If you’re familiar with the most popular biking destinations in the US, you will notice that the West Coast tends to get all the attention, but what if we’d tell you about a place called Highland Mountain Bike Park? Nope, it’s not on the West Coast. We’ll give you a pointer: it’s in Northfield, New Hampshire, and guys such as Aaron Chase and Brandon Semenuk have immediately taken a liking to this magnificent place.
So, what’s this about Highland Mountain Bike Park?
Just like many places located in the northern part of the East Coast, this one hasn’t had much publicity. Everyone seems fascinated with the Golden State or Utah, where the rockstar of freeride mountain biking competitions, Redbull Rampage, takes place at the end of October every year.
As the story goes, Highland Mountain used to be a relatively quiet place in the 30s, where people used to come here for the skiing and hiking trails. In the 60s, lifts were installed, and the Highlands Ski Area was born. Unfortunately, after several seasons where the resort struggled to attract tourists, the project was abandoned altogether.
By the mid-90s, this place was frequented by squatters and vandals. It was not until 2003 when a guy named Mark Hayes came in and offered to buy the mountain, that the resort’s fortunes took a turn for the better.
A passionate rider himself, Mark put the resources he had after he sold his fiber optic business that he’d been running since the 80s, and his know-how to create what is possibly the first mountain-bike-only resort, in the US, at least.
With enough hard work and determination, he took this small idea and in the course of 15 years, managed to turn it into a world-class bike park. Today, the park attracts countless people, from novice bikers to legends such as Aaron Chase and Brandon Semenuk. But judging by the looks of it, this story is just getting started.
The appeal of Highland Mountain
While the total vertical of 627 feet is certain to leave few hardcore DH riders impressed, what makes this Highland Mountain special is the large number of technical trails, all very well connected into a network that’s bound to make quite a few fans.
The place has both training areas as well as trails, so anyone from a complete rookie to an advanced rider has the right trails to train on. The trails are also progressively designed so that everyone can enjoy riding to the max while also being able to improve and build up skills along the way.
Some talk about the place as being a large family, where each comes and goes, but remembers to get back and reconnect with like-minded people and share the awesome vibe.
This place has been called “America’s Bike Park” and it’s the perfect place for training and trail riding. Thanks to the progressive learning model and many programs led by dedicated coaches, it’s become a sort of a Mecca for anyone who’s looking for a real adventure, whether it’s cross-country, DH, or freeride biking they’re into.
There’s a cross-country trail network as well as extensive DH trails. Some areas come with all sorts of ramps and other constructions to help freeriders build their skills, and there’s even a dirt jump park.
But the best part of it all is that riders don’t have to climb back up on the trails, or at least not on every trail, as many of them are lift-accessible.
So how do you get started?
Thanks to the Find Your Ride program, you benefit from the best way to get started in the park. This program includes day passes, safety equipment, etc. You’ll start in the “Park Ready” area and after getting all the basics down and learning all the skills you need, you can move onto the “Freedom Trail”, which is a 1.8-mile-long trail that has an average grade of 5.9%.
After that, you can either continue with the program or you can start exploring on your own.
Things to bring with you
So now that you know a thing or two about Highland Mountain, it’s time to think about what you’ll need to take with you to enjoy your rides to the maximum. First of all, you’ll need a bike, and then protective equipment. If you don’t have one of them or either of them, you should be happy to learn that the Highland Demo Center has a fleet of bikes for rent, and you can also rent equipment.
However, if you already have your own stuff or are planning to buy some, here are a few pointers:
What bike do you need?
First of all, you shouldn’t even think about taking a bike with a rigid fork with you. You’ll feel all the bumps through your arms and up to your head, and even if you do manage to stay out of accidents, every part of your body will be in such pain that you’ll likely not be in the mood for riding the next day. Well, actually, some pros might get away with riding a fixie, but if you need all these things explained, you’re probably not one of them.
What you’ll need is a bike with a decent fork. Anything with a travel of 100mm or higher should be ok. You should be able to ride most of the green and blue trails. You might not enjoy all sections and might swear at your hardtail here and there, but you’ll still be able to have some fun and learn a skill or two.
If you’re into cross-country, a hardtail will actually be a very good choice, as you probably won’t need a rear shock to rob you of pedaling energy.
In case DH and freeride is what you’ll come here for, then you should seriously consider getting a full-suspension bike. Not only will you be able to ride on most (or all) trails, but you’ll do that and stay comfortable and safe. You might want to have a DH or freeride-specific bike for the most specialized trails.
As for wheel sizes, any standard will do, although if you’re still riding the old 26”, you might feel a bit awkward seeing all those 27.5” and 29ers around you. The good part is that you’ll benefit from better handling and maneuverability, minus the speed.
If you’re a big person or are really into achieving maximum speed, a 29er might be in order. For everything in between and the right mix of pedaling efficiency and control, a 27.5” bike should do the trick.
As for the tires, given that you’d be riding on forest trails, make sure they are thick enough to handle the terrain. You might want to go for 2.3 inches and above for the tires.
What equipment do you need?
Having a good bike that’s adequate for the kind of riding you’re interested in isn’t enough. First of all, you’ll need a proper helmet. For XC-style riding, an open-face model should be enough. If you’re freeriding, you should opt for beefier builds, and you might want to go with full-face models. For DH, anything that doesn’t have a long and sturdy visor and a chin bar is a no-go.
You’ll also need gloves to protect your hands in case you fall. Unless you’re really bent on not falling at all (and risk improving very little or limiting the fun factor), crashes will be part of the routine, so make sure that you get the right gloves with enough padding and protection.
Speaking of crashes, you might also want to wear shin pads, armors, elbow and knee protectors, etc.
In order to enjoy your rides and have a decent grip on the pedals, you’ll need adequate shoes as well. The park owners state that many riders feel well on flat pedals, so freerider shoes are probably going to work just fine.
However, if you’ve got clipless pedals, then no one is going to hold that against you, and you will be able to climb much faster than those poor guys wearing flats. You’ll have trouble cornering and controlling the bike in some sections, but that’s the sacrifice you have to make for that gain in efficiency and control in some situations. Just make sure that you don’t forget your clipless shoes at home.
You’ll also need a set or two of comfortable clothes that are appropriate for the weather you’ll be riding in, and you’re all set for starting your biking adventures.