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.

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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 world 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 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 land, (Bureau of Land Management), 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 best in the non-park entries, so I encourage you to scout out your preferred areas on Trailforks.com, Mtbproject.com, Strava, or any similar trail marking app. Now without any further ado let’s get on to our first destination in the spotlight!

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 destinations for trail riding thanks to its vast network of well established trails. Resting just above San Francisco, 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 travelling 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.

(Trail Map Provided by MTBproject.com)

Forest of Nisene Marks and Soquel Demonstration Forest - 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 in the town itself, but the bordering forests of Nisene Marks and Soquel Demonstration Forest gives 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.

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.

(Trail Map Provided by MTBproject.com)

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 other 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 natural 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 will offer boundless excitement and good riding for any rider regardless of skill level. For those riders looking for more of a park setting, 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 place to plan your next trip no matter what you’re looking for.

Downieville

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 from both its citizens as well as visiting riders. With the mining industry greatly diminished, Downieville was forced to adapt to the 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 17-mile trail with over 4,000 feet of descension, 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 seems like heaven for any outdoor junkies. With whitewater rafting, world class mountain biking, and plenty of open land to camp, 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 destinations didn’t make the top five destinations but are still great locations to visit for excellent riding and a welcoming atmosphere.

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, 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.

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. 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 October or November, and the closer to rains the better! While there is a small ski lodge in Kern, riders should expect only trail riding for the time being. 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.

(Trail Map provided by mtbproject.com)

Big Bear/Snow Summit

Last but not least on our list is Snow Summit bike park, located 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 that riders should have an easy time finding accommodations both in lodging and camping options. 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!

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, both 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. See you out there!

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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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