An Expert Guide to the Best Mountain Biking in North Carolina

Published on 06/03/2023 · 10 min readLooking for some new spots to take the bike this summer in North Carolina? Look no further! Cycling Expert Alex Dolan gives the rundown on mountain biking in NC!
Alex Dolan, Cycling Expert
By Cycling Expert Alex Dolan

Top of Dupont. Photo by Alex Dolan

North Carolina is home to some of the best mountain biking in the world. If you are lucky enough to get deep into the forests of the Tar Heel State, you'll find epic touring routes that rival Leadville, gnarly rock rolls characteristic of Squamish, and idyllic scenery straight out of a fairytale. The quaint towns of the state are also bursting with culture and dripping with history (and water—it rains a lot here). In this article, we’ll dive deep into the best mountain biking trails North Carolina has to offer—organized into three distinct regions of the state.

1. Southwestern North Carolina

  • Dupont: Best for All Ability Levels
  • Pisgah Ranger District: Best for Big Rides With Steep Terrain
  • South and North Mills Rivers: Best for Beautiful Scenery and Classic Trails
  • Bent Creek Experimental Forest: Best for a Great Place to Start Mountain Biking
  • Berm Park: Best for Big, Expert-Level Features or Brand New Riders

2. Northwestern North Carolina

  • Beech Mountain: Best for Expert and Downhill Mountain Bikers
  • Rocky Knob: Best for Intermediate and Expert-Level Riders Looking for Challenging Terrain
  • Wilson Creek: Best for Rugged Adventures
  • W. Kerr Scott Reservoir: Best for Intermediate and Cross-Country Riders

3. Piedmont and Coast

  • US National Whitewater Center: Best for Warming Up After the Flight In
  • Crabtree: Best for Cross-Country Riders
  • Brunswick Nature Park: Best for Beginner to Intermediate Riders

1. Southwestern North Carolina

Mountain-laurel blooms in spring and is quite fragrant. Photo by Alex Dolan

Where to Stay

Asheville: A little over two hours’ drive from Charlotte, Asheville is a beautiful city nestled within the Appalachian mountains, and an incredible hub to reach thousands of world class trails. The city is home to a thriving nightlife and an arts culture that is full of outdoor recreation. Spend some time sightseeing at the Biltmore Estate, explore the River Arts District, or visit the NC Arboretum. With Greenway trails in every surrounding town, it's hard not to find a good place to ride your bike around here!

Brevard: Only around a 30-minute drive from Asheville, Brevard is sandwiched in the middle of two of the most impressive trail systems in the region: Pisgah Ranger District and Dupont State Recreational Forest. While you could spend years exploring each of these areas separately, if you only have one week in North Carolina, I highly recommend spending a full day in each respective area.

Dupont—Best for All Ability Levels

You can easily spend a full day exploring the trail system of Dupont State Recreational Forest, which includes the likes of Cedar Rock and Ridgeline. Ridgeline Trail is one of the most popular trails in the region. It is fast, flowy, and not technical at all—making it a great trail for experts and beginners alike. While beginners will enjoy swooping through the rollers and swooshing around the berms, experts will love the speed that can be built up, leading to huge hang times over those same doubles. You can also check out Triple Falls quickly after the ride, then head over to Oskar Blues Brewery for a pint and a burger.

Pisgah Ranger District—Best for Big Rides With Steep Terrain

Due to a lack of cell service in this area, be sure to download your trail maps ahead of time before heading into the Pisgah Ranger District. As you start, an early right turn onto Avery Creek will take you up to an expert-level loop with some of the most iconic trails in the area. A climb to the top of Clawhammer, a ride across Upper Upper Black Mountain trail, and stout descent down to Avery Creek Trail will provide everything the average “advanced” rider needs for a hair-raising and air-gasping time on a mountain bike.

Next, head to the top of Bennett Gap Trail. From there, take a 14.4-mile loop that includes 2,935 feet of climbing. Visit Sliding Rock after the ride for a rinse in pristine river water with a fun natural rock feature to slide down!

  • Classic trails: Black Mountain Trail
  • Brews and bites: Sycamore Cycles for excellent smoothies

South and North Mills Rivers—Best for Beautiful Scenery and Classic Trails

South Mills River - One of many great swimming spots along South Mills River Trail. Photo by Alex Dolan

The North Mills River and South Mills River mountain biking areas are relatively close in distance, but are divided by some very steep terrain. If you attempt to tackle both in one day, it will likely take separate rides.

At the Turkey Pen Gap Parking area, you can access classic South Mills trails like Turkey Pen Gap, Squirrel Gap, and Mullinax. But keep an eye out, the parking area here is shared with equestrians—so try not to spook the horses on the trail. If you're ready for more riding afterwards, drive over to North Mills to ride the Trace Ridge, Fletcher, or Spencer trails.

After your big day, grab a pint and a chicken sandwich at Mills River Brewery, one of many breweries in this small North Carolina town. For accommodation, the campground here is a great place to stay if you’d like to get a ton of riding in.

Bent Creek Experimental Forest—Best for a Great Place to Start Mountain Biking

Bent Creek is just north of Mills River, but there are significant land barriers in between. Here you can find a lot of beginner and intermediate trails, as well as plenty of gravel roads to explore. Green’s Lick, however, is a hairy black trail that you don’t want to sleep on.

Berm Park—Best for Big, Expert-Level Features or Brand New Riders

If you are a fan of the Youtube legend “Seth” from Berm Peak, you may have heard of this mountain bike skills park already, which was largely funded by fans of the channel through Patreon. Located at Chestnut Mountain, near Canton, the bike park offers large, wooden features as well as a meticulously maintained single track. These courses are a welcome contrast to the rugged and remote trails that are characteristic of the area.

2. Northwestern North Carolina

Where to Stay

Wilkesboro: Located near the Kerr Scott Trails, this small town offers a variety of lodging options—including hotels, motels, and vacation rentals. Some popular choices include the Hampton Inn Wilkesboro, the Holiday Inn Express Wilkesboro, and the Rendezvous Mountain Rentals.

Boone: A popular destination for mountain bikers, Boone features access to trails like Rocky Knob Mountain Bike Park and the Boone Fork Trail. Some great lodging options in the area include the Chetola Resort, the Horton Hotel & Rooftop Lounge, and the Courtyard by Marriott Boone.

Blowing Rock: This charming town is located near Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, which has some great mountain biking trails to explore. Some quality lodging options in the area include the Green Park Inn, the Holiday Inn Express Blowing Rock, and the Ridgeway Inn.

Beech Mountain—Best for Expert and Downhill Mountain Bikers

Beech Mountain is one of the biggest ski hills in North Carolina. In the summertime, that means lift access to some of the burliest downhill around. For those who don’t have one, mountain bike day rentals are also available. The rock gardens here are steep and with lots of technical drops to keep you on your toes.

​Rocky Knob—Best for Intermediate and Expert-Level Riders Looking for Challenging Terrain

Rocky Knob is a bike park made by and for hardcore mountain bikers. There are tough climbs with challenging rock gardens, and the descents can get very steep and fast. Black Forest, the hardest-graded trail in the park, rivals any trail around in terms of difficulty. Located in Boone, NC, you can easily hit a quick lap in under an hour and be back at Boone Saloon for some live music and a pitcher to end the day.

Wilson Creek—Best for Rugged Adventures

Wilson Creek. Photo by Alex Dolan

If you are looking for a rugged backcountry adventure on your bike, Wison’s creek is a gem. Part of Pisgah National Forest’s Grandfather District, you can get lost out here quite easily, so plan on being out for a while and self supporting in emergency scenarios. After the ride, take a dip in one of the many pools along Wilsons Creek where you might spot whitewater kayakers running the rapids.

  • Classic trails: Schoolhouse
  • Bites and brews: BYOB

W. Kerr Scott Reservoir—Best for Intermediate and Cross-Country Riders

This damned reservoir on the Yadkin River is surrounded by three separate trail systems: Dark Mountain, OVT, and Warrior Creek. All of the trails are great for intermediate riders and feature an absurd amount of flowy berms. Warrior Creek is one of the longest trails in the area at 10.2 miles long and is characterized by short, undulating, punchy climbs that will prove challenging for most riders.

  • Classic trails: Warrior Creek
  • Bites and brews: Dine-N-Dash, Wilkesboro

3. Piedmont and Coast

Rhododendron Tunnels. Photo by Alex Dolan

Where to Stay

Charlotte: Because it’s typically the most affordable city to fly into in North Carolina, Charlotte is a great place to start your trip into this region. And while Charlotte does not boast the best trails that the state has to offer, the thriving mountain biking scene and healthy selection of smaller trails in the Piedmont and foothills of North Carolina leave something for everyone.

US National Whitewater Center—Best for Warming Up After the Flight In

This 1,300-acre outdoor recreation facility is surrounded by 40 miles of cross-country, single-track trails that braid the woodland areas along the Catawba River and Long Creek. And while the trails won’t offer much of a challenge for expert downhill riders, they do give one the chance to warm up the legs after a long flight. The Whitewater Center is also a great place to take a yoga class, see a live band, or have a beer after your ride. Plus, the Center also offers a man-made whitewater rafting run where Team USA’s slalom kayakers train for the Summer Olympics.

  • Bites and brews: The Whitewater Center has a great food and beer selection
  • Classic trails: Bandit

Crabtree—Best for Cross-Country Riders

If you think you’re in great mountain biking shape, try getting around 286 (a trail near Lake Crabtree County Park) without stopping or taking your feet off the pedals. While this trail only features about 400 feet of climbing in six miles when you combine the inner and outer loops, the amount of undulation and changes in momentum make it an intense workout for even expert riders. Plus, there are countless miles of similar trails that braid the woods surrounding the Raleigh area.

  • Classic trails: 286
  • Bites and brews: Carmen's Cuban Cafe & Lounge

Brunswick Nature Park—Best for Beginner to Intermediate Riders

In North Carolina, the closer you get to the coast, the flatter the terrain gets. When mountain bikers are building trails on flat surfaces, it gives them a great excuse to get creative. Brunswick Nature Park provides just that, with some very fun and flowy trails along with some inventive wood features to challenge intermediate riders.

While this area may not be a world-class mountain biking destination, it does provide amazing scenery. And if you’ve made it this far, you’d better take a trip to the beach, catch some waves, and relax in the sand. Dolphins are often spotted close to the shore here and in the Intercoastal Waterway, particularly during winter months.

  • Classic trails: Gator
  • Bites and brews: Slice of Life Pizza

Chat With a Real Expert

North Carolina has become a mecca for mountain bikers all over the world. With terrain that features everything from endless backcountry descents to perfectly manicured jumps and berms, any style of rider can feel at home in this small pocket of the Appalachian mountains. If you have any questions about mountain biking in North Carolina or if you are looking for the perfect bike to explore the region, shoot me or another Cycling Expert here on Curated a message any time!

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