Wings Over Angel fire. For details, call 1-800-633-7463.

Deer Valley, Utah - Nestled just outside of Park City, Utah, Deer Valley hit the pinnacle last year when the resort hosted the finals of the NORBA National Championship series. The pros were so enamored with the resort that they’re coming back, on July 23-26, to duke it out again in the Wasatch Mountains. These races are the culmination of the resort’s efforts to establish a world-class mountain biking destination that began in 1992.

From mid-June through September, the Sterling Chairlift transports riders to the top to 9,400-foot Bald Mountain, opening an array of pedaling over more than 45 miles, including some stunning ridge rides among wildflowers, cottonwoods and aspens.

Advanced riders can showboat on Twist and Shout or the 2-mile Aspen Slalom Trail, which runs under the lift, or head off along the 6-mile Tour Des Suds trail that circles Flagstaff Mountain. Intermediates may opt for the Naildriver downhill or Homeward Bound, with big, swooping switchbacks. Novices won’t feel left out, with several beginner loops near the base of the mountain, and the acclaimed Deer Valley Mountain Biking School.

The resort also offers a number of weekend festivals, such as Pedalfest on June 20 and the Deer Valley Rally in early September. For resort details, call 1-800-424-3337. For information on bike and helmet rentals, riding instruction or tours, call 801/424-3337.

Brian Head, Utah - When mountain bikers think of Utah, they typically start daydreaming about sweet Moab slickrock. This mecca hasn’t cornered the market on great riding in Utah, though. Motor three hours southwest and you'll discover Brian Head, just outside Cedar City. It's one of the unique, uncrowded resorts that locals prefer to keep as their little secret.

Still, it’s impossible to ignore more than 100 miles of singletrack that snake through the breathtaking rock formations and rugged pine trees. The resort’s higher elevations (9,600 feet at the base, 11,307 atop Brian Head Peak), translate to cooler summer temperatures (and, admittedly, a shorter riding season than Moab). The Giant Steps chairlift brings riders to within 400 vertical feet of the summit. From there, it’s just about all downhill.

ACONA members can try to suppress smiles along the historic Scout Camp Loop, amidst the ghosts of pioneers' cabins and an old steam engine, and the serpentine Left Fork of Bunker Creek. The Dark Hollow Trail, known locally as the “Downhill of the Gods,” drops 5,000 vertical feet over 12 miles of intermediate singletrack. To access other backcountry trails, Brian Head offers a daily round-trip shuttle to and from Panquitch Lake and Parowan.

There are numerous lodging options at the resort, including the 200-room Brian Head Hotel and slopeside accommodations. Summer rates and package deals prove an enticing mix. For details on lodging, call 1-800-27-BRIAN. For information on the mountain bike park, call 801/677-3101.

Steamboat, Colorado - Want to see some real suffering? Racers with the look of the Grim Reaper in their eyes? Check out the toughest multi-day mountain bike race on the continent at the Tour de Rockies hammerfest Aug. 5-9 in Steamboat Springs.

Interested in something a little less extreme? Steamboat ski resort offers more than 40 miles of trails streaming from the Thunderhead summit at 9,080 feet, and the Silver Bullet gondola makes getting to the trailhead a snap. The Zig Zag and Valley View trails plummet right to the base of the gondola, the former a bit more intermediate friendly, while the latter tosses some serious singletrack at riders.

For those feeling strong, the Storm Peak Challenge/Pete’s Wicked Trail loop climbs another 1,300 feet from the Thunderhead summit to the top of the Continental Divide. If you can stomach the rugged switchbacks and steep terrain, you’ll be handsomely rewarded with remarkable panoramic views of the Zirkel and Flattops wilderness areas.

You can also find your reward back at Thunderhead, where Hazie’s and the BK Cafe offer high-altitude dining. Other out-of-the-saddle activities in the Steamboat area include hiking, fishing and boating. A Kids’ Adventure Club is a nice alternative for little ones who can’t keep pace with mom and dad.

For details on the resort’s bike programs, call the Summer Activity center at 970/879-6111, Ext. 233. For lodging, call 1-800-922-2272.

Summit County, Colorado - A quick drive from Denver, just off I-70, Summit Country in the midst of the Rocky Mountains offers tremendous mountain biking everywhere, and none better than Keystone and Breckenridge.

With more than 30 trails covering more than 100 miles between the 9,200-foot base and The Outpost atop North peak at 11,244 feet, Keystone offers more selection that the coffee menu at the Inxspot. Peru Creek, at 14 miles long and more than 2,000 feet vertical drop, is a showpiece trail. The routes are generally more advanced, canopy-covered spongy singletrack through softwood firs - just watch out for the erosion barriers. And Keystone’s uphill to the gondola’s midway station won’t fry your quads. Weekend sessions of the acclaimed Dirt Camp can help riders take their skills to the next level.

Across the valley is Breckenridge, a mining town awash in history, much of which can be found in the shadow of the 14,000-foot peaks on the trails surrounding the resort. Most are hardpack, wider trails for novice and intermediate riders, with some more difficult, rocky terrain above the lifts. And this world class resort town boasts a full menu of lodging, galleries, shops, restaurants and nightlife.

Between Keystone and Breckenridge, The Colorado Trail offers wild switchback runs, but you'll have to earn your downhill fun. The climbs along these ridges are nasty. Just up the road, Vail serves up 85 miles of World Cup caliber riding and the renown Grand Traverse trail, an 11-mile loop that offers stunning views of the resort’s famed Back Bowls.

For details on Keystone, call 1-800-222-0188. For Breckenridge lodging and package reservations, call 1-800-221-1091, or the resort at 970/453-5000.

Snowshoe, West Virginia - It's a mountain biker’s worst nightmare - careening on a full-speed descent only to find an unsuspecting hiker or horseback rider around the next corner. Relax. It won’t happen at Snowshoe/Silver Creek. The resort boasts almost 150 miles of dedicated mountain bike trails, meaning they are open to cyclists only.

Snowshoe Mountain Resort is tucked away in the Allegheny Mountain Range of West Virginia’s lush Pocahontas County, near the Monongahela National Forest, which adds another 900,000 acres and more than 800 miles to the mountain biking mix. Snowshoe, however, doesn’t offer chairlifts. Instead, the resort harkens back to the days of The Repack. Riders can take a shuttle to the 4,848-foot summit and test their stamina on terrain shared by the local wildlife, including game birds, deer and, of course, the snowshoe hare.

The twists and turns of Rock 'N' Roll and The Gauntlet serve up fern-lined singletrack under a canopy of hardwood forests. The more gentile Bear Pin and Airport Runway wind through open fields dotted with wildflowers, often above the clouds that settle in the valley. Looking for the best view? Head for the 15-mile jaunt to the observation tower atop Bald Knob. You’ll also impress all the sightseers who opted to take the train.

For accommodations, try the Inn at Snowshoe, the Silver Creek lodge or the Timberline Lodge at the summit. All provide bike wash and storage facilities. The resort also offers mountain bike camps for youngsters and several mountain bike adventure and race weekends. For resort details at Snowshoe, call 304/572-1000 (extension 165 for the mountain bike center). At Silver Creek, the number is 304/572-6766.

Mount Snow, Vermont - For many, many years, Mount Snow was synonymous with New England mountain biking. The resort hasn’t lost a step. Mount Snow, just east of the Appalachian Trail in the southern section of the Green Mountain National Forest, simply has it all, from fast fire roads to tight, rocky singletrack trails that even humble the pros. Early summer features swarms of surly black flies, so don’t forget to bring bug repellent.

Mount Snow has secured its reputation as a resort that not only provides terrific riding on and off the mountain, but everything you need to enjoy those trails to the fullest. Amenities include detailed maps, bike and helmet rentals and private tours, as well as the acclaimed Mountain Bike School. New this year is a BMX bike park and an in-line skating park. Theme packages have also blossomed, including a Women’s Weekend, a guided Wilderness Overnight Weekend, an Inn-to-Inn Tour and a Family Mountain Bike Weekend.

Got the racing bug? Check out the Trail 66 series the third weekend in June, or, even bigger, the National Off-Road Bicycle Association’s series final on Aug. 20-23.

Accommodations in southern Vermont’s Deerfield Valley range from cozy country inns to condominiums and lodges, and the resort’s new Grand Summit Hotel. A wide variety of camping options is also available. For details, call 1-800-245-SNOW or 802/464-3333.

Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec, Canada - This year, the world is coming to Mont-Sainte-Anne - the Mountain Bike World Championships, that is. After years as a World Cup race venue, and one of the most popular stops on the tour, the resort will host the finals on Sept. 23-26 this year. It’s easy to understand why.

With its solitary peak rising from the Saint Lawrence River Valley, this world class resort in Beaupre, just 25 miles northeast of Quebec city, offers off-road cyclists the feel of Europe on a North America budget (can you say “exchange rate?”). If you speak French, or at least make a good-hearted attempt, the welcome will be even warmer.

Looking for a little “joie de vivre?” How about more than 200 kilometers of groomed trails, including three downhill specific runs, branching out from the resort’s Summit Lodge? A brisk 15-minute ride in the 8-passenger gondola brings riders to the top, and to inspiring views of the rich green valley below. The runs are well-marked, with the majority of more difficult trails off the resort’s backside. Intermediate and novice riders have the option of more moderate routes that wind along the front face, through tall grass and wildflowers, back to the base lodge.

For more adventurous pursuits, check out the “Eole Buissoniere” paragliding school. The gondola runs from late June to mid-October. For resort details, call 418/827-4561. For any one of 50 lodging facilities, call 1-800-463-1568.

The next best

Whistler/Blackcomb, British Columbia, Canada; 604/932-3928; Big Bear at Snow Summit, California; Squaw Valley, California; 1-800-545-4350; Purgatory, Durango, Colorado; 970/247-9000; Bromont, Quebec, Canada; 514/543-2200; Sugarloaf/USA, Carrabassett Valley, Maine; 1-800-THE-LOAF

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