An Expert Guide to Mountain Biking in California

Want to ride some of the best that the West Coast has to offer? Check out this guide from cycling expert Zaal Rottunda for advice on where to go.

A mountain biker navigates a dusty, rocky trail in California

California: The Birthplace of Mountain Biking

You read that right. California is widely regarded as the birthplace of modern mountain biking, with the earliest inklings of what is now modern-day mountain bike culture originating in our very own Marin County.

While there are world-class cycling destinations all over the United States, as well as internationally, there is a reason California remains the most-visited state in the country. With unbeatable weather, hundreds of miles of beautiful coastline, and a healthy amount of accommodations options, California has long been one of the premier mountain biking destinations in the United States if not the world. The natural beauty of the California landscape as well as communities that believe wholeheartedly in the outdoors contribute to the amazing atmosphere that make the state such an ideal place to plan a biking trip. The variety in options available to riders comes from the overwhelming amount of natural trail networks, as well as first-class bike parks and resorts that are often nestled in areas with miles of surrounding singletrack trails.

Whether you are a rider that lives for singletrack trails and would never dream of taking a lift or shuttle, or whether you are a park rider who loves jumps and technical features, this guide will hopefully give you some inspiration on the best mountain biking in California and where to take your next killer trip!

Trails vs. Parks

While it’s unlikely you really need to be told the difference between a bike park and a trail network on national forest or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, let’s take a quick moment to address what this difference will mean to your potential travel plans. A majority of the parks in California, if not all, are nestled in towns that are very aware of their attraction to cyclists, and thus typically have a pretty well established hospitality industry to cater for visiting bike enthusiasts. This benefit isn’t relegated to parks however, as there are locations without parks that made our list and that have grown so much in popularity that the local hospitality industry has risen to the challenge of the increased demand. Though the hospitality may be consummate for the amount of visitors in some areas without a resort, the support for equipment or rentals might not be as extensive, so I strongly encourage you to do some research as to the available resources, depending on what you’ll need.

For the purpose of this guide we won’t be diving into detail on which trails are the best mountain bike trails in the non-park entries, so I encourage you to scout out your preferred areas on,, Strava, or any similar trail-marking app. Now without any further ado let’s get on to our first destination in the spotlight!

1. Marin County

The Golden Gate Bridge stretching over water

Photo by Pixabay

Surprised? Not only is Marin County the birthplace of modern mountain biking, but it remains to this day one of the best mountain biking destinations in California and the United States for trail riding thanks to its vast network of well-established trails and fire roads. Resting in the San Francisco Bay Area, Marin County is right along the coast that gifts riders with exceptional weather and gorgeous coastal scenery. Because of its extensive history as a premier destination for mountain bikers, riders need not be worried about lodging or mechanical support in Marin, as there are plenty of shops and lounging options available year-round.

Riders traveling to Marin can expect somewhat dry and rocky terrain that may be more packed in the colder months than in summer, which would make the recommended time of year to visit somewhere around August or September.

Our trail spotlight will probably have to shine on the City Mouse/Cross Country Mouse trail that connects much of the Mount Tamarancho trail network and offers over forty miles of overall riding length from intermediate to advanced. The property is run by the Marin Council of the Boy Scouts of America so you'll either need to pick up a day pass for $5 or an annual pass for $45 online or at Sunshine Bicycles in Fairfax.

2. Forest of Nisene Marks & Soquel Demonstration Forest in Santa Cruz

A lighthouse and boulders with crashing waves and a few people

Photo by Anand Dandekar

Don’t be intimidated by the long name. This area is one of the top destinations to ride in the United States! Not only does Santa Cruz itself offer an excellent network of trails for beginners to advanced riders in the town itself with views of the Pacific Ocean and beaches you can pitch a tent on, but the bordering forests of Nisene Marks and Soquel Demonstration Forest give riders even greater options for trails. With lush forest surrounding miles of well-established and maintained trails, the trails in these forests are akin to the riding that one might encounter in Northern California. And don't forget to check out the Annual Santa Cruz Mountain Bike Festival in Aptos.

Riders here can expect a more loamy and vegetated trail system that is well maintained by the community and even features optional obstacles and park-like features. Our spotlight trail for this area would have to be the Braille Flow Trail, which spans around 19 miles and connects some of the best trails that the area has to offer.

3. Lake Tahoe & Truckee

A view of Lake Tahoe with trees on the banks and a small island in the middle

Photo by Manu

Moving to the eastern side of the state, we land at one of the crown jewels of natural beauty in California: Lake Tahoe. Not only are the lake and town surrounded by a network of beautiful nature trails, but the area is known far and wide for its world-class resorts and steadfast commitment to the outdoors. Because of the proximity between Truckee and Lake Tahoe Area, I decided to include these destinations as one entry, as you should definitely consider visiting both if you are ever in the area.

As mentioned, the lake is surrounded by outstanding trails and gorgeous views, none better perhaps than the Tahoe Rim trail. Spanning an incredible 165 miles in total distance, this trail loops the entirety of Lake Tahoe and will offer boundless excitement and good riding for any rider regardless of skill level. Additionally, you can choose to ride numerous offshoot trails. One of the most popular routes is the trail from Tahoe Meadows to the Flume Trail with a moderate level of elevation at 1,420 ft. And if you're more of a beginner check out the Page Meadows Loop. Be prepared to do some hiking if you plan on completing the entire route as not all of the sections on the trail are open to biking.

For those riders looking for more of a park setting or who want to get a quick workout in, Truckee offers world-class park trails and a variety of parks that give riders tons of exploring to do. Truckee is home to both Truckee Bike Park and Northstar Lodge, both of which offer riders exceptional park features like sculpted jumps and maintained berms, as well as challenging downhill trails meticulously maintained by dedicated park staff. Because of the high concentration of riding options, the Tahoe/Truckee area is certainly one of if not the best places to plan your next trip, no matter what you’re looking for.

4. Downieville

An image of the Durgan Bridge in Downieville.

Photo by Rifflebox, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Not far from our destinations in Lake Tahoe and Truckee is the famous mining-town-turned-mountain-bike-haven that is Downieville. The success of Downieville as a destination is driven by the passion and care of both its citizens as well as visiting riders. With the mining industry greatly diminished, Downieville was forced to adapt to changing times, and the result is one of the premier biking destinations and towns in the country. Not only is it home to the famous Downieville Classic, an enduro mountain bike race that draws competitors from all over the world, but the town itself has become a monument to the idea of a biking town.

The Downieville Downhill trail, a 14-mile trail that butts up to the Pacific Crest Trail with over 4,000 feet of descent, draws hundreds of riders each year, and the town has begun to really support the influx of visitors. Depending on the time of year, Downieville turns into one of those towns that feel like heaven for any outdoor junkies. With whitewater rafting, mountain biking, and plenty of open land to camp on, Downieville is a must-visit for any mountain biker and outdoor enthusiast alike.

Honorable Mentions

Either due to limited options or less-developed riding areas, these locations didn’t make the top four destinations but are still great locations to visit for excellent riding and a welcoming atmosphere.

5. Mammoth Mountain Resort

Mammoth Lake, with a beach and tree stumps in the foreground and trees and hills in the background

Photo by Ignacio Pales

Known for its exceptional skiing and snowboarding scene during winter months, Mammoth Mountain Resort undergoes a beautiful transformation in the summertime that turns it into a dream for cyclists. With plenty of built-in features, a whopping 3,000 feet of vertical descent, challenging downhill trails, and a community dedicated to the mountains, Mammoth makes a strong case for it to be considered one of the best places to ride in the state.

6. Kern River Area

Looking over a pair of bike handle bars at a dusty path lined with scrub brush. A lake and mountains in the distance.

Photo by Zaal Rottunda

While lesser known as a riding destination compared to some of the locations above, the riding around Kern river and Lake Isabella is certainly notable and trip-worthy. Located in the Sierra Nevadas, the wilderness route offers breathtaking scenery from waterfalls to canyons to mountain peaks. Lodging may be limited to a few motels and available Airbnb options, but there is ample camping around the lake that makes finding a spot to rest fairly easy. This part of California can get very hot, so to dodge uncomfortable heat and to see the river at its prime, my suggestion is to visit the area sometime in November or December, and the closer to rain the better! While there is a small ski lodge in Kern, riders should expect only trail riding for the time being. And be on the lookout for equestrians and pedestrians as this is a popular area for those who prefer to travel on two feet or four.

My trail spotlight for Kern is definitely going to shine on “Just Outstanding”, which can connect to a number of different trails and offers over 13 miles of riding.

7. Big Bear & Snow Summit

Last but not least on our list is Snow Summit bike park, located about three hours from Los Angeles in Big Bear, California. While there are some well-established trail networks in the area, the main draw for many visitors are the two bike parks: Snow Summit and Santa's Village. Both parks are close enough to Big Bear Mountain resort and Big Bear Lake that riders should have an easy time finding accommodations for both lodging and camping as well as bike rentals if you're an East Coaster and don't feel like flying your bike out. Because of the seasonality, both parks are closed for winter riding, but the surrounding area draws riders year-round, making Big Bear a great area to take your bike in Southern California!

Chances are if you’ve ever ridden in California, you don’t need an explanation on why it’s such a good place to ride. California is huge and the available riding seems endless with new trails and parks constantly being created, and it seems there is no slowing down in sight. Whether you’re considering taking your first biking trip in the state or simply trying to decide on your next location, I hope you got some ideas of where to visit next and what to expect. And if you have any questions about gearing up for your next adventure, chat with me or one of my fellow Cycling Experts for free advice and recommendations. See you out there!

Meet the author
Cycling Expert Zaal Rottunda
Zaal Rottunda
Cycling Expert
Zaal here! How can I help?
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Written By
I have been riding mountainbikes for over 10 years. I worked for Trek bikes for 4 years where I got fully immersed in the culture and every changing technology of the cycling industry. I spent the past two years working for a major online cycling retailer, where I learned not only invaluable product...

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