Top-notch trails and close-to-home amenities make these state parks worth visiting.
I’ve been on a 20-year quest to ride knobby tires in all 50 states, and I’m thankful to say that the tally now stands at 45. In that time, I’ve ridden all kinds of trails—from buttery bike park flow to brutal backcountry bushwhackers—and, somewhat to my surprise, many of the most memorable experiences have been in state parks.
While national forests, BLM lands, and bike parks often dominate mountain biking’s most iconic destination lists, state parks offer unique experiences that put them in their own worthwhile category. To start, they’re usually in close proximity to a town or city, so extensive planning is minimized, and saddle time is maximized. If you do decide to stay a night or two, you’ll likely find nice lodging on site (Think: cabins with gas grills!), along with plenty of fun rest day or family activities like stand-up paddleboarding and guided nature hikes. Finally, the trails in state parks usually come wrapped in compact packages that are well-signed and maintained.
Here’s my guide to the best riding—both on- and off-the-radar—in state parks.
—On the Radar—
Douthat // Clifton Forge, VA
Douthat State Park is a gem in the Appalachian Mountains of south central Virginia. Located just an hour north of the bike-friendly town of Roanoke, the park’s 4,500 acres are surrounded by the George Washington National Forest, making it easy to expand your ride into a full-fledged adventure. Within the park boundaries, you’ll find over 40 miles of trails to match whatever level of challenge you choose. The chunky landscape around Middle Mountain will test your rock crawling skills, while the steep climbing from Stony Run over to Tuscarora Overlook is definitely worth the view. Book ahead for a spot in the Dothan Lodge, a rustic building constructed by the CCC in the late 1930s.
Brown County // Nashville, IN
Ready or not, the trail network at Brown County will push the limits of your endurance and technical skill. At the forefront of new school trail development, this area has become legendary in the last decade and is a must-stop for any road trip through Middle America. Brown County boasts almost 30 miles of flowy and technical singletrack, selected in 2015 as an IMBA Ride Center. The location is also at the core of a region that offers 150 miles of mountain biking, making it worth a few days of riding. If you time it right, you can take part in the Brown County Epic, a festival and ride during the peak of fall colors.
Curt Gowdy // Cheyenne, WY
You have my word, it’s worth driving through Colorado to southeast Wyoming for this gem of a trail system conveniently located halfway between Cheyenne and Laramie. The landscape at Curt Gowdy will blow your mind: a sea of granite and twisted pine trees encapsulate two reservoirs. Once you dig in, you’ll find a network of routes spread over multiple riding zones, each with a distinct flavor.
Hit the Mountain Trail System first and warm-up with some technical moves on steep boulders and off-camber slabs. When you’re ready to pedal for awhile with great views, head over to the Reservoir Trail System. Don’t miss Middle Kingdom for its backcountry feel and Crystal Ridge for sweeping vistas. Both areas contain pockets of play zones where you can session drop and jump off islands of granite boulders. Bring your tent and a cooler of food, Curt Gowdy has plenty of camping and there’s no better way to finish a ride than by relaxing in a beach chair next to Granite Springs Reservoir.
Oak Mountain // Pelham, AL
In the foothills of the Appalachians and just a stone’s throw from downtown Birmingham, Double Oak Mountain lies at the core of the nearly 10,000-acre Oak Mountain State Park. Scenic anytime of year, Oak Mountain is especially gorgeous in spring when the redbuds and dogwoods are in full bloom. In addition to the 21-mile IMBA Epic loop, be sure to check out Thunder and Lightning, two new school trails with tons of flow and opportunity for airtime. In addition to the stellar riding, the park boasts a wakeboarding cable park, as well cabins to rest your legs after a long day of fresh air and exercise.
—Under the Radar—
Dead Horse Point // Moab, UT
Because of Moab’s sheer number of close-to-town classics, most mountain bikers never make it out to this gem of a park just 40-minutes from Main Street. Next time you head to the desert, make a point of getting out to Dead Horse Point for a ride along the edge of a towering canyon rim with endless views of the La Sal Mountains and Canyonlands National Park. While all riders will appreciate the park’s scenery, beginners and families will especially enjoy its inviting trails that gently undulate over mostly smooth terrain—a welcomed reprieve from the rest of Moab’s maniacally technical riding. To make a visit to Dead Horse Point even more worth your while, check out its luxurious campground (hot showers included) and a coffee shack which serves up pre- and post-ride cappuccinos.
Oleta River // Miami, FL
Oleta State Park is another urban gem. Located in North Miami Beach, this trail network is nestled amongst the trees and offers almost 12 miles of singletrack. Not surprisingly, there is some sand to contend with, but take heart, the locals have done a lot to fortify the trail in creative ways. Expect to ride over plenty of rocks and roots, as well as a few sections of carpet and chain-link fence. It certainly qualifies as one of the most unique trail experiences you can have on a mountain bike. When you’ve had your fill of the trails, cool off with a relaxing SUP experience through the park’s mangroves.
Polipoli Spring // Maui, Hawaii
There aren’t many places where you can ride from the edge of a 10,000-foot-tall volcano, drop into sweet singletrack surrounded by a mystical cloud forest, and then head to a tropical beach to finish your day. Maui, Hawai’i’s Polipoli Spring State Recreation Area has just that experience though. Pick up a bike at either Crater Cycles in Kahului or Krank Cycles in Makawao and self-shuttle up for sunrise. While most tourists opt for bike tours, which follow the pavement off of Haleakala’s summit, the ride can be even more thrilling if you find your way down the backside. This route isn’t for the faint of heart: Take your full-face helmet and pads; the cinder road to access Mamane Trail in Polipoli Springs can get spicy.
Lake Wilson // Salina, KS
Lake Wilson State Park, aka Switchgrass, is a surprising place to find a solid 25+ miles of mountain biking. Located just a hop, skip, and a jump from I-70, it’s an excellent way to stretch your legs on a long drive across the country. The trails wind their way around Lake Wilson and over a unique landscape of sandstone cliffs set amongst the tall grass prairie. If you decide to spend the night, the park rents well-appointed cabins with lake views.