Mountain biking, like other outdoor activities, has surged in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bike sales went up more than 150 percent in 2020, and some mountain bike trails have experienced more than fivefold increases in traffic, says David Wiens, executive director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association.
These new riders, many of them children or families, present a challenge and an opportunity for areas of the United States where this warmer weather, often downhill sport is prevalent. They’re why mountainous states like Colorado, California, and Utah are turning to “flow” style paths.
Where old-school mountain bike paths were often rugged and steep, flow courses aim to ease beginners into the sport with smoother surfaces, broader widths, and banked edges. Undulating and scenic, flow trails are named for the way they put riders into a focused, trance-like state where the rest of the world falls away. “It’s a rhythmic, almost musical way of the trail interacting with a mountain bike,” says Wiens.
These easier, elegant bikeways are also being installed throughout the Appalachians. West Virginia, experiencing less snow for skiing due to climate change, has been at the forefront of the movement, hoping to lure tourists who use two wheels instead of two poles.
Gnarly no more
“West Virginia is known for its mountain biking, but the trails here tend to be hard and gnarly,” says Doug Arbogast, a tourism professor at West Virginia University Extension Service. “Our reputation is, West Virginia is a great place to get tortured and abused.”
That isn’t the case on new, 2.2.-mile Rock and Roll Trail at the Cacapon Resort State Park in Berkley Springs, where Kevin Ellsworth and his five-year-old son Landon regularly ride. “It’s the best family trail,” says Kevin of the flow-style route. “My wife’s a beginner and she can ride it. Landon can ride it. I enjoy it, and I race professionally.”
Trails like it are popping up across West Virginia as part of a concerted effort to attract mountain bikers as tourists and new residents—while also giving locals more ways to get active outdoors, says Chelsea Ruby, Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Tourism. “We are really looking at how we build those beginner trails, and how do we get those young folks, and folks of any age, into the sport,” she says.
To broaden the state’s appeal to a greater variety of cyclists, many parks are building interconnected trail systems that include plenty of beginner and intermediate-level paths, he says. Flow-style paths are built by full-time trailbuilders using new, narrow and nimble construction equipment.
That can be expensive, says Mark Hoyle, mountain bike trail coordinator for the Cacapon Resort State Park Foundation. The Rock and Roll trail, for instance, cost $60,000, plus 1,200 hours of volunteer labor.
“Parks are quickly seeing a return on the investment,” Hoyle says. “Every weekend I see five to 25 vehicles parked at Cacapon with bike racks, and the new lodge has been busy with bikers.”
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While most flow trails are cross-country style, ski resorts with warm weather mountain biking programs are also getting in on the trend. On the southeastern side of the state, Snowshoe Mountain recently opened two new downhill flow trails: an intermediate one called “Dirt Beaver,” and a beginner-friendly path named “Whistle Pig.” Both trail names are local terms for “groundhog.”
“I swear, we aren’t obsessed with groundhogs here,” says Evan Cole, Snowshoe’s bike park manager. “We thought ‘Whistle Pig,’ would be a fun, easygoing name that wasn’t at all intimidating.”
Whistle Pig, which opened in August 2021, has quickly become one of the park’s most popular trails, he adds. “I see people taking the trail again and again, and then coming back and bringing friends,” Evans says.
As climate change shortens the ski season, parks like Snowshoe are increasingly turning to mountain biking to make up for lost income, says Arbogast. “Pocahontas County, where Snowshoe is, is trying to have equal tourist spending in summer and winter. Right now they make two thirds of their money in winter,” he says.
West Virginia’s former coal towns also have a lot to gain by attracting mountain biking enthusiasts, Arbogast adds. “These abandoned mine lands have the perfect topography for mountain biking.”
One popular new flow trail on the western side of the state, at Mountwood Park, runs directly through the abandoned mining town of Volcano. The Pumphouse Trail, which opened in October 2018, slaloms around old wooden oil casks and stone foundations dating back to the 1860s.
“I like to call it a dirt roller-coaster through history,” says Chris Swarr, Mountwood Park president.
Durable, environmentally friendly, and big fun, the Pumphouse Trail and trails like it are triumphs of modern engineering, Swarr adds. They make use of local materials, channel water to avoid erosion, and become more stable with use. That’s a sharp contrast to unsustainable old-school trails, which often follow fall lines and turn into gushing streams during rainstorms. Poorly designed trails also tend to become steeper over time, which leads to cyclists taking alternative paths and trampling plant life.
“We’re in the middle of a real renaissance in trailbuilding,” he says.
Seeds of change
Zach Adams walks along the Rock and Roll Trail on September 25, a few hours after its official opening. He pushes aside some brush to reveal a stream of water gushing from the side of the trail.
“West Virginia: wild, wonderful and wet,” he says.
Adams, founder of the trail-building company Appalachian Dirt, routed rainwater runoff underneath the trail by building a French drain—a trench filled with rocks and topped with flatter rocks. All of the material used to build the trail were found at or nearby the trail site, Adams says. “I’m sort of just rearranging the furniture out here,” he says.
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Indeed, the Rock and Roll trail almost looks as if it could have arisen naturally from the landscape as it winds through lush underbrush and 200-year-old oaks. To protect the trees near the trail, Adams dug carefully around their roots by hand.
Another key sustainable practice, he says, is to avoid mixing soil types. At Cacapon, that meant keeping the nutrient-rich topsoil separate from the sandy, orange earth underneath. He then used the orange soil to “pave” the trail and build the bumps and berms that make it so enjoyable to ride.
“Mineral-rich soil compacts and becomes harder over time,” Adams says. “The more you ride on it, the better it gets.”
After Adams was done, volunteers finished the trail by spreading the reserved topsoil on land that had been disturbed by the construction process. Seeds hidden in the soil soon sprung to life and filled out the understory with mountain blueberries and other small plants, making the path look as if it had been there for decades.
Volunteering to build and maintain trails is a major part of mountain-biking culture, and it’s one that Hoyle hopes will continue even as professionals like Adams take over trail design. Visitors are always welcome to join in the fun, he adds.
“In tough times, it feels really good to get together and do something for the community,” Hoyle says.
Sadie Dingfelder is a writer based in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, focusing on science, nature, and the arts. Follow her on Twitter or TikTok.
Cacapon Resort State Park: Access to the park’s 25.5 miles of mountain bike trails is free. Bring your own bike, or rent one from C&O Bicycles in Hancock, Maryland. Stay in the park’s newly renovated lodge or in historic cabins. Other activities include: guided nature hikes, golf, and clay trap shooting.
Mountwood Park: Ride the park’s 36-mile system of interconnected mountain bike trails for free. Rent a full-suspension mountain bike from Marietta Adventure Company in nearby Marietta, Ohio. Stay in a primitive cabin or in a modern house on the lake. The park also features a museum, ATV trails, and a disc golf course.
Snowshoe Mountain Resort: A mountain bike park accessible via lift tickets is open from Memorial Day through mid October. The resort offers bike rentals, too. There are multiple lodges and vacation rentals nearby.