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When talking about the best mountain biking destinations in the USA, North Carolina is one of the big shots. What slickrock is to rock climbing in Moab and alpine descents is to backcountry skiing in Colorado, tire-burning downhills are for North Carolina. It’s hard to say what exactly put mountain bike trails in NC on the map, but its combination of purpose-built singletrack packed with berms and old-school raw backcountry trails that will make your heart race are a good start.
The mountains in North Carolina are best for downhills
The western third of the state is home to the biggest mountains on the east coast. That means long, lung searing climbs, but the sweet reward is some the longest downhills around. No matter where the rides take you, the Appalachian mountains are downhill galore. Technical drops that will require you to pull out all the stops? Check. Beginner friendly descents with scenic vistas? Check. Dramatic nosedives making you hold on for dear life, and then, make you want to do again? Check and check.
Why I chose to live in North Carolina’s MTB hotspot
I grew up in Brevard, NC and didn’t really understand how good it was until I traveled elsewhere. After years of travelling in South America, all around the United States, and everywhere in between, I decided to return and lay down my roots in Brevard, the main center of mountain biking in North Carolina. DuPont State Recreational Forest and Pisgah National Forest are home to classic rides that have earned their rightful place with the U.S.’s mountain biking all-stars. However, do branch out a bit. Other trail systems in the region are worthy of attention in their own right. For example, Fire Mountain combines North Carolina’s long downhills with Native American cultural elements of the region. In addition to amazing flow-trail, you’ll find preserved Cherokee villages that will take you back in time.
As a full-time cycling coach and mountain bike skills instructor, I guide and ride year-round on the epic mountain bike trails of NC. If you’re looking for the best mountain biking on the East Coast, North Carolina has first-class rides in spades.
Here are my top picks that will make your trip unforgettable:
1. DuPont State Forest
Pros and cons
You could stay in DuPont for a week and not bike the same trail twice. The state park is almost 10,500 acres. There are options by the bucket full that are all really nice to ride, and obviously, built with MTB in mind. You’ll find some of the best mountain biking in North Carolina, including well-draining trails that easily shed the area’s abundant rainfall. DuPont is known for loads of thrilling corners and massive berms to get your adrenaline pumping.
Big Rock has some of the best North Carolina singletrack
Mountain biking in North Carolina proves you don’t have to go to Moab or Colorado for superb track. Sure, the legendary Slickrock trail offers incredible mountain biking in Utah, but DuPont is also known for the iconic granite “slick rock” trails, Cedar Rock and Big Rock. One big difference is that you’re mostly riding on granite, instead of sandstone.
Big Rock’s challenging singletrack will take you around stubborn vegetation sticking out of rock and across exciting bald patches. It’s a pretty unique experience attracting many bikers. It makes most of the traffic here. Big Rock’s downhill is definitely one to be earned, but once you do, get ready for a heart-stopping descent. It’s a tough climb to the top, but once there, you’ll experience the thrill of descending steep pitches on rock slabs.
Hit up Ridgeline for a BMX pump track feel
The most popular trail in DuPont is called Ridgeline. In a nutshell, it’s a well-bermed downhill trail that flows like a dream. Filled with tons of humps and jumps, you can choose to get sendy with air time or keep both tires on the ground. Insanely fun to ride, Ridgeline often feels like you’re on a BMX pump track.
Once you get a taste of sublime MTB on Dupont’s purpose-built, flowy and extremely exhilarating trails, no other downhill will be able to compare.
1. DuPont State Forest - Good to Know
Some beginner trails; lots to explore for intermediate to advanced riders
Ridgeline is a 6 mile out-and-back trail
Camping isn’t allowed in Dupont State Recreational Forest
2. Pisgah National Forest
Pros and cons
Western North Carolina is home to Pisgah National Forest, stretching north and south of Asheville. The 500,000-acre hardwood forest started as a site for timber extraction. Today, the forest is home to some of the best old-school raw backcountry trails anywhere. You’ll be riding on some of the original logging infrastructure turned into trails, like eroded old road beds that contour along the mountains and old skidder paths that go straight down the fall-line. Unlike DuPont’s less steep, purpose built trails, Pisgah National Forest will make you work for those downhills. At times, you’ll have to get off your bike and push up the rugged hills. Every drop of sweat pays off greatly.
Laurel Mountain / Pilot Rock Loop is one of the best remote trail experiences anywhere
One of my all-time favorite rides in Pisgah is the Laurel Mountain / Pilot Rock Loop. A true backcountry classic, this route takes you up a long climb on a narrow bench-cut trail, clinging to the steep mountainside. After a tough hike-a-bike section, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most rocky and rowdy downhills in Pisgah. Bring your rock-tech skills as this trail bounces up, over and around a seemingly endless rock garden. Once your forearms are screaming for mercy, let go of the brakes and hang on down the final slightly smoother downhill section.
There are only a few downhills that are as absolutely gnarly and thrilling as Pisgah’s. Rugged ascents are followed by technical, rocky descents that will make you feel alive.
2. Pisgah National Forest - Good to Know
Intermediate to advanced with lots of elevation change
Over 362 miles of trails
Mix of gnarly singletrack and old gated-road doubletrack
Laurel Mountain to Pilot Rock loop is 13 miles long
Some trails are remote with large areas of no cell coverage. Bring a map and GPS
Pros and cons
Tsali was one of the very first mountain bike systems that came to exist in the country and one of the first places I rode a mountain bike in the early 90s. This area sees a lot of folks on the weekends due to its long-known history, and it definitely lives up to the hype. The Tsali Recreation Area is also a simple hour and a half drive from Asheville. There aren’t as many trails as you’d find in Dupont, but you still get over 40 miles of fun singletrack along the edge of Lake Fontana. Each and every North Carolina bike trail promises a wicked ride.
Head to Left Loop for the best singletrack
Left Loop is the crowd favorite. Together with the Right Loop, you get 25 miles of singletrack. Don’t let its basic name dissuade you. Once you ride on this scenic, flowy trail, you’ll see why the bikers were too preoccupied to name it. Expect not so steep uphills and rolling, fun downhills with a few technical patches that are easily avoidable if you’re not up for the challenge. The trail cooks an endless amount of turns as it contours along the lake. I recommend riding anti-clockwise to take advantage of a dip in the lake near the end of the trail.
The entire trail system is divided into two halves. Each day, half of the trail system is opened to MTB riders and the other half of the trail system is open to horses. The schedule changes daily. It’s a bit of a bummer to have half the trails closed each day, but you’ll appreciate not running into horses on the narrow bench-cut singletrack.
Originally built for horses, this old trail system caught the attention of mountain bikers and became the go-to spot for beginners who are looking to progress fast on its many exciting downhills.
3. Tsali - Good to Know
Beginner to intermediate with technical parts being easily avoidable
Make sure the trail is open for bikers
Around 1800 feet
4. Fire Mountain
Pros and cons
The newer Cherokee Fire Mountain Trail System is located in Native American Cherokee territory and sponsored by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. All of the Fire Mountain trails are clustered on the side of the 4,000-foot mountain. Three main trails converge at the top of the mountain. Once at the top, pick any of the three for a thrilling descent down giant bermed turns and huge jumps. All the jumps are table tops, so rolling across the top is a fun option if you don’t take flight.
Fire Mountain’s “Kessel Run” to “Skilly” is the longest downhill option
If you can only ride one trail on Fire Mountain, it should be the black-diamond Kessel Run. It’s a one-way trail that finishes with an iconic North Carolina downhill from the very top of Fire Mountain. It’s technical in the best possible way. You’ll find berms and bumps that guarantee nothing but fun. You can plummet down as fast as you’d like, knowing you won’t run into anyone. Link Kessel Run to the more advanced Skilly to tackle a series of wooden features with big kickers, drops, and wall-ride berms.
With bigger berms and jumps than DuPont, Fire Mountain is sure to please everyone. Unlike other downhills, this one is suitable for confident beginners and intermediate riders. Sure, the elevation change is tough, but the trail itself is fairly smooth and manageable.
Fire Mountain is home to trails that are challenging, but welcoming to beginners, with satisfying downhills you’ll want to repeat over and over.
4. Fire Mountain - Good to Know
Strong beginner to intermediate
Cherokee Fire Mountain offers 10.5 miles of trails
Tips For Planning A North Carolina Mountain Bike Trip
North Carolina has a lot to offer outside of it’s incredible mountain bike trails. Here’s a few things to know to make planning your trip a little easier:
When to visit North Carolina
Here in Brevard, NC, mountain biking is ideal since the climate is very forgiving. We’re able to ride year-round. Peak season starts in April. We’re very lucky, but superb riding lasts until October. Our winters are significantly mild. If there is any snow, it will usually melt by the next day. There are exceptions, of course, but I often find myself riding in short sleeves in the middle of winter. In the summertime it doesn’t get very hot. Being so high in the mountains spares us of the worst of humid and muggy weather. We can go even higher in elevation for rides, where the temperature is almost always cooler. We do get a lot of rain in the area, but the trails drain well and don’t stay wet for long. It’s pretty common in summer to get daily afternoon thunderstorms, so plan those rides for early in the day!
Rock climbing or kayaking in NC for your rest day
The climate is just as awesome for rock climbing in North Carolina as it is for MTB. If rock climbing isn’t your cup of tea, explore North Carolina’s gorgeous scenery by kayaking. Even though we have a bunch of great recreation options that are easily accessible, the area still hasn’t turned into a real resort type place. Whatever you opt for, lodging and living here is fairly affordable, with up-and-coming recreational towns and large cities a short drive away.
Learn about North Carolina’s Cherokee culture
We acknowledge and honor the Cherokee People as the original stewards of this area. Although they were forcefully removed from much of this land in our distant past, we are lucky to have the heart of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians nearby. As a visitor to the area, take the time to visit the town of Cherokee and explore the native culture. Visit the Cherokee Museum or catch a showing of “Unto These Hills.”
A typical scene at the Fire Mountain Trailhead would see half the parking lot unloading their bike gear, and the other half filled with tour buses arriving with people to see the Oconaluftee Village, a reenactment of life as it was for 18th Century Cherokees. The locals make sure you feel like you stepped into an authentic village, sharing crafts, culture and their way of life. The village is also right on the border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park which doesn’t allow bikes on the trails, but it’s a fantastic destination for hiking and scenic drives. If you’re of legal age and want to try your luck, a few local casinos serve as concert venues and host comedians or other fun acts. It’s perfect for relaxing after a long day of riding.