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When it comes to human-powered adventure, the Golden State is a serious contender for the go-to adventure dealer on the West Coast. Sure, you’ve seen Moab’s iconic MTB trails on the cover of sport magazines and Colorado’s world-renowned mountain biking needs no introduction, but it’s California’s fire roads and nosebleed downhills where the sport came to be. With coastal and alpine views just miles apart, forearm-pumping technical beasts, and legendary rides that have literally made history—are you ready for all that California has in store?
Where is the best mountain biking in California?
The best mountain biking in California is clustered around the Bay Area, San Diego, and the Sierra Nevadas. Depending on your goals and wishes, California gives you free rein when it comes to MTB adventures.
Do you want gnarly technicals? Check out Santa Cruz. How about a downhill that will have you screaming at the top of your lungs followed by a chill cruise to cool down? Lake Tahoe fits the bill. Since the Golden State offers only the finest, we turned to local experts to share their recommendations for the top mountain biking spots in California.
Before Moab and Colorado’s world-renowned trails became synonymous with mountain biking in the U.S., there was Fairfax. California’s well known cocktail of chill vibes and adrenaline sparked the genius of the Marin County crew back in the 1970s, and lo and behold, MTB was born.
They rode clunky, DIY bikes whose balloon tires left their marks on these now legendary trails. The early riders modified their rides with thumbshift-operated derailleurs and knobby B.F. Goodrich tires, essentially inventing the modern mountain bike. With new equipment come new possibilities, and naturally the first race down Mt. Tamalpais, in 1976. This local hobby soon gained recognition and became the sport we know and love.
Fairfax rides continue to inspire
Today, the town that sits in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais is home to the official MTB Hall of Fame, and some pretty far out trails. Totally rugged, rough and riveting, the fire roads above town truly capture the essence of MTB. Even though the tracks have been softened by time—and the tires of riders who have come to pay reverence over the years—the downhills will still humble you. Plummeting down MTB’s ancestral home should be on every mountain biker’s bucket list.
Ride through history on Repack Road
A group of guys in the seventies didn’t see a regular fire road. They saw steep slopes and rocks the size of their head and thought, flying over that would be pretty neat. And so they did. The same dust the OG Klunker’s kicked up can cling to your tires too. How many people get to say they’ve ripped down the course where the first MTB race took place?
The trail is a winding doubletrack that starts on the streets of Fairfax and ends with a legendary 1,300 ft descent. Ride up the trail or drive via Pine Mountain Road until you reach a clearing. That’s where the iconic downhill starts. Get ready for switchbacks, blind, sharp turns and steep drops. Think you can beat the record time? (4:16 at the time of this writing). Go out and show what you’re made of!
Camp Tamarancho is one of the first classics
Intermediate and advanced riders, listen up! Tamo or the Ranch, as locals know it, is easily the crown jewel of Marin County. The private singletrack trail network has plenty of routes to keep you busy, but the reason riders swarm here is for the famous Tamarancho loop.
The 9 miles circuit starts on Iron Springs Road and will take you from two to three hours to complete. Although it’s rated as moderate, prepare for rock gardens, twitchy switchbacks and iconic redwood trees standing in your way. You’re looking at 1,700 feet of uphill riding but it pays off—the thrill always delivers!
One downhill drop on Mount Tamalpais’ fire roads is all it takes to get why Fairfax is where MTB came to be.
Fairfax - Good to Know
Riders of all skill levels are welcome
Spring through Fall is high season, but you can ride it year-round
Fire roads cutting through sagebrush, grasslands and pine forests
2. San Diego
Stationed along the Pacific, San Diego has an outdoor sport for everyone. Especially mountain biking. Not to be underestimated are the city’s 200+ canyons and hills that separate its many mesas—all geographical features that make for excellent MTB terrain. Couple the hundreds of miles of trails and over 260 days of sunny-to-mostly-sunny days and you’ve got the markings of a premiere mountain biking destination.
Another unique appeal for bringing your bike to San Diego is the surf n’ turf. Sure, you can eat that at about any restaurant, but in how many cities can you live it? In San Diego you can ride the mountains in the morning and surf in the sea in the afternoon.
San Diego was made with mountain bikers in mind
San Diego pretty much has two seasons: warm and warmer. And neither is ever too hot. The city typically gets less than 12” of rainfall per year, so this means there’s months and months to get out and enjoy all the well-maintained trails.
When you’re here it might feel like everyone rides. The San Diego Mountain Biking Association has 1,000-plus members who steward the land and play a huge part in advocacy. Let’s put it this way: there’s even a Yelp page for the best trails in the area.
You can’t go wrong with Noble Canyon
This is a 10 mile singletrack gem. Despite its relatively low elevation at 5,440 ft, you’ll bike through alpine meadows and oak forests before you wind through SoCal chaparral and ending in the Anza-Borrego desert.
Many riders consider this to be the premier downhill ride in all of Southern California. The singletrack is narrow with plenty of switchbacks and huge, gnarly rocks. Two sections in particular, Stairway to Hell and Roman Road, are what make this course a technical delight. Bring extra protection and remember that there’s no shame in walking your bike if needed.
See what San Diego is all about on Cowles Mountain
Cowles Mountain is a technical challenge, and best of all, it’s right in the city. A 5.4 mile loop with a max 25% grade, this will get your lungs and legs pumping. The climbing starts immediately and seems not to end, but remember that every foot gained in elevation will be one you get to descend. The mental challenge comes from figuring out how to maneuver around railroad ties, rock gardens and well worn switchbacks.
Explore the many trails of Black Mountain Open Space
The park is an example of a city and bike club working together to get the most out of shared urban spaces. Located in northern San Diego, the Open Space offers lots of lines for riders of all skill levels. One of the favored trails is the Lilac Miners Peak Loop, which is exemplary in its use of modern trail building with just enough loose rocks and flowy descent to make visitors and locals alike return for one more lap.
San Diego is on track to becoming one of the best locations for mountain biking in the US. Why? More like, why not?
San Diego - Good to Know
Riders of all skill levels are welcome
Year round MTB
Hills, canyons, and manicured flowy trails
3. Lake Tahoe
Having the second largest alpine lake in North America as the centerpiece to the surrounding Sierra Nevadas makes for one of the most impressive mountain biking locales. You’ve got trails for all levels, but where it really shines is with its downhill areas. Thanks to neighboring resorts, such as Northstar, investing in lots of infrastructure, you can enjoy well-stationed lift access to return to barreling downhill again and again!
There are countless mountain biking objectives in the Lake Tahoe area. The terrain, regardless of where you decide to go, is diverse. On the alpine trails you can count on plenty of elevation gain and flowy downhill sections. Elsewhere you’ll encounter awesome woodland trails, roots, berms and even the odd waterfall.
You can’t miss the Flume Loop
While technically in Nevada, the Flume Loop is a Tahoe area classic that many locals deem The Must Ride.
22 miles long, it’s a great way to enjoy some of the best views of the lake. Should you want to expand your day you can link up with the Tahoe Rim Trail, which opens up another 80 plus miles of riding. Keep in mind that to enjoy the sights you’re looking at a 1,000 foot climb to start. Also to note, some of the Flume’s sections are exposed and very narrow, so don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. If the entirety of the ride is too much, there’s a shuttle service available.
Tahoe Rim Trail is what you came for
A lot of people ask, can you ride a bike around Lake Tahoe? Yes and no. The Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) is a multi-use 168 mile route that circles the entirety of the lake, though not all sections are open to riding (be prepared to hike a bike). With that said, the eighty miles of undulating MTB track aren’t too technical nor demanding and run through stunning alpine terrain and pine forests. Pack a picnic, bring your camera and enjoy every last bit of this trail.
Scream your lungs off on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride
This 20 mile loop is accessed off the TRT and features downhill singletrack madness that deposits you right at South Lake Tahoe. There’s over 3,300’ of climbing but you get to enjoy it on the other side. Count on lots of big drops and sections of rocks and more rocks, so don’t forget your helmet. And bring snacks and extra water!
Gone are the days when Lake Tahoe was just a weekend getaway for skiers in the winter. Today the area welcomes MTB riders of all skill levels—especially when the snow melts.
Lake Tahoe - Good to Know
Strong beginners to advanced riders
From late spring through Fall
Anything from woodlands to breezy lake-side rides
All sections of the Tahoe Rim Trail are a good option
4. Big Bear Lake
Situated in the middle of the San Bernardino National Forest and about 100 miles east of Los Angeles, Big Bear Lake is Southern California’s biking capital. It won’t take long for any visiting biker to understand just how special the area is. The temperate weather ensures a long season while the local resorts and the National Forest Service have done much to maintain the trails and build outstanding facilities.
Skyline Trail is a must-ride
This 15.2 mile singletrack is considered one of the top trails in the entire state. Located on the south side of the lake, where many crowd favorites are based, the route traverses the mountains behind Snow Summit resort and serves up picture perfect scenery.
As an end-to-end trip, it can be ridden in either direction. Riding from east to west, you’ll start at 7,351 feet and immediately hit the ascent as you work your way to Snow Summit. After topping out you’ll have gorgeous ups-and-downs for a little over ten miles before your fast and flowy descent ends at Metcalf Creek, just southwest of the town of Big Bear Lake.
Hanna Flats Loop’s is smooth as butter
A local favorite, Hanna Flats Loop mixes singletrack with fire roads for a surprisingly flowy trail that meanders down the mountain. Most riders like to link in Gray’s Peak, a 2.2 mile out-and-back, to take in the views of the lake and valley below.
Show what you’re made of on the Cougar Crest Trail
Test your mettle on this technically advanced trail. It’s 7 miles out-and-back with embedded rocks, ruts, roots, tight switchbacks, and a fast bottom third. Be on the lookout for bobcats, lizards, snakes and hikers—it’s quite popular on the weekends!
Though it’s been a few decades in the making, the Big Bear Area has become a true MTB wonderland
Big Bear Lake - Good to Know
Confident beginners up to advanced riders
Late spring to Fall
Lots of challenging uphills through evergreen forests and rock gardens
Hanna Flats Loop takes the prize
5. San Francisco
In the City on the Bay you won’t need to stray too far from the busy streets for adrenaline-inducing MTB. Believe it or not, in the heart lies a 61-acre oasis, Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve. The riding there is a bit more tame but perfect for a post-workday rush. Locals will agree that true adventure awaits outside the city limits. Want to kick it up a notch? The nearby mountains are as fun as they look.
Scale Mount Diablo via Summit Trail
You’re in for a hellish ascent and a heavenly downhill here. This 7-mile-long ride is packed with insane vistas, but resist their siren call and only make pit stops when you need to catch your breath.
Even seasoned riders require a couple of hours to tackle this beast of a trail. Start off at South Gate Road and get ready to pedal your heart out up the hill. The ascent is steep to start with, and it gets worse. But remember that hard ascents promise rewarding descents and that’s exactly what’s in store.
Mount Tamalpais from a different perspective
Mentioning Mount Tamalpais when talking about best mountain biking in San Francisco is technically cheating. That said, this 11.5 mile ride takes you along the Coastal View Trail and ends near Muir Beach, thus combining stellar views of the bay before dropping you right down into the Bay City itself.
The Golden City is a true urban jungle. Whether you want to go wild on the surrounding mountains or stay close to the heart of the city, bring your bike on your next visit.
San Francisco - Good to Know
Riders of all skill levels are welcome
Paved roads and tough mountain uphills (with great downhills)
Mount Diablo has a couple of routes that might strike your fancy
6. Santa Cruz
Visitors love Santa Cruz for its iconic boardwalk, heavenly weather and beaches to match, but we think it’s the MTB trails that deserve all the hype. If you came to chill and catch a tan, but still want to fit in a workout, Santa Cruz has gorgeous mellow rollers along the coast. For advanced mountain biking aficionados, get your tires dirty on the technicals snaking through the area’s famous redwoods. From beginners to pros and everyone in between, Santa Cruz has something for you.
Where can I mountain bike in Santa Cruz?
Depending on your skill level, Santa Cruz has a few different options. If you’re a seasoned rider, mountain bike in The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park on some of the best trails in the state—if not the country. Intermediate riders who are still working on their skills should check out Wilder Ranch. Are you all about the views? The Skyline-to-the-Sea trail is a great destination ride.
Demo Forest is a modern marvel
Never have we found this much flow potential in one place. In the hills just south of Santa Cruz, in Aptos, home to the Annual Santa Cruz Mountain Bike Festival, lies the Soquel Demonstration State Forest. These trails were purpose built to be enjoyed by riders of all ages and ability using sustainable trail building techniques. The star of the show is the Flow Trail, which as the name suggests is a sublime cross-country ride delivering 3.5 miles of pure joy.
Go wild in Wilder Ranch
Wilder Ranch State Park is kind to its riders. Here you’ll get amazing coastal views on many mellow tracks without nasty uphill pedals. If you do want to work for it, the Enchanted Loop and Cowboy Loop take up the north and south parts of the park and are well worth the effort.
Cowboy Loop got its name from the nearby historic rodeo. Feel free to yell “yee-haw” on its short, but rowdy descent. Enchanted Loop’s darling name is in stark contrast to its technical nature. You’ll be riding through a forest straight out of a fairytale, but the picturesque redwoods will swallow you the instant the steep descent begins. Strap in for a roller coaster of roots. But that’s what makes locals return lap after lap, and we’re sure you’ll be returning, too.
When it comes to views that knock your socks off, Santa Cruz doesn’t play around. You will have to pedal your butt for those photo-ops, though.
Santa Cruz - Good to Know
All skill levels
Coastal bluffs, redwood forests and wooded hilltops
Warm up on Wilder Ranch’ trails
If you’re looking for a spot that should be up there with the mountain biking greats, but gets half the hype, head straight for Downieville. This little up-and-coming MTB epicenter sits at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in a small town about 3.5 hours away from San Francisco and 2 hours from Lake Tahoe. There isn’t even a gas station.
Still, the trails are so professionally maintained you’ll think you’re mountain biking in Aspen. Most riders make a beeline for the legendary Downieville Downhill, but there are loads of technical gems scattered around, including Mills Peak and Mt. Elwell.
Without further ado, The Downieville Downhill
When we say downhill, we mean downhill. Home to the world-renowned Downieville Classic Race, this sweet, loamy 15 miles is comprised of 85% decline and drops 4,000 feet in elevation. Indisputably, it is one of the best of its kind in the West.
Then there’s the Third Divide. This trail is all about speed. Most riders consider its 3 miles the highlight of the show with smooth, ripping singletrack. On top of that, the area is blessed with refreshing rivers and swimming holes. After all those technical bits you’ll be craving a dip.
Downieville is the Golden State’s gold nugget. You know downhills are going to be good when the word ‘down’ is in the name.
Downieville - Good to Know
Strong intermediates up to expert level trails
Late May through October. On higher elevations, snowpack stays put even in June
Wooded trails, lakes and alpine meadows above the treeline
What put Kernville on the map are adventure sports. Can’t find it? Head to the Sequoia National Forest where the surrounding Sierra Nevadas drop into the Kern River valley, and you’ll see: loads of mountain biking and paddleboarding await. Once you’re out there, it’s just you and the wilderness—and some of the best plunges in California!
You have to ride Cannell Plunge Trail
We’re told you can’t ride this 32-mile beast only once.
Let’s get to the nitty-gritty of it: This singletrack gem takes you across fire roads, steep sandy inclines and rounding burns. The curves, switchbacks, and rocky chutes will make your head spin as trees whoosh by in a blur. You start at Sherman Pass, a 9,200-foot elevation saddle, and glide into a staggering 5,000 foot drop over the final seven miles. It’s an advanced rider’s dream.
Just Outstanding lives up to the hype
Simply: Just Outstanding is just that. Also known as the Potato Patch Trail, the 4.5 mile route is surprisingly varied and one of the most fun workouts you’ll ever try. The trail weaves through the terrain as riders carve banked turns, fast. Many riders opt for one of the many loop permutations in order to put the name to the test again and again.
Plummeting down Kernville’s plunges will have you feeling like a kid after a funpark ride, you’ll want to go again and again.
Kernville - Good to Know
Advanced riders will feel right at home
High season is Spring, but you can ride it through Fall if you can take the heat
Wooded routes and fire roads
Warm up in Kernville’ Bike Park while you’re waiting for your shuttle