Progressive Mountain Biking: Local trails, from easy to hard

Back in the day when I used to run into new riders on one of our area trails I used to ask how they found the place and often got the same answer: “that book with the green cover. (bluish now).” That felt great…

Now-a-days, the answers are often a little different, and riders often say: “the guys at the bike shop told me about this place,” or “a friend mentioned this was a great trail…”

The problem is that most of those encounters have happened in places like Fountainhead, or Gambrill, which tend to be “advanced/expert” riding destinations, and often way to difficult for a first time rider.

That difficulty will often “turn people off” and send them back home to store that bike in the garage to not be used again. Not exactly what we’d like to see…

To ensure that you DO enjoy your first mountain bike to the fullest I’ve put together a list of regional trails you should ride “in order” from easy to hardest over the course of one or two seasons to incrementally progress and perfect your riding skills.

First off:

I encourage you to ride the easier trails (1-5) as much as possible for two reasons:

  1. It will help you get “really” acquainted with your bike and its operation in an “easier” environment, and
  2. It will help you build the endurance you’ll need on some of the more difficult trails.

Things to always bear in mind, regardless of where you are riding:

  1. Be prepared; Always have a tool kit; Learn how to change a flat or make a simple repair; i.e. fix a broken chain.
  2. Know your bike. Take some time to learn how to shift and brake. Multi-use paved trails are great for this. learning to shift to an easier gear “before” you are pedaling under power on a hill is a key mountain biking ability. Learning to feather your brakes is another.
  3. Always have water, not matter how short the ride; If you head out for a longer time, bring a small  snack.
  4. Don’t ride alone; If you can’t find a partner make sure someone knows where you’ll be and how long you intend  to be there.
  5. Not all miles are created equally; 10 miles at Laurel Hill are not the same as 10 miles at Gambrill; trust me; Plan accordingly.

With that said, here are some local destinations you should ride in order – especially if you just bought a new bike. Most destinations below are included in one of my books, Best Bike Rides DC, Mountain Bike Washington D.C./Baltimore and Mountain Biking Virginia.

  1. Located in Lorton, and built by MORE, Laurel Hill offers a series of loops that allow you to ride from 3 to 11 miles. All loops, with the exception of the Giles Run Meadow Trail, the Slaughterhouse loop and the Workhouse loop are fairly easy. I take my 9 year old daughter on these trails and she has a great time. Laurel Hill is a perfect place to practice your shifting, braking, and to hone your climbing skills. The Orchard loop offers a nice short climb that will help you build endurance. Laurel Hill is also a great place to get acquainted with your new clip less pedals.
    1. The new Ten Mile Creek (aka: TMC, Black Hill West) in Germantown , MD is also a great alternative for those who can’t get down to ride Laurel Hill in Virginia.
  2. Cedarville State Forest in southern Maryland is another great place to work on getting to know your bike and work on your shifting, braking and pedal work. The trails at Cedarville offer little in elevation change so you can focus mostly on your riding skills. Cedarville will also introduce you to some non-riding skills necessary in negotiating some of the trails in our region – equestrian relations. Cedarville is popular with horseback riders and you’ll often meet them on the trail. The important thing to know when encountering someone on a horse is that you announce yourself and always ask what the rider wants. Should I get off the bike? Can I pass?, etc. Communications, courtesy, and common sense always prevail. Never startle a horse since they can easily throw their rider or trample you in their haste to escape the “threat” aka: you.
  3. Once you’ve mastered the trails at Laurel Hill and Cedarville head over to the Meadowood Recreation Area in Fairfax Virginia, also near Lorton. The 3.7 mile loop was built by my good friend Doug Vinson and is super fun. It builds from Laurel Hill and Cedarville and offers some great sections that will introduce you to some of the technical skills you’ll need in more advanced trails. You can do a couple of loops at Meadowood in both directions to get a feel for how trails “change” when ridden in opposite directions. Meadowood will also introduce you to short steep climbs that will help you master your shifting skills, i.e. getting in the “right” gear before hitting a steep section.
    1. For those who can’t get out to Virginia to ride Meadowood I highly recommend either the Hoyles Mill Connector or the Seneca Ridge Trail (SRT). Both of these trails are point to point, so riders can just ride out to where they feel comfortable and then just turn back. Both the SRT and Hoyles Mill trails have few technical features but offer enough elevation change to help you begin building endurance and perfect your shifting and braking skills.
  4. Wakefield Park is one of the most popular Mountain Biking Destinations in the region and often the 1st place new riders find upon purchasing a new bike. It’s proximity to the Beltway make it easy for riders to hit it virtually any and every day. Bikenetic schedules a regular Tuesday evening ride (multiple rides actually, for different ability levels), and The Bike Lane hosts TNR (Thursday Night Rides – Also multiple rides of varying difficulty). Either of these two scheduled rides will introduce you to one of the best aspects to Mountain Biking, riding in groups. You’ll understand why there is so much camaraderie in this community. Wakefiled also offers tighter single track, a few more obstacles (in the form of logs and bridges), and will add more “elevation” to your rides.
  5. If you’ve got Wakefieled down, then it’s time to head to Rosaryville State Park in Maryland. Rosaryville’s perimeter loop is a regional favorite, and once you put knobbies on the ground you’ll understand why. The perimeter loop (I usually ride it clockwise) is a super fun trail. It was partially built by my good friend Austin Steo of the Trail Conservancy and has some super fun swoopy sections. Rosaryville will introduce you to the finer points of riding and controlling your bike at higher speeds. Trust me, you’ll have a blast on this trail.
  6. With Rosaryville under your belt you should now begin exploring some of the other destinations in the region. Schaefer Farms, Fairland, and Little Bennet to name a few. By now your endurance should be pretty good and you should be ready for some of the more advanced trails, including Patapsco State Park. Patapsco has a myriad of options. One of the most popular and one of my favorite area destinations is the Avalon area of the park. Avalon used to be my local trail and I rode it virtually daily in the early 90s to mid 2Ks. At Patapsco you’ll put together all of the skills you’ve been building during the rides above. You’ll experience technical riding, steep short climbs, long grinders, awesome descents and fantastic ridge-line trails. You’ll also encounter a myriad of natural obstacles, including technical rock gardens, creek crossings, small drops, and lots of log overs. You can literally spend an entire season just riding Patapsco.
  7. Since you are now a Patapsco graduate it’s time to head out to the Occoquan and get a taste of “advanced” riding at Fountainhead Regional Park. Fountainhead is a gem in our region, and a destination ride for many riders up and down the East Coast. Fountainhead offers a “stacked” loop system. “Stacked” meaning each loop further in the park gets progressively more difficult. The trails are super easy to follow, and, easy to “help” you gauge if you are ready or not for the next level. Start with the green loop as you enter the park; If you are comfortable when you reach the blue loop, then continue. And, if you are comfortable with the blue, then move on to the black. A  couple of BIG words of caution: If you are tired by the time you get to the black loop don’t even try it. The black will chew you and spit you out; I’ve been schooled by it on more than one occasion. And, if you can’t make it to the top of the “entrance” hill to the black loop without “dabbing” (putting your foot on the ground), come back another day. The black loop, in its short lifespan, has already claimed a few “expert” riders, so please be careful and don’t attempt something you have doubts about – i.e big drops. Fountainhead is one particular place where I highly recommend NOT riding alone. With that said, if you can ride the entire Fountainhead system then you’re ready for whatever is in our region.
  8. Now head out to Gambrill State Park, the Frederick Watershed or any destination in the George Washington National Forest. Successfully riding Elizabeth Furnace will earn you your MTB Diploma and embark you on a life long pursuit (addiction) of mountain biking.

As mentioned before, all of the destinations listed above, and more, are detailed in one of my books and include directions to the trailheads and cue sheets to make sure you enjoy your ride.

28 replies
  1. Steven Newton
    Steven Newton says:

    For Maryland beginners, I think Hoyles Mill and Black Hills have great trails in the 1 through 5 range.

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