Architects of Fun: Adventures at the Wilmington Bike Park

I don't know much about mountain biking. Growing up, my mom always bought me mountain bikes instead of road bikes, maybe so we could ride anywhere, happily and adventurously. I've ridden old dirt roads and bike paths, wooded dirt trails, and ordinary local streets. But I haven't in a while and if you start talking to me about berms, gappers, and singletrack, my brain is suddenly at sea. In Wilmington, one of the cutest and most welcoming towns in the Adirondacks (after all, Santa lives here), there's a beloved and constantly growing bike park that attracts riders of all ages, from all over, from local kids who ride there every day to vacationers from out of state making a once-in-a-year trip. There are some pretty cool stories packed into the dirt and wooden trails at the park, so even though my idea of a bunny hop is much different than the one known at the park, I went to learn more and meet some of the faces that have made the park so unique, biking terminology included.

Tucked into the woods behind The Little Supermarket — go here for awesome snacks and super massive sandwiches — the park is all about fun on foot, two wheels, or even one, as some of the kids have unicycles. Grown ups are allowed, including to ride, but no cars. Coming in off Route 86, the first part of the park you meet is the older part: the dirt jumps and pump track. It's a series of rolling jumps of a variety of sizes, so it can be ridden by riders of all ages and abilities. In the shade of pine trees is the newer part of the park, the skills park, a pretty space filled with wood features for practicing technique. Riders can navigate a narrow, twisting path, launch up a jump onto a small hill, and glide over rollers. It sounds cool, and it is, but what makes the skills park extra special is that it was developed and created by kids.

A few years ago, wanting to get involved in mountain bike races, riders Henry Loher and Charlie Wilson — both now twelve years old — got a local bike race to add a kid's ride option. They raised money for the Barkeater Trails Alliance, a local organization that creates and maintains mountain bike trails, and were encouraged to dream big. Ever since then, they've been designing and helping to build the skills park, along with volunteers, including their parents. Charlie's younger sister Ella has gotten involved, too, and together they are some of the nicest, coolest kids you'll ever meet.

Chatting with Charlie, Ella, and Henry's parents, I learned about how, in the early planning stages of the skills park, the boys printed out photos of the features they wanted, attached them to stakes, and walked through the layout with officials from the town and BETA. The boys were inspired by features they had encountered at other parks and some they had seen online. Their families go on road trips and take their bikes, so a chat with the boys is a geographic jumble of cool adventures. Between their travels and YouTube, these kids are well versed in mountain biking fun and technique.

Although they’ve ridden all over the US and in Canada, Charlie notes that the park in Wilmington is “one of the best” places he’s biked. When I asked Henry if he rides every day, he responded, “if I can.” Charlie and Ella have even competed in the Empire State Winter Games, in the winter bike competition. That’s exactly what it sounds like: biking down a mountain on snow. The kids giggle over re-telling last winter's event, where the snow itself — messy, messy, messy — was the biggest challenge, not the mountain.

This year, new features at the skills park were added. They were designed by nine year-old Ella and she gave me an enthusiastic tour of the twists, berms, and other cool features that I can't even begin to name; Ella describes various features as "wiggly" and "squiggly," and explains how a tree that had to be cut down was recycled and used for some of the newest additions. When asked about how she designed the course, Ella explained that she used her mom's whiteboard: “I drew down in 2-D what I wanted it to look like.” Later, the course was walked through and small changes were made before the build began, which the kids took a big part in. Now, riders use the various features to practice their techniques, from turns to balance. It's a popular spot for riders of all levels.

Ella told me she’s been riding as long as she can remember; the boys say they started at around the age of four. Tenaciously persistent, all of the kids who spend time at the park seem dedicated to working hard. They’ll admit to being nervous at times, but they don’t let it stop them, even after a rough landing or on the perilous-looking teeter totter. Unlike the old-school kind you sit on, you ride your bike over these. Everyone seems to have their favorite features. Some riders fly over the large dirt jumps over and over. Ella loves the whole park, noting it’s close to her home. I asked her what she liked best about the park and she cheerfully responded that it’s “fun, cool, and easy.” They all make it look easy, but I know it isn’t.

With kids flying over jumps, terms like "rollers" and "no foot" (that last one is actually pretty self-explanatory, as it turns out) float through the air. Tricks are attempted, then attempted again. The persistence that I kept seeing, coupled with the sheer fun of it all, keeps them going. They might stop for a snack or to discuss some feature, but they never really stop.

Like tiny experts, Henry and Charlie hop off their bikes to examine angles and a potential dip in a board. “Do you feel that?” one of them asks the other. Some new boards are affecting how they launch up onto the hill; it’s a problem to be solved, a ride to keep working at and exploring. The boys discuss potential advantages and changes, like the young architects of fun that they are.

As my afternoon at the park wore on, punctuated by exclamations and the occasional pause to discuss a plan of action, more kids began to appear at the park. A sedan seemed to hold an endless number of cheerful kids, while others seemed to simply appear from among the trees. A dad arrived with his tiny son, both smiling, the boy — his name is Miles — hurrying ahead of his dad to see what was up at the park. With a bike and a scooter on hand, he was ready to ride, no matter what. With riders whizzing along, up and over jumps, laughing, and stopping to chat, everyone got along, sharing in something very cool and that makes them happy.

Throughout my time at the park, the parents I spoke with all mentioned this: the lack of squabbling and the kindnesses the kids all show each other. Miles' dad — lest you think this is a kid's park only, he arrived ready to ride, too — shared how cool it is to see the older kids watch out for the younger ones; if a younger kid takes a tumble, the older ones check in to make sure they're okay. Elsewhere in the park, Miles was on his scooter, happily chatting with Henry, Charlie, and another older boy. At one point Ella paused proceedings to rescue a grasshopper caught in between two boards. They were happy kids doing their bike park thing. Grown-up riders are welcomed and fit right in. It's all about the fun.

The Wilmington Bike Park is open to visitors and locals alike, and is free to use. Helmets are required and social distancing is strongly encouraged. Riders at the park are friendly and happy to share the space with new riders of all ages and all abilities. Bring your bike and your sense of fun and adventure.

Plan your ultimate Whiteface Region adventure by exploring the area's awesome lodging options, flavorful restaurants, and epic attractions.

Author:
Aurora Wheeler

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