How to Pick a Mountain Biking Trail

Published on 05/13/2023 · 6 min readLooking to get into mountain biking but not quite sure where to take your new two-wheeler for a spin? Check out these expert-recommended ideas of how to find trails!
Brian F., Cycling Expert
By Cycling Expert Brian F.

Photo by Jake Colling

You’ve decided you want to give mountain biking a try. You got yourself a bike, a helmet, and some bike shorts and are ready to shred! Now all you need is a trail. But where are they and how do you pick one?

If you are new to the sport, the trails near you may be a mystery. The same happens to seasoned mountain bikers on vacation at a new destination. In either case, mountain biking is a fun way to explore the outdoors wherever you are. Finding trailheads may seem intimidating at first, but there are plenty of resources at your fingertips to help you find a great trail!

Closer Than You Think

Discovering local trails can be discouraging for someone looking to try something new. But it’s actually quite easy. They are probably even closer than you think. You don’t need to live deep in the Colorado Rockies to be near trails that offer great mountain bike riding.

It shocks many people to learn that one of my favorites is in the city of Queens, New York! The misconception of needing mountains to mountain bike leads those who live in flatter areas of the country to think there couldn’t possibly have any good trails nearby. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Trail Information Resources

Ride within your limits, and wear appropriate safety gear. Photo by Brian F.

There are many resources at your disposal for finding and choosing mountain bike trails. Apps and websites such as Trailforks, AllTrails, Singletracks, Strava, MTB Project, as well as Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube are all great tools for tracking down riding spots.

A quick Google search for “mountain bike trails near ___'' works too. When I’m traveling or seeking new trails near my home, I start with a website like Trailforks to find the most popular ones. I then take that information and continue my investigation on YouTube by hunting for videos highlighting that exact trail.

Watching these videos gives me a better idea of what it might look like in real life. Just beware of the dreaded GoPro Effect! Things are usually much more difficult in real life than they look from someone’s helmet cam. If a feature looks scary on video, you can bet it is even more terrifying when it’s in your line in front of you.


The International Mountain Bike Association is another fantastic resource. IMBA is the governing body for trail regulation in the U.S. No one knows trails better than the people who build and maintain them! Most areas even have their own local IMBA chapter. Contact them via their website, make a call, or start a chat on their Facebook page. Ask about the trails in your hometown or wherever you plan on riding.

Choosing a Trail

Rock drop - always look before you leap! Photo by Brian F.

Once you figure out where the trails are, it’s time to decide which one to try first! There are a few things to consider when choosing the trail right for you. The most important of which is, does this trail match my skill and fitness level? While we always strive to challenge ourselves and grow as riders, don’t jump into the deep end. Steep, challenging trails with technical terrain and thousands of feet of elevation are for seasoned riders. If you classify yourself as new to the sport, you are simply not ready for that kind of challenge. You’ll be frustrated, in over your head, and constantly walking your bike. Not fun! You could find yourself in a lot of trouble or, worse yet, even injured. Less experienced riders need to start out on easier, more mellow trails in line with their skill level.

Trail Difficulty Markings

Graphic by Aaron Bandler

Some apps, like Trailforks, use markings to designate trail difficulty. The system is like that of most ski mountains. If you aren’t a skier, green means easy, blue intermediate, and black expert. A good trail system has the difficulty rankings marked on the trails themselves. Many trail areas and bike parks have a master plan you can consult as well before you ride to get your bearings.

Length and Elevation

Another thing to consider is the length of the trail and its total elevation. A 20-mile trek with over 2,000ft of vertical climbing on your first-ever mountain bike ride isn’t a great idea. Best to keep it on the short and flatter side. You can always do it a second time when you’re done if you’ve got the gas.

The same holds true for more experienced riders in unknown terrain. Just because you tear up the expert lines on your home trail, riding blindly toward a feature you’ve never tackled before isn’t a good idea. This is especially true when exploring new trails on your own. Be smart and play it safe. You’ve got more riding days ahead of you.

Find a Friend or Guide

Seek out some challenge! Photo by Brian F.

The best way to learn the lay of the land is by riding with someone who knows the trail system well. Be it a friend showing you around the trails near your hometown, or a guide hired through a bike shop, you won’t have to worry about getting lost. They know all the best spots!

It’s always better to ride with someone more experienced, especially as a beginner. They will safely guide you through the trails as they give you pointers on how to tackle obstacles and teach you the basic mountain bike skills you need. Mountain biking is a challenging sport that requires more than good handling skills. Physical and aerobic endurance is required to cover the terrain. A guide makes sure you stick to trails within your ability level. Mountain biking should be challenging, but always fun!

Type of Mountain Bike

Another thing to consider when choosing a mountain bike trail is the bike you’re riding. It’s possible to be under-biked or over-biked for a trail. Everyone has an opinion on which is better (or worse). A 170mm travel enduro bike is an absolute beast and a blast to bomb downhill on a black diamond trail. But that same bike will make flat, smooth trails boring to ride.

Conversely, a cross-country or mid-travel trail bike can make tamer trails more playful and a lot of fun to rip around on. But you might be in over your head on some of the gnarlier stuff. So, before you choose the day’s trail, consider the bike you’re riding too.

Trail Conditions and Weather

Skull trail. If you are brand new to mountain biking, perhaps avoid the trail adorned with human skulls. Photo by Brian F.

Finally, when choosing your next trail, consider the weather. If it has recently rained, some trails may be unrideable. Most trail stewards prefer you stay off of them if they are muddy. Why? Because bikes leave tire and brake marks that turn into ruts once the trails dry out. A local rider can tell you which ones are better to ride after wet weather. Some parks and trails dry out faster than others. Ask the local legend for the inside scoop.

So you’ve checked Trailforks and found a popular trail system 20 minutes from your front door. You watched a couple of YouTube videos, and it looks amazing! Just the right mix of flow and tech, with some punchy little climbs and great scenery. Call up your riding buddy and agree to meet at the trailhead tomorrow morning.

The only thing left to do is get out there and shred! Discovering new trails with friends is part of what makes mountain biking so great. Your new favorite trail might just be right around the corner. You just have to find it!

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